Like the sheep before him, robotic minister Nigel Huddleston is parroting rubbish on the Loan Charge

As will become abundantly clear to you quite quickly this is no joke but nonetheless – ‘What’s worse that a Loan Charge meeting with a minister that gets interrupted, and so has to be rearranged?’ Answer – ‘That minister appearing before the interrupted meeting to speak five Loan Charge untruths.’ And ‘untruths’ is being very kind, writes Steve Packham of the Loan Charge Action Group.

Five MPs, with five loan charge questions

In fact, on the back of the remarkable Loan Charge debate in parliament which HMRC is very quickly trying to forget, five MPs clearly weren’t satisfied with the government’s response and so pressed to know more about this scandal at HM Treasury questions last week. Unfortunately, and all too predictably, the minister, Nigel Huddleston, failed to give accurate or factual answers in all five cases.

First, the co-chair of the Loan Charge and Taxpayer Fairness APPG, Greg Smith MP, from the Conservatives, asked about the loan charge and bankruptcies.

A discredited script

But Mr Huddleston responded with the much-repeated, thoroughly discredited lines that “no one will be forced by HMRC to sell their main home or access their pension funds…nor has HMRC petitioned for bankruptcy”.

As has been exposed countless times by the APPG, these lines have been carefully (and cynically) agreed to by officials, to avoid giving a straight answer to the rather awkward question of how many bankruptcies there have been of people facing the loan charge.

The truth which the minister didn’t utter? There have been individuals facing the loan charge who have gone bankrupt, and there have been additional individuals who have had to sell their main homes and raid their pensions.

100 loan charge contractor insolvencies

The APPG’s co-chair then mentioned another revelation exposed through Freedom of Information legislation. In particular in 2019, HMRC privately admitted that the tax authority was aware of around 100 individuals facing the loan charge who were made insolvent.

This is the latest example of HMRC (and supine Treasury ministers) saying one thing in public while knowing that the truth is quite different. This is disgraceful and should be shocking, but for those who have followed the loan charge scandal over the last six or so years, it is par for the course.

What the minister says, and doesn’t say

The financial secretary to the Treasury, Huddleston, seemingly in PR-mode, also claimed that he “pushed His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for firm assurances on the safeguards that it has in place”.

Opaquely, he made no mention of what these supposed “safeguards” are. Nor did he provide anything to support the pre-prepared lines he was told to say, notably: “There is substantial support in place to help people in debt, including agreeing Time to Pay arrangements [from HMRC]”.

Our Loan Charge Action Group has seen several thousand case studies. In all those cases, there is no evidence of anything we would deem to be ‘support’ from HMRC; indeed we have countless examples of what’s been widely acknowledged as bullying bordering on abuse.

‘You’d better win the lotto to pay the HMRC loan charge’

In some cases, people have been mocked by HMRC’s call handlers and remarkably, told they deserved to be in the distressing situation they have found themselves in. One person was told that they’d ‘better win the lottery to pay HMRC.’

Even those taxpayers whom HMRC are aware are vulnerable have faced aggressive and unpleasant calls, despite when it’s been made clear to HMRC that the recipients are suicidal. We believe HMRC has incurred numerous breaches of its own guidelines for dealing with vulnerable people. Far from being ‘supportive’, the Revenue’s whole approach to loan charge contractors is unfair and often vindictive. With ten HMRC customers who have committed suicide already, it’s also downright disastrous; it’s dangerous.

And for my next soundbite…

In the House of Commons at HMT questions, Huddleston also claimed that he is “constantly seeking reassurance from HMRC on this matter.” While this may sound impressive to anyone who takes only a surface-level interest in these matters, this statement shows so much of what is wrong with his approach. We believe it’s why, in our view, Huddleston is actually failing in his duty of oversight of the most powerful and unaccountable government body in the UK.

In short, what is the point seeking reassurance from the very body that has been shown to have abused its power, misled MPs (and presumably ministers) and behaved in a reckless, unfair way? It strikes us as no different to the ministers who sought ‘reassurances’ from the Post Office and allowed its disgraceful, possibly criminal, abuse of postmasters to go on, with their tacit support.

‘No material impact on family stability’ doesn't sit well with 10 suicides

On that very point, another APPG member Tim Farron MP, from the Liberal Democrats, reminded the House that the original Treasury impact statement for the loan charge stated that it would have no material impact on “family formation, stability or breakdown.”

Unfortunately for whoever at HMT wrote that impact assessment, there have been countless divorces, family break-ups, mental health breakdowns, bankruptcies and at least 10 suicides – all affecting individuals who have been subject to the loan charge.

Farron observed: “That impact statement was grossly wrong, but also surely negligent.” So the Lib Dem MP has quite understandably called for “a full investigation, including how and why parliament was so misled over the dangerous and unfair loan charge.”

Ignore, deflect, waffle

Once again, the Treasury minister failed to address the question and failed to say anything at all about that dangerously wrong impact statement. So it’s the same old obfuscation in response, as Huddelston ignored, and deflected, and then waffled on about (non-existent) support and sympathy. If only he’d spent time with Loan Charge victims, or their families, as then he might realise how wide of the mark he truly is.

Absurdly, the minister repeated the mantra that the best thing for people to do is contact HMRC: “I want to provide the House and anybody listening with reassurance that the best thing to do if people have concerns is to engage with HMRC, because very generous and long-term plans can be put in place to help people to repay”.

Once again this is simply not the case. People are not only having perfectly reasonable payment offers refused when they ring HMRC, but in some cases people have been refused a Time to Pay arrangement outright.

Huddleston repeated “My appeal is to engage with HMRC”.

We fear this is just the same as when ministers were telling postmasters to engage with the Post Office. Now the Post Office scandal is finally properly public, this attitude is shown to be grotesquely inappropriate; even rather sinister.


Worst of all, perhaps, the minister then said that there was “scaremongering”, which is classic gaslighting. It’s a gas-lighting all those MPs concerned about the scandal, as well as journalists reporting on it, and campaigners trying to achieve fairness. Considering that ten people who were under the loan charge’s shadow are no longer with us because of HMRC’s policy – because they’ve killed themselves, to say there is scaremongering is shameful, bordering on insulting to those who have taken their own lives over it.

In contrast to the minister’s weasel words, shadow Treasury minister James Murray spoke with blunt honesty saying:

“The Government’s approach to the loan charge has become a nightmare for ordinary people across the country who are the victims of mis-selling and facing financial ruin. The torment and devastating reality is the clearest possible proof that the government need to think again.” The Labour MP called on the government to announce, “a new, truly independent review.”

The Morse Review mention was maddening, as the minister maintained it was independent

In predictably robotic fashion, Huddleston referred to the supposedly “independent” review, which, through Freedom of Information responses, has been exposed to have been anything but independent.

Knowingly or haplessly, the minister also misses the fundamental point that the Morse Review was not a review of the whole loan charge scandal. It had a very deliberately and restricted remit to look only at individuals and ignore the role of promoters, of umbrella companies and agencies and of employers -- one of which, of course, was HMRC themselves.

Labour’s commitment to a loan charge review

More positively, it is heartening that the Labour party (which is heading for electoral victory if the polls are to be believed), have committed to a new, genuinely independent review of the loan charge. It must be a full and proper review. It must look at the whole issue and scandal and have a remit not set by government.

Now that shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves has made a clear public commitment to a genuinely independent review, the Loan Charge Action Group has written to her laying out what such a review must look at and entail.

Our letter also explains how Labour’s loan charge review must not be influenced or interfered with by HMRC and the government, in the way the sham of the Morse Review was, from before it even started, to HMRC and the Treasury seeing the draft before publication and being allowed to make changes! It still beggars belief this happened and the audacity of the minister to make mention of Morse – let alone assert it was independent – is galling. No wonder the Treasury is still doing all it can to stop publication of the draft review!

LCAG research appears to have put paid to an HMRC answer nobody believed

Another APPG member and Labour MP, Rebecca Long Bailey, raised the fact that some or those linked to companies that promoted loan schemes have donated hundreds of thousands of pounds to the Conservatives, and she asked why the government is ignoring the providers and operators of the schemes.

She specifically asked: “How many have been prosecuted specifically for their involvement in disguised remuneration, and not for other misdemeanours?”

Aside to somehow ignoring the party donations, interestingly, Huddleston referred to just one conviction, whereas his predecessors and senior HMRC officials were routinely referring to ‘20 convictions with over 100 hours of custodial sentences’ when recently asked the same question. It’s clear to us that this latter response has had to be rewritten, now that LCAG research has exposed that these convictions had nothing whatsoever to do with the loan charge or what HMRC calls ‘disguised remuneration.’

Our call for a correction (in addition to the correction already requested by the mis-speaking minister)

Yet the minister also made a completely false statement. He claimed that because “85% of the funds recovered from the loan charge so far—about £3.9 billion in total—have come from the employees [he meant ‘employers’, but said ‘employees’], therefore those who were running those schemes”.

This is untrue and we can only assume that this is because the minister doesn’t actually understand the issue, rather than deliberate dishonesty. The £3.9 billion (even if it is a robust figure, which is very doubtful) most certainly didn’t come from promoters and it is utterly false to suggest it has. In fact, none of the disputed tax has come from promoters. To get his facts wrong by nearly four billion pounds is deeply worrying for a minister in His Majesty’s Treasury, but to mislead the House in the way he did, presumably inadvertently, means he should correct the record.

We note that Huddleston’s office asked Hansard to correct his slip of the tongue, when he said ‘employees,’ when he meant ‘employers.’ Now though, this falsehood must also be put right, by correcting the record in the House of Commons. Considering how willingly Treasury ministers have been happy to mislead parliament up to now, however, we are not holding our breath.

Robotic, with ‘listening mode’ switched on

Finally, when challenged by yet another APPG member, senior Conservative MP Sir Desmond Swayne, Huddleston claimed:

“I am in listening mode and looking forward to the meeting this evening, because I want to ensure that I hold HMRC to account to make sure everyone involved is treated fairly and respectfully”.

Yet as mentioned at the top, the meeting was interrupted by votes and so had to be re-arranged. Furthermore, the thrust of the minister’s statement here is completely at odds with all the rest of his ‘non answers,’ and his robotic, pro-HMRC stance.

So despite clearly being a fan of the soundbite, there is no sign that this latest financial secretary to the Treasury is listening to anyone apart from his own advisers and to HMRC. In fact, everything he has said, in person and in writing since his appointment, has shown he has not challenged anything which HMRC has told him.

Ironically, Huddleston has been warned by his parliamentary colleagues not to do what his predecessors have done -- parrot the same discredited Treasury and HMRC lines.

Reading out rubbish

In the Loan Charge debate, his Conservative colleague Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg said: “If the minister cannot control HMRC, he should not read out the rubbish that it provides for him to read out from the dispatch box, and he should be well aware of the warnings given of ministers who have either been willing to read out things that turn out in future to be untrue, or not asked the right questions.”

Alas, this is exactly what Huddleston went on to do at Treasury questions.

So he’s proven he’s robotic, parrot-like, and now like sheep, he is obediently following in his predecessors’ steps, blindly.

Lastly, a warning...

Underlining the important role the minister has -- and clearly hinting that taking the role importantly might be to employ his own faculties, Sammy Wilson MP warned Huddleston directly:

“I ask myself this question and the minister should be asking it of himself, too. In one, two, four, five or 10 years’ time, will we see the same embarrassment and see ministers who parroted the department’s line being asked the question, ‘Why did you not raise the alarm at the time?’ ‘Why were the explanations not challenged, and why were the calls for help not heeded?’ That should be a salutary warning”.

A warning indeed, but one that Huddleston seems happy to ignore. It appears that he simply doesn’t have the courage to challenge HMRC or his own officials. He appears to even lack the commonsense to realise that the current approach to the loan charge is failing; or maybe he thinks 10 lives lost is a sign of the policy’s success. The truth is; the charge is wrong and dangerous. Until we come across a minister who does have some courage; some ability to answer the question squarely and some strength or capability to break away from HMRC/HMT-groupthink - in this, or the next government - we will keep campaigning for a fair resolution for all affected by the loan charge scandal.

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Written by Steve Packham

Steve Packham is a contractor, and founder member, executive committee member and spokesperson for Loan Charge Action Group (LCAG).
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