Freedom of information request response - 06526
This is a request for information, filed under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. We wish to obtain information, from the Council, relating to unclaimed credits for non-domestic ratepayers. We are aware that all Billing Authorities hold on account sums of money that are due to be returned to business ratepayers and for a variety of reasons have not been repaid and maybe considered untraceable by the Council. This maybe because Companies do not know that there is an overpayment, they may have moved premises, merges and/or changed their name or simply ceased trading. In such circumstances, the monies could be due to the creditors of that company. Exacta shall use the information requested to trace those businesses who have failed to claim such credit balances.
We therefore request a list of both credit balances and credit balance write ons accrued since your earliest records, for the amounts owing to all “incorporated” companies within the authorities billing area, including:
- The name of each ratepayer for which the credit or credit write on relates to.
- The value of overpayment in each case.
- The year(s) in which overpayment was made.
- The hereditament address.
Please note that no personal data (as defined under the Data Protection Act 1998) is requested and any personal data contained within files concerning Non-Domestic Rates is exempted from this request.
We confirm that Eden District Council holds the information you have requested.
However we consider that the information requested is exempt from disclosure under Section 31(1)(a) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (`the Act’) relating to Law Enforcement and therefore I regret to inform you that the Council will be not be releasing it. This is because under the exemption, it is considered that disclosure would be likely to prejudice the prevention or detection of crime.
We have undertaken a public interest test, as required under the Section 31(1)(a) exemption of the Act, in order to ascertain whether the public interest is best served by the disclosure or the withholding of the information. The public interest test is set out below:
Factors in favour of disclosure
- Withholding the information could be perceived as the Council attempting to retain monies belonging to a section of the public.
- It is in the public interest to be open and transparent about our use of public funds.
- It is also in the public interest to provide some degree of transparency regarding the records we hold in respect of the administration of business rates. This could be of interest to the small numbers of business who are due a refund, but for some reason, have not received notifications from the Council that a refund is due to them.
Factors in favour of withholding the information
- There is a clear and strong public interest in ensuring that public monies or monies owed to businesses or individuals, (such as refunds due to business rates overpayments) are not fraudulently claimed by those not entitled to them. Although it is recognised that the request for the information was no doubt made in good faith for a proper purpose, there is a clear and strong public interest in not making it easier for fraud to be committed. The release of the requested information (with the appropriate entry on the disclosure log of the Council website) could create a situation that would enable potential fraudsters to use the information to identify business entities who are owed monies, as a first step to making a fraudulent refund claim in respect of any credits due on their accounts.
- The Council already has a well established and robust process for contacting and locating businesses with a business credit due on their accounts and responding in a prompt and efficient manner to any queries that particular account holders may raise in respect of credit balances due to them.
- Disclosure of the requested information would result in the need to implement additional steps to counter an increased fraud risk that does not currently exist. Our current verification procedure to process refund claims due to individual ratepayers, is both simple and cost effective. It is considered that the cost of the additional verification processes needed would be disproportionate to the benefits that would accrue from disclosure. It would not be in the public interest to expose the Council to such additional cost, given that it would be funded at public expense.
- The additional verification processes required to enable disclosure under the Act, would place extra administrative burdens on the Council, which may slow the process by which legitimate credit balance claims could be considered and refunded. This would be compounded by the fact that the level of scrutiny of those documents would be higher than at present, given the increased and reasonably held suspicion that some of the claims (and associated documents) might well be fraudulent. This may cause a delay in the processing of all refunds, with a consequent increase in the likelihood of complaints due to that delay.
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 considering all these factors, it is concluded that in all the circumstances of this case, the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing the requested information.
This response, therefore, acts as a formal refusal notice under Section 17 of the Act.