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Spending Review? Why not axe the Information Commissioner?

Let's merge four info bodies into one super-regulator

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I have come to the conclusion that there is a credible argument to scrap the Office of the Information Commissioner. No, I have not lost my marbles. Nor have I received a backhander from Google to fund our new Amberhawk website. This is a credible argument that can be made, especially at a time when deep public sector cuts are going to be announced next Wednesday.

As you know, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude MP, blows hot and cold with Freedom of Information. First, he announced at the Conservative Party Conference that he will change FOI legislation (presumably the Freedom Bill) so that FOI requestors can commercially exploit any information released by a public authority. Second, he simultaneously ordered a leak inquiry when a document which listed the quangos under the threat of the axe. (This 20-page list was published by the BBC).

If you look at this quango list, you will see that the Information Commissioner’s Office is to be retained - as is the Office of the Surveillance Commissioner. For some reason, the Human Rights Commission and the Interception of Communications Commissioner do not feature on his list, so one assumes they are safe.

All these four bodies have a role in protecting privacy. So my cost-cutting solution is to merge all four bodies into one super-regulator whose collective function is to oversee privacy protection across the board.

Just look at the advantages.

• With respect to Article 8 of the Human Rights Act, you would have a single regulator who could protect individuals from the excessive use of wide-ranging secondary legislation (by ensuring the processing of personal data was “lawful” in a human rights context) and report to Parliament about defects in primary legislation before it is enacted.

• You would have a single point of contact for those individuals who allege their privacy has been invaded.

• With respect to interception of communications and covert surveillance, you would not have the lead regulators, appointed by the politicians, and reporting to the politicians who have a vested political interest in the outcome of any interception or surveillance. It is easier to argue that such a combined regulator should directly report to Parliament.

• With respect to decision taking on important privacy matters, you would have a range of Commissioners and a collegiate decision making process. With the current mish-mash of Commissioners, you have a single individual making important decisions.

• With respect to investigations by the regulator into possible malpractice, you would have a critical mass that would allow best practice to emerge. Currently, each Commissioner has a small investigations group employing a number of different techniques and practices.

• With respect to staff, you would streamline administration and retain front-line staff by offering a wider range of career paths (e.g. someone could start in data protection and realise that they are more interested in equal opportunities).

• With respect to privacy policy development, you would have a Commission that could report to Parliament with unrivalled authority and experience.

• With respect to the national security agencies, these bodies would be seen to be subject to independent scrutiny in a way that the current fragmented system of scrutiny denies.

• With respect other regulators that have powers in relation to privacy (e.g. OFCOM or the Financial Services Authority), their role in relation to privacy protection should be transferred.

In other words, this recession provides an opportunity to restructure all the Commissioners that have fingers in the privacy protection pie. The “cuts” provide an opportunity to reorganise privacy protection into a coherent form that integrates all aspects of data protection and the respect for private and family life.

This is a win-win scenario. The Conservatives get their “cuts” and the Lib Dems get their enhanced privacy protection. That is why it should appear in next week’s Spending Review.

Those of you who are interested in the background, should look at “Nine principles for assessing whether privacy is protected in a surveillance society (Parts 1 and 2) – 2008 here.

This story originally appeared at HAWKTALK, the blog of Amberhawk Training Ltd.

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