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Hallelujah! The taxman finally grows a backbone

By Eamonn McCann

Published 02/12/2015

Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs
Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs

We are rarely given the chance to bid a hearty "well done" to the law enforcement agencies. So it's a relief to be able to call for a round of applause for Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) in relation to the case of the KPMG4 - Jon D'Arcy, Eamonn Donaghy, Paul Hollway and Arthur O'Brien.

The men were detained in dawn raids on their homes in greater Belfast a week ago today. HMRC says the arrests were in connection with "suspected tax evasion". None of the four has been charged with - let alone found guilty of - any offence. All are entitled to be seen as entirely innocent. It's the manner and context of the arrests which give the case resonance.

HMRC hasn't hitherto been known for sending out raiding parties at sun-up. Indeed, HMRC has been frequently sharply criticised - most recently by the Commons Public Accounts Committee just four weeks ago - for alleged indolence in pursuing tax offenders. The PAC described HMRC's record of prosecutions for tax evasion as "woefully inadequate".

Faced with massive, powerful companies intent on paying as little tax as possible - preferably none - HMRC has seemed in awe of the entities it was supposedly regulating.

Private Eye exposed a series of scarcely credible incidents in which senior HMRC officials agreed astonishingly generous tax settlements with representatives of multibillion-pound corporations over a leisurely lunch and a bottle of decent wine.

Perhaps the more robust approach seen in Belfast last week - whatever the eventual rights and wrongs of the case - will be seen as a wake-up call not only in the North, but for companies and individuals farther afield.

KPMG is huge, with 162,000 employees in 155 countries. It runs 22 offices with 10,000 staff in the UK. It has operations in Dublin, Cork and Galway.

It is one of the 'Big Four' companies which dominate, even control, the provision of professional services - auditing, tax advice, legal advice and corporate finance guidance - around the world. The others of the are PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte and Ernst and Young. Between them they audit 99% of companies in the FTSE 100.

The Big Four provide a perfect paradigm for predatory capitalism. Once they were the Big Eight. Then, through a process of gouging out and gobbling up chunks of one another, they became the Big Six in 1989, then the Big Five in 1998.They were reduced to the Big Four when Arthur Andersen was buried in the rubble of madcap outlaw Texas energy company Enron in 2002.

Since then KPMG has found itself embroiled in a number of unfortunate situations. In 2005 its US section admitted that it had created fraudulent tax shelters to enable fabulously wealthy clients avoid taxes of $2.5bn. The company paid $456m in penalties in exchange for the dropping of charges of criminal conspiracy.

In February 2007 KPMG Germany was accused of turning a blind eye to questionable payments running to hundreds of millions of euro in relation to the massive Siemens bribery scandal, which was to help bring down the Greek economy. Undisclosed fines were paid. The Siemens supervisory board sacked KPMG the following year.

In 2008 KPMG paid $80m to settle claims of "improper and imprudent practices" in its auditing of a failed California mortgage company, New Century Financial.

These are samples. We could go on. The key point to keep in mind is that none of KPMG's practices was out of line with standard industry procedure. This helps explain why, despite all, KPMG operatives were never lacking in confidence and chutzpah as they continued to advise countries and international companies how to handle their finances.

The KPMG4 comprise some of the most senior professional services managers in the North. Jon D'Arcy is the company's Belfast chairman. Eamonn Donaghy is KPMG's head of tax practice and a leading campaigner for a reduction in corporation tax. Paul Hollway heads KPMG's Irish corporate business section. Arthur O'Brien is KPMG's Irish specialist on financing in the education and healthcare sectors.

The fact that each of the four was picked up separately and without prior notice and taken to a PSNI station, rather than to HMRC offices, will have denied them an opportunity for liaison regarding legal representation or other matters.

It may also have struck fellow toilers in the field of financial consultancy that this isn't the way people like themselves have become used to being treated by official agencies.

Whatever emerges - if, indeed, anything - about the roles of the KPMG4, HMRC has, in its handling of the case so far, contributed to the democratisation of the legal process and the notion of equality before the law.

Worth two cheers at least. Whether a third is called for, we will know soon enough.

Belfast Telegraph

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