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EDITIONS
 Thursday, 16 January, 2003, 07:55 GMT
Tax records 'for sale' scandal
Inland Revenue head office
Staff warned in an in-house newsletter
Inland Revenue staff have breached the Data Protection Act by checking out the tax affairs of celebrities, it has emerged.

There have been a number of instances of celebrity browsing

John Rickard, Inland Revenue

More seriously, the Revenue said it believed there was some "evidence" that privileged tax information had been sold onto outside agencies by staff.

Personal tax records may also have been used "maliciously" to shop ex-spouses to the Child Support Agency, it said.

The leaks emerged in a staff newsletter, in which the Revenue warns staff of "computer misuse".

In a statement, the Revenue told BBC News Online that it wanted to "regularly remind all our staff about the rules concerning computer use" and that incidences where personal information had been sold were "extremely rare".

Rifling through files

John Rickard, of the Inland Revenue's Human Resources Conduct and Discipline Section, told the Revenue's in-house newsletter: "The bottom line is that you must not access any records unless you have a legitimate business reason for doing so.

The incidence of our staff selling information to outside agencies is extremely rare

Inland Revenue statement

"There have been a number of instances of celebrity browsing, or looking up the details of family or friends out of idle curiosity.

"But there is also evidence that some people are using the information maliciously, for example finding out how much an ex-spouse earns and passing information to the Child Support Agency or even selling the information to outside agencies.

"This is clearly a breach of customer confidentiality and the Data Protection Act".

Wide access

Staff at the Revenue have wide access to computers, which store information on up to 60m people.

Chas Roy-Chowdhury, head of taxation, at the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants said he was shocked.

"I find it extraordinary and unbelievable.

"I have always thought that there may be some recreational surfing but this is beyond my wildest expectations."

The Revenue said it was now urging staff who accidentally went into a customer record to report it to a manager.

Extremely rare

The Revenue told BBC News Online that it took the matter very seriously - and that there was a very small minority of abuse of customer records.

It said it could not presently confirm whether any celebrity records had been sold or specify who the outside agencies were.

In a statement, it said: "The Inland Revenue is well aware that the vast majority of its people don't offend in any way against its rules but the Board had become aware about an amount of unauthorised browsing of customer records.

"They realised the Department needed to draw together a policy to clarify the rules on computer usage and to tighten up on the disciplinary consequences of misuse. The new computer misuse policy due to be published shortly will do that.

"The incidence of our staff selling information to outside agencies is extremely rare and would be dealt with very seriously .

"There were 226 disciplinary cases of computer misuse in the Department in 2001.The most serious of these ended in people being dismissed."

  WATCH/LISTEN
  ON THIS STORY
  The BBC's Hugh Pym
"The tax return isn't as confidential as thought"
See also:

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