back to article Information wants to be free... except at UK Customs

Millions has been spent on consultants helping implement e-government. But has it ever been spent more effectively than this example? Over at HM Customs (HMRC), inspectors can find an online version of the National Insurance Manual. Let's take a look. Now what if you're a compliance officer who suspects that there's fraud …

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  1. Whitter
    Flame

    Tip of the iceberg

    The list is endless really: some more examples would be:

    Yes, wrap it up and send it to... nah, we won't tell you!

    http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/manuals/ntcmanual/applica_store/ntc0090070.htm

    Yes: you employers had better comply, but we won't tell you what about or to...

    http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/manuals/echmanual/ech7000.htm

    http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/manuals/echmanual/ech3532.htm

    PAYE: we're all in it, but we aren't allowed to know what "it" is...

    http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/manuals/pommanual/paye46095.htm

    http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/manuals/pommanual/PAYE50015.htm

    Pretty much well everything below this:

    http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/manuals/intmanual/INTM159000.htm

    Apparently 'cos they don't hold the copyright...!

  2. Ash
    Pirate

    Hoist by our own petard!

    So El Governmente is turning the FoIA around and saying that because certain information is NOT covered by it, they're going to blank it out with an exemption notice?

    Sounds... Typical.

  3. Avi
    Stop

    RE: Tip of the iceberg

    3,260 results from google for the following string:

    "This text has been withheld because of exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act 2000" site:gov.uk

    But the role of government IT isn't to employ working systems, it's to employ non-working consultants.

  4. Anonymous John

    Weren't online manuals supposed to replace dead tree versions?

    They have. The version on the Department's intranet will have the full version.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    Black Helicopters

    are on their way c/o The British Government.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Coat

    Cynical ?

    One can only guess what the text should be..

    My guess...

    Take the suspect into the back room, kick them to the floor and shoot them in the back of the head...

    And reasons for removal of words..?

    1. The met would complain about infringement of copyright (they reserve the right to kick people to the floor and shoot them in the back of the head)

    2. Budget. So far HMRC hasn't got the budget together to buy the guns. Once they have the guns they will amend their document.

  7. Jamie
    Linux

    Freedom of Information

    Maybe if the document contained personal information about honest tax paying citizens then it would be a lot easier to get your hands on it.

    I use the term honest tax paying citizens as this way it rules out lawyers, high up business people, and all politicians.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Coat

    FOI? They just need to ask for it right...

    They just need to request for the data to be posted to you on a couple of CDs... I'm sure you'd get it then with more information that you expected.

  9. Hans
    Unhappy

    another one

    Sorry guys, I'd love to post here, but . . .

    This text has been withheld because of exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act 2000

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    A little calm, please

    I used to work at HMRC and I was personally familiar with some of the examples given. Many of the instances are simply names and addresses of individuals of the form "send this to Joe Bloggs at Accounts Office Shipley, phone no 01234 567890" - this isn't publicly available for fear that Mr Bloggs will be inundated with random calls from the general public on topics that have nothing to do with whatever it is he does. Yes, this does happen. There were a few instances where I went out of my way to help someone with their tax credits only to find I was constantly bothered with queries on their national insurance or VAT payments that had nothing to do with me.

    Other instances it is simply to prevent fraud or the exchequer being taken advantage of. It stands to reason that certain methods used to detect fraud need to remain confidential. Other cases may be the 'excuse list' - we occasionally received letters of the form

    You wrote to me saying that you are applying a penalty charge because I did not ... without an acceptable reason. What are the acceptable reasons?

    Of course in this instance there is nothing to stop the individual simply looking at the list, finding one that is difficult to prove and saying, oh by the way, this happened. Hence that needs to be kept quiet.

    If you really want to criticise standards of open government then the the legitimate targets are not what is kept secret, it is what is only published in relatively pricey documents. An example that comes to mind is at http://tinyurl.com/3dsgfs This document gives the full listings of import tariffs and the different categories. There's no reason that it couldn't be online for free, but instead you have to pay at least £255 for a copy. In essence you have to pay a tax simply to find out what the rates of tax are.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    Bored...

    Google INS8125 - you get 2 results. One is FOIA act labelled, but the second is not. Although even the cached text is FOIA labelled.

    Recent changes to this manual

    Skip to main content. HM Revenue and Customs logo ... INS8125, (This text has been withheld because of exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act 2000) ...

    www.customsandrevenue.eu/manuals/insmanual/updates/insupdate120307.htm - 45k - Cached - Similar pages - Note this

    Initial review of cases

    HM Revenue and Customs logo. Home; About us; Contact us; Online services; Site map; Help. » Practitioner Zone ... INS8125 - Initial review of cases ...

    www.hmrc.gov.uk/manuals/insmanual/ins8125.htm - 10k - Cached - Similar pages - Note this

    Strangely though. this table came up.. what's to protect there?

    INS8120 INS8128, INS8129, INS8203, text amended, changes in name reflected

    This is clearly a very sensitive area, Milk Tokens...

    http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/manuals/ntcmanual/passben_milk/milk_ag.htm#4

    Yes, before you ask, it is a quiet day.

    IT - because there's nothing like the .gov.uk IT to make you feel like you're in some kind of Orwellian / Brazil like 'Department of Data Correction' of "The United Dystopia of (formerly) Great Britain..."

  12. Gordon Jahn

    And a quick Google...

    Quickly Googling all .gov.uk site was "exemptions in the freedom of information act 2000" reveals a mere 3,800 (ish) occurrences!

    http://www.google.com/search?q=site%3A.gov.uk+%22exemptions+in+the+freedom+of+information+act+2000%22&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&aq=t&rls=org.debian:en-GB:unofficial&client=iceweasel-a

    Does anyone know why the structure of all the pages is retained but the content isn't? Is that not just plain weird - I can only think that someone went through each page copying and pasting that text and then at the bottom of the page said "well, I've pasted that in now, I'm not just replacing the whole page with one message"!

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Unhappy

    @ Gordon Jahn

    "Does anyone know why the structure of all the pages is retained but the content isn't? Is that not just plain weird - I can only think that someone went through each page copying and pasting that text and then at the bottom of the page said "well, I've pasted that in now, I'm not just replacing the whole page with one message"!"

    I would imagine some grossly overpaid consultant thought he had best justify his pay!

  14. RW

    "Ignorance of the law is no excuse"

    But what if the details of the law have been deliberately withheld by HM govt?

  15. Jay
    Coat

    This burns me up so bad... it's time to revolt!

    Come on guys, it's time for change! Let's all get out there and (This text has been withheld because of exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act 2000)

  16. SImon Hobson Silver badge

    Why keep the structure ?

    AC asks "Does anyone know why the structure of all the pages is retained but the content isn't?"

    My guess is that the pages are generated by a content management system, and individual items of information have been flagged as 'exempt' or 'not for public internet'. When the CMS build the sites, it includes the correct text for their internal systems, but shows the FOI exemption text for any item flagged as such - hence a page full of such notices.

  17. johnB
    Alien

    @ Gordon Jahn

    No, its not weird at all.

    The version on the Intranet is the full version. The bits the public aren't allowed to see are replaced with the standard disclaimer & the resultant sanitised version is put out on the Internet. That keeps the page structure. No need then to try & keep two versions of the same thing in synch - the public can quote from the actual guidance given to staff: "Page nn of NIM123456 says that "etc., etc.,". Just another example of customer service from HMRC.

  18. Hugh Tonks
    Coat

    Hoist by our own petard?

    Hoist by our own retards, more like.

  19. Matty
    Boffin

    Typical Gov't Webite

    I needed to log on to the DVLA to get a replacement licence (Well I didn't - it was in the washing basket but that's another story). Easy - I'm British, NI number? Licence Number? Nope - an eGov ID account is required. OK - where do I get one of them then? Follow the link from the DVLA site that says, "No account? Register here then..." but what thousands of Forums around the world from IT Speciality sites to Baby Food comanies already know - our Government Web developers seem to have forgotten. There IS no "Register" link. You have to go to the gov't home page - and there it is. Call me thick but it took me an hour to find it, and even then I Googled for it! Not rocket-science is it? It's called a LINK. Put it in a header include file or style sheet or whatever the use now - and it'll be on all pages. S'easy!

    And don't get me started on the online process for getting a new licence...!!

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