Tax practitioners looking to provide information about client experiences with the ATO in light of the investigation by the Inspector-General of Taxation have been reminded of their obligation to first obtain client permission to do so.
TPB highlights confidentiality concerns with Tax Office review
Yesterday, the IGT announced the terms of reference of its investigation into the ATO’s use of garnishee notices, and called for accountants to lodge their or their clients’ experiences with the ATO’s debt recovery methods.
However, The TPB has cautioned tax practitioners against readily supplying confidential client information that would infringe code item six under their Code of Professional Conduct.
Code item six provides that, unless there is a legal duty to do so, tax agents must not disclose any information relating to a client’s affairs to a third party without the client’s permission.
“If a TPB registered tax practitioner wishes to come forward and submit their and their clients’ experiences with the ATO to the Inspector-General of Taxation’s review into the ATO’s use of garnishee notices, then the registered tax practitioner needs to be aware of their obligations under the Code of Professional Conduct, as contained in the Tax Agent Services Act 2009,” a TPB spokesperson told Accountants Daily.
“Therefore, if a registered tax practitioner wants to provide specific information relating to a particular client they need to ensure that they have their client’s permission to do so. Alternatively, the registered tax practitioner may wish to provide information that de-identifies their client.”
While IGT Ali Noroozi explained that he would examine the themes emerging from complaints to his office, there have been concerns from the accounting industry over the ability to speak without fear of retribution.
Allaying these fears, Mr Noroozi insisted that while specific complaints require personal information in order to be directly investigated, submissions to an inquiry such as this investigating systemic issues are entirely confidential, and can even be made anonymously.
“If you come to me and say you have a problem with the ATO, if you want me to address that specific complaint, I will need your consent to disclose your information. But if it’s to a submission and you just want to share general information and you want to remain absolutely confidential, then that is totally respected,” Mr Noroozi said.
“You can lodge your complaint as per usual [as part of this investigation], but you’ve just got to make it clear whether you’re just sharing this information confidentially for the good of the review or if you want your complaint addressed.”
Clarifying this, though, Mr Noroozi said that even anonymous submissions need to provide enough information to be useable; “they cannot make unsubstantiated claims” or simply say “the tax office is very bad”.
“By all means, if you want to remain anonymous, remain anonymous, but at least lead me to what I need to investigate,” he said.
Mr Noroozi added that “in any event, we would never disclose anything without talking to the person”, noting that by law, his office is not able disclose any information provided without express consent — including to the ATO — and is not not subject to Freedom of Information requests.
Noting his office's broad review into the ATO’s debt collection approaches in 2015, Mr Noroozi said it was now an appropriate time to launch a review because of the time needed for the Tax Office to implement recommendations.
“None of these allegations have been substantiated yet – they may well have implemented these recommendations and they may be working well, and these may be just a few isolated cases; we don’t know that yet. We need to investigate to find out whether they have been adhered to,” said Mr Noroozi.
“Also, it’s not that it’s taken so long. What I’ve said is, is that we have had complaints about this, and I have said if they persist then we will do possibly targeted reviews in specific aspects of debt collection. The review we did in 2015 was a very broad review.”
Commenting on the announcement, a spokesperson for the ATO said, “We note the IGT has announced an investigation into the ATO’s use of garnishee notices and, as always, are committed to co-operating fully throughout the process.”