A cross-party group of MPs has issued a warning over the appointment of the next Information Commissioner.
In a letter penned to Secretary of State for DCMS Oliver Dowden, the group, which comprises MPs from the Green Party, SNP and Liberal Democrats, has warned the government against “unduly influencing” the process to appoint the next commissioner.
Current Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham is set to leave her role in October 2021, having served at the regulator since 2016.
With the search for a successor underway, privacy rights campaigners have raised concerns over the regulator’s increasingly close relationship with the government and its ability to withstand political pressure.
“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,” the letter reads.
“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,” it adds.
The Open Rights Group, which coordinated the letter, has called on the government to halt the recruitment process and remove recruitment criteria “pertaining to matters of policy that are outside of the remit” of the regulator.
ORG also called for the inclusion of criteria that will enable candidates to demonstrate whether they have regulatory and data protection enforcement experience, and as such are capable of carrying out the role of Information Commissioner.
Additionally, the letter reminds Dowden that Parliament has twice requested that the ICO be made directly accountable to the Commons, so to avoid the “possibility of a political appointment”.
Green Party MP Caroline Lucas said the government is intent on appointing a new regulator who will “simply do its bidding, rather stand up for people’s rights”.
“This isn’t a watchdog, it’s a minister’s lapdog,” she added. “We need guarantees that the new ICO will be fully independent.”
Daisy Cooper MP, Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, accused the government of undermining the ICO’s independence, a tactic which she said is indicative of its attitude toward privacy rights.
“They want an industry figure to help dismantle privacy laws in the UK,” Cooper said. “That fits the pattern of chumocracy and disregard for privacy that this government is already famous for.”
Jim Killock, Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, said the lack of confidence spanning “across the political spectrum” over the new appointment is unprecedented and seriously undermines the credibility of the new commissioner.
“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,” he said.
“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,” Killock added.
MPs have questioned the ICOs ability to work independently on two separate occasions. Last year, MPs criticised the regulator over its lack of action in regard to the government’s alleged abuses of privacy relating to Covid-19 technologies.
In January, the ICO was criticised by John Nicholson MP at the DCMS Committee for failing to tackle privacy abuses by political parties.
The criticism came after it was revealed the Conservative Party racially profiled some 12 million voters, an issue which the government was accused of ignoring.
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John Nicolson MP, Shadow DCMS spokesperson for the SNP, warned against a “growing trend” of public appointees with “overly cost” relationships to Conservative minister.
“They are being favoured over candidates who might challenge Conservative Government thinking,” Nicolson insisted.
“The Information Commissioners Office is one of our most important enforcement agencies and requires someone who will be a tough and effective regulator,” he added.
“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.”