Why I believe law helps shape and change lives

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8 March 2018

A guest post by Gill Aitken, general counsel and Solicitor for HM Revenue & Customs

Aitken: Commitment to the rule of law

Today we celebrate International Women’s Day and on Sunday Mother’s Day, so it seems quite poignant to talk about how my mum spurred me on to follow my dreams of being a lawyer.

Every one of us have people standing alongside us to support, encourage and (sometimes) push us along the road to success. Unfortunately for my mum, her own career was cut short because of archaic rules and legislation that prevented married women from working in the civil service.

Sixty-five years ago, a talented history graduate, Pamela Brailsford, joined the then Inland Revenue to train as a tax inspector on a programme equivalent to today’s Fast Stream, following in the footsteps of her father, my grandad.

She had a promising career ahead of her – a thorough training programme, working in different places and with different types of taxpayers. But three years later she decided to marry my dad. This was 1955. She was instantly told she was “required to resign”.

She wasn’t sacked, she was required to resign because married women were not allowed to work for the Inland Revenue.

In fact, there were very few departments in the Civil Service that employed married women at that time. The marriage bar was in theory abolished in 1946 but it took until 1973 for all civil service departments to adopt the measure – two years before the Sex Discrimination Act became law.

So what does my mother see now? She sees her daughter as one of the most senior lawyers in government, a member of the executive board of HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and leading on a number of issues across government.

I graduated from Oxford University and worked first in the voluntary sector as a lobbyist and campaigner. I quickly realised that I was suited to law both intellectually and because of the strength of my commitment to the rule of law.

I have had a varied and fascinating career from years of preparing legislation and litigation on health, the environment, benefits and tax, and advising ministers on the legal implications of policy.

Law really shapes and changes lives and the Representation of the People Act 1918 and the Race Relations Act 1965 are great examples of that.

A more personal example is section 1 of the Children Act (because I drafted regulations made under that Act). Section 1 provides that, no matter what other law is in play, the welfare of the child is of paramount importance in making decisions about his or her future.

My mum has always been my greatest supporter and was immensely proud when I began working in the City as a medical and pharmaceutical lawyer for what was then McKenna & Co.

I remember particularly handling enormous multi-claimant litigation about the effects of anxiolytics and anti-depressants: there were thousands of claimants and multiple pharmaceutical companies involved in cases across the world.

Alongside that work I sat as an adviser on medical ethics committees which approve medical research; an early realisation of how legal knowledge can support decisions of public importance.

I decided to move into government in the 1990s and worked my way up through legal roles at the Department of Health and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. In 2010, I led the legal services teams at both the Department of Work and Pensions and the Department of Health.

In 2014, I joined HMRC as the general counsel and Solicitor. I have been fortunate in having a career close to the buzz of politics and able to influence and support decisions which affect our lives and society.

Ultimately, I am now responsible for all HMRC legal matters from advising on new tax and tax credit legislation to the litigation of cases where tax is disputed.

And there are a lot of disputes. In 2016/17, HMRC was successful in 83% of legal disputes heard at court or tax tribunals, protecting £15bn in tax. In the same period, over 880 criminals were prosecuted, mainly for tax-related offences, and those sentenced to custody are serving a collective total of 806 years in prison.

We draft about 100 statutory instruments every year and take primary legislation, including the Finance Bills, through Parliament as well as provide the department’s commercial law advice.

This year we are responsible for the EU exit legislation on customs and are fielding lawyers in the negotiations with the EU.

One of the ways we have managed to take on so much work is that we have created bespoke apprenticeships and legal training programmes to provide new routes into legal work supplementing our lawyers who graduated through universities and law/bar schools.

HMRC enables the role of the tax investigator and the lawyer to work in harmony – we are both working to ensure that the correct tax is paid; while our work is primarily focused on making law, defending litigation and having effective systems to support the tax administration, we also tackle evasion and criminal activity.

If my mum had been allowed to continue in her career I’m sure she would have been a great asset to the Inland Revenue – perhaps she would have ultimately trained as a lawyer as her interest in law certainly sparked my own.

2 Responses to “Why I believe law helps shape and change lives”

  1. Thanks for a great article Gill, showing just how far we have come in the civil service in just one generation. My mother was a very efficient administrative officer within the Ministry of Agriculture. She too was forced to leave a job she loved, and was good at, because she was going to get married to my father. That was in 1959, so long after the 1946 change. Even though she wasn’t able to work in the Civil Service, she became a farm secretary for a few smaller family farms, and is still working for one farmer at 78! She is an inspiration and partly responsible for my eventual career in HMRC as she used to bring the farm account books home and ask me to check them if they didn’t balance! She too has been my greatest supporter, determined that her daughter would be not just be well educated, but able to be financially independent. I am very proud of what she has already achieved, her determination and zest for life. She is quite simply an amazing woman.

  2. Liz Alford on March 8th, 2018 at 3:44 pm
  3. Sadly your department would be able to achieve even more if it felt able to acknowledge the expertise freely offered by stakeholders. I’m a woman who has knowledge as a tax expert that’s ignored and have now given up and decided to keep quiet until I retire in four years as suggestions as to how the tax system could be improved are not welcome.

  4. Kate Upcraft on March 8th, 2018 at 8:50 pm

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