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The Secrecy Act an obstacle in the fight against construction crime

Tord af Klintberg investigates how may be possible to overcome construction crime. (Photo: Unsplash)
Published Dec 09, 2021

The Secrecy Act protects the privacy of individuals, but it also contributes to making it more difficult for authorities to jointly stop construction crime. Tord af Klintberg researches sustainable buildings at the Department of Civil and Architectural Engineering and has just published a study together with Folke Björk on the subject.

Tord af Klintberg. Foto: Privat

- Our study is based in the fact that Stockholmshem initiated work on "Fair Building" in 2017. "Fair Building" means, among other things, that Stockholmshem began controlling which people are at their workplaces and that those people are registered to be there. The real estate company also performs more extensive work where they analyze companies that submit tenders, says Tord af Klintberg.

In his work, af Klintberg has interviewed 33 people from authorities, construction companies and more, who are experts in the field. In addition, talks have been held with another 31 people from, among others, Ministries, Government Offices and lawyers.

External surveillance of the immediate outside world

An external monitoring has also been carried out, focusing on Norway, Estonia and Finland.

- If you look at the work of Swedish authorities, you can see that they are structured in the same way as other European countries with, for example, tax administration, work environment administration and posting registries. What is striking for Sweden, however, is that authorities in Sweden are not allowed to cooperate due to, among other things, secrecy legislation.

The Ullsten Government and the fear of an Orwellian Oceania

The reason why Swedish secrecy looks as it does today has its roots in the secrecy legislation, which was created by the Ullsten government that ruled 1978-1979. They introduced a bill in 1979/1980 that strengthened integrity, playing on Karin Boye's Kallocain (1940) and George Orwell's 1984 (1949) says Af Klintberg.

- There was an awareness of these books and they were also a hot topic of conversation at the time. Statistics Sweden wanted a system called FOBALT that would make it easier to receive information and coordinate registers. Then there was the research project Metropolit, where Stockholm University had secretly carried out a registration of 15,000 Swedes born in 1953 and registered everything about them, which of course was highly unethical. There was then a loud opinion at the time, who wondered if Sweden would become like the supervising superstate Oceania in George Orwell's book 1984. Ullsten's bill went through and has since stopped authorities from cooperating on an ongoing basis. It was decided that it must be a question of individual exceptions for this to happen.

The Swedish authorities' different degrees of secrecy make it difficult

Another thing that af Klintberg highlights is that the Swedish Tax Agency is counted as several different authorities, where different units have secrecy among themselves. Different authorities also have different degrees of secrecy, for example, the Swedish Work Environment Authority has low secrecy and this complicates cooperation with the Swedish Tax Agency, which has a high level of secrecy.

After the secrecy legislation 79/80, several additions have been made to the law, which makes the law difficult to understand and difficult to interpret today.

- Now the law is like a patchwork quilt, which makes it difficult to overview. What applies is that information provided to an authority may not be used for another purpose later, not even in cases of suspicion of crime. It must be stronger than a mere suspicion and must be investigated first. The question then becomes whether the value of using this information is higher than the individual's loss of integrity.

Attempts at change have been postponed

With a bill (2019/20: 166), the Swedish Tax Agency wanted to make it possible for the taxation unit and the tax control unit to cooperate on an ongoing basis.

- The bill was sent on review, but it was perceived by some organisations as poorly written and other organisations was against it due to privacy reasons. Various bodies make their assessments and it is part of the review procedure that this takes place. The thing is, however, that there is a major societal problem here, but the whole discussion shrank to just concerning individual integrity. In this case, the issue was decided from the integrity perspective without including the whole picture. It all ended with the Tax Agency's various units not being allowed to work together on an ongoing basis, says Tord af Klintberg and adds:

- It feels like the Ministry of Justice and Governments for a long time lacked the insight or power to enforce something that would be important here.

Different in Norway, Estonia and Finland

In our surrounding countries, it looks different than in Sweden. In Norway there is an A-Crime Center, in Estonia a number of authorities can take part of the same documents.

In Norway, authorities may cooperate in these Centers with open books. However, Norway has also had problems with its secrecy and the question is whether the police may participate in the cooperation, which has led to a backlash. Estonia has the rule that all information submitted to authorities in the case of finances is submitted once and then a number of authorities may use it. It is thus open between different authorities, but closed to the outside world.

In Finland, authorities are allowed to co-operate, and there the Tax Administration's units, such as the Taxation Unit and the Unit against the Gray Economy, can co-operate freely.

- The Tax Administration has insight into construction sites, which have one main contractor. Everyone who works on construction sites stamps in and the information goes to the Tax Administration directly. The tax administration thus receives information about staff working hours and employer relations. In addition, builders submit information on invoices from construction companies, if they exceed 15,000 euros annually or on a project basis. In addition to this, the Tax Administration has access to tax returns and gets a clear financial picture of what the financial situation looks like for each company. If something is not right, they can hand over data to the unit for gray economy (the tax crime unit). In addition, the Finnish Ministry of Justice has a research institute attached to it, a UN research institute called HEUNI.

Af Klintberg believes that the Finnish model is worth following, as something similar could facilitate the fight against construction crime.

- In the short term, I think that since the Swedish Tax Agency has the same type of external secrecy, it should be possible to have an ongoing collaboration between the Taxation Unit and the Tax Crime Unit. The Swedish Tax Agency could also, as in the Finnish model, gain knowledge about employer relations, working hours at staff level and invoices from construction companies to builders. In the long run, I would like to see a research institute to be linked to the Ministry of Justice. This research institute should be staffed by researchers from different sectors of society and help the Ministry of Justice to keep legislation up to date.

Text: Hanna Kalla

This is the 23rd article in the School of Architecture and the Built Environment 's new series of articles on selected research, education or collaboration initiatives from each department. You can find the previous articles here:  Archive

Belongs to: School of Architecture and the Built Environment (ABE)
Last changed: Dec 09, 2021