Cos I’m the Taxman: Opening Up on Tax

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David Cameron, following on from George Osbourne, has spoken of how he would be happy to publish his tax returns. This links to criticism that many of the ‘Cabinet of Millionaires’ benefit from recent tax changes, the recent ‘Cash for Access’ controversy and, not entirely unrelated, the recent row over Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson’s incomes (you can see Boris’s returns here and Ken’s here)

Not everyone is convinced. Here Liddell-Grainger, the Conservative chairman of the All Party Group on Tax, said publication would be unfair and could trigger “jealousy.”

If you put up people’s tax returns just willy-nilly across the United Kingdom, then you get the envious factor coming in. You’ll get the jealousy. People like myself will be dealing with people whose names have been put on internet sites, Twitter and Facebook.

I don’t think that’s fair on people. They do pay tax. People don’t know what their neighbours are doing these days. Why drag them through the mire if they don’t need to be?

Such publication is common in Scandinavia (see details of Norway here and some analysis by Channel 4.) According to Channel 4, the publication of the details of all tax returns in Norway, where the law on publication was enacted, reversed, and then acted again, led to mixed results as it

Provoked an outcry from privacy campaigners, who claimed it had sparked a “frenzy of snooping”, as people rushed to find out exactly how much their neighbours and co-workers made. Newspapers and media outlets swiftly compiled their own “Top 10” lists, comparing the earning power of celebrity couples, and revealing details of top-earning footballers, actors, and business tycoons.

With details on everyone from reindeer herders to top lawyers freely available, the list seemed to symbolise the best of Nordic openness. As Jan Omdahl, from the tabloid Dagbladet, wrote at the time: “Isn’t this how a social democracy ought to work, with openness, transparency and social equality as ideals?” However a poll carried out in 2007 found most of his countrymen disagreed: just 32% thought the list should be published, while 46% were opposed.

In 2005 in Italy, in a supreme act of ‘last day in the office’ revenge, an outgoing Italian Finance Minister published tax details of the rich and famous.

Publication in Italy also caused quite a stir with allegations that it would be used by organised crime to kidnap the rich and hold them to ransom. Before you ask, Silvio Berlusconi earned £21.9m in 2005 and Giorgio Armani, who earned the most, earned £35m.

The exact point of publishing is not clear, apart from broadly being an ‘open’ thing to do. It is a great example of  the difficult, and unresolvable, balance between openness and privacy. It remains a problematic area in Norway and continues to be contentious. Perhaps this quote sums up the issue, with tax caught between the force of transparency, the voyeurism of celebrity and the irresistible pull of pure nosiness:

What some see as an honest commitment to fairness is for others, an invasion of personal privacy, and a licence for what the Norwegian tabloid Dagbladet described as “tax porno”.

Risk of a Chill?

ImageThe Tribunal has now released details of its final decision over NHS Risk Registers, a risk assessment of controversial reforms to the NHS. The concerns centred on the potential damage release would have and whether it would have a chilling effect in reducing records kept, or in other ways restrict policy-making (see here for our views).

It has a classic defence of the chilling effect from Former Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell on p.15:

‘Lord O’Donnell was very concerned that if there was routine disclosure of risk registers at the stage they were requested in this case that ultimately they would lose their effectiveness as a vital management tool for government and this would have a profound and damaging effect on the public interest in sound policy-making for the following principal reasons:

  • frankness and candour which are essential to the usefulness of risk registers would be fundamentally damaged;
  • the likelihood of the risks materialising would increase;
  • it would distract policy makers from their task at a crucial point in the process of formulation and development; and
  • there was a danger that disclosure of the risks in the form that they are set out in the risk registers could harm rather than assist public debate.’

The tribunal seemed less sure

We note that independent research carried out by the Constitution Unit at University College London has concluded that there is little evidence of FOIA leading to a chilling effect. Also in a previous case, OGC v IC EA/2006/2068 & 80 (“OGC”), where the Information Tribunal ordered the disclosure of Gateway Reviews apparently there has been no evidence of a chilling effect since their release.

It asked the opinion of Jon Healey, the (now opposition) MP making the FOI request , who was formerly a Minister

Mr Healey was the Minister responsible for the Office of Government Commerce at the time and said that there was no evidence that a chilling effect developed as a result of the release of the reviews even after he moved to The Treasury.

It ends with two statements that sum up the difficulties with the chilling effect

Lord O’Donnell said it was very difficult to prove one way or the other whether a chilling effect would take place.

Mr Healey expressed the view, that in his experience as a Minister, that the quality of submissions on policy had tended to improve since the above disclosures.

A further difficulty is the complications of the policy process. NHS reform has proved particularly complicated and controversial, as the Tribunal points out

From the evidence it is clear that the NHS reforms were introduced in an exceptional way. There was no indication prior to the White Paper that such wide-ranging reforms were being considered. The White Paper was published without prior consultation. It was published within a very short period after the Coalition Government came into power. It was unexpected. Consultation took place afterwards over what appears to us a very short period considering the extent of the proposed reforms. The consultation hardly changed policy but dealt largely with implementation. Even more significantly the Government decided to press ahead with some of the policies even before laying a Bill before Parliament. The whole process had to be paused because of the general alarm at what was happening.

The problem is that many FOI requests that touch on the policy process will be for matters that are already controversial or sensitive (the war In Iraq, devolution etc)-will there ever be case that is not in some way special?

FOI and Accountability?

Does freedom of Information increase accountability? Officials think that it does not, according to a survey by the Ministry of Justice recently mentioned in the Guardian.  The key word here is think. They think it doesn’t because they don’t directly see its effects.

Officials don’t notice FOI because often it works with other accountability mechanisms, especially the  media or NGOs (see Voices for Libraries on going campaign).  FOI rarely hunts alone and its use is lost amid lots of other questions, communications and research. A long running parliamentary investigation into extraordinary rendition , for example, used FOI in the UK and the US alongside Parliamentary Questions to show that a little more was known about the mysterious flights than was admitted at the time.

Officials also don’t notice it because it is not always high profile or immediate. For every MPs’ expenses  scandal or list of visitors to Chequers there is the patient, often slow, digging up and fitting together of pieces of a jigsaw. Chris Ames has spent many years exposing bit-by-bit the inner workings of government as it prepared for the War in Iraq. His work has raised many questions about the defences made by the politicians involved.  At local level there are many groups using it to pursue all sorts of important issues that may escape officials’ radars, allotments being a good example.

FOI does make government more accountability but not everyone sees it.  Sometimes it is not the kind of accountability politicians or officials want. Often it is for unexpected things. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

Is All Openness Local?

Following our report on FOI and local government in England, we have had some interesting reflections on how FOI works elsewhere.  One of the really interesting points concerns how users are often focused on ‘local’ access to issues that are of importance to them. High profile expenses stories aside, FOI is actually about making a difference at the level of your own street or ‘micro-politics’ as someone wiser than me called it. Could this also be the way for new Open Data innovations such as fix my street?

Here’s the FOI (or FOIL) view from New York state:

‘Our FOI law (known by many as “FOIL”) has been in effect since 1974, and this office was created as part of the law.  There are approximately 100 state agencies, but more important to most residents are the thousands of local government agencies, i.e., counties, cities, towns, villages, school districts and the like.  Most residents have little connection with federal agencies in their daily lives and rarely have occasion to seek records under the federal FOIA.  A few have relationships with and a need to gain access to records of state agencies.  But everyone has a need at some point to seek information from local government, perhaps in relation to an environmental issue, building code and land use issues, the assessment of homes and other real property, the means by which taxpayers’ dollars are used or allocated by school districts, the qualifications of teachers and other public employees, the effectiveness of law enforcement functions – – the possibilities are endless.

We have also found, in general, that the smaller the unit of government, the more likely it is to be open.  In short, there is direct accountability. Most residents here, in the capital city of Albany, would recognize the Mayor walking down the street.  Few would recognize their congressman.

In short, despite the focus on Washington and the federal FOI Act, I believe that a local access to information law,  such as the 50 separate state FOI laws in the US, or a law of general application that includes local government within its coverage, is of primary significance and utility to the average person.  Further, for reasons suggested earlier, local government officials are more likely to comply with law and to be accountable that those higher up in the governmental chain of command.’

See http://www.dos.ny.gov/coog/ for more information, reports and analysis

Should We Give Them Some Space? FOI and Cabinet decisions

The retiring Cabinet Secretary Gus O’ Donnell spoke in an interview today about the need to amend FOI to protect decision-making. He was concerned that the possibility of release led to officials ‘fudging’ the minutes.

“I want the minutes to accurately to reflect what people have said. I want good governance…I want them to have an open space. I want us not to be fudging the issue by saying there was a little discussion.”

He also spoke of the nervousness over lack of certainty in the law over Cabinet discussions.

‘He said he wanted more certainty that Cabinet minutes would be protected than offered by the current law, suggesting amendments to the Freedom of Information Act. “If we could draft it in a way that would really enhance openness and transparency whilst allowing some safe space, that would be good for all of us”.

What Gus O’ Donnell is referring to is a variant of the so-called Chilling Effect.  We have concluded that FOI can have this effect but it doesn’t do so systemically and it is almost impossible to disentangle the effect of FOI from lots of other concerns (see page 16-18 in our local government report). However, these conclusions come with qualifications.

1. Finding evidence is very tough. FOI does cause nervousness but whether it then leads to changes is more difficult to prove. Gus also said in his interview ‘ he had not “fudged” any minutes, but was “nervous”. It would be interesting to see firm evidence and if the fudging refers to particular incidents or a general ‘shift’ in minute taking approaches. We found one or two clear cut cases but they were rare and unusual. Proving a negative and asking officials to admit unprofessional conduct is tricky.

2. Is it FOI to blame? Gus said that “Can I guarantee that this is going to stay private? No, I can’t.” But inhibitions (or lack thereof) over discussions are down to many things. Leaks were, are and always will be a huge issue- who said or did not say what and when was central to many recent controversies issues from the War in Iraq to the EU veto.  A well timed leak can hinder many enemies foreign and domestic. Even US Cabinet discussion about the impact of Wikileaks was leaked.

3. Many politicians and officials told us that the ‘politics’ of decision is often ‘off paper’. How and why minutes are recorded how they is due to many things from style to resources. It plays into wider styles of ‘doing’ decisions. Do you do unminuted ‘sofa government’ or are you more formal?

4. Interestingly, overall there were some paradoxical views held. Officials at other levels were more concerned about the consequences of not having a record rather than having one.

5. Very few requests are actually made for Cabinet documents. Only one release of Cabinet Minutes has taken place over Thatcher’s controversial ‘Westland’ affair. Some countries, such as Canada,  actually completely exclude all Cabinet material from FOI.

However, nervousness abounds among officials especially at senior level. This may also be heighted due to how they come into contact with FOI. Senior officials will only be copied into particularly sensitive or problematic requests. Unless they are particularly curious they will only see one in every hundred or thousand and the ‘worst’ one at that. In Ireland, such concern did help lead to a change in the law as it related to Cabinet documents.

Finally, Gus also spoke about the use of the ‘veto’ (called in the article the ‘nuclear weapon’) which can be deployed to overturn appeal decisions. This protection, then, is available but it has only been deployed twice in the UK. This compares with 48 times in the same early years of FOI in Australia. This seems to point to a perverse incentive-unlike a nuclear weapon or an EU veto – the more it is used the less attention it gets.

Town Hall Transparency?

Our new report on FOI and local government concludes that the FOI Act has made councils more open and transparent. Each year more and more questions have been asked with request numbers rising from around 60,000 a year in 2005 to nearly 200,000 in 2010.

Underneath the media headlines about senior officials’ salaries,  investments and the cost of dying, FOI is being used more quietly, day-to-day, by the public to find out about things that matter to them; allotments, parking, speed bumps etc., as you can see in these records of requests  here and  here (this one also lists requesters by type). Businesses are using it to keep one step ahead of the competition and national and local pressure groups are making FOI requests on all sorts of topics from zoo licences to libraries. It may even have helped to uncover a murder.

Some councils are more open and more at ease with FOI than others. A few have resisted and played games. Many are concerned it’s being ‘abused’ by businesses and journalists. Most of all officials are worried about how they will cope with rising request numbers with fewer resources.

Since January 2011 councils have published all their spending over £500 on their websites (see here). The government hopes this will give transparency an extra push and also motivate ‘armchair auditors’ to check where and how councils are spending and misspending our money. The response has been mixed. Some councils have had no interest in their data, while elsewhere local newspapers have exposed controversial spending on string quartets or libraries , as have a  few national newspapers . One official said the benefits are internal, as it has allowed councillors to understand their own budgets.

FOI and Open Data are working more and more closely with new online innovations, that allow data to be ‘mashed’ and sifted, and hyper local sites that serve as a platform for residents to talk about local issues. However, it remains to be seen if new technology and further local government reform helps or FOI or if it will be undermined by dwindling resources’.

£500 Online Publication: What’s Going On?

David Cameron has promised a ‘transparency revolution’ based upon Open Data and online publication. As part of this, since January 2011 all local authorities in England (with one exception) have begun publishing online details of all their spending over £500. What is this supposed to achieve? According to the government, many things. Publishing online will make local authorities more transparent, less wasteful and will help the public understand where its money goes. It will also give developers the opportunity to create new applications. Most of all, it will give power back to the people, enabling an army of armchair auditors to hold government to account.

What do we know? One survey of 168 local authorities found that 17 per cent felt the online publication had been ‘very successful’, 13 per cent felt it had been ‘somewhat’ successful, 17 per cent ‘good in theory but not in practice’ and 23 per cent did not know. So what of the benefits? 38 per cent felt it had increased transparency, 25 per cent accountability and 13 per cent trust. Only 3 per cent felt it increased participation or social and commercial value.

Our own study found similar variation. Some local authorities had experienced very little interest in the new data with one recording ‘180 visits and one FOI request’ in 3 months and another experiencing local media interest in ‘electricity and phone bills’ which had quickly ‘settled down’. Elsewhere there were higher levels of interest in the data, particularly from the local press and some ‘small use by trade unions’. Local media stories have highlighted odd spending on training, consultants and crematoria. Others pointed to internal benefits, with officials and politicians now able to better understand their own authority’s spending.

There has been, as of yet, little sign of the army of armchair auditors. In June Eric Pickles praised a group of bloggers who held to account the flagship Conservative authority over its contractual procedures. Other sites have sprung up with names such as ‘armchairs auditor’, and ‘reluctant armchair auditor’ but the latter wrote in the Guardian that the data was ‘not yet’ of good enough quality. There are difficulties around finding out who is accountable and knowing what mechanisms to use, whether to pass information to the media or the authority itself.

It has led to a growing number of new sites that help quickly and simply analyse the spending data, such as ‘Spotlight on Spend’ and ‘Openly Local’. The latter site is an open source site containing 168 local authorities’ spending data, attracting around a 1000 unique visitors a day, including businesses and local politicians. These sites allow you to quickly examine and compare authorities by payments, providers and make sit easy to benchmark. Many feel the future lies here.

It’s still very early days to say if it has succeeded or failed. The new online publication will make government more transparent and the parallel publication of salaries and contracts. It is unlikely to lead to very much ‘armchair auditing’ from the public, as most people won’t have the time or the patience to scroll through long excel sheets, but NGOs and journalists will find it useful. The area to watch will be the ‘local’ initiatives and hyper local sites. It is here, on their doorsteps, where the new information may make a real difference.

This article appeared in the Local Government Chronicle