Senior civil service appointments must be difficult to get right; in finding candidates of appropriate seniority and experience it is not unknown to have to look at people who have crossed swords with governments in the past. An interesting example of such a case arises with the appointment of Ian Barlow as chair of the Board of H M Revenue & Customs.
Mr Barlow was head of tax, and then senior partner, at accounting giants KPMG from 1993 to 2008. In that capacity he marketed some extremely artificial (not to mention unsuccessful) tax avoidance schemes, at least 4 of which were struck down by the courts, with phrases such as “entirely artificial” and “acting out a charade” featuring in the various judgements. His views on tax avoidance were succinctly expressed in 1999:
“There is no meaningful distinction to be drawn between acceptable tax planning and unacceptable tax avoidance. Tax is an artificial construct of legislation. If Parliament deems something unacceptable, it can legislate against it. What is left is acceptable.”
No doubt this was partly a comment of its time, when the moral status of artificial tax avoidance was less clear cut than it appears to be now, but these remain interesting views for a man who will chair the Board of an organisation which will be responsible for implementing the General Anti-Abuse Rule, and which is clearly engaged in a concerted campaign to combat artificial tax avoidance schemes. Not, though, perhaps quite a conflict of interest for Mr Barlow, although he has one of those as well. Mr Barlow is a non-executive director of PA Consulting, which is currently engaged in litigation with HMRC over an offshore trust tax avoidance scheme
Could be some interesting Board meetings at HMRC…..