Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Home Affairs Committee evidence on work of the Information Commissioner's Office

An uncorrected transcript of the evidence given by the Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, and Assistant Commissioner, Jonathan Bamford, to the Home Affairs Committee on 9 March 2010 has been published.
Q4 Mr Winnick: Thank you very much indeed. In January of this year The Times noted that your office has limited resources, no powers to speed up the freedom of information process and that the Office is limited by not having the final say in freedom of information appeals. Do you recognise these constraints? Do you think they are unfair, or do you think the comments were unfair?

Mr Graham: I do not believe all I read in the newspapers. I would comment that all public authorities have limited resources. We are unusual in that there is some buoyancy in our resources, at least on the data protection side, because of the introduction of a tiered notification fee. The largest concerns now pay £500 instead of £35 and that is giving us more money to spend on the data protection side of the business. On the freedom of information side of the business we have had a spectacularly productive year. We are closing outstanding cases, getting through the backlog, and this is despite the fact that there is a great public appetite for using the Freedom of Information Act - good. It does mean that applications to the ICO are up by more than 20%, but case closures are up by more than 40%. This is not an organisation that is suffering from restraint. On powers, next month we see greatly strengthened powers on the data protection side - the introduction of civil monetary penalties, the ability to audit government departments without consent. There is an awful lot going on at the ICO.
Mr Graham: I am going to ask Jonathan to comment on the data protection side in a minute, but the great challenge when I took on the role of Information Commissioner at the end of June last year was to tackle the backlog in freedom of information cases, and this we are doing. This is a week of tremendous activity because we are determined to clear some of the old cases before the end of our performance year and I am confident that in our annual report we will be able to tell a very good story of the speeding up. Freedom of information cases, if they come to us, which is on appeal, are almost certainly going to be difficult and intractable, but what we have succeeded in doing over the past few months is to send a message to public authorities that we are on their case, and so there is no question of just refusing information because you think it will take the ICO a long time to get round to it. If we were in a vicious circle, we are now in a positive cycle where the public authorities realise that the ICO is very alert and they had better get on with it and that is having a very beneficial effect.
The Commissioner was also asked about the Private Members' Bill introduced by David Maclean MP, which sought to exempt Parliament from the scope of the FOI Act and create a new exemption for MPs' communications with public authorities, by David Winnick MP who was one of the MPs who tried to block the Bill in the Commons:
Q9 Mr Winnick: Mr Graham, Parliament makes its own rules and the electorate will decide, as always, accordingly, but if Parliament had gone ahead and exempted itself from the freedom of information legislation, which at one stage was a possibility - there was a Private Members' Bill - what do you think the effect would have been generally in the media and on the public?

Mr Graham: That is a very hypothetical question.

Q10 Mr Winnick: It is bound to be, is it not?

Mr Graham: The controversy was before my time. If we are going to re-run history, I suppose the great might-have-been is what would have happened if Parliament had been inclined to go with my predecessor's steer and had published the expenses under more general headings. This, of course, was before we knew about flipping of second homes, so the regime might not have lasted very long, but it was Parliament's determination to challenge the ruling of the Information Commissioner and to challenge the ruling of the Information Tribunal and take it to the highest court in the land, and the highest court in the land, as you know, turned round and said, "Publish the lot", which was more than the Information Commissioner had requested. If you say, therefore, "How would it have gone?", I think you would have drawn the wrath of the public upon yourself if you had exempted yourselves. I think it would have been better if, in not exempting yourselves, you had realised that this was real and the law that applied to everybody else also applied to Parliament, but it is easy to be wise after the event.

Mr Winnick: Wisdom, fortunately, prevailed and you know what happened.
 Read the transcript in full here.

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