Online tax return system considered "too risky" for the famous

[Hat tip: Samizdata and Tim Worstall]

From a report in the Telegraph:

The security of the online computer system used by more than three million people to file tax returns is in doubt after HM Revenue and Customs admitted it was not secure enough to be used by MPs, celebrities and the Royal Family.

Thousands of “high profile” people have been secretly barred from using the online tax return system amid concerns that their confidential details would be put at risk.

And:

From this year, anyone wishing to file a self-assessment tax return after October will have to do so online or face stiff penalties.

However, HMRC has a list of those excluded from the new rules who must send hard copies of returns for “security reasons”.

Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to use the electronic system to make the Jan 31 deadline this week.

Tax records contain bank details, national insurance numbers, salary and details on investments and savings – all valuable to fraudsters.

On Friday, senior accountants said they had concerns over the security of the system – apparently confirmed by the Revenue’s secret policy.

Mike Warburton, of the accountants Grant Thornton, said: “Either the Revenue have a system which can guarantee confidentiality for all or they should defer plans to force online filing. It is extraordinary that MPs and others can enjoy higher security.”

Mark Wallace, of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, said: “This double standard is unacceptable. If the online system is not secure enough for MPs, why should ordinary taxpayers have to put up with it?”

This is of course the same HMRC who lost 25 million child benefit records. Why should anyone, famous or otherwise, trust these people or their online system to keep their personal data safe?

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Home Office stupidity.

I have often been critical of the policies coming out of the Home Office over recent years, but some news reports this week have made me seriously wonder about their intelligence and sanity.

Firstly, The Independent carried an article based on an interview with Sir Stephen Lander who will head up the Serious Organised Crime Agency, which the government will set up under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill, once it’s made it onto the statute books. In this interview, Lander apparently claims that the Home Office is planning to estimate the impact of different types of crime based on the amount of column inches each category gets in the media:

The priorities that are adopted by Britain’s elite crime fighting force will be partly based upon the number of column inches newspapers give to different types of organised criminality, Sir Stephen disclosed.

Researchers at the Home Office have looked at about 30 newspapers, divided equally among broadsheet and compact newspapers, the tabloids, and the regional press, over the past five years. They have calculated which organised crime issues are the most pressing by measuring the column inches and number of stories devoted to each subject. Organised immigration crime came first, followed by drugs.

Sir Stephen explained: “The brainboxes in the Home Office have been putting together a sort of harm model.

“The model basically articulates the harm that is caused to the UK under a number of headings – the rewards taken and made by the criminal; the social and economical harm to the UK; the institutional harm – corruption for example and illegal immigration – and tries to put a cost [on them].

“It also brings into play judgements about the degree of public concern and they have a proxy for this, which is the amount of column inches in the press. Which is not quite right, but is probably as good as you will get. It is pretty rough and ready but it is asking the right questions. It is asking not, what is the incidence of something, but what is its impact.

I hope the Independent has got this wrong. Otherwise it displays sheer stupidity on the part of the Home Office. Using media coverage as a proxy for the impact/concern about crime is quite simply nuts. There are several reasons why one cannot rely on this:

  • The media tend to concentrate on the sensational and rare crimes, hyping them up and giving them far more coverage than far more frequent and mundane crimes.
  • The Home Office will itself influence how much coverage different types of crime get, via their press releases, policy/legislative proposals. As spy.org.uk eloquently puts it:

    What about the “climate of fear” hype and spin feedback loop ? The Home Office and Labour party spin doctors leak, brief, spin, send out press releases to target those 30 newspapers, which are then used by another part of the Home Office as the input to their “harm model” !

The overall result will be that the prime motivations determining SOCA’s priorities will be overtly political and media driven. SOCA’s priorities thus be to tackle the crimes that make the headlines and which cause the (primarily Wesminster) politicians grief. This will also encourage some in the media to hype up crimes that they have personal bugbears about or to hype up crimes to fit their political agendas. We can look forward to the Sun, the Daily Mail and the News of the World having even more influence than now on the priorities the government sets on crime.

As for Mr Lander’s assertion that the proxy “isn’t quite right” but is “as good as you’ll get”, this is sheer hogwash. There are plenty of sources of evidence about the impact of different types of crime that will be more reliable, such as the recorded crime statistics, the British Crime Survey and other surveys of the public, the data used by insurance companies to determine their premiums (e.g. actuarial data — the collection and analysis of which could be commissioned by the govt for this sort of thing), surveys and analyses done by academics studying crime, etc.

The second story concerns prison policy. The Times reports that the government is going to require available prison space to be borne in mind before the passing of custodial sentences. This will be part of a drive to keep prison numbers down. Thus instead of simply sentencing the person according to the severity of the crime and the effectiveness of a custodial sentence to protect the public or rehabilitate the offender, the judge will now have to pass sentences with available prison space in mind. This factor should not be an issue when sentencing an individual for a crime they’ve committed. The government should predict and provide on the basis of their policies towards and data about crime levels, otherwise those who should go to prison may instead be given non-custodial sentences because the government hasn’t ensured enough provision. This will put the public in danger. It will also encourage the government to include custodial sentences in future legislation without increasing funding to match, since sentencing policy will simply change to accommodate any lack of resources.

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