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MEMBER FEATURE: Succeeding Sir David. By Dan Martin

4th Aug 2006
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Dan Martin, AccountingWEB business editor, speaks to members about their views on who should succeed Sir David Varney as HMRC chairman.

Sir David steps down from his role on 31 August to take up an advisory post at the Treasury. As the first boss of the merged Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise he has presided over massive changes, not all of them popular. Earlier this week, the department announced Paul Gray, Sir David's deputy, will replace his boss temporarily. Gray is not without controversy given his special responsibility for the troubled tax credits system.

But should Gray be given the role permanently or should someone else take up the challenge? Should it be a civil servant or someone with a business background? And just what key skills should that person possess to ensure they are successful as HMRC chairman? We put those questions to AccountingWEB members.

The skills

It is clear that whoever succeeds Sir David permanently faces a difficult challenge. There are many issues with the services provided by the department which face constant criticism from users - tax credits and PAYE online among them.

AccountingWEB member John Gas agreed. "Many humorous names spring to mind. That's because the job, by definition, is an impossible one," he says.

Fellow member Jeremy Newman believes the new chairman needs to be experienced at "change management and corporate integration". "Ideally, not a civil servant as the buck-passing and short-term attitude that seems to be prevalent will preclude any radical decisions being made," he says. "They need to have the guts to stand up to Gordon Brown and Dawn Primarolo and to ensure that policies are translated into workable law. Plus they'll need to be able to work properly with various stakeholder groups, not least the professions."

Andrew Prentice warns however that the new chairman should not introduce change for change's sake. "Whenever a new person comes in, that is exactly what they appear to do," he says.

He adds: "What would be good is someone who will stand up and say that the vast majority of taxpayers are decent honest people and recognise that the Revenue in all its forms should work towards making life easier for everyone."

Among Prentice's other wants are "someone who looks more presentable than Sir David did when to was on the Panorama programme about tax credits".

AccountingWEB member Peter Jones believes change is necessary at the department. "We need someone who is daring enough to change how the current system is managed and make it simpler rather than the current multi tier tax system, ever changing tax legislation, moving of goalposts and inconsistent decisions."

Accounting WEB member and contributing editor Nichola Ross Martin says it is vital that the new chairman has "flair and imagination". "Perhaps they could outsource the entire management function and maybe that would enable a positive change to the underlying culture which seems to have evolved in the last few years," she says.

The candidate

When it came to choices of specific people, various names were put forward ' some of them surprising.

Many of our members back someone with a heavy business background rather than a civil servant. A popular choice was a certain airline boss.

"My suggestion for a replacement would be a successful entrepreneur," says Les Robinson. "The person who immediately springs to mind is Sir Richard Branson. He could oversee the outsourcing of sections of HMRC ' self assessment etc ' to reduce overall costs and to increase customer service."

John Gas backs Robinson in his choice. "Branson is strong enough to withstand pressure from above and would certainly demand value for money," he says. He laments however: "But they didn't let him near the National Lottery, so no chance." Other business leaders suggested by Gas are Alan Sugar and Bill Gates. "My thinking about these choices is that they are all successful and have creative abilities because they are their own people," he argues.

Several other members also believed a successful business leader would be the right choice. Jeremy Newman argues it should be Lord Browne. "He has a brilliant track record and took BP through some pretty large acquisitions," he says.

Nicholas Myles picks "stalwart of industry, Sir Ian Gibson". "BPB, Nissan, Court of Bank of England, Asda and many more. Though would be do it?" he says.

Other AccountingWEB users select figures in the accountancy profession as their choice for the role.

A member going under the name 'A serious observer' opts for "Lord Howe of Aberavon, CH, QC, Hon. Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Taxation for his exceptional leadership as chair of the Capital Allowances Rewrite Committee." "Ex-solicitor general, chancellor of the exchequer, foreign secretary and now approaching 80 years of age, he is full to overflowing with eloquence, charm and tact; with contacts, knowledge and a common sense approach to taxation," he says.

Phil Rees believes it's time for Tim Good to take up the role. "He has a very good tax brain," he says. "He has been a chartered accountant for about 30 years, much of which time he has spent training other accountants. He also has a proven track record as a businessman. He understands both direct and indirect taxes. He has written books. He understands computers. He is arrogant and speaks his mind. He is surely ideal?"

Others back Robert Maas, former chairman of the technical committee of the ICAEW's tax faculty. Among them are Nigel Burge who believes Maas has "more detailed knowledge of how the system works at the sharp end".

Some members make some rather amusing suggestions. Alastair Harris picked Ken Dodd and Jeffrey Archer as his choices as well as a certain Swedish ex-manager of the England football team. "Sven is looking for a new challenge!", he says. John Savage meanwhile suggests: "Sir Humphrey, formerly of the ministry for administrative affairs and ideally suited for HMRC, at least the Right Hon Jim Hacker MP might time so."

The choice

Paul Gray will take up his role as chairman on 1 September. When AccountingWEB put in a request to speak to him, an HMRC spokesman said he was unavailable because he was "busy with the handover". Whoever takes up the role permanently, be it Paul Gray or not, they are likely to be permanently busy. And whoever that person is, AccountingWEB members will be watching their performance closely.


Replies (3)

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By charleskeene
04th Aug 2006 15:48

No more politics
We've had so much change foisted on the country by politicians wanting to appear dynamic that in reality we've gone backwards. There are some voices of reason and my vote goes to Sir John Bourn of NAO. Why? Because the NAO focuses on what needs to be done and not what would grab the following morning's headlines and he has the intellectual capacity to work out the priorities and assemble the necessary resource to clear the clutter. This country needs a tax system that is easy to understand and fair so no political appointments, please!

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By AnonymousUser
06th Aug 2006 22:28

He's free (soon)
So you need someone with experience of "change management and corporate integration" - what about Eric Anstee?

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By listerramjet
04th Aug 2006 11:28

accepting for a minute
that there is a serious side to this, the real point is that change is required and much of that change requires political decisions, and these are decisions that no politician in a position to make would make.

it is certainly true that the role of HMRC chairman will allow choices to be made in how to pursue the relationship with the profession and with taxpayers, which means that a business background would be essential, and I would suggest there are lots of captain of industry names that could be suggested, but I guess you would have to accept that anyone with the right credentials from that background is unlikely to accept the job. It seems to be fashionable to be critical of civil servants, but it is important to understand why the current taxation institutions do not serve us well, and that this post is a poisoned challice.

What is needed is an HMRC that is able to be responsive to challenges (such as carosel fraud) whilst not alienating the British taxpayer. I am afraid that that means it requires a man manager who is able to weed out the cultural incompetence that pervades HMRC, and someone with a strategic vision who is able to accept measurable objectives covering effectiveness and empathy to taxpayers, but balance that with the objectives of HM Treasury, which often seem to be in conflict, and to that end the post should have, and be seen to have independence from HM Treasury.

To my mind the man for the job is Ken Clark.

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