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25/05/2012

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1 Making a provision that the Information Commissioner had to consent to the making of regulations would, it seems to me a waste of time. The question of particular data-mining exercises currently being used to categorise individuals as being in potentially inconsistent situations, and therefore potentially worthy of further investigation has been put to the Commissioner, who responds that 'as a creature of stature' his is unable to comment upon the legal frameworks within which personal data and, equally important, meta data is created and shared.

2 The question arises of what possible reasons the Commissioners might legitimately advance to oppose any regulations.

3 For me, the most important point here is one that you appear to overlook. To judge from what you have said, the explanatory notes provided to the Bill appear to contain more confusion that explanation.

a) May I point out that the phrase 'single person's discount' is disarmingly seductive. In law, of course, there is no such thing as a 'single person discount' - as this term is commonly understood. Those of us who follow this area closely hear alarm bells when any Government Department uses the term. And now we see it being used again.

b) Since no such thing as a 'single person discount' exists, there is no category of people in the legal position of 'claiming it' This is not how these discounts work. You will not find the word 'claim' in Council Tax Discount law, for example. Assuming that councils obey the law, and provide appropriate information, nobody is receiving a 25% discount 'on the basis' that they live alone and nobody should be under the impression that other people in receipt of a 25% discount are in the legal position of 'claiming' to live literally alone and to be entitled on that basis.

c) A torrent of misleading discourse on this topic is in the public domain, and this appears to have started when Experian, Capita and some other credit reference agencies came up with a 'wheeze' whereby credit reference and electoral register information could be 'mined' to produce lists of people, basically, statistically devised 'sets' of people who might turn out, after investigation, not to be entitled to a reduction under Section 11(1) of the Local Government Act.

d) the sharing of information about child benefit links with Section 11(1) of the Act because child benefit is payable for some adults, including for example, school leavers waiting to take up university places. Such adults 'fall to be disregarded' for the purposes of deciding who actually lives in a dwelling.

e) I suppose that child benefit is subject to conditions relating to how much time a child spends living with each of two separated or divorced parents. I suppose that the age of the child would be part of child benefit information. On that basis councils might use the information as evidence about the residence of the child.

f) But it should be pointed out that one is perfectly entitled to receive the "single person discount" if one does not live alone, and the presence of a second adult for whom one is in receipt of child benefit does not affect entitlement to a "single person discount".

You may be aware that the Audit Commission and various other bodies use data mining to draw up statistically based lists of people who might turn out after investigation not to be entitled to a 25% discount. The process works by elimination: you eliminate cases, often by requiring people to prove they are entitled. Often this involves getting them to prove that an adult about whom the council tax department knew nothing (and whose existence there is no obligation on the taxpayer to tell the CT department about) falls to be disregarded. I suppose they will be eliminating fraud suspects, or deciding that people are 'innocent' using child benefit data from now on. You may not even know you were investigated or identified as a potentially inconsistent case requiring investigation on the say so of the Audit Commission. Councils often claim that these investigations are 'merely reviews' and cite Regulation 14 as empowering them to carry them out. Regulation 14 is a 'discretionary' power subject to the usual public law tests of reasonableness.

g) the other purpose 'related' to council tax may well be the statutory duty mentioned often by the Audit Commission in the past of ensuring council tax accounts are free from mistakes caused by fraud or error, in which case the Audit Commission would no doubt be demanding this data to be uploaded to its NFI super duper data base were it not being disbanded. It is this sort of argument which got the Audit Commission access to the full electoral register, which it currently uses to identify hundreds of thousands of innocent entitled people as being in 'potentially inconsistent' situations and to try to force councils to subject each and every case to an investigation. This is argued to be legal on an 'end justifies the means' basis. If, at the end of the day, some fraud is found, and if, the set of people is believed in advance on a priory grounds to be a set in which some fraud exists, then any processing, date matching per se or processes more like data mining and statistically based are seen to be acceptable.

So this may be how they will assert that using child benefit data helps.

There must be a dedicated data matching and data mining Commissioner specifically empowered to check the meta data and other rationals for data matching and data mining exercises. And he must have no connection with the big IT boys and credit reference agencies who are already making big bucks on a no win no fee basis for this sort of 'anti fraud' initiative.

I hope you are watching out for the upcoming law transferring the NFI elsewhere. Eric Ollerenshaw MP has said he will keep a watching brief. We can live in hope that some sort of curb on these matters will appear, but it is unlikely.

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