Cross-party group of MPs warn Govt about unduly influencing Regulator’s appointment

Cross-party group of MPs warn Government about unduly influencing the appointment of the next Information Commissioner 

In a letter to Oliver Dowden MP, the Secretary of State for DCMS, a cross-party group of MPs have warned the Government about ‘unduly influencing’ the process to appointment of the next Information Commissioner. [1]

The letter says that:

“The impression has been made that DCMS seeks an Information Commissioner that will work to remove protections within current laws, to reduce the risks of enforcement action, and rather than guarantee the rights of individuals, will seek to “balance” rights against concerns such as “regulatory certainty” and economic growth. That is, DCMS is seeking an Information Commissioner whose policy views match its own, rather than a regulator that will seek to enforce the law as Parliament has written it. …

“We call on you, today, to halt the recruitment process and restart it, removing recruitment criteria pertaining to matters of policy that are outside of the remit of this statutory regulator, and include criteria that allow candidates to demonstrate they are able to do the job, in particular, regulatory and data protection enforcement experience.” 

It also reminds Oliver Dowden that Parliament has twice asked for the ICO to be made directly accountable to Parliament, to avoid the possibility of a political appointment, in 2004 and 2014. [2]

Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP and one of the signatories, said: 

“We have seen what happens when companies misuse people’s data. It is essential that people’s privacy and rights are protected but this Government seems set on appointing a new regulator who will simply do its bidding, rather than stand up for people’s rights.  This isn’t a watchdog, it’s a minister’s lapdog.  We need guarantees that the new ICO will be fully independent.” 

Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Daisy Cooper MP, said:

“The ICO’s independence is being undermined by this Government. They want an industry figure to help dismantle privacy laws in the UK. That fits the pattern of chumocracy and disregard for privacy that this Government is already famous for. This process needs to be stopped and re-run once the independence of the UK’s information privacy boss is restored.”

SNP’s Shadow DCMS Spokesperson, John Nicholson MP, said:

“There seems to be a growing trend of public appointees with an overly cosy relationship with Conservative ministers, whether because they are party donors or like minded political insiders.  They are being favoured over candidates who might challenge Conservative Government thinking. The Information Commissioner’s Office is one of our most important enforcement agencies and requires someone who will be a tough and effective regulator. I support the Open Rights Group’s call to halt the recruitment process and restart it with more appropriate criteria for a body that is so important to the protection of data in the UK.”Jim Killock, the Executive Director of the Open Rights Group which has co-ordinated this letter, said: “The ICO is meant to be an independent regulator, but is not directly accountable to Parliament, yet it is responsible for protecting some of our most important rights and liberties.  

 “The lack of confidence expressed from across the political spectrum in the appointment process of a regulator is unprecedented and undermines the credibility of the new ICO Commissioner. 

  “The Information Commissioner needs to be made directly accountable to Parliament and lack of cross-party Parliamentary approval is a devastating blow on the appointment of the next ICO Commissioner.  The next ICO Commissioner is dead on arrival. “The ICO has already been cowed by this Government. It will not speak out about their myriad privacy failures, nor will it criticise the Government for systematic abuses of freedom of information. 

 “We call on Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for DCMS to halt the recruitment process and restart it with more appropriate criteria for a body that is so important to the protection of people’s data and our fundamental privacy rights in the UK.”

MPs have twice called the ICO’s ability to work independently into question. Last summer, MPs wrote to the ICO last summer to complain about its lack of action regarding the Government’s abuse of privacy relating to COVID-19 technologies. [3]

The ICO was also criticised by John Nicholson MP at the DCMS Committee in January 2021 for failing to tackle privacy abuses by political parties, after the Government tried to ignore racial profiling of 12 million voters by the Conservative Party. [4]