Archive for July, 2010

HMRC are, at their option, exempt from freedom of information law.

July 16, 2010

An important part of the Where Does My Money Go? project is to gather more information about our taxes.

I thought the obvious place to look for that kind of information is HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), so, I explored their website. I found:

  • A nice section on the HMRC annual reports. These reports gave a very high level breakdown of our national income, which I copied into this CKAN package.
  • A nice selection of National Statistics on the tax gathered. Those national statistics give a pretty good overview of the different types of tax paid in different regions, by different genders for a number of different years.

But I wanted to find out more. I wanted to know how they store the tax data and in how much detail, but I couldn’t find any of this on their website.

I knew that HMRC have a contract, called the Aspire contract, with Capgemini to manage all of the countries tax data. I thought a good way to understand the way tax is stored is to understand what Capgemini do for HMRC.

My friend Francis Irving (who works for MySociety) had made a request for the Aspire contract which was rejected.

This is fair enough, we thought, it was a big request, the Aspire contract is probably the size of a lawyers table. So we tried to construct better requests for information. I asked for the performance targets for Capgemini and that was refused.

So this refinement of request followed by rejection of request was a pattern that continued until Francis had a revelation.

Francis explains:

For a while the idea has been in my mind that the statements of Government bank accounts would, ultimately, be an excellent way to get detailed public sector spending information.

Recently I heard about the Government Banking Service, and so made an FOI request from HMRC for the most basic of information – a list of which bodies hold accounts using it.

This is the response I got.

They give several exemptions that only apply to some accounts, but one odd exemption that applies to all the information that I requested.

This is section 18(1) of the Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Act 2005 (CRCA) (via section 44 (another act prohibits disclosure) of the FOI act):

“Revenue and Customs officials may not disclose information which is held by the Revenue and Customs in connection with a function of the Revenue and Customs.”

This seems to be a “nuclear option” which lets HMRC refuse any FOI request.

No ICO complaint has ever won on this one – here’s a list of them that WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers have been keeping.

Further investigation reveals that CRCA Section 20 does allow for limited public interest disclosure to various bodies (e.g. police, intelligence bodies, health & safety etc), but to get it published for any other reason you have to get the Treasury to issue a relevant Statutory Instrument.

This is problematic, as it means FOI potentially provides no scrutiny of how our tax is collected.

So there we have it! A mystery solved, at least we know where we stand with HMRC. I’ve booked an appointment to see my local MP about this situation.

Thank you to Francis and the “What Do They Know?” volunteers, particularly Alex Skene, for shedding light on this situation.

Post at the Guardian

July 16, 2010

Just a quick post to link to a piece I wrote for the Guardian Data Blog. The article explains how The Whole of Government Accounts was excluded from the COINS publication and when I requested the Whole of Government Accounts I was refused.

Interesting rejection of a FOI request

July 13, 2010

The whole of government accounts (WGA) has been running every year, for 10 years, and during this time the public have seen exactly zero results from the exercise.

The WGA gives a very detailed picture of the financial health of every government funded body — so clearly would be really useful to where does my money go.

I was told by the small team at the Communities and Local Government that the WGA 2008/09 is sitting in the Treasury. I was also told that two departments failed the WGA audit (the department of health and the ministry of defense), which led to none of it being published.

So I asked for that report (minus the results for the two departments that failed the audit) in this Freedom of Information Request.

The rejection I got was unlike anything else I have received.

They have the information I requested, but the response went to on say:

“Ministers and officials need space in which to develop policy, including space for the development of policy through an interative process of testing and refining ideas. This process could be weakened if information was released prematurely or when proposals where not finalised, as this could lead to poorer decision-making”.

Any suggestions for how to proceed are most welcome.

I should also add that the WGA is stored in COINS, but none of the WGA was included in the COINS publication.

Long Term Trends

July 9, 2010

I’m liking the long term trends part of the ‘Where Does My Money Go?‘ display for the Country Regional Analysis data set.

The Country Regional Analysis shows where public spending had effect. This is for 2009, but I’m told the 2010 database dump will be published on 16th July.

Meeting Cambridge County Council

July 9, 2010

I met a couple of people from the finance team at Cambridge City Council (CCC) this week.

This meeting makes me want to beam a message out to all councils saying:

if you publish your data in machine readable form, you pretty much don’t have to worry about presenting this data — there is already a community who will do it all for you for FREE. Everyone wins!

The outcomes of the meeting where:

  • They’re going to give me a copy of their accounts in a spreadsheet.
  • They refused to give me an export of their Oracle “Balance Sheet” report.
  • All council budgets are published in excel
  • They’re going to report their £500 + spending before the Jan 2010.
  • When they publish they’re going to make sure their data meets the open data standards defined by Chris Taggart.

Here is some more detail about the meeting for those interested.

Background:
I’ve been asking to meet with the finance team in CCC for months. The first thing I did was write to them to request a meeting to explain ‘where does my money go?‘ and get some idea of their finance data. I didn’t hear back so I asked again. Nothing back. So I sent a freedom of information request for the database type, schema and training notes all of which I duly received.

Then I asked for the data, and one of the councilors at CCC saw my request on What Do They Know? and helped me by giving the exact tables that I needed and he also suggested a report to ask for. I asked for all of this and added that I would like to meet as I appreciate it is a big ask.

I didn’t get the data but I did get a meeting.

The meeting:
I explained the ‘where does my money go?‘ project.

They explained about their current work reporting all spending above £500.

They said that the vast majority of their spending data is below £500, but even so this still is more data than they have every shared before.

They plan to share their data before the Jan 2010 deadline and they are concerned about if the public will be able to interpret it and also how to physically host this large amount data.

I pointed out the open data standards from Chris Taggart and co and how there is a community of people eager to do the work of communicating the spending to the public, and making the data useable will allow them to do this.

They said they would send me a copy of their online accounts in a spreadsheet as this is what they have to convert into a pdf before they put it on their website.

They refused to give any exports of their reports of which there are a number describing in the training notes.

I offered our support for publishing their spending data and they agreed that keeping the lines of communication open with OKFN would be useful to us
both.

They were keen to look up Chris’ blog post and the open data standards and said they would make sure they published their data following those guidelines.

Inputs to the Office of National Statistics

July 9, 2010

I’ve mentioned before that I’m interested in the data the Office of National Statistics (ONS) use for their reports. I mean the raw data they use. Through looking at local authority finances I’ve been able to add more to my picture:

The acronyms stand for:

  • The CSDB (central shared database) does not use an ORACLE database. I have some details about the CSDB, like its size and how frequently it is backed up. I requested the CSDB training materials but that request has been delayed. I’ve also, cheekily, requested a database dump of it. That request has also been delayed!
  • The CORD system (Centralised ONS Repository of Data) used for some parts of the annual production process in ELS does use an ORACLE database. I have the CORD schema, and have requested the CORD training materials, but this request has been delayed. Can you see a theme in how the ONS are handling freedom of information requests?

The acronyms for the input reports can be found in my previous post about local authority finances.

It would be my ideal if, in the future, the ONS list and publish the raw data they aggregate in their reports. I’ve written before, but it bears repeating, that if the publication of COINS taught us anything, it should be that within a week of publishing data the government can expect an impressive range of free, and in many cases open source, products to display the data. Surely this is good for public understanding and the public purse?

UPDATE: this document(PDF) is quite useful for insights into ONS inputs.

Reports on local authority finances.

July 9, 2010

Each local authority has a database to store its finances. OK, sometimes it is more complex than that; sometimes authorities share a database and there is often sharing of data between databases. But for the purposes of this blog post, it is fair to say authorities store their finances in a database. I believe that this database has the most detailed data that exists about the authority’s accounts.

I’ve been plugging away to getting a local authority to publish their finances database, with reasonable redactions of personal details and individual payment details, of course. But so far the resistance to such a publication is high — as you would probably expect — mostly because of the work involved. But I’m asking for this information because authorities will be required to publish spending above £500 by January 2011, so if they are going to publish over £500 then why not go the whole way and do it all? Optimistic, hey?

As things aren’t moving so fast with that line of enquiry, I’ve been looking into all the different requirements for Local Authorities to report their finances. The conclusion is that there is a lot of reporting going on, and I haven’t found out about what CIPFA require or reached a point where I know all the requirements clearly. But here’s what I’ve found out so far:

The acronyms stand for:

As you can see, local authority finances are quite something, and there’s a fair bit of work to be done to figure out what it all means in a way your average man on the street will appreciate. But I hope it is a start for people skilled in communicating complex ideas in a meaningful way, to investigate more, and maybe to ask for the raw data from these reports before it is aggregated and published.

Nice visualisation of the Finance Bill

July 8, 2010

I’m really impressed at Parliament.uk as a website to aid public understanding. Take for example this page describing the Finance Bill 2010-11:

Aside from the horrible trick of links straight into PDFs, this website is really helpful for aiding my understanding. Very pleasing.

A big chunk of COINS was not published.

July 6, 2010

When I saw the COINS data that was published at the beginning of June, I suspected there was something missing. I had been reading about the Whole of Government Accounts (WGA) exercise, which I have documented in the previous post. So I was expecting local council assets and accruals data of the sort that is captured in the L-packs and central government spending as captured each year in the C-packs. But is wasn’t there.

I conducted some more investigation, speaking to the team at the Whole Of Government accounts. There team is really quite small — only two people in Communities and Local Government WGA team and five or six people in the Treasury — but they do an *amazing* job of documenting all public assets and accruals. What is more, they have been running it every year for 10 years, each year gathering a detailed picture of local authorities financial health.

Anyway, based on my existing knowledge and my conversations with the WGA team and others, I can now confidently confirm the WGA is completely absent from the COINS data that was released. This means there is no reporting of local authority’s spending in COINS. A report from the WGA is planned spring next year. But I believe this will be at a very high level of detail — the sum of the whole government’s assets and accurals, not the details of individual authorities and departments.

Anyway, I can now confidently confirm the WGA is completely absent from the COINS data released. I have requested the 2008/2009 WGA data, with the Department of Health and the Department of Defence data removed, as these two departments failed the Audit.

Now I’ll wait to see what happens.

UPDATE: See the reply to the request for the Whole of Government Accounts 2008/09.