HMRC loses the moral high ground

The saga of HMRC vs. Ingenious Media took a new twist recently with the Supreme Court ruling that the Revenue had briefed journalists with confidential taxpayer information in an attempt to serve its own narrow political agenda.

Is that thing recording?

It’s an all-too-familiar scenario – loudmouth gets caught short by journalists working for a well-known publication.  The reporters assure him that the tape-recorder is turned off and that any information he shared in such circumstances would remain “off-the-record”.

In this case, it was the then Permanent Secretary for tax at HMRC, Dave Hartnett, speaking to The Times on matters relating to the activities of the film company, Ingenious Media, and specifically its chief executive, Patrick McKenna.

The Times, predictably, ran a story using the information gleaned from the meeting; the fall-out from the revelations has been unfolding steadily since.

The Supreme Court reigns in the Revenue

It seems manifest that HMRC has been hoping to score a moral victory over Ingenious and the individuals involved.  In doing so they seem to have forgotten that they have a duty of care to the tax-payer, and not just their politically charged targets.

The latest ruling stated that:

“…impermissible disclosure of confidential information is no less impermissible because the information is passed on in confidence, or ‘off the record’.”

So, there we have it. HMRC’s “proper and lawful reasons” for disclosing your personal information have now gone up in a puff of smoke.  One hopes that we can now return to normal operating standards, without fear of our private data being leaked to a national newspaper.

A partner at MHA MacIntyre Hudson summed it up neatly:

“Taxpayer confidentiality is fundamental, and one cannot have circumstances where HMRC is prepared to use this as a shield from disclosing what they do not want to say whilst being prepared to use it as a sword against individual taxpayers.”

Ingenious Media stated:

“Consistent with HMRC’s own guidelines, this was simply about upholding the basic legal principle that HMRC owe a duty of confidentiality to each and every tax payer and their affairs should not form the subject of ‘off the record’ background briefings to the media.”