Posts Tagged ‘foi’
Last month the HMRC announced they’d be focusing their attention on eBay and other online marketplaces; specifically, they said they had the means to find tax evaders by monitoring websites with “web robot” software that used targeted information about specified people and companies.
We wondered out loud how are HMRC could possibly go about matching eBay usernames to Self Assessment records, since HMRC themselves stated categorically that they were not obtaining any personal details directly from eBay. Was it some elaborate ruse to frighten taxes out of the public? Not according to the spokesperson Bitterwallet talked to. They didn’t like us very much when we suggested that, or when we queried whether they were acquiring personal details in breach of the Data Protection Act.
Specifically, their exact words were that it was a “ridiculous” suggestion and such speculation would make HMRC “animated and annoyed”. In fact it would make them “extraordinarily annoyed”. They then threatened to set their lawyers on us.
That’s where avid Bitterwallet reader Donald took up the story, when he submitted a Freedom of Information request to HMRC:
Please could you provide details of exactly how information identifying users is linked to self assessment records, if they are not being provided by e-marketplaces? I do not sell on any e-marketplaces, however I am concerned that there could be a breach of the data protection act during this process.
I am interested in how a “web robot” could possibly link users of an e-marketplace to their tax self-assessment records on the connect system, using only public information with no additional information provided by the
e-marketplace websites in question.
Unfortunately, the Freedom of Information Act stipulates that organisations can refuse to provide information that may be considered commercially sensitive or against public interest – and so HMRC refused to answer the question:
Whilst it is in the public interest to be open and accountable for the relevance, robustness and value for money aspects of our systems, and to assist compliance by helping the public understand the effect that HMRC’s law enforcement activities can have, we also need to consider the operational sensitivities involved… it is likely that some harm would occur to the revenue if we were to reveal too much detail. Criminals are known to research our capabilities in order to make concerted attacks on the revenue.
So we’re still none the wiser: as Stuart suggests, the most likely way HMRC could catch individuals on eBay is by making a test purchase by requesting the user’s details from eBay or PayPal.
What Do They Know is a massively powerful tool that assists the public in asking questions that publicly-funded bodies rather we wouldn’t. The website facilitates Freedom of Information requests, which in the past have revealed everything from BBC expenses to the part-time jobs of the Police force.
But then there are truly important questions to be asked, and while they may cost the organisation in question many man-hours in supplying the answer, the truth can be both rewarding and disturbing – as Abbie Chesher discovered:
If you have a car, what are the chances of it failing its MOT? Obviously wear and tear is a major factor, but are some makes and models more likely to fail than others? One body that should know is the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (VOSA), the area of the Department for Transport which oversees MOTs.
Except they have, up until recently, refused to tell anyone about MOT pass rates; even after the BBC made a Freedom of Information request in the Summer of 2008, the Government body wouldn’t release the information. It wasn’t until last month that the information commissioner overturned VOSA’s decision, meaning the data is now available.
The BBC has begun to trawl through the information (and there are 1,200 pages of it to trawl through); in this example, the list of MOT failure rates is based on stats from tests conducted in 2007 and concerns vehicles that were three years old at the time of testing:
It’s not as clear-cut as it looks, however, and is hardly a shitlist for which cars will cost you more in the long term. For example, certain types of vehicle are likely to cover more mileage than others – Vauxhall are quick to point out that during the survey period, they were one of the largest suppliers of fleet vehicles to businesses and these tend to rack up higher-than-average miles. That also leads to another factor – the type of driver behind the wheel. If it’s some cocksocket of a businessman who doesn’t care how he drives his company car, it’ll obviously be more likely to fail.
That might explain away some of the results, but why would a three-year-old Renault Megane be over twice as likely to fail an MOT than a Honda Jazz, or a Fiat Punto be 50 per cent more likely to fail than a Toyota Yaris? Doubtless other factors will affect these results but the question remains – are some manufacturers producing cars of poorer build quality than others? In time plenty of effort will be made to drill down into the numbers, which are currently only available from the VOSA website as a PDF file of 1,200 pages.
So why did the Government try to block this information becoming public?
“The release of information relating to specific make and model would be likely to be commercially damaging to vehicle manufacturers whose failure rates appear higher, and therefore less favourable, than other manufacturers…this information would be likely to be used by some manufacturers to gain a competitive advantage, for example by publicising that their failure rate is lower than another manufacturer’s failure rate for a comparable vehicle model.”
And there we were assuming the Government held the interests of the tax-paying public higher than those of the car industry. It’s possible the information will be abused by manufacturers, but surely it’s better to see the data released and analysed for the good of the consumer?
[BBC] thanks to Bitterwallet reader Kiran
Thanks to the Freedom of Information act, you can find out all sorts of juicy titbits about public organisations. Indeed, the FOI has become the journalist’s best friend in recent years, but the downside is that there’s some paperwork involved. That, and you have to bother thinking of a cheeky question to ask in the first place.
Thank the Hammer of Thor then, for WhatDoTheyKnow.com, which helps you effortlessly search through a selection of FOI requests, specifically those made through the site. Alright, there’s still some effort involved – you might have to type a word or two – but work with us here, will you?
What can you find out? There are restrictions on certain types of information, but reading through the correspondance is like rooting through the bins of a famous celebrity. Not that we’ve done that. Obviously. Anyway, some stuff we now know after an hour nosying around: Read the rest of this entry »