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Taxpayers Should Be Able To Inspect Their Files

Taxpayers Should Be Able To Inspect Their Own Files

Tuesday 22nd Jun 1999 Rodney Hide Article -- Economy

The Privacy Commissioner Bruce Slane has told the Select Committee Inquiry into the IRD in no uncertain terms that taxpayers should have the right to inspect their own tax files. At present, you don't.

The Commissioner of Inland Revenue Graeme Holland has a pamphlet out telling taxpayers, "You have the right to see almost all of the personal information we hold about you". This, of course, is bosh. You have no such right.

You can ask but the IRD can do refuse citing section 81 of the Tax Administration Act. The IRD may well release some information but what they release is for them to decide - which is hardly the point, really.

The section 81 secrecy provisions necessarily protect you from having your confidential affairs plastered about town but they should not prevent you from seeing your own file as is the case now.

You should have the right to see your own tax file simply because it is about you. No state should hold secret files about its citizens. In a free society bureaucrats don't hold secret files about us saying who knows what for heaven knows what purpose.

The other reason to see your own tax file is to ensure its accuracy. The IRD holds a huge amount of information anonymously passed in by disgruntled ex-wives, sacked staff, business rivals, and envious neighbours, all of dubious quality.

This information is used. Four thousand tax audits in the past five years have been sparked by anonymous tip-offs. Taxpayers often don't know what the charge against them is simply because they can't see their file. I suspect some of the more horrific cases of abuse began with malicious and anonymous tip-offs to the tax department.

Wrong and very damaging information can sit on your tax file for years causing all sorts of problems - and you can never know about it. You should be allowed to see and correct it.

A lot of what is on your file is simple nonsense. IRD officers spy and snoop and put all sorts of trivia on file. I will give you an example.

The IRD Hamilton Office are now chasing Christchurch businessman Dave Henderson for $399.45 PAYE having reneged on their "full and final" settlement. The settlement saw the fabricated million-dollar tax bill collapse into a much sought after $65,000 refund. The IRD's latest claim naturally saw Hendo ask for the basis of the figure.

Hamilton IRD chief Neil Lewer sent Hendo all sorts of stuff out of his file attempting to justify the latest claim. Buried amongst his files are some crazy reports. Here's one headed up "David I. Henderson" dated 30 November 1998 and signed by Christchurch IRD investigator Chris Bond:

"On Saturday 28 November, about 12:05 pm (I was listening to the mid-day news), I exited the Fendalton Mall carpark at the same time as a silver blue/grey BMW exited the Otara St East / Memorial Ave intersection.

"As I headed east on Memorial Ave towards Clyde Rd intersection, the BMW overtook me in the left lane, and turned into Clyde Road. I recognised the rego number as that of the Tannadyce Investments Ltd vehicle. I did not see the driver of the vehicle, but did see the person was wearing a baseball-style cap."

Bizarre. I bet Chris Bond (aka Maxwell Smart) couldn't wait to get to work Monday to file this report first thing. Quite why, beats me. What does it matter if your drive home from the supermarket wearing a baseball cap? Having access to your own file, would presumably stop such nonsense snooping and recording. Taxpayers would quite legitimately demand to know why on earth trivia was being recorded.

Just to show that such trivia is not an isolated example, here is a memo from IRD lawyer Shailer Weston to Chris Bond and Peter Sivertsen dated 23 June 1997:

"During the fire alarm last Friday, I walked past the car park in the Grand Chancellor Hotel next door and happened to see David Henderson driving out of the car park in a late model, large version BMW, coloured light blue with a licence plate number SE 5499. David saw me and waved.

"I am not sure whether it would be of any benefit to the Department to investigate the ownership of the vehicle. I leave this to you."

This is what IRD Christchurch were reporting and recording when they were too busy to explain or justify their fabricated million-dollar claim. This is the information that Hamilton now uses to claim $399.45 PAYE from 1996.

By the way, it's official: not all IRD staff are honest. Special Audit manager Deborah Macartney last year wrote a memo to inform new staff of Special Audit's procedures. Ms Macartney explains:

"Details of Special Audit's work are NOT to be discussed with IRD staff members off Special Audit. Unfortunately, not all IRD staff are honest."

We are supposed to trust IRD officers with out files, when their own colleagues can't and won't trust them.

The Privacy Commissioner is quite right. We need access to our own tax files - now.

(First published in the NBR)

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