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Jan 13 2007

Concern raised over tax collectors snooping on local homes in Harrow

Secret deal between tax inspectors & estate agents must be cancelled – Bob Blackman

Bob Blackman this week expressed his concern at news of a secret deal between the taxman and estate agents. It has been revealed that detailed information on 9 out of 10 house sales and rentals in Harrow is being collected and logged in a ‘Big Brother’ database to prepare for council revaluation tax hikes.

  • Estate agents and tax men plunder your data: Unsuspecting homeowners across Harroware putting their property on the market for sale or rental, without realising that the tax collectors will use it to plan for new council tax hikes. HM Revenue & Customs, which has lost millions of personal tax and benefit records, is systematically raiding estate agency records to build up a property database for its council tax inspectors. Rightmove holds 16 million property records, with millions of individual entries being updated every month.
  • Big Brother database invades privacy: People selling their home are not informed that information given to their estate agent, which is then passed to internet portal Rightmove Plc, is in turn passed on to the Government’s tax inspectors. Local estate agents in Harrowhave been kept in the dark about Rightmove’s actions.
  • Details on people’s homes: The personal property data being passed to the taxmen include internal and external photographs of the home, the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, conservatories, parking spaces, and particulars such as area, layout, style, features and other ‘value significant’ features. The Government claims that the Data Protection Act does not apply to information about people’s houses. HMRC’s council tax inspectors will instruct local councils to increase the council tax on these homes.

Bob Blackman said:
“We already knew that Gordon Brown’s tax inspectors have recklessly lost the tax records of millions of law-abiding citizens. Now the same people are disregarding data protection rules to build up a chilling database of every home in the country.

“Residents across Harrow will be alarmed that detailed information on 9 out of 10 house sales and rentals is being passed secretly from estate agents to tax collectors, without public consent.

“Gordon Brown must cancel this deal immediately. Only Conservatives will stop this data plundering of people’s private homes, end Brown’s stealth tax revaluation and abolish state inspectors’ rights of entry into our homes.”

Notes to editors

SECRET DEAL BETWEEN ESTATE AGENTS AND TAX INSPECTORS

Gordon Brown’s tax inspectors, HM Revenue & Customs, on behalf of its council tax inspectors (the Valuation Office Agency, an arm of HMRC) have signed a deal with internet property company Rightmove.co.uk Plc, which holds the property data from almost all of England’s estate agents. Yet using the Freedom of Information Act, Conservatives have forced the Government to publish the contract

In Rightmove’s own words, their property database now includes details of 9 out of 10 property sales, and 20,000 estate agents.

“More than 90% of all UK Estate Agents choose to be members of Rightmove… That’s well over 20,000 agents & developers from Land’s End to John O’ Groats which enables us to provided users with an unrivalled and outstanding choice of property” (Rightmove website).

“The Rightmove AVM database contains unprecedented quantities of property data – one of the reasons we believe it is the UK’s most accurate AVM. There are over 16 million property records comprising surveyors’ valuations, Land Registry records and properties which have been on the Rightmove website.”

THE TAXMAN-ESTATE AGENT PACT REVEALED

The HMRC contract shows how Gordon Brown’s council tax inspectors are raiding the massive database held by Rightmove to conduct a council tax revaluation by stealth. The move is a secret one, with the Rightmove being legally gagged from telling the public.

Terms of the contract revealed

  • The agreement is a 34 month contract, from 1 June 2005, with an option to extend for a further 12 months (from March 2008) The contract was signed by HM Revenue & Customs, on behalf of the Valuation Office Agency, with Rightmove.co.uk Plc (Agreement between HMRC and Rightmove, p.3).
  • To exercise the 12 month extension option, the Government must approach Rightmove before end of the 34 month period (p.18). The prices of the service may be increased in the extra 12 month extension, subject to negotiation (p.19).
  • Rightmove is bound by the Official Secrets Acts, and all Rightmove staff must sign a confidentiality agreement over the contract (p.13). Rightmove is not allowed to make any public statement over its work, without the prior written consent of the Government (p.14). None of the information collected will be revealed under the Freedom of Information Act (p.54).
  • The contract will allow up to 100 council tax inspectors at a time to concurrently log into the Rightmove database, and up to 500 registered users to have access (p.39).
  • The contract was explicitly approved by Ministers (pp.49, 50) and by the Council Tax Revaluation Programme Board (p.52).
  • The Data Protection Act does not apply to this data about homes, provided the names of the householders are removed (p.30). Yet the Valuation Office Agency will use this data to increase the tax bills of those homes, as councils – who will  issue the bills – hold the names and addresses of each council taxpayer.

Revaluation by stealth exposed

The document reveals why this information is wanted: for revaluation purposes:

“Although there are these uncertainties around the finer detail, the programme has been established so as to fulfil the statutory requirements placed on the Valuation Office Agency’s listing officers, namely to revalue all English properties at the AVD [antecedent valuation date] and then to map the values into banding regime once it is know… In order to carry out the revaluation more effectively and efficiently the VOA are developing Automated Valuation Models (AVMs) to assist the valuation work on 22m properties” (Agreement between HMRC and Rightmove, p.27).

“Domestic property needs: The property records at VOA at an individual level include:

  1. Group – Architectural and design style of property
  2. Type – Semi-detached, detached, flat etc
  3. Age – approximate year of build
  4. Area – total floor area of the dwelling (external for houses, internal for flats)
  5. Heating – central heating/other
  6. Rooms – how many in total
  7. Bedrooms – how many in total
  8. Bathrooms – how many in total
  9. Floors/lowest floor level – number of floors for houses or lowest floor level of flat
  10. Parking – what is provided?
  11. Conservatory – yes/no
  12. Conservatory Area – area of the conservatory
  13. Outbuildings – substantial buildings such as stables etc
  14. Photograph – external and potentially internal photographs (important for sold properties)” (p.28)

The fact that all this information is collected and logged by the council tax inspectors, is confirmed by the internal manuals of the council tax inspectors, who draw up detailed charts of all these features to log in their controversial new property database.

Valuation Office Agency, CTR(E) IA 180705 – Sales Validation – ‘Rightmove’ Data, Appendix 5 – Management Information Record (Electronic).

“The Valuation Office Agency (VOA) has been tasked with re-valuing the entirety of England’s housing stock for the purpose of updating property council tax bands. The VOA will use an Automated Valuation Model (AVM) which will utilise a database of 22m properties” (Agreement between HMRC and Rightmove, p.36).

“[The Rightmove solution] No limit to geographical region within England that can be searched by the VOA. No limit to the number of searches that the VOA can perform” (p.37).

“Each property record [held by the Rightmove database] typically includes:

  • One of more photographs of the property
  • The number of bedrooms
  • The style of the property
  • The asking price (either sale or rental)
  • The range of dates during which it has been on the live website
  • Property particularly which may include the layout, style and condition of the property.”

By December 2007, Rightmove expect to offer each month a rolling selection of 3.3 million properties on the market at that time, rising to 3.5 million properties in March 2008 (p.43). Each property record will be worth a cost of £5.12. Properties requiring more information will then be inspected internally by the Valuation Office Agency inspectors (p.47).