MPs have been shocked to learn that officials at HMRC sanctioned the use of terrorism powers in order to track down Dave Hartnett’s whistleblower. Worryingly HMRC's head fails to assure MPs that HMRC will not misuse these powers again.

The House of Commons public accounts committee (PAC) took evidence last week during their new inquiry into whistleblowing across the public sector. The PAC considers that whistleblowing is important to protect and reassure the workforce, and to maintain a healthy working culture and an efficient organisation. According to HMRC it has some 60 to 70 whistleblowing cases per year, of which a third are "actioned".

Back in 2010 Dave Hartnett, then Head of HMRC had agreed a “sweetheart” tax deal with Goldman Sachs, letting the company off a £10 million interest charge arising as a result of using a failed tax avoidance scheme. Viewing the arrangement as illegal, one of HMRC’s in-house lawyers, Osita Mba used the Public Interest Disclosure Act in order to inform both the National Audit Office and MPs about the transaction.

Once it was apparent that it had a whistleblower someone “right at the top” of HMRC sanctioned the use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 to investigate Mr Mba. Its investigators looked at his belongings, emails, internet searches, phone calls and then the phone records of his wife. Mr Mba did not stay on at HMRC and it was clear in evidence that HMRC's new Head Lin Homer and HMRC's solicitor Anthony Inglese were active in preventing his return to work.

Margaret Hodge, Chair of the PAC sums up what befell Mr Mba,

“It just shocked me to my bones, really, to see that these very extreme powers being used to try to hound this poor man — there is no other word for it: you hounded him — to the extent that you have broken him. The Department has broken him and it is awful. I feel personally responsible, because I think we exposed him to a lot of this in using the evidence that he provided to us. Then you go through this saga and see RIPA used — for terrorists — on a whistleblower. I just want to hear from you that you will never, ever do that again to a whisteblower.”

Lin Homer surprised MPs in her reluctance to provide assurance that her department won’t do this again,

"I do not think I can give you carte blanche for the future, because I have other duties of care, including to Parliament and to individuals. There are requirements."

Steve Barclay, the MP for Cambridge North, said that it was surprising that HMRC felt able to use its investigative powers on someone who was helping an official parliamentary inquiry. "This was as high-profile a case as you could get."


Parliament on Whilstleblowing