Taxation logo taxation mission text

Since 1927 the leading authority on tax law, practice and administration

HMRC accused of breach of confidentiality

20 November 2008
Categories: News , ODF , Offshore Disclosure Facility
ODF study raises taxpayer privacy concerns

HMRC have insisted they are acting entirely properly by submitting taxpayers' details to an outside survey without explicit consent.

In a move that has been described as 'a blatant breach' of confidentiality, the Revenue has written to a number of randomly chosen people who came forward during last year's Offshore Disclosure Facility.

The department's letter informs recipients that their names and contact details will be passed to a 'completely independent research company', with the aim of exploring 'customer experiences' of the ODF via interviews expected to 'take between 45 minutes and an hour'.

It goes on: 'The main purpose of this letter is to ask you to let us know if you do not want to take part' (emphasis included).

It adds: 'If you are willing to take part in this research, then you need to do nothing'.

The letter, which is signed by ODF project manager Kieran Oatley, has been sent directly to taxpayers, with agents being informed that their client has received the HMRC correspondence.

The Revenue insisted that no tax details will be passed to the research agency, and the automatic opting-in is regular department practice for surveys. 

A HMRC spokesperson claimed participants can opt out at any time.

'Those who choose to participate will be helping us to improve the service we provide to taxpayers,' he said.

'There are strict safeguards in place to ensure that any customer feedback received is in strict confidence.'

The study has, however, been criticised for threatening people's right to privacy.

'This seems to me to be a blatant breach of taxpayer confidentiality,' said John Cassidy, a partner at PKF.

'HMRC is telling a total stranger [the research agency] outside of Government circles that a taxpayer registered to make a disclosure of tax irregularities.

'This may well be a criminal offence as it does not seem to fall within any of the disclosure gateways allowed by the Commissioners For Revenue & Customs Act 2005 at sections 17-21.'

Mr Cassidy added: 'HMRC's own guidance manuals confirm that such consent should be "a positive indication of the wishes of the data subject"'.

'The original ODF booklet also gave the usual assurance that "We will…treat your affairs in strict confidence within the law" — which seems a bit hollow now.'

Taxation editor Mike Truman said the magazine will be asking the asking the Information Commissioner's Office to look into the matter of the ODF letters.

He commented: 'I find it very surprising that HMRC did not realise the breach of confidentiality entailed in this exercise, and it is incredible that they still do not understand now that the failing has been pointed out'.

back to top icon