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Celebrities & the taxman

D. Murali

DEATH and taxes are two things that are too certain. But celebrities and politicians belong to a different class — they never really `die', nor are their tax affairs truly transparent. Almost universally, we have reconciled to the fact that those whom we elect to serve us and the civil servants they boss over are often above the law. That is why, perhaps, it came as a shock to the big guns in the UK to learn that their tax files were being pried into.

Celebrity browsing, as it is called, refers not to a film star or minister reading a book (one wonders whether they do) but to the checking out of tax affairs of the top shots. It has come to light that the Inland Revenue (IR) staff (the counterparts in the UK of our own CITs, ITOs and their minion) have breached the Data Protection Act and accessed such `star' data. More daringly, they had sold privileged tax information to outside agencies. An in-house newsletter in the Department has, therefore, warned staff of "computer misuse", reminding them that they must not access any records unless they have a legitimate business reason for doing so.

Recently, The Times reported that the IR staff were "caught trawling through computer files in search of juicy snippets about pop singers and film stars". It is surmised that a majority of instances would have been the looking up the details of family or friends out of idle curiosity, while malicious prying is not ruled out — as for example, digging up the earnings of an ex-spouse to determine how much `support' to sue for. Nothing impossible when the IR's computers store information of over 60 million people.

There were angry reactions from those who hit the Accounting Web site: "I have always thought that there may be some recreational surfing but this is beyond my wildest expectations," says one, while another mentions how the IR staff had been caught downloading pornography and 250 staff disciplined for sending abusive or obscene e-mails in 2001. "No wonder they have no time to deal with tax returns! If it was not the taxpayers' money being wasted it would be amusing rather than sad." Yet another gives a tip: "Protect their anonymity by the use of nominees under deeds of beneficial trust. There can be no snooping then." The chief of IR, Sir Nick Montagu, fought back with a denial about a week back: "The overwhelming majority of our people are utterly professional in their use of information. The few who `celebrity browse' do so from curiosity — but will be left in no doubt that we treat it seriously and will take disciplinary action against them."

Also, Montagu disclosed details of a `secret system' to protect the high-profile dossiers in evidence to the Commons Public Accounts Committee (CPAC). And this adds a new twist to the tale, something of interest to our own netas. The high-security system tracks `which staff were logged on to which records'. So, those logged on to celebrity records would have to explain why. If the reason is not convincing, they would be fired.

It came as a shock for the great unwashed that special security measures are in place to protect their politicians and some senior civil servants from unauthorised computer snooping by tax staff, and that the shelter was enjoyed by Montagu too. MPs on the CPAC "greeted the news with a mixture of surprise and incredulity", as one newspaper put it.

If our netas get the wind of this privilege, they would probably ask a couple of their `black cats' to go and guard their tax data — if they had paid taxes, that is.

hindubusinessline@hotmail.com

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