Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



  20. Are those bodies looking at publication schemes at the moment or are they waiting for you?
  (Mrs France) Some of them are very keen. We are not short of volunteers for the pilot scheme which is encouraging. People are phoning up to volunteer all the time. We have had one small workshop in our Office, of people who were keen to be in the first flush of activity. We have various representative bodies out there beginning work already: the Association of Chief Police Officers for example have a meeting involving some of my staff next week; the Local Government Association also have begun work. Interestingly we have just come from a one-day conference where we heard that central government are putting in place structures to make sure that they get their programme sorted out and begin to get their internal structures organised. People are moving ahead and what we are trying to do is keep in touch without stunting the enthusiasm of those who are ready to go, but try to focus on our timescale so that we are ready to take on those first wave bodies when the law fully bites.

  21. Are you involved at all in the work that the Performance and Innovation Unit is doing, for example, on data sharing?
  (Mrs France) Yes, I am. The privacy and data sharing project is just coming to an end. I seconded one of my Assistant Commissioners to work on the project two days a week for its duration and I am on the advisory group to the project. The report is now in its draft form, so I would expect that to be published shortly. That is focusing on the approach of central government to the important reconciliation of data sharing and privacy as twin goals which are both important in taking government work forward.

  22. So that helps in the modernising government field?
  (Mrs France) Yes, very much in the modernising government field.

  23. One of the issues which has happened since the Freedom of Information Act is that technology has changed. We have had quite a number of discussions in this Committee about the Knowledge Network, for example. How are you going about tackling issues of changes like that?
  (Mrs France) Clearly, wearing my data protection hat, I have had to keep very closely in touch with developments in new technology both in the public and the private sector. We do have links in with those who are making developments of one kind or another. The Knowledge Network itself, as I understand it, is really a way of sharing published information, speeches and press statements and so on, so it does not really raise any data protection concerns for me, but could be a good vehicle when we are talking about the form of publication schemes; it could be an element of the way that departments are regularly able to share and make information available. What we have to have are good links into various parts of the public and the private sector because of my joint responsibilities. The key from my point of view—and something we have encouraged strongly and I am pleased to see is coming out also of central government reports of one kind or another—is that you need somebody to own the responsibility for information issues at a senior level in public authorities so that there is somebody there we can interface with and somebody who is having a look at how these different initiatives fit together.

Mr Oaten

  24. I am interested that you have had people knocking at the door wanting to be pilot schemes. Is there a pattern to what kind of organisation is doing that? Is that across the board or is there a particular type of organisation which is especially keen to be in these early waves?
  (Mrs France) They will be bodies who have had some involvement with access regimes. We have not had any from what the Ombudsman called the periphery. They have mainly been people you expect to be in the first wave.

  25. Such as?
  (Mrs France) Central government departments, NDPBs, local government; the police have been very keen. The Welsh Assembly have been very keen and have put forward papers to us.

  26. Have you had resistance then? Presumably in terms of pilot schemes you want to get a broad range and a feel for different agencies. Have you found it quite hard?
  (Mrs France) At the moment resistance is not an issue. I only want to run with about six pilot schemes, because I want to have results within three months. At the moment it is a matter of choosing from those who volunteered rather than looking to encourage.

  27. This is an enormous undertaking. You mentioned the fact that you need to get up to 35 staff, or you now are up to 35 staff.
  (Mrs France) I shall be recruiting specifically for FOI during the financial year 2001-02 an additional 35 staff.

  28. How many do you have currently?
  (Mrs France) I have about 120 staff for data protection. The figures we are working to allow us to move up to somewhere between 270 and 300 staff by 2005, which is the date of full implementation of the FOI Act.

  29. What kind of annual budget have you been set?
  (Mrs France) My annual budget has obviously changed dramatically. For 2000-01, which is the year just finished, I had a budget for data protection of about £4.8 million and for that year I only had a small amount for freedom of information because I did not have the vires; I had under £0.5 million for the very end of the financial year. For the year just begun I have £2 million for freedom of information and just over £5 million for data protection. In addition to that I have been successful in securing a capital modernisation budget of £5 million over two years to make sure that I can meet the Government's modernising targets at the same time as taking on new responsibilities.

  30. By 2005 when you are up and running with 300 staff, what do you think your annual budget will be then?
  (Mrs France) It is difficult for me to predict that far ahead. Obviously any budgets that I have talked about with my sponsor department beyond 2001-02 are only speculative. I certainly expect it to go up quite substantially in 2002-03, because I shall need to take on accommodation. I expect it to be in the order of about £11 million in that year, but then to drop back down a little bit after that year following that necessary investment. I should have thought it would probably settle at about that level to cope with 300 staff, but that is something we need to discuss as we go on into the period of bidding for those resources. At the moment I can only say that for the current year I have just over £7 million and in addition the capital modernisation grant, and significantly more next year.

  31. You mentioned earlier on that you expect that as it gets towards 2005, when you get down to the levels of GP practices and things like that, that this could get quite complex and tricky. Remind me, though I should probably know, do you have a duty to advise and help and assist with those organisations? What kind of advice are you giving them and planning to give to them?
  (Mrs France) They will have to be just a little bit out of my central vision for the moment. What I am doing in the way that we are currently intending to structure the office—though of course this could be reviewed during the five-year period, but the way we are starting off—is that I shall keep a fairly small policy team developing our work on FOI. What I intend to do to make maximum use of the fact that we already have contacts with all these bodies for data protection, is to grow the sector teams we already have so that if you are a GP representative who is used to phoning the compliance manager in my Office for data protection concerns or issues, then that same person will deal with FOI as well. We will need to train our staff gradually so that they can all deal with queries on both Acts. It should not be forgotten that although I am saying that FOI is very broad and probably one of the broadest regimes we have looked at for FOI in terms of the bodies covered, I do cover an even wider range for data protection, so I am used to dealing with small organisations. That is not to say that I could assure you they were all fully complying with their statutory obligations. However, we do have some mechanisms in place which clearly we could hone and improve for making contact, usually through representative bodies with those who will need to comply.

  32. What is the mechanism for you reporting to Parliament on progress as we move up towards 2005 and beyond that?
  (Mrs France) I have a statutory duty to lay my report before Parliament annually. I can also make reports at any time and I am sure you will call me to talk to you whenever you think that appropriate.


  33. Just on that, we have had the advantage of having the Ombudsman report to us on a periodic basis. You have not had an equivalent regime with your data protection hat on. You are going to report to Parliament as Information Commissioner. We should quite like to nab you really. Would you like to report to us?
  (Mrs France) When you say I have not had an equivalent regime, technically I have always considered that I reported wearing my data protection hat to the Home Affairs Committee.

  34. You have not really, have you?
  (Mrs France) They called my predecessor to them on his 1990-91 report. I have given expert evidence to them on many occasions, but you are right, I have never been before them to discuss my own performance or to discuss my annual report with them. I should be delighted to report to both of you should you wish to call me.

  35. So we have got you, but not exclusively.
  (Mrs France) There would be difficulty, would there not, in that some of my responsibilities relate to applying data protection to the private sector. However, that is a matter for you and not for me. I am keen to be seen to be accountable to Parliament and happy to respond to interests that Parliament shows.

  36. Your desire to be accountable to Parliament and our imperialist ambitions may come together. All this expansion is taking place in Wilmslow, is it?
  (Mrs France) Yes, it is at the moment.

  37. This is very good news for Wilmslow, is it not?
  (Mrs France) Yes.

  38. Excellent.
  (Mrs France) We have been based there since the office opened in 1985. We have occupied two different buildings in Wilmslow. We are, however, looking at the moment—one of my Assistant Commissioners is doing a report for me—at whether we should in fact have any devolved presence. Data protection, as you know, is a reserved matter. I have responsibilities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and we are looking to see whether we ought to have a physical presence in other places. We envisage the headquarters, whatever happens, remaining in Wilmslow.

Mr Lepper

  39. May I return to the Ilisu dam case once again? You mentioned that the complaint actually came from a private individual, as it were.
  (Mr Buckley) I had to regard the complainant as such because the words of the statute are "from a member of the public".

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