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Bill To Test Commitment To Fixing Up IRD

Private Member’s Bill To Test Parliament’s Commitment To Fixing Up IRD

ACT Finance Spokesman Rodney Hide said today that his ‘Access to Official Information Bill’ coming up for debate tonight would test Parliament’s Commitment to fixing up IRD.

“We have heard much from politicians about how the IRD needs to improve its culture. My Bill gives them a chance to put their votes where their mouths are,” MP Rodney Hide said.

“My Bill seeks to overcome the remarkable situation whereby the IRD are not obliged to hand over the information that they hold on you. The IRD regularly cite the secrecy provisions of the Tax Acts that exist to deny taxpayers the right to access their own files – especially when a particular IRD officer is running out of control.

“The situation is all the more remarkable given that the burden of proof rests with the taxpayer. It’s up to you to prove that you do not owe the tax debt that the IRD asserts. As the Finance and Expenditure Committee wryly observed, it is doubly difficult for taxpayers to refute tax liability assessments when they cannot access the very information that the IRD is using to construct the assessments.

“The Privacy Commissioner Bruce Slane in his Annual Report last year argued that taxpayers should have access to their personal tax information as of right. He explains that a part of being a free citizen is the right to know what information the state holds on you. Mr Slane also explains that access to your own tax file enables mistakes to be corrected and puts a constraint on objectionable behaviour by IRD officials.

“He’s right.

“The Ombudsmen Sir Brian Elwood and Judge Anand Satyanand investigated the IRD’s handling of Official Information requests in 1999 and found the IRD’s processes, documentation, and interpretation of the law to be wrong. They set out what they believed to be the individual taxpayer’s rights under current law but suggested that, "Parliament may wish to make more clear its intention regarding the secrecy provision and its relationship with the Official Information Act and the Privacy Act."

“In the wake of the Ombudsmen’s report, the IRD have updated their “Procedures Manual” but declare that a taxpayer should not be supplied with information “when the Department is in the middle of an investigation”. Yet this is precisely the time when a taxpayer needs and wants the information that the IRD have on him or her. It’s a total cop out for the IRD to refuse access to your own file because you are “under investigation”.

“My Bill seeks to open the IRD up. It’s purpose is to give legislative effect to the right that every citizen should have to see exactly what information the IRD holds on them and to be able to do so at any time.

“My Bill makes the IRD subject to the Official Information Act and any decision by the IRD to refuse access to information reviewable by the Ombudsman.

“This should not be a controversial change. But it is proving to be so. The Minister of Revenue Michael Cullen complains that my Bill “changes the fundamental principle that all matters relating to the Inland Revenue Acts are secret to one where the information on those matters is available subject to the reasons for withholding in the Official Information Act or Privacy Act”.

“The Minister is right about what my Bill does – but then begs the question of why shouldn’t the IRD be subject to the Official Information Act and the Privacy Act? I believe that they should be. The harder the Minister and the IRD fight to keep taxpayers from seeing their own files, the more taxpayers should be interested in having a look at what this “public service” holds on them.

“Mr Cullen complains that my Bill could see MPs gaining access to taxpayers’ tax files, that the names of informants could be handed out willy-nilly, and that other countries would be less likely to want to deal with us because “secrecy cannot be guaranteed”. This is nonsense. The Official Information Act provides more than adequate safeguards – and, if it doesn’t, then we should fix up the deficiencies in that Act because the problem of which Mr Cullen complains must be a wider one.

“Of course, there is no problem. Mr Cullen and the IRD are just casting about for an excuse not to enable taxpayers to access their own files as of right.

“Mr Cullen also complains that my Bill would make the decision on whether or not to release information that of the Ombudsman or the Privacy Commissioner, not the Commissioner of Inland Revenue. That too is correct. But why should the IRD be the sole judge of whether information that they hold should be released? That’s precisely why we have Ombudsmen and a Privacy Commissioner.”

The ‘Access to Official Information Bill’ is set down for debate tonight.


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