HM Revenue & Customs achieved a “good” outcome for the public purse by resolving a series of long-running disputes with the five unnamed firms but was criticised for bypassing proper governance procedures over the so-called sweetheart deals.
The report, produced by the National Audit Office, found the deals were “reasonable” and that one may have been “better than reasonable”.
The identity of the companies which agreed the deals was not revealed but they are believed to include Vodafone and Goldman Sachs.
The NAO said the large tax settlements were “complex” and admitted: “There is no clear answer as to what represents the ‘right’ tax liability.” The report was commissioned after a review into the deals by former High Court judge Sir Andrew Park.
HMRC was criticised, however, for failing to act on the concerns of its own specialist staff over tax disputes. It did not always keep notes of key meetings at which the terms of settlements were agreed with companies.
“Specialist staff were sometimes excluded from the final settlement negotiations and the department did not always ensure that these staff involved understood the reasons for settlement,” the NAO said.
Margaret Hodge, chairman of the public accounts committee said the report confirmed concerns about the “uncontrolled way” HMRC agreed secret deals.
Vodafone said it “welcomed” the report. Goldman said it takes its responsibilities as a taxpayer “very seriously”, adding: “The settlement covered matters dating back over a decade and in the last 10 years Goldman Sachs and its employees have paid over £10bn in taxes to the UK Revenue.”
Separately campaign group UK Uncut Legal Action has won permission from a High Court judge to challenge a deal between HMRC and Goldman. It claims the bank was let off paying £20m.