HMRC considering loosening data sharing restrictions on "non-identifying" taxpayer data

Out-Law News | 23 Apr 2014 | 10:32 am | 2 min. read

UK tax authorities are considering proposals that would allow them to share non-identifying data about taxpayers with companies and public sector bodies where this would deliver public benefits.

However, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) has denied reports that appeared over the weekend indicating that it planned to "sell taxpayer data" to businesses. A spokesperson for the department said that the reports, which first appeared in The Guardian newspaper, were based on a consultation exercise carried out by HMRC last year (35-page / 112KB PDF) and that "no final decisions" had been taken on whether and how to take forward the proposals.

"HMRC would only share data where this would generate clear public benefits, and where there are robust safeguards in place," he said. "Last year's consultation made it very clear that there would be a rigorous accreditation process for anyone wanting access to the data and that any access would take place in a secure environment. Those accessing data would be subject to the same confidentiality provisions as HMRC staff, including a criminal sanction for unlawful disclosure of taxpayer information."

"HMRC will be consulting further and will ask for views on whether to charge to cover the costs of processing and providing anonymised data. This would not be charging for the data itself, purely covering the costs of providing it," he said.

The consultation was carried out in the summer of 2013, and HMRC published its response in December. The proposals emerged as part of the government's commitment to 'open data'; an initiative through which it intends to make data it holds available publicly, in an format which facilitates its re-use, unless there is a good reason not to do so.

Under the current regime, as set out in the Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Act, HMRC officials are prohibited from sharing information except in the limited circumstances prescribed by the Act. The ban on disclosure applies to all of HMRC's information, including non-identifying information as well as information on identifiable individuals or legal entities.

The 2013 consultation started from the position that the current disclosure restrictions on non-identifying information, including general, aggregate and anonymised information, "afford more protection than is necessary". It set out three proposals that HMRC felt had the potential to deliver significant public benefits: removing the existing legal constraints on sharing general and aggregated information; making basic non-financial VAT registration data publicly available as 'open data'; and sharing more detailed non-financial VAT registration data available on a more controlled and restricted basis for specific purposes, such as credit referencing.

The government has previously announced that it will ban the disclosure of aggregated patient medical records for commercial purposes, in response to concerns about how such records would be collected and used under a new data sharing regime in England known as ''. This programme, which was due to start this month, has now been postponed until later this year after NHS England admitted that it had failed to explain sufficiently how patients' data would be used and how individuals could exercise their rights to opt out.