Tessa Mayes

Big Brother is coming

Tessa Mayes says that snooping and surveillance are on the rise all around us, in a culture where there is no longer a presumption in favour of privacy, and reveals alarming plans for tax inspectors to invade and disrupt businesses

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Two weeks ago, Tony Blair told the road-toll petitioners by email that his government was not trying to impose ‘Big Brother surveillance’. That was accurate, if disingenuous. The real Big Brother doesn’t announce himself. He comes creeping up on you, by stages, until you realise that you are being snooped on, scrutinised and spied upon in all sorts of ways that would have seemed unthinkable only a few years ago.

Take the powers of the taxman. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) — the new authority established by the merger of HM Customs and Excise and the Inland Revenue in 2005 — is becoming astonishingly intrusive in its investigation of so-called ‘dual purpose’ expenses to discourage taxpayers from claiming for items that could, conceivably, be put to private use (that is, almost everything).

Easy enough to prove with documentation that the petrol you claim was necessary for a work-related journey. But what about, say, clothing? Claims in this category can enable inspectors to ask the most intimate questions about your personal life. They are entitled by law ask whether that sexy, sparkly, Kylie-style stage costume is also worn for ‘private use’. You think I’m joking? Not a bit of it. This very question was asked by the HMRC of an exotic dancer, who told me the story when I was investigating the business wars between lap-dancing clubs for a Channel 4 programme.

What we see here is not a conscious conspiracy, but — much worse — a slippery trend towards the assumption that surveillance and snooping are the norm and socially acceptable. Consider these examples and the tapestry they add up to:

• In January, the Press Complaints Commission published a ruling that reveals how Trading Standards use children to snoop on shops suspected of breaching local trading rules. A 15-year-old boy, for example, was deployed by Cornwall County Council officers last year to test out whether regulations were being adhered to in a Truro shop after it sold him alcohol underage. The shopkeeper claimed ‘entrapment’, arguing that Trading Standards officers ‘deceived’ his staff into selling alcohol to a 15-year-old because the boy looked older.

• Some town halls employ ‘professional witnesses’ to film residents secretly outside their own homes to provide court evidence. Other councils, such as Camden, marshal an entire street-army of snoops with powers to investigate, including street wardens, housing officers, a Street Services Team and Police Community Support Officers (PSOs). They all have access to at least 19 covert council cameras.

• Council tax inspectors are entitled to photograph the outside and inside of your home to assess its tax-band value. A spokesman for the Department of Communities and Local Government reveals that photographs of about 660,000 homes have already been collected.

• Council street wardens in Gloucester now patrol with video cameras strapped to their heads. Anyone caught dropping litter will be fined £75, and risks having a still image of himself posted on the council’s website. Members of the public are asked to call the council hotline if they can identify somebody ‘suspected’ of littering.

• Refuse men now routinely look through people’s recycling bins as they collect them, to check what kind of material is inside. Some householders get letters if they’re not recycling properly as a way to ‘educate’ them. ‘Green surveillance’ is a huge growth area in town halls, many of which are set to introduce bins with chips, monitoring and recording your levels of non-recyclable waste. A Downing Street e-petition has been launched to oppose the proposal. The original petitioner warns that ‘smart bins’ can identify the house they belong to but householders ‘will have no way of stopping the dishonest from dumping in other people’s bins’.

Now, the probing eyes of the snoop are seeking even greater access to what we do and how we live: tax inspectors are demanding powers to enter our lives as never before. They propose dramatically to extend the application of methods previously limited to the investigation by customs officers of serious crime. Under the blueprint, all HMRC inspectors working on serious criminal cases of all kinds would be able to bug telephones and use listening devices, needing only the rubber stamp of the Home Office and the Office of Surveillance Commissioners (which oversees covert surveillance, snooping and ‘covert human intelligence sources’).

Fair enough, you might say. But if you think it’s only true villains who will be subject to the new intrusiveness, think again: already under tax assessment rules a proportion of randomly chosen citizens (which could be you or me) have their returns checked as part of an official ‘compliance’ inquiry. Now tax inspectors want even greater powers to carry out such inquiries.

First, there is the new proposal that tax inspectors should be able to look at your ‘in-year records’. To translate: at the moment, taxpayers present their records from the previous tax year (tax records from 6 April 2005 to 5 April 2006 for self-employed people needed to be sent this January, for example). This means you have time to gather all your records, check for and correct mistakes and present your returns. You can do this in private, with or without an accountant, free from external pressures from the taxman.

All this could soon change dramatically, I can reveal. In ‘Annex B: New Interventions to Ensure Compliance’ in a March 2006 consultation document called Modernising Powers, Deterrents and Safeguards (the consultation is now closed, by the way), the HMRC presents a summary of its ideas to ensure ‘compliance’. On page 43 of the document, the HMRC laments the fact that ‘there is no power to inspect current books and records’ and that the system is ‘much less flexible’.

Here’s the rub: the plan is that inspectors call ‘at any time’ during the business’s ‘live’ accounting period, with only notional notice given of imminent arrival. This would initially apply to sole traders, small businesses and small partnerships (although the figure also includes large partnerships). It is suggested, in the familiar euphemism of the unwelcome bureaucrat, that inspectors could ‘advise’ people on how to improve their ‘procedures’ and ‘correct any errors identified’.

Imagine the impact on a workplace upon which inspectors descended in this fashion: frantic preparations, the disruption of work and the pollution of the office atmosphere, the sudden presence of suspicious officialdom. Imagine taxmen breathing down your neck as you anxiously forage for documentation, desperate to be seen to be complying for fear of something worse. Every sound employee would be reduced to a bumbling David Brent.

This is the true cost, professional and psychological, of arbitrary surveillance: how are employees expected to work effectively and maintain confident relations with their clients if state officials are, quite literally, looking over them? And if you work from home, this means inspectors could turn up there and snoop about. How would that go down with your family?

Today, small businesses; tomorrow, perhaps, every business in the country. How far will this go? An HMRC spokesman told me, ‘Nothing is ruled in and nothing is ruled out.’ The so-called consultation regarding these proposals has scarcely been on a scale fitting their importance (a mere 58 responses, 21 of them related to personal tax matters or issues unrelated to the proposals!). A wider debate is surely called for before this battalion of inspectors, armed with new powers, threatens to sweep into the offices of the land.

Perhaps the most intriguing dimension to this tale of mission creep is the lack of resistance the snoops have thus far encountered. Quite the opposite, in fact. In 2005 rightmove.co.uk, Britain’s leading property website, agreed a deal to supply some of their published data to the Valuation Office Agency (VOA). The VOA compiles and maintains the business and council tax valuation lists for England and Wales and passes on information to the taxman at HMRC. ‘Rightmove’s goal is to connect home movers with properties and provide the industry with practical and cost-effective tools,’ says Miles Shipside, Rightmove’s commercial director.

In this case, ‘practical and cost-effective tools’ means providing computer-friendly information each month. Selling on this version of the data cuts out the time a council would have to spend in putting website information on to a massive computer database that can be cross-checked with other databases such as council tax records. In other words, councils can now instantly identify who is selling what property in an instant ...with the help of a private property company.

What’s disturbing is the enthusiastic readiness of private companies like Rightmove to hand over data, in a computer-friendly form, to the state authorities. Not all estate agents support the idea of selling on client’s information. Karl Daly, a spokesman from Foxtons, told me, ‘Foxtons ensures that precise address details are not posted on our website or disclosed to any aggregators. We would be very disappointed if such information has been sold without our knowledge.’

Disappointed or not, it is clear where the trend is heading. There is now a cultural presumption in favour of surveillance and against privacy. We are sleepwalking towards a Big Brother society, not in one fell swoop but by stages. There is no boot stamping on a face: just an ever more insistent foot in the door.

Private sector and state authorities share information as they see fit, and new snooping powers are quietly introduced without so much as a peep. And if you do start asking questions, don’t be surprised if you feel a pair of eyes on your back. As I was researching this article, one of the HMRC press officers I called each day kept referring to different pieces I have written in the past. Well, I suppose that’s what snoops are paid to do. Just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.