Monday, January 24, 2011

Taxman teaser - Why Chief Exec of HMRC needs a personal aide

The FT reports that Dame Lesley Strathie, ultimate boss of HMRC, has appointed Carol Bristow – a director-level tax expert – as her personal aide.

The FT questions whether there is any justification for the Chief Exec of HMRC having such a high level personal aide "(Not even Sir Gus O’Donnell, the cabinet secretary, has such a senior personal assistant.)"

The answer I supect comes back to the governance structure of HMRC and the way some people expect the person at the top to be able to speak knowledgeably on any subject related to operational matters. In practice however, the role of Lesley Strathie, Chief Executive and Permanent Secretary does not require her to understand all aspects of our tax system. And few people are able to do this anyway.

I would have expected Dave Hartnett, "the senior tax professional in HMRC", to be the one called to appear before Select Committees, not the Chief Exec. I suspect that the mistake being made is that of the MPs. The appointment of Carol Bristow may simply reflect Dame Lesley's desire to ensure that she is best placed to provide MPs with informed answers to their enquiries.

It would of course be better if the MPs could be persuaded that they should be talking to Dave Hartnett rather than Dame Lesley. BUT for them it's easier to appear to be 'in charge' if they quiz and challenge someone who they know does not have a full command of key tax matters under discussion. I'd bet they don't want to call Dave Hartnett as he would expose the Select Committee's lack of understanding of the tax system.

What do you think?

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