Appendix 3: Freedom of information
Following changes to the Freedom of Information Act 1982 we developed a three-stage strategy.
We prepared for new provisions relating to individual requests for information, by educating and retraining our staff and updating our help and reference materials.
We also launched our freedom-of-information disclosure log and a web page (www.ato.gov.au/ips) as our contribution to the Australian Public Service information publication scheme. Our web page included our agency plan, our disclosure log and a register of information. We routinely publish required governance information on our website at www.ato.gov.au
Over the next 18 months we will publish in a useful structured way the remaining required operational information. We will also implement strategies to continue our support for the changes to the Act, and enhance our accountability for the provision of information.
Functions and decision-making powers of the Commissioner of Taxation
The Commissioner of Taxation is a statutory office holder responsible for administering a range of tax and superannuation legislation and the Australian Business Register.
Under section 8 of the Taxation Administration Act 1953, nearly all the powers and functions under the taxation laws have been delegated to other ATO officers who, from time to time, occupy or perform the duties of specified senior officers. Employees performing such duties authorise subordinate officers to make decisions on their behalf, subject to various terms and conditions.
Legislation administered by the Commissioner of Taxation
The main areas of legislation we administered in 2010-11 are covered in Appendix 2.
Arrangements for participation
We have some 60 formal consultative and advisory bodies involving members of the community. External experts are also involved on technical decision-making forums, such as our Public Rulings Panel, and on other panels like the Test Case Litigation Panel, and on management forums, for example our People Committee.
Categories of documents
We hold the following categories of documents:
- internal administration documents, including
- agendas and minutes of meetings of senior tax officers (for example, reports on conferences and departmental committee meetings)
- reports relating to research and projects we undertake
- documents relating to human resources and facilities management
- ministerial, interdepartmental and general correspondence papers
- financial reports, expenditure estimates and expenditure reports
- case files, including
- applications, research material, reports and submissions relating to cases in which taxpayers have requested relief from tax
- recovery files containing reports, submissions and other material on individual taxpayers and companies concerning the recovery of tax
- documents relating to tax law, including
- documents received from international organisations or overseas tax authorities
- copies of instruments of delegation given to, or by, the Commissioner of Taxation
- requests for legal advice and copies of notes of advice provided
- copies of legislation, drafting instructions and draft legislation
- parliamentary papers, including
- briefing papers prepared for, and submissions to, the Treasurer, or Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Financial Services and Superannuation
- answers to parliamentary questions
- other departmental files, including
- freedom of information request files and papers relevant to considering those requests
- statistical and financial reports detailing the number of income tax returns lodged, the number and types of assessments issued, and tax revenue collected
- reports and associated working papers resulting from internal audit reviews
- manuals (covering topics such as audit, computer training, personnel, appeals, freedom of information)
- training materials
- tax rulings and determinations
- speeches by senior personnel, media releases, staff circulars and press clippings.
Some documents are generally available, while others are available under the Freedom of Information Act 1982.
Documents available from us
We make available a large number of documents to assist taxpayers understand their tax affairs, and how we operate. These include:
- brochures and booklets for taxpayers on tax topics and people's rights and obligations under the tax system
- tax return forms, schedules, and instructions to taxpayers on use of the forms
- tax tables for pay as you go withholding
- forms relating to the laws administered by the Commissioner
- income tax returns and associated papers lodged by all classes of taxpayers (taxpayers may only obtain copies of their own returns)
- law administration practice statements, which guide our employees in applying the laws administered by the Commissioner
- tax, superannuation and other relevant rulings and determinations, with exempt material excluded
- the Commissioner of Taxation annual report - tabled in parliament and published on our website
- Taxation statistics (with CD-ROM), which reports a range of tax statistics.
Most of our documents are available free of charge from our website. Alternatively, information can be obtained by phoning 1300 720 092, or visiting our offices. A fee may apply for some printed documents.
Access to information under freedom of information
Applicants can make a request for access to information under the Freedom of Information Act 1982 by email to FOI@ato.gov.au.
Visit our website for standard application forms and further information. Where we refuse access to all or parts of a document we give reasons for our refusal and provide advice on the applicant's rights to have our decision reviewed.
Facilities for access
We provide facilities at our national office and at each office where applicants can inspect documents to which they have legal access.
If applicants cannot come to one of our offices, we can post them a document. Information about access for people with disability can be provided by freedom-of-information officers at our offices.
The General Counsel Unit in the ATO Legal Services Branch handles general telephone enquiries about freedom of information on 1300 300 595.
At the beginning of 2010-11 we had on hand 67 requests for documents under the Freedom of Information Act 1982. We received an additional 852 requests during 2010-11, some 7% more than in 2009-10.
This 7% increase understates the much greater underlying increase in the number of requests for information of over 75%. That is because of a change to our processes, allowing insolvency practitioners free access to information on companies for which they act, without making a freedom of information request. The reduction in FOI requests by insolvency practitioners has been more than replaced by an increase in other freedom of information requests.
We decided a total of 582 cases - and another 158 requests were withdrawn by applicants before we made decisions. We did not transfer any case to another agency on the grounds that the request was more closely connected to that other agency.
We allowed full access in 148 cases, and allowed part access in 320 cases. We refused access in 114 cases.
The ATO conducted 36 internal reviews of its freedom of information decisions over the year. Of those, 18 affirmed the original decision, 2 resulted in full access, 14 granted greater partial access, 1 was withdrawn, and 1 had not concluded by year end.
Seven matters were referred by taxpayers for review by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Two had been decided at 30 June 2011, both favourable to the ATO.
Six cases were lodged by taxpayers for review by the Australian Information Commissioner but had not been decided by 30 June 2011.
At 30 June 2011 we had 179 freedom of information requests on hand, an increase on the 67 we had on hand last year.