Under the plans existing legal constraints that place a general bar on the disclosure of non-identifying information by HMRC would be relaxed and allow the organisation to publish aggregated non-identifying information and share it with third parties for the purposes of delivering benefits to the public. The plans would also allow HMRC more freedom to disclose anonymised data sets for the purpose of research (37-page / 221KB PDF) or statistical analysis for the wider benefit of the public.
Parliament would be required to pass new legislation to facilitate the data sharing plans. David Gauke, Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, said that responses to the consultation would be gauged before a decision is made to draft the new laws.
Existing legislation generally prohibits HMRC from sharing widely information it holds, regardless of whether it has been anonymised or aggregated, although limited exceptions such as under data protection and freedom of information laws do apply.
"Extending the relaxation of legal constraints to include anonymised information, with the additional safeguard of controlled secure conditions, has significant potential to deliver wide public benefits through research and other use," HMRC's consultation document said.
"Currently, research projects that require access to information held by HMRC must demonstrate a benefit to HMRC’s functions, in order for data to be shared. This provides a valid legal basis (‘gateway’) that allows disclosure of information so that research can go ahead – e.g. with academics or social research companies. But projects that would deliver wider public benefit, but not benefit HMRC directly, must often be turned down because HMRC is unable legally to provide researchers with access to the necessary anonymised data sets," it said.
"Relaxing the current legal constraints to enable HMRC to disclose anonymised individual level information for the purpose of general research and analysis would mean that HMRC would be able to share such data where the benefit was for wider public objectives, rather than the current need for HMRC to benefit directly," the paper said.
Gauke said that enhanced data sharing and publication by HMRC could help "improve access to credit for business; and making it easier to protect against fraud".
"VAT registration data could also provide a foundation for private sector business registers," he added. "There are likely to be further positive uses which emerge only once the data is available."
HMRC said that safeguards would be put in place to address the risk that anonymised information can be matched with other information in order to re-identify individuals.
Researchers hoping to use data sets held by HMRC would also be made to "undertake a rigorous accreditation process" before being able to access the information, and they would also be subject to criminal sanctions should unlawfully disclose personal data, it said.
Businesses wishing to use the data could also be required to adhere to specific safeguards which, if not complied with, could result in the application of "both contractual and legal penalties".
"It is paramount that any data release has appropriate safeguards, essential to maintaining taxpayer confidence and protecting HMRC’s reputation," Gauke said. "None of the proposals introduced in this consultation proposes release of individual taxpayers’ financial or tax payment data."