George Bull

Written by: George Bull

George Bull

Senior Tax Partner

Personal data, HMRC and a surprising tribunal decision

It’s interesting how a single event can trigger repercussions which produce seeming order out of chaos. For example, by highlighting the evils of single-use plastic containers, one episode of David Attenborough's Blue Planet series triggered a rush to reduce the use of plastic with governments reacting to public pressure, manufacturers having to look at new materials and processes, food and other companies having to think how to repackage their wares and consumers likely to have to pay deposits on recyclable containers.

But sometimes chaos continues in its own sweet way.

For example, in the evolving debate about personal information which has been triggered by the use of personal data collected on Facebook, one might have expected to see greater coherence about data safeguarding, about the ownership of data and about whether large corporations whose business models depend on the collection of personal data should be paying the individuals whose data they use.

When it comes to information-sharing between government departments, other bodies and members of the public, the developing pattern is anything but clear.

We know from its recent consultation that HMRC is keen to exchange information with licensing and authorising bodies to ensure that licences for a long list of specific activities (for example taxi and private hire vehicles, some property letting) are only renewed for people who pay tax on the profits of their activities.

By contrast, NHS Digital is being criticised for sharing non-medical patient information with Home Office immigration personnel. In a very different situation, the fatal lorry crash on the M1 in August 2017 has led to allegations that there is a loophole in the law whereby the Department for Transport does not automatically tell employers about drivers losing their licences. Both NHS Digital and the DfT deny there are problems.

The UK already benefits from strong data protection rules which will be further enhanced when the General Data Protection Regulation comes into force next month. If the Information Commissioner's Office is adequately resourced to enforce those rules, this should give considerable comfort to citizens that their data is safe from systemic abuse or casual loss.

Sadly, recent history holds examples of official failings in both areas with the result that many taxpayers simply work on the footing that all the information they provide to HMRC is available to any government department. That's not correct, but it's how many people see it.

HMRC has a fine reputation for defending the privacy of taxpayer data, unless it is authorised to publish that data in specific ways such as the ‘naming and shaming’ of tax offenders. Whenever tax allegations appear about specific companies or individuals in the media, one can be pretty sure that the information has not come from HMRC. 

Mention of the media brings me to one final aspect of this evolving picture. Everybody familiar with taxation practice knows that tribunal and court decisions are available for anybody to read. In a recent case concerning VAT fraud in the computer industry, the Upper Tribunal ruled that a journalist working for a technology and science news website was entitled to receive a copy of the company’s notice of appeal with the grounds of appeal, and HMRC's response to the grounds of appeal. 

While the documents will not be made available to the journalist until the time for appealing against that decision has passed, it does demonstrate that there may be more transparency than hitherto thought in the way taxpayers and HMRC resolve their differences through the tribunal and courts process. 

Will this reduce the number of cases going to appeal? Probably not by much. 

Does this decision open the door to more interesting news coverage of tax cases? Definitely! 

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