Section 21 is intended to apply to information that is already reasonably accessible to the applicant, e.g documents published on the internet or in books available to your local library.
Unfortunately, some public authorities are using where the information can be obtained by making a very large number of queries to locator tools.
For example in theory it is possible to obtain the phone numbers of all tax offices using the locator tool on the HMRC website. In practice it is very difficult to find the number for every office and even when you think you might have found them all it would be difficult to be sure that you really have.
I had requested a list of phone numbers and HMRC are trying to use this exemption. I could try entering the name of every town in the UK into the “Enter town” field but I am not sure there is a definitive list of UK towns and even if there was I don’t think ‘Birmingham’ would be on it but there is an entry when you search for Birmingham.
There is however what amounts to a definitive list of UK postcodes so in theory I could conduct a exhaustive search for tax offices, but according to UK National Statistics website there are somewhere around 1.7 million live postcodes so it be wholly impractical to search for each of these one at a time.
The exemption was never intended to be used in situations like this so I have sent HMRC a robust request for an internal review.
I have pointed out that in this case: “information …is not to be regarded as reasonably accessible to the applicant merely because the information is available from the public authority
itself on request, unless the information is made available in accordance with the authority’s publication scheme“
I have argued that information that can only be obtained by making a query using the locator tool is only available on request albeit that the database is set up to automatically respond to such requests. As HMRC do not refer to the locator in their publication scheme I argued that the exemption could not be relied upon.
I also wrote:
“I calculate that by manually testing one postcode every two seconds it would take me more than 40 days to test all the postcodes even if I worked 24 hours a day and seven days a week with no breaks. This cannot be considered reasonably accessible.“
I hope the Revenue will accept on reflection that the data should be provided to me in a form I can reasonably use, it was certainly the intention of the Act that I would be able to obtain information of this nature.