UK ICO Needs Budget Flexibility, Report Finds

21 March 2013

The United Kingdom’s House of Commons Justice Committee has proposed that the Information Commissioner be allowed to use income from data protection fees to support its freedom of information work.

In a March 21 report, the committee commends the commissioner for reducing his budget while still making inroads into the backlog of freedom of information complaints and improving the amount of casework completed. According to the report:

The Information Commissioner has sustained significant cuts to the grant-in-aid which he receives. The income for freedom of information work has been cut by 23% from £5.5 million in 2011–12 to £4.25 million in 2012–13. In line with public spending targets his Office has also planned for a further cut of 6% in 2013–14 and the Ministry of Justice has asked the Commissioner to prepare a business case showing how the Office would be impacted by a further 5% cut in that year.

The Information Commissioner has been successful in significantly cutting the backlog of freedom of information appeals which had built up within his Office. The ICO completed 4,763 pieces of casework in 2011–12 in contrast to 3,019 in 2008–09.

He has been successful in increasing the amount of completed freedom of information complaint casework by 10.8% from 2010–11 to 201112. At the same time his Office has received 7.7% more complaint casework.

The report notes the possibility of increased responsibilities because of a pending European Union privacy regulation and says the government “needs to find a way of retaining a fee-based self-financing system for the data protection work of the Information Commissioner.”

The report recommends loosening restrictions on the use of data protection income for FOI-related work. The Data Protection Act 1998 provides for the financing of the ICO’s data protection activities through a small “notification fee” paid by each registered data controller.

A structural reform is also proposed. “We continue to believe that the Information Commissioner will face significant difficulties in functioning effectively unless he becomes more closely accountable to Parliament instead of Government,” the report says, reiterating a suggestion that the commissioner “should become directly responsible to, and funded by, Parliament.”

Most of the recommendations concern the commissioner’s data protection responsibilities. The committee found it “shocking” that public sector organizations, which hold highly sensitive data, should refuse a free audit.

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