The Rights and Wrongs of Booing KPMG

17/01/2012 14:08 GMT | Updated 17/03/2012 09:12 GMT

Okay, so I wasn't there (instead I spent the day in my office, worrying about this), but if Twitter is to be believed (yes I know, I know) then there was a bit of a kerfuffle at the Fabians New Year Conference on the weekend when - it is claimed - accountancy giant KPMG was spontaneously booed by the crowd.

Sarah Buckley, who describes herself on Twitter as an 'FS lobbyist, cuddly Tory' tweeted 'KPMG and the City of London being booed for supporting schools in poor areas. Grow up please Fabians. #fab12'. Fair enough - as Public Affairs Manager at the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales she's only standing up for her sector - perfectly legitimate in a democratic society. Buckley's tweet was then retweeted by Richard Angell, Deputy Director of the think-tank Progress, who also called the booing 'shameful'.

At first glance, this frustration does not seem unreasonable. For example, another twitterer was 'outraged by #fab12 booing a living wage employer who take apprentices & spends 000s hrs mentoring deprived kids'.

Now I wasn't there and I don't know who booed whom for what or why, but as always it is worth looking to the broader political economy before jumping to conclusions on the rights and wrongs.

According to KPMG's website, the company is:

"committed to its communities and this goes to the heart of our values. We work in partnership with non-profit organisations to create shared value and to help communities grow and prosper. Consistent across each of these areas is a commitment to address social and economic disadvantage in those communities where our people live and work. Our emphasis is about strategically engaging with communities through the involvement, commitment and enthusiasm of our people. We provide all our people with half a day of firm time to volunteer each month and this year 39% of our people contributed 41,200 hours to our communities through volunteering and our total community investment rose to £11.1million. We offer our people the opportunity to assist communities and deliver long lasting outcomes through numerous programmes. We work with and through established organisations and not-for-profits to leverage the skills and experience of our people."

No doubt there are lots of perfectly good intentions and committed efforts among the 39% of the KPMG workforce who take the opportunity to volunteer their time. And clearly, some of the organisations supported by the KPMG workforce - like the Refugee Council and Barnardo's are undoubtedly worthwhile. Others though - like Business in the Community - seem more than a little circular.

But the real issue is setting KPMG's social contribution against the functioning of its core business. According to tax justice campaigner and author of The Courageous State, Richard Murphy (himself a former KPMG employee) in a blog post from last year:

"Now let's remind you first of all that KPMG operates in 47 of the 60 secrecy jurisdictions surveyed by the Tax Justice Network as part of its Financial Secrecy Index work. The reality is that if a place is a major tax haven / secrecy jurisdiction then KPMG is there. ... KPMG will shift key parts of your supply chain into tax havens, setting up insurance, licensing, hedging, marketing, transport and other supposed functions in those locations each of which can take a chunk of the profit and leave it there tax free."

Murphy's analysis sets KPMG's philanthropic contributions in proper context. Praising a business that profits from giving advice and lobbying on tax minimisation, for its local works of charity just seems a bit absurd. The massive damage to the public purse and global financial accountability by the very nature of the business model simply dwarfs the significance of KPMG's community service.

Coincidentally, in an article published in the FT on the weekend, Arundhati Roy wrote:

"Corporations have their own sly strategy to deal with dissent. With a minuscule percentage of their profits they run hospitals, educational institutes and trusts, which in turn fund NGOs, academics, journalists, artists, film-makers, literary festivals and even protest movements. It is a way of using charity to lure opinion-makers into their sphere of influence."

One suspects that had she been present at the Fabians' Conference, the Booker Prize winning novelist might have been among those booing KPMG.