Dan Neidle is enjoying his new role as a gadfly

“All communications sent to me will be held in strict confidence and only disclosed with your explicit permission”, reads the legal notice on Dan Neidle’s website Tax Policy Associates (TPA). “Unless you are threatening to sue me for libel, in which case absolutely no duty of confidence is accepted, and I will publish everything you send me.”

The latter sentence tells quite a story. Neidle, who left his role as head of global tax at Clifford Chance in April this year to set up TPA as a vehicle of commentary and policy analysis, added those words on 24 July, after receiving letters from Osborne Clarke.

Between 10 and 19 July Neidle wrote a series of posts scrutinising the tax affairs of leading Conservative politicians including the Chancellor of the Exchequer Nadhim Zahawi. He alleged that Zahawi had not been honest in his description of his financial arrangements involving the use of an offshore trust in founding his polling company YouGov.

“Someone pointed me to an old article about Zahawi in The Guardian and they had dug up the fact that he was connected to an offshore company, but I was able to look at what that meant from a tax perspective to say probably there had been some tax avoidance,” Neidle says. “I ended up spending a couple of days digging through documents in some detail. I found something that was quite important, and that led me to write that either I was missing something, or the documents were wrong, or Zahawi was lying. I asked Zahawi to comment and all he did at that point was change his story.”

On 16 July Osborne Clarke wrote to Neidle asking him to withdraw his statement and recommending that he should consult a defamation lawyer.

Neidle did not back down, tweeting:

That tweet was reposted over 15,000 times and attracted over 33,000 likes.

Neidle has now written to the SRA asking it to put a stop to lawyers’ use of libel letters demanding that allegations of wrongdoing are withdrawn, but at the same time insisting that those letters are confidential. As Neidle stated on Twitter, “I think it’s improper for lawyers acting in the shadows to curtail legitimate public debate about important public figures, particularly when there are allegations they’ve been dishonest.” (The Lawyer has approached Osborne Clarke for comment.)

In a post-oligarch era, Neidle’s move has been met with some approval, coming soon after the Ministry of Justice’s attempt to limit strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs).

“One of the matters that the MoJ considered in its recent response to the call for evidence of SLAPPs is the use of highly aggressive letters by potential claimants,” notes Wiggin media litigation partner Caroline Kean. “The Law Society’s response to the request for evidence also made it clear that the SRA’s Code of Conduct prohibits solicitors from making allegations without merit. Though clearly it’s not improper simply to mark a letter ‘Private and Confidential’ or ‘Not for Publication’, even this can be intimidating to someone who’s not legally qualified.” In this context, Neidle’s outspoken postings on his experience is one more example of the direction of travel against aggressive claimant lawyers.

A need for transparency

A couple of days after the Zahawi affair has made The Times, the FT and blown up on Twitter, Neidle is sitting in his Norfolk kitchen applying sunscreen onto the arm of a small member of his family and reacting with mock-horror to the suggestion that he might now be considered an investigative journalist.

“I feel exercised about lawyers writing libel letters and trying to prevent those letters being published,” he contends. “I am going to try and stop it happening as a thing but it’s not my main focus. [Zahawi] is a distraction on top of a distraction – I didn’t found TPA to do due diligence on the tax history of politicians.”

Nevertheless, there’s certainly a journalistic – by which we mean pithy and reader-friendly – tone to Neidle’s posts, which marry detailed insight with spicy headlines such as ‘How to avoid UK tax if you’re an oligarch’ and ‘Nine questions the Chancellor is ducking’.

One of TPA’s stated aims is to improve the public understanding of tax and to assist journalists investigating tax policy, tax avoidance and tax evasion. Having been in the thick of tax advisory work for two decades, Neidle knows the questions to ask. His series of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests revealed that £570bn was being held in tax haven bank accounts by UK taxpayers, but that HMRC has made no attempt to estimate how much of that money is undeclared in UK tax returns. Neidle’s argument is that this has significant implications for public policy and that HMRC should be publishing aggregated statistics on a regular basis. Quantifying the amount held means that HMRC can be called to account for its lack of action on tax evasion.

“When I was at Clifford Chance I was in favour of transparency on companies and beneficial ownership. I have some ideas how we could be prodding tax havens to be more open, [but] to attempt to legislate for tax havens that happen to be under the Crown strikes me as somewhat imperialistic – and you’re also not touching the other [havens] so I think there are better solutions.”

He’s also critical of naïve reporting on tax affairs, whether it’s Uber’s tax arrangements or Channel Four’s recent programme on Rishi Sunak’s pre-politics life at a hedge fund (‘rubbish’). Indeed, he hopes TPA can provide the deeper context that is so often missing in order to make better-founded criticisms of the status quo. His current focus of research is whether the penalties charged by HMRC to tax-payers are being applied fairly across the rich and the poor.

While public understanding of tax policy is limited, tax is nevertheless a subject that elicits emotional and political responses connected to the social and civic obligations of individuals and companies. Neidle acknowledges that while his work could easily be used as effective attack lines, he doesn’t want to get drawn into party politics. “I’m self-funded,” he says. “I’m not in hock to anyone. Plenty of people would fund me slagging off Tory ministers and plenty of people would fund me slagging off Labour tax policy, but they’re not the same people. The important thing is that the research has to be evidence led.”

Life after partnership

At only 48, Neidle is a young retiree from City law – and is also unusual in having a clear project. He acknowledges that because work can provide purpose, stepping away can be a scary prospect for many. “Law is a much higher paid profession than it used to be, and much higher paid than it has any right to be, so why don’t more people retire early?” he asks. “I think that even the people who say they hate their jobs love their jobs. There’s a meaning we all extract from our jobs and I have an ability to do something which uses many of the same skills.

“I love being a lawyer and I have that expertise so I thought, let’s use it for other stuff. I’ve always being interested in policy, which is hard to combine with a practice, but now I can do it.”

Still, he misses the company of the workplace. “People tease me about being called Tax Policy Associates as I do tax policy and I wish I had associates,” he jokes. “I certainly wish I had someone else digging through the docs for me! But I do miss seeing colleagues, as I learn by conversation and [working alone means a] much more deliberative approach. I miss solving really difficult problems – and that’s a satisfaction of being a lawyer, which is that people thank you for solving difficult problems.”

Some of that community can still be found on social media. Tax Twitter, says Neidle, is a “nice safe happy space. I’ve met people I now consider friends – obviously Twitter is a hell-hole, but it’s a useful hell-hole.”

For all the apparently wistful talk of the office, Neidle is clearly relishing the freedom of retirement after 14 years as a partner. Having just moved to Norfolk, his days are now dominated by the school run. “I am,’ he says, “a house husband with added tax policy.”