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.

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