My Political Journalist of the Year Award: Praise be the Whitehall moles
But the real tribute should go to a couple of fearless Whitehall moles who put me on the trail of the story of massive tax avoidance at the heart of Whitehall.
While journalists must never reveal their sources, there is at least one good tip from this for journos pursuing questionable deals done in Whitehall.
And it came from first source. He was the originator of the suggestion that senior people in Whitehall had set up highly complicated arrangements to avoid paying any tax and national insurance. And he had heard a rumour that one of the most grotesque examples was a recent appointment to the top job at the Students Loan Company. A left of centre character who firmly believed in the ethos of public service he was worried that Whitehall was being corrupted by the widespread tax avoidance. We now know it is rife.
But rather than leak information which breaks the Whitehall rules we devised a different strategy. Between us we drafted a targeted freedom of information request to the Student loans Company and Vince Cable’s Department for Business which would make it very difficult for either department to deny. During our meetings at various hostelries across London – I won’t divulge his favourite malt in case the Whitehall thought police try to trace him- we developed the story.
Sure enough after a suitable interval back came some 60 pages of complicated e-mail traffic between Bis, the Student Loans Company, the Cabinet Office and more surprising, the outside advice from private management consultants – one paper was volunteered because they were worried we would distort their opinions – and even letters from Revenue and Customs approving the arrangement. We spent further hours at certain hostelries analysing the results which were far worse than he thought. We spent much more time chasing up every conceivable angle before Exaro and BBC Newsnight were ready to go with the tale.
The result was immediate. Ed Lester, the head of the Student Loans Company, had his tax arrangement stopped and Danny Alexander, chief secretary to the Treasury who had personally approved his salary had to admit he didn’t even spot the tax avoidance. He ordered a Whitehall wide inquiry.
But it was not all over. The inquiry identified 2500 civil servants on similar deals. But had they gone too far? Enter a new mole from another part of Whitehall. Seeing Danny Alexander’s letter to George Osborne he was furious. He felt Alexander had caught too many in his net, including genuine freelances having bona fide reasons for working this way. This guy, a mischievous right of centre social libertarian character who enjoy’s Guido Fawkes blog, decided the world should know before Danny had a chance. Hence another story for Exaro News and BBC Newsnight.
One might feel sorry for Danny – damned if he doesn’t, damned if he does. Except of course while we all suffer his cuts paradoxically he has never been so wealthy in his life as a Cabinet minister. And he has lots of dinners with his chum. George Osborne.
Good for him though in ordering the inquiry. But the greatest thing of all is that he couldn’t cover this up even if he wanted to – thanks to the use of freedom of information. No wonder Jack Straw and Tony Blair now regret giving the public and journos the chance to find out what is really going on government.