Sir Nicholas Montague made this clear when he appeared before the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee.
He was tackled by Conservative MP for Tatton, George Osborne, the Beckhams’ parliamentary representative, in the wake of last week’s revelation that Revenue staff had been warned that unauthorised access to individuals tax records through ‘browsing’ the computer system was a sackable offence.
Sir Nicholas said there were special protective systems in place within the Revenue’s IT systems to stop routine access to the Beckhams’ tax records, and those of other celebrities. That extended to MPs and himself, he added.
Osborne said ordinary members of the public would be dismayed that they were not similarly protected and the fact that Sir Nicholas had so little confidence in the normal security systems.
Sir Nicholas admitted certain people’s records were in more danger of unauthorised access than others, but Osborne said it could be equally likely and damaging that a tax clerk might seek information on his next door neighbour.
The Revenue boss denied there was a serious problem with browsing and said the new warning was to ensure that staff were fully aware of the seriousness of unauthorised access and that it was a sackable offence that could result in prosecution. He said there had been just two cases of information being accessed and sold in recent years – in 1995 and 1997 – and both workers involved had been dismissed and imprisoned.
Furthermore, Sir Nicholas defended his decision to refuse the National Audit Office access to employers tax records in the light of their importance in the new tax credit system on grounds of confidentiality.
He said there were few cases of deliberate fraud and the Revenue would co-operate with the NAO and ensure that employers tax records were correct.
He said an extra 83 staff had being employed to ensure compliance with new tax credit legislation.
Responding to another issue, Sir Nicholas denied there was evidence of major tax avoidance and evasion by big companies worth up to £79bn a year using ‘clever accountants’. He praised recent successes by the Revenue’s Large Companies compliance unit in recovering unpaid tax.
He said he was confident that self assessment tax return were not being lost in the system and said, contrary to some claims, taxpayers who wanted a receipt for their return would get one if they asked.
He also promised to step up work to simplify the tax system.
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