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September 25, 2013

Consultation on proposals for data sharing and publication by HM Revenue & Customs to deliver wider public benefits.

Open Rights Group's responded jointly with the Open Knowledge Foundation and Open Corporates to an HMRC consultation on releasing the VAT Register. The consultation asked for "views on proposals for HMRC to increase the scope for the department to share non-identifying information (that is, information that does not relate to identifiable individuals or legal entities), and on proposed safeguards."


This consultation response is also available as a PDF: https://www.openrightsgroup.org/assets/files/files/pdfs/hmrc_vat_consultation_response.pdf

Consultation on proposals for data sharing and publication by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) to deliver wider public benefits.

https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/sharing-and-publishing-data-for-public-benefit

Response by:

  • Chris Taggart, member of Tax Transparency Board, and CEO & Co­Founder of OpenCorporates, chris.taggart@opencorporates.com

  • Laura James, CEO of the Open Knowledge Foundation, on behalf of the Open Knowledge Foundation, laura.james@okfn.org

  • Javier Ruiz Diaz, on behalf of the Open Rights Group, javier@openrightsgroup.org

Sharing general and aggregate information

We strongly support the submission on this topic by the Open Data Institute

Anonymised individual level data for the purposes of research and analysis

We strongly support the submission on this topic by the Open Data Institute

Publication of VAT registration data
We support the publication of the VAT Register as open data.

While the VAT Register is currently private, this is in some ways an anomaly, as to a large extent much of the information is already public, on till receipts, on invoices, websites, and in various private datasets.

In addition, the UK would not be the first country to open up the VAT register, despite the fact the the UK is an acknowledged world leader in Open Data and was the driving force behind the G8 Open Data Charter. Several countries already do this, including some European countries, and Australia does something very similar, making the Australian Business Number information inot only public and freely available, but also free access to the underlying data via an API (data service)1.

Opening up the VAT register could lead to numerous benefits, including helping match companies in government procurement data to the legal entities (accounts systems invariably capture VAT numbers, but too few capture company numbers), enrich existing company data, and help prevent fraud by making it easier to check company that a business really is registered for VAT with the given VAT registration number, for example.

However, in order for this to happen two additional fields would be required beyond those that are currently intended to be published – the legal form of the VAT Registrant and the company number (Incorporation Number). Without these fields the public VAT register would be an orphan dataset, unable to be reliably connected to the company register (now published as open data published by Companies House). Indeed it may even be a vector for increased rather than decreased fraud, as it would provide just enough information for fraudsters to impersonate VAT registered companies (VAT Number, industry and trading name), but not enough to allow checking that the company is who they say they are.

Consideration should also be given to other fields being released, including the address (in the case of a company), and a partial postcode, in the case of an individual (as shown below the Australian Business Number data includes postal codes, but these cover larger areas than in the UK).

It is also essential that any publication of the VAT Register is under the Open Government Licence, allowing permissive reuse for a multitude of reasons.

As the VAT Register also contains information about individuals, there are clearly potential Data Protection considerations, principally around the issue of informed consent, as when the information was supplied it was given on the basis that it was supplied for tax purposes only. While this is also true of companies and other incorporated entities, these are neither covered by Data Protection legislation nor do they have the same expectation of privacy.

We have several suggestions to address these issues:

  • Release the VAT Register in a phased manner, with companies and other unnatural legal persons (e.g. local councils and NDPBs) being released first, and individuals on a subsequent release that has been flagged to them on their VAT statements, for example.

  • Communication to VAT Number Registrants that the information is freely available for all, including for them to check up on other suppliers, customers (we understand the biggest issue when the ABN number information was made public was around the sale of the data to business information companies), and explaining why this is good for business.

  • Allow redaction of names of individuals who opt­out. If the option is given, it should be made clear that the the VAT number and other attributes (e.g. SIC code) would still be visible.

We do not believe it is in the public interest to give companies an opt­out, and strongly advise excluding any VAT Numbers from the Register, even inactive ones, as this will undermine the quality, usefulness and function as a dataset of record (you won’t know whether a VAT number is missing because it is inactive, incorrect, or redacted). Again the Australian Business Number data is a good example of how this can be done, covering both active and inactive number, and with a historical data for each number (see below).

As far as costs go, we do not believe there should be significant costs for the publication of this data, particularly if it is published initially as bulk data (e.g. CSV files), and any costs should be more than offset by increased data quality (provided there is a mechanism for reporting data errors), increased efficiency across government, and improved business environment.

Controlled release of the full set of VAT registration data to qualifying parties

We strongly oppose this proposal.

This runs entirely contrary to both the G8 Open Data Charter, and is not in the public interest. As the Charter says, "all government data [should] be published openly by default, as outlined in this Charter."

Indeed, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, has said, Open Data is about reversing the traditional position where “access to the world’s information – and the ability to communicate it – was controlled by an elite few”.

The proposal to pass the full set of VAT registration data to a tiny number of already very powerful organizations, would therefore deliver exactly what the government’s open data policies are designed to counter, as well as undermining competition and innovation.

Compared with the proposal for publication as open data, which will be inexpensive, lightweight, and follows the Shakespeare principles that “data belong to citizens and the presumption of government should be towards openness”, this proposal takes a contrary view that data collected for a public purpose does not belong to citizens but should be given to a privileged view to strengthen their proprietary business models.

Nor do we think the argument has been made that this will result in any public benefit, e.g. improved credit metrics, and indeed if the VAT register is useful in building and improving such metrics the strongest public benefit would be to open this widely so that new entrants (e.g. peer­to­peer lenders) and business models can be derived from it.

Finally, we not believe that information should be available via an ‘opt­out’ or an ‘opt­in’. As there is no public benefit for providing privileged access, there is no argument for HMRC effectively acting as data collector for the privileged recipients of the data, and doing so could severely damage HMRC’s reputation

1 http://abr.business.gov.au/Webservices.aspx

About OpenCorporates

OpenCorporates is the largest openly licensed database of companies in the world, and is an acknowledged world leader in the field of open company data, working with civil society, business, governments and intergovernmental bodies such as the World Bank and Financial Stability Board to improve access to and quality of company data http://opencorporates.com

About the Open Knowledge Foundation

The Open Knowledge Foundation is an international non­profit organisation founded in 2004 to open up the world’s data and empower citizens and organisations to use it to create fair and sustainable societies. The Foundation is a globally­recognised pioneer in the area of open data and has built communities and tools around the world, including the CKAN open data platform which has been used to release hundreds of thousands of datasets from governments including UK, US, and Brazil. See http://okfn.org

About the Open Rights Group

Open Rights Group is the UK’s leading voice defending freedom of expression, privacy, innovation, creativity and consumer rights on the Internet. It campaigns to change public policy whenever rights are threatened, by talking to policy­makers, informing the public through the media, and mobilising our supporters. ORG is a non­profit organisation, and has grown with the help of funding from charitable trusts concerned about citizens' rights. However most of its financial support comes from ordinary people, contributing small regular amounts.

Example of Australian Business Number Record

See: http://abr.business.gov.au/SearchByAbnHistory.aspx?abn=52032378636