An email that begins by explaining you’re heading for a £42.8 million shortfall rarely leaves you feeling positive about the future, but that’s the position I found myself in earlier this week when I received an embargoed report into the work of the ICO.
The Commons Justice Select Committee report follows my appearance before MPs, alongside my two Deputy Commissioners, back in February 2013. And despite the eye-catching headline that the Information Commissioner could face a significant funding shortfall, the report has some very positive things to say about the performance of the ICO – and some very supportive recommendations for the future.
The potential shortfall of £42.8 million comprises an estimated £26.3 million increase in costs if the ICO was asked to take on the extra responsibilities outlined in the proposed EU data protection reforms, and a £15 million reduction in revenues if the reforms abolish notification fees, as they currently propose.
It’s certainly helpful to have an influential parliamentary committee setting out the funding challenges we face, though it’s important to take on board the full context, and not simply the headline comments. The £42 million figure is very much a worst case scenario, and is based on a proposed legislative framework that is ever changing.
What is certainly clear is that, like any public sector organisation, we are living through lean times, and we’re aware of the importance of the ICO showing itself to be efficient, effective and excellent value for money. But sorting out an acceptable system for funding the ICO in the future now needs to be tackled.
It would be a shame if the funding issue distracts from the policy positions the report supports. The Committee endorses a number of our key policy objectives, notably compulsory audits for NHS bodies and local authorities. The Committee is particularly strong on the need for more effective sentencing for people who unlawfully obtain personal data (known as ‘section 55’ offences).
But what is most pleasing is the Committee’s recognition of what has been achieved in bringing the Freedom of Information caseload under control, despite falling grant-in-aid funding and growing numbers of complaints. The picture that emerges is of a regulator that is delivering, that is relevant, and that is efficient. There are challenges ahead, but we’re in good shape, and that is reason to feel positive about the future.
21 March 2013