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).

Jan 12 2007

Take politics out of the NHS – says Bob Blackman

Patients and public should have real say over local NHS say Conservatives

The next Conservative Government will give patients and the public real influence over the NHS, Bob Blackman, pledged this week. This is the key message from Conservatives’ new policy paper on the NHS. It calls for:

  • Democratically-elected local councils to be consulted before any attempts to downgrade or close local NHS services, and ensure that councils are asked about their views on the future priorities of the local NHS.
  • Ruling out any more pointless reorganisations of NHS services.
  • Linking GPs’ salaries to the success of the treatments they deliver, whilst scrapping the targets imposed by politicians in Whitehall which distort doctors’ clinical decisions.
  • Giving doctors and nurses a far bigger say in how budgets are spent.
  • Local people to be directly involved in helping run local NHS services, by allowing them to become members of the NHS Trusts which provide local NHS services.
  • Giving patients much greater choice over the care they receive, and providing new league tables showing which hospitals and surgeries perform the best, and more information on the prevalence of hospital superbugs.
  • Creating a new, national watchdog consumer voice for patients – ‘HealthWatch’.

The policy recommendations sharply contrast with the sham consultations and ministerial meddling which have resulted in the closure or downgrading of so many NHS services all over the country. And, as a result of Labour’s nine reorganisations of the NHS – which have wasted £3 billion of taxpayers’ money and demoralised hard-working health professionals.

Bob Blackman explained,

“Under Labour, all Gordon Brown talks about is the fact he has raised taxes to European levels, but we have not seen anywhere near the improvement in NHS services which this extra money should justify. Our aim is more ambitious: using these levels of funding, we want to deliver to patients an NHS which is the best healthcare system in Europe. We want the NHS to focus on helping patients get better, not on helping politicians look better.”

The Conservative Prescription

The Conservative Party’s NHS White Paper, NHS Autonomy and Accountability, was published on 20 June 2007.

Core commitments

  • Conservatives will write into law the underlying principle of the NHS that all people will receive universal access to a comprehensive health service based on need and not ability to pay.
  • We will ensure that public funds for healthcare are devoted solely to NHS patients; we have ruled out subsidies to private healthcare.
  • We will not sanction any more pointless reorganisations of the NHS. The proposals in our White Paper are based on existing structures.

Autonomy

  • We will establish an independent NHS Board to allocate money where the NHS needs it, and not where politicians want it.
  • We will abolish top-down, politically-motivated targets through which politicians have interfered in day-to-day clinical decisions.
  • We will put real power – including NHS budgets – in the hands of doctors, nurses and other health professionals.

Accountability

  • We will ensure that doctors and nurses are accountable to patients through greater patient choice, with patients empowered with more information on health outcomes.
  • We will ensure that patients are backed up in NHS service planning by a strong, national patient voice: HealthWatch.
  • We will make the NHS accountable to local councils for the structure of health services and the priorities of the local NHS.

Government responsibilities

  • The Government will be responsible for establishing the framework in which the NHS operates and for setting overall NHS spending and objectives. It will ultimately be responsible for the outcomes of NHS care.
  • The Government will be responsible for ensuring that patient choice and voice mechanisms are strong enough to hold NHS professionals accountable for quality and value for money.
  • The Government will be directly responsible for the delivery of public health outcomes (i.e. the prevention of disease and the promotion of healthy living).

Jan 11 2007

Home Information Packs becoming a “Whitehall farce”

Families may just move beds from their bedrooms to avoid the cost

Bob Blackman critcised plans by Labour politicians to move ahead with new red tape on selling your home – so-called Home Information Packs.

Under the Government’s confused plans for these Packs, householders will have to pay up to £600 to put up a ‘for sale’ sign, or else be fined by the local council. Yet in the latest twist, the Packs will only be compulsory for four bedroom homes from 1 August 2007, and then phased in for three bedroom homes at an unspecified date, and then all homes at some point.

The small print of new Government regulations defines a four bedroom home as a property which is just “marketed” as a four bedroom home. This means that a house which is simply advertised as having “3 bedrooms and a spare room” would not need to spend hundreds of pounds on a Pack. A home owner could just move the bed out of the bedroom to comply with the letter of the regulations.

There will be no fall in the potential value of that home if buyers realise that “3 bedrooms and a spare room” is just language for a home with “4 bedrooms” being used to avoid a Pack.

Bob Blackman said:

“The Labour Government’s plans for Home Information Packs are turning into a Whitehall farce. Just by moving a bed out of one of your bedrooms will avoid the need for family homes to pay for these expensive and unwanted Packs.

“Moving home is one of the most stressful things anyone can do. Yet this new red tape threatens to make it worse, not better. Rather than protecting consumers in Harrow, I fear these new regulations will cause public confusion and undermine the stability of the housing market. Conservatives are calling on Gordon Brown to scrap this chaotic bureaucracy.”

Background Information

Despite warnings from across the housing industry about the flaws in the whole scheme, the Government announced on 11 June that Home Information Packs will still be introduced – in 3 stages:

  • Homes with 4 or more bedrooms – 11 August
  • Homes with 3 bedrooms – date to be announced
  • All other homes – date to be announced

Homes put on the market before these various ‘commencement’ stages will not need a Pack.

The Packs which may cost up to £600 for a typical (freehold) home, must contain as a minimum:

  • Index
  • Energy Performance Certificate
  • Sale statement
  • Title documents for the property
  • Local authority and drainage searches
  • Insurance and lease details if a leasehold property.

Last July, the Government performed a U-turn and resolved to make the crucial ‘Home Condition Report’ (HCR) element of the Packs voluntary. The HCR element – a detailed analysis of the features and state of a property – was notionally supposed to replace valuations and surveys.

Obscure regulations published out on 18 June classify a ‘four bedroom home’ for the first time. It is self-defined as a home which is simply advertised as having four bedrooms.
“A residential property shall be regarded as having or expected to have four bedrooms or more if the manner in which the property is marketed indicates that it has or is expected to have four bedrooms or more.”

Housing Act 2004 (Commencement No. 8) (England and Wales) Order 2007, clause 4a.

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