any other business|Martin Vander Weyer
The arrogant tone of Dave the tax gatherer won’t lead to reconciliation
Another time,’ began the Gospel reading last Sunday, ‘the tax gatherers and other bad characters were all crowding in to listen. . . ’ Bible scholars will have spotted that our curate chose the New English version of the parable of the lost sheep, and that ‘tax gatherers and other bad characters’ is the modern rendering of ‘publicans and sinners’. Publicani were the Roman imperial equivalent of ‘Dave’ Hartnett, the permanent secretary at HM Revenue and Customs who has been widely condemned as a bad character after a radio interview in which he denied that £2 billion of miscalculated tax,which will result in additional demands on 1.4 million citizens, constituted a cock-up that merited an apology. Instead he dismissed it as a ‘reconciliation’ — and was ordered by someone adjacent to George Osborne to declare himself ‘deeply sorry’, though this belated abasement did little to lower the heat.
The story highlights the need for all tax gatherers (including the keepers of HMRC’s online payment site) to modulate their tone in current fiscal circumstances. At a time when we’re all going to be paying more tax for less public service and feeling our aftertax income squeezed, officialdom needs to sound firm but regretful, like the headmaster who says, ‘This is going to hurt me as much as it hurts you.’We know times are tough but we need your co-operation and we promise not to waste a penny of your taxes: that is the message that needs to come across. If it doesn’t, the media will continue whipping up bitterness by focusing on alleged fat-cat taxdodging, with items such as ‘New trade minister Stephen Green will avoid paying tax on at least £2 million of his £19 million pension pot’ (from the Sunday Times), and publicsector extravagance. Hartnett, according to the Daily Mail, is ‘the most wined and dined mandarin in Whitehall’. I hesitate to suggest a new way of spending tax revenue that seems to be so incompetently gathered, but if the arrogant Hartnett is not shoved towards early retirement, he really ought to take his entire team on a sensitivity training course.
Can Vince deliver? If the Dutch, the Germans and the Japanese can do it, why can’t we? Postal privatisation has been on and off the Downing Street drawing board since 1991. A succession of independent experts have said it is the only way to achieve the modernisation that unions have so long resisted and to maximise the survival chances of ‘universal’ delivery. Michael Heseltine might have done it had he commanded more support within his fractious party; Peter Mandelson likewise, 15 years later. But the longer the idea has been kicked around, the more inroads have been made by bulk-mail and parcel-carrier competitors, the more Luddite the workforce has become, and the blacker is the hole in the pension fund. So any suggestion that Vince Cable will have an easier ride than his predecessors in pushing forward Royal Mail’s flotation is laughable, even if staff are bribed with cheap shares and the post offices themselves remain in public ownership.You might even think Vince’s coalition colleagues are encouraging him to devote himself to this doomed scheme just to keep him off their backs and put a dent in his self-esteem. Really, you shouldn’t be so cynical.
Reverend minister Tax affairs aside, Stephen Green is a promising choice as trade minister. He succeeds two Labour appointees who had very mixed experiences. Digby Jones barnstormed 45 countries in 15 months, but found in his stopovers inWhitehall that ‘the system drives you mad… the whole mindset in the public sector is desperately inefficient’. Lord (Mervyn) Davies, a banking technocrat from Standard Chartered, made less external impact and was wholly unquoteworthy, but evidently well enough dug-in to be asked by David Cameron to stay on after the election — which he declined. Retiring HSBC chairman Green has now been hailed by the City as the man to talk Vince Cable out of splitting up the big banks, HSBC being one big bank that has managed risk effectively in a multiplicity of markets.He may also be the man to persuade the City to temper its lust for provocative bonuses, having accepted relatively modest terms for himself at HSBC.But more important for trade, he brings an understanding of economic and social forces in China and other Asian markets, a subject on which he is a fascinating lecturer.And he combines the Olympian manner and judgment of one who is both a part-time priest and former McKinsey management consultant. Indeed, since he’ll be a minister in both the Business Department and the Foreign Office, he will be an ideal travelling confidant for his fellow McKinsey alumnus, Foreign Secretary William Hague. I’m sure no civil servant will be foolish enough to suggest they share a hotel room to save public funds.
Sir Cumference Dave Hartnett of HMRC has had robust competition on the wining and dining front from executives at CDC, the government’s ‘development finance’ agency, which has also been under attack by the Mail for extravagance. CDC is these days embarrassed to call itself the Commonwealth Development Corporation, so hides under the acronym — often a sign of a declining institution in search of a new mission, which is perhaps what its directors have been discussing in such opulent venues. One person who would not have been embarrassed either by the name or the restaurant bills was the late Sir Colin Campbell, a 26-stone baronet and Kenyan tea trader, nicknamed Sir Cumference, who was CDC’s deputy chairman in the 1980s. To the horror of the corporation’s earnest project managers, he invariably referred to its clients as ‘darkies’ — but, says one account, ‘his practical knowledge of Africa was invaluable and it was recognised that, in terms of rudeness, he treated all races with complete equality’. I fear he’d regard sensitivity training as a waste of taxpayers’ money that could have been spent on lunch.
the spectator | 18 September 2010 | www.spectator.co.uk