- We receive many Freedom of Information requests which are of a similar nature, so we now create monthly updated standard reports. Information can be found on the reports that relate to accounts with exemptions and a full list of business properties including rateable value and descriptions.
- Further details
Please note the council will not provide information relating to requests for data concerning credit balance held on business rate accounts or debit adjustments to clear a credit held on an account where it has not been able to trace the ratepayer.
Gravesham Borough Council holds data relating to credits held on business rate accounts and/or debit adjustments to clear a credit held on an account where it has not been able to trace the ratepayer. However, the council will withhold the information following the decision in the case between London Borough of Ealing and the Information Commissioner, appeal number EA/2016/0013.
We consider that the information is exempt from disclosure under Section 31(1)(a) - law enforcement. Disclosure of this information would be likely to prejudice the prevention or detection of crime.
Section 31(1)(a) provides an exemption where prejudice could be caused which would in this case allow potential fraudsters to use the information to identify business entities which were entitled to claim credits on their accounts. Once such a business had been identified, there would be a number of avenues open to the fraudsters to seek to obtain refunds of these credits.
To use this exemption, we are required to undertake a public interest test. The matters which were considered in applying the test are as follows:
Factors in favour of disclosure
- Withholding the information could be perceived as the council attempting to retain monies that belong to the public.
- It is in the public interest to be open and transparent about the council’s use of public funds.
- It is in the public interest to provide some transparency regarding the records we hold in respect of the administration of business rates. This could be of interest to the minority of people who are due a refund but have somehow failed to receive the notifications that money is due to them.
Factors in favour of withholding
- There is a public interest in ensuring that monies from the public purse, such as rebates on business accounts, are not fraudulently claimed and also a public interest in not making it easier for fraud to be committed.
- Our current verification procedure for refund claims is simple and cost effective. Disclosure of the requested information would result in additional verification processes needing to be implemented, at additional cost to the public, which appears to be disproportionate to the benefits that would accrue from disclosure.
- The additional verification procedures would also be likely to slow the verification process, resulting in detriment to the genuine ratepayer which would be contrary to the public interest.
- In relation to any new verification processes that might be needed, these are likely to require the production of additional documents by those claiming a rebate which would place an additional administrative burden on the majority of legitimate claimants.
- Additionally, the level of scrutiny of those documents would be higher than at present, given the increased suspicion that some of the claims (and associated documents) might well be fraudulent.
- The end result would be that a new verification process would slow the rate at which credit balance claims could be considered and refunded, causing delay in all refunds and the likelihood of complaints, which would further burden our limited resources.
- Disclosure of the requested information would result in the need to implement disproportionate steps and additional expense to the public purse to counter an increased fraud risk that does not exist at present.
- The cost consequences of a successful fraudulent claim would be that the council would:
- have incurred the cost of paying out to the fraudster.
- remain liable to refund the legitimate ratepayer for an equivalent amount, raising the prospect of paying out twice; and
- be faced with the costs (internal management and administration and potentially legal) of seeking to recover the funds wrongly paid to the fraudster.
- It would not be in the public interest to expose the council to such potential costs and expenses, given that they would be funded from the public purse.
It is considered that the greater public interest, therefore, lies in not providing the information at this time. In coming to that conclusion, the public interest in providing the information has been carefully weighed against any prejudice to the public interest that might arise from withholding the information; in all the circumstances of the case, the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information. This response, therefore, acts as a refusal notice under section 17 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.