David Hartnett has been the subject of a few controversial headlines in recent years, amid allegations that he sanctioned ‘sweetheart’ deals with large companies, exempting them from large amounts of tax. But last Thursday, whilst he was giving an after-dinner speech at New College Oxford, he was interrupted by a group of protestors calling themselves WeAreTheIntruders, who presented him with a bouquet of flowers and a ‘golden handshake’ trophy.
The event was the Key Haven Publications tax planning conference, and is thought to have been attended by dozens of tax lawyers, accountants and others keen to learn more about exploiting loopholes in the tax system. To begin with, diners must have assumed that the award was legitimate, as many of them began rapturously applauding as it was presented. It’s fair enough: the protestors were dressed in black tie as they entered the hall.
In cobbled-together words, they purported to be representatives of Goldman Sachs and Vodafone, both of which have allegedly dodged millions of pounds of tax in recent years. One of the protestors said of Hartnett: ‘We just can’t thank him enough for what he’s done. We’re just here to offer our thanks and all the best for the future.’
It took some time for anyone to realise that the group were not entirely on the up and up, but when they did, a tax barrister no less, stood up to usher them out of the hall. He said: ‘You will depart immediately, before we set the dogs on you.’ On their way out, the group sang ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’ and ‘so say Goldman Sachs’ to prolong the ridicule. In a video that the protestors recorded of the intrusion (which you can watch here), the barrister describes them as ‘trespassing scum’ before slamming the door on them.
Hartnett garnered something of a reputation for dining out with top executives of large corporations, and the spectre of ‘sweetheart’ management followed him until he retired on July 31 this year. It’s worth noting that earlier this year, the National Audit Office cleared HMRC of agreeing ‘sweetheart’ deals, saying settlements with Goldman Sachs and Vodafone were reasonable and that ‘the overall outcome for the exchequer was good.’
In an article for the Guardian, one of the protestors, Stephen Reid, said: ‘We interrupted Hartnett's speech and presented him with the Lifetime Achievement Award for Services to Corporate Tax Avoidance, also known as the Golden Handshake. Hilariously, the audience applauded enthusiastically. The video we shot shows Hartnett looking as if he wants the ground to swallow him up.’
In the recording, Hartnett can be seen standing in silence whilst the protestors do their bit. Quite a taxing experience, no doubt…