Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The HMRC's overnight change to policy on the release of employment histories is flawed and dangerous. It must be reversed

Sometimes it's tempting to conclude that the only feasible reaction to policy changes under the present government is despair. For all the committees, consultations and conferences - for all the ticking of 'impact assessment' boxes and due regard for the views of stakeholders - things still seem to happen without rhyme or reason.

The latest example of this comes in the form of an entirely unheralded change in policy by HM Revenue & Customs.

No consultation

HMRC now says that a request for the employment history of a deceased person will only be released to that person's representatives on receipt of a court order served on the General Counsel and Solicitor to HMRC. Only a matter of days ago, it was the case that a deceased's personal representatives had so sign and provide a form of authority for the information to be released. Not any more, thanks to a change that's been introduced overnight, without any form of consultation with affected parties.

The new system has major ramifications for mesothelioma claims. When a person dies with mesothelioma as a likely cause, it's vital for the estate to be able to establish the deceased's employment history. This is often difficult to piece together, but an HMRC work history schedule (based on national insurance contributions) will list all the deceased's employers since 1961. With this information to hand, solicitors can begin the process of establishing where and when a deceased worked, the extent of exposure to asbestos and identifying the correct defendant.

Now, though, the time, expense and inconvenience of an application to court is necessary. Only then will the information be disclosed.

Staff at HMRC's Longbenton office say the reason for this change of policy is "because the records are stored in accordance with the Data Protection Act." In other words, disclosing them would be a breach of privacy under the Act. This, the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers have pointed out, is wrong. It is arguable that, like the right to sue for defamation, rights to privacy die with the individual, but in any event any such privacy rights (if they still exist) must pass to the deceased's personal representatives. It is for them to give consent for the release of employment records.

Delay and expense

Why has this policy change been made? Its only effect will be to cause delay and expense for those who wish to bring a claim for loved ones tragically killed by mesothelioma. It flies in the face of the government's declared aim of speeding up the claims process for mesothelioma sufferers.

A conspiracy theorist might point to the number of ministerial shareholdings in insurers and suggest that overnight changes such as this don't happen by accident. A cynic might point to the government's regular announcements of a war on bureaucracy and say that this is precisely the sort of meaningless red tape it is fighting. And those who feel so despairing at the injustice of contemporary politics that they cannot rouse themselves to vote might simply sigh and say 'what do you expect?'

But I think we should resist conspiracies, cynicism and despair. Instead, we should campaign to reverse this absurd change in policy. Please retweet, comment, reblog and otherwise disseminate this piece and your support for its views in the hope that HMRC sees reason.

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