The government is attempting to unduly influence the appointment of the UK’s new information commissioner and should restart the process, a cross-party group of MPs has warned.
In an open letter to digital secretary Oliver Dowden, the MPs expressed concern that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) is seeking an information commissioner to support its policy agenda, rather than a regulator that will enforce data protection laws as written by Parliament.
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is the UK’s data protection, privacy, and freedom of information regulator and ensures compliance with statutory data protection rules.
The MPs said that “no mention is made of experience regulating data protection” in the job description published on 28 February 2021, which instead advertised for a commissioner with “commercial and business acumen”, as well as experience of “using data to drive innovation and growth”.
Organized by digital campaign organization the Open Rights Group (ORG), the letter was signed by 29 MPs and peers – including Caroline Lucas, Clive Lewis, Diane Abbott, Joanna Cherry, and Layla Moran – who wrote that this approach “may prove inimicable to growth in practice” because it would be challenging to prevent unethical business practices in the absence of robust and principle-based regulation.
“The advert makes extensive mention of the need for the information commissioner to align with the goals of the National Data Strategy, which the advert says include removing barriers to commercial use of data and balancing rights with growth,” said the MPs.
“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 MPs ended the letter by calling on the government to “halt the recruitment process and restart it, removing recruitment criteria about matters of policy that are outside of the remit of this statutory regulator, and include criteria that allow candidates to demonstrate they can do the job, in particular, regulatory and data protection enforcement experience”.
In response, a DCMS spokesperson said, “our priority is to find an exceptional candidate with a wide range of skills and experience, including in data protection and data rights, and a strong understanding of the legal and regulatory framework.
“The ICO’s independence is established in law, and we are conducting this recruitment process in line with the Cabinet Office’s governance code for public appointments, which the Commissioner for Public Appointments regulates.”