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I also looked at some of the comparisons, as did the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs. The Library gave me the figures. The chair of the Judicial Appointments Commission gets paid £92,000 for a three-day week.
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The chair of the Office for Legal Complaints gets £70,000 for 80 days a year. The Children’s Commissioner gets £175,000 a year—considerably more than the Information Commissioner’s salary will be after today.

The other argument in favour is that I understand that Richard Thomas is due to retire next year and therefore this will be the salary advertised for his successor, and a good range of applicants is needed for the job.

However, I have not heard the Secretary of State for Justice deal with the one thing that is an oddity about the motion. The salary increase will be backdated to the end of November last year, and that seems a very odd thing for us to do. We should determine the salary either in advance or when it comes up for change. I should be grateful for an explanation of why, all but 12 months later, we will backdate it all that way. That seems to be less justifiable.

I join the absolute, clear support for Mr. Richard Thomas as Information Commissioner given by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs and on behalf of the Government. Mr. Thomas has done an unarguably good, competent and robust job. The reason why I am happy to speak in support of the commissioner being allowed to do his job better, if that is the outcome—and I have a request for one bit of his work to be improved if he is going to get all this extra money—is that he has done some good things in his term of office. He was clear that there should be criminal sanctions, including jail, for people who breach data privacy laws. As one of the people in the House who was affected by that, I was glad that he took that robust attitude, because one case ended up with some people being sent to prison. We need clear sanctions for people who break the law for gain and sell data that they are not authorised to have in the first place.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Nicholas Brown): Hear, hear.

Simon Hughes: I am grateful to the Chief Whip for that. The sanctions are not just for politicians. They are much more important for non-politicians—members of the public—who cannot defend themselves in places such as this.

I am pleased that the commissioner robustly supported my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) in ensuring that details of the people who came to Downing street to discuss official business were revealed. It is important that that should be in the public domain and not a secret. I am very pleased that the commissioner was robust about the fact that local electoral officers should be banned from selling copies of the electoral register to marketing companies. That is not why people give their electoral information and it should not be used as a surrogate for a commercial operation.

I am also pleased that the commissioner was very robust this summer about the folly of the Government super-database. In his annual report, he said that that would be

The figures are incredible. Given that more than 57 billion text messages are sent in this country every year, the concept of the database is almost impossible to imagine.
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The commissioner was clear that we should not walk into it blindfold and warned us robustly in July about that. He asked that Parliament scrutinise the Home Secretary’s proposals clearly. I am glad that she is withdrawing, as I understand it, from her proposal to bring a Bill before us in the next Session and that she will consult further.

The one critical thing that I want to say—I hope the commissioner’s new salary will allow him to do this— is about the need for him to deal with the backlog of cases much more effectively. Colleagues should be seriously worried about the backlog. In his annual—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman should not stray too far into that. I remind him that the motion before the House is the salary of commissioner.

Simon Hughes: I am mindful of that and I am ensuring that I tie the salary that the commissioner will get if we vote it through to the fact that we expect a delivery in this respect.

Bob Spink: I am interested to learn why increasing the salary by 40 per cent. will enable the commissioner to do his job differently or better. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that he is currently delinquent in the way in which he delivers on his responsibilities and duties?

Simon Hughes: No I am not, but I am hoping that because his office and his salary are being debated in the House of Commons, the commissioner will understand that one of the consequences of a pay rise backdated by 12 months is that he must deal with the one fundamental weakness of his office, which is the backlog of work.

I am told that in the last year the commissioner had nearly 25,000 inquiries and complaints, and that he prosecuted 11 individuals and organisations and received just over 2,500 freedom of information complaints and closed about the same number. However, although 30 per cent. of the decisions were in favour of the complainant and 25 per cent. upheld public authorities’ original decisions, only 13 per cent. of valid cases were closed within 365 days. As he is to be given a vote of confidence by the House, I hope that those figures will give him cause to reflect on whether he should insist on the resources to support him. Those resources would come from the Government, and I hope that the Secretary of State will respond to that.

Colleagues, including my persistent hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), tell me that there are regularly delays of one year, two years, or two and a half years. I know that in the past year, one case took 32 months from complaint to decision; that is reported in the annual report. Other cases took 30, 27 and 26 months. Only six of the 20 cases in which a start date was identified were dealt with in less than 12 months, and the average time was almost 19 months. May I ask for an assurance, through the Secretary of State, that we will have a much speedier answer to complaints?

We are talking about a really important job. It is important that there is a robust, independent person making sure that the Government are accountable, and that the private sector is made accountable, as the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) said. The Information Commissioner has not yet been
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able to include the private sector in his remit. For example, Network Rail is not yet included; for most people it is a public authority, but it is technically private, and therefore outwith his remit. We really do need answers quickly, because answers much delayed are often not much use. The debate and the justification move on, and so the relevance moves on. I hope that the Secretary of State can assure us that if the commissioner gets this large salary increase for an important job, we will have a much quicker turnaround of complaints from now on.

9.16 pm

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): I may have missed something when the Secretary of State and Lord Chancellor opened the debate; perhaps he could remind the House on a point. It seems pretty odd for this House to be debating the salary of an individual, whatever their status—civil servant, head of a non-departmental body or whatever. The remuneration is very large, particularly for an office based in Cheshire. It is not based in London, although the Information Commissioner may work there; I do not know. However, the office is in Wilmslow. There is also one in Northern Ireland and one elsewhere.

I do not resile at all from what the Front Benchers of both main parties said about the motivation for the pay increase—the increase in work load and responsibilities. However, as a trade unionist, it strikes me as questionable, but not necessarily wrong, not to re-advertise a job when it changes so fundamentally. It may well be that if the post were re-advertised as a bigger job with a bigger salary, the current incumbent would walk the process and get the job. From the accolades given to him tonight, it seems that that might well be the case. However, the job is changing so fundamentally as to attract a 40 per cent. pay increase, and there is to be a big increase in work load. In the 2004 annual report, the body was described as a small office; we are now told that it has 260 staff. There has been an increase in responsibilities, and the Lord Chancellor’s written statement today announces an intention to increase still further those responsibilities. Given that, I wonder why, instead of us simply increasing the salary through this motion, the post is not re-advertised as a bigger job for which the current incumbent, Mr. Thomas, could apply.

Bob Spink: Is the hon. Gentleman concerned, as I am, that no evidence has been put forward to justify the 40 per cent. increase to £140,000? The Hay Group and other firms provide salary comparison and evaluation services, but we see no evidence that there has been any job evaluation or weighting of the salary through comparison with salaries for similar jobs. Surely the Government should have provided such evidence for the House.

Rob Marris: I am sure that the Lord Chancellor would be able to supply that kind of information; it seems pretty inconceivable that there would be a motion for a 40 per cent. increase in pay without that kind of backroom work having been done. On the way in which the job has expanded, to follow on from my earlier intervention on the Lord Chancellor, there is arguably a bit of a conflict of interest between the job done by someone who is supposed to back freedom of information and the job done by a data protection registrar, who is,
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in a sense, against freedom of information. The first—the data protection side—is to do with guarding information and making sure that it is released only as and when needed. However, the Information Commissioner’s role involves a certain bias towards releasing information, so that we can have transparency in public life and proper scrutiny of the workings of Government—and in due course, one would hope, the private sector, too. There is perhaps a bit of a conflict of interest there.

If the Lord Chancellor is allowed to address us again before the motion is put to the House, I hope that we will have a little more information on the size of the operation—the number of staff and the budget—run by the Information Commissioner. The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) reported that the Information Commissioner had 260 staff and a budget of £16 million a year, which is not peanuts. But, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) said in an earlier intervention, when one compares the job with that of Secretary of State for Health, £140,000 is quite a lot of money for the Information Commissioner’s role. To me, 260 staff does not sound like a huge operation, so it would be helpful to have some background information about the work load, the number of staff and the size of the operation, because we need to put the terms of the motion before us—£140,000 for the Information Commissioner—in a broader context. What lies behind the debate is a notion that, to my great regret, has declined in the past 30 or 40 years in this country: the notion of public service.

We, as politicians, all cop for it. We wish to serve the society in which we live, we value public service, and quite a number of us, including myself, have taken a pay cut to come here because we believe in public service. Of course we have the constant comparators with the private sector. Chief executives of local authorities are on between £150,000 and £200,000-plus a year. They have big budgets, they do responsible and hard jobs, and I take my hat off to them, but I still cherish the notion of public service. If we constantly make comparisons with the private sector, as I suspect we have done with this motion that calls for £140,000 for the Information Commissioner, we do a disservice not only to ourselves as politicians, but, more importantly, to the public whom we seek to serve, because I, for one, very much wish to revive the notion of public service in our society.

Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman started off by making a perfectly reasonable point about trade unions, but does he agree that if we seek to evaluate public service jobs such as that of local authority chief executive, a performance-related element should be considered, just as it is in the private sector? One thing that worries me is that last year, a target was set for 80 per cent. of complaints to be dealt with within a year, but, in the current report, the target is down to a smaller percentage. The objectives—the outcomes—seem to be less customer-oriented, yet the salary under discussion will go up significantly.

Rob Marris: The Lord Chancellor may be able to comment, but I cannot, because, to be fair to the Information Commissioner, the target partly depends on the resources that are available to him in his operations. If he has 260 staff, but to reach the targets, he needs, let us say, 360 staff, either he does not meet the targets—


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Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Could I once again remind Members that the motion before the House is about the salary of the Information Commissioner?

Rob Marris: Indeed, Madam Deputy Speaker, but if I may say so, the salary set down in the motion should partly reflect the current postholder’s performance, which is presumably the motivation for increasing it by 40 per cent. As I was saying, however, it is a shame that the notion of public service has declined so much that we have such comparators with the private sector all the time.

Finally, on performance, the issue on which the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) just intervened, before I came to this House seven and a half years ago, I was a solicitor, and seven and a half years ago and more, the big law firms were getting out of performance-related pay, because they found that it did not work. I want people to be accountable, particularly in the public sector, when they earn that kind of money—or will do if the motion is agreed to. I want them to be accountable, but I want that notion of public service, and one cannot simply measure it in commercial terms, because the ethos of public service is different and so important.

David Taylor: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Rob Marris: No, I am finishing now.

9.23 pm

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): I believe that the Freedom of Information Act 2000 was one of the great glories of this Labour Government. When people come to look over the history of new Labour, they will hold that the pledge given on freedom of information, and the Act that was written and came into force, was one of the great accomplishments of the bright, early days of new Labour.

The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) cited the very great importance of the Information Commissioner, and the Act itself is a double-edged sword. It is an uncomfortable thing for Governments from time to time, as the hon. Gentleman said, and it has been of great use to newspapers, as people feared when the Act was passed, and to the general public, in understanding and exposing some of the curiosities of public life.

However, has the commissioner done his job as successfully as he might? I ask that because I am meeting the stricture that you insisted on, Madam Deputy Speaker—we must be clear that this debate is about the salary of an individual. Although the salary of £120,000 does not look great—

Simon Hughes: The salary is £140,000.

Mr. Shepherd: Thank you. Although the salary of £140,000 does not look great in comparison with those of local authority chief executives, BBC executives and so on, we have to pursue the question raised by the hon. Members for North Southwark and Bermondsey and for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris).

What has happened? There is a serious problem—the problem of delays. Is that the responsibility of someone whom I have always regarded as a fine public servant with a fine sense of public ethos? The statistics tickled out by the hon. Member for North Southwark and
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Bermondsey are important. They are sourced from the Campaign for Freedom of Information, its remarkable director Maurice Frankel and all those who have supported it; I see supporters of the campaign in the Chamber this evening.

Although the Information Commissioner’s Office’s published statistics state that more than 50 per cent. of all freedom of information complaints are dealt with within 30 days, that figure technically includes invalid complaints that are closed without investigation. Such complaints might involve a requester who has, for example, complained to the Information Commissioner without first asking the public authority to reconsider its original decision—a requirement under the 2000 Act. Alternatively, the person may have complained about bodies, such as private companies, that are not subject to the 2000 Act at all. Apart from invalid cases, only 13 per cent. of cases received during 2007-08 were closed within a year. The figure is extracted from the 2007-08 annual report of the Information Commissioner; page 21 lays it out clearly.

A snapshot of the problem can be seen from the brief analysis that the Campaign for Freedom of Information carried out of decision notices published by the Information Commissioner during September 2008. Of those, 20 specifically identified the date on which the requester complained to the Information Commissioner’s Office. As we have been told, in the longest decision there were 32 months between the date on which the requester complained to the Information Commissioner and the date on which the decision was issued. The next longest took 30 months, the third longest took nearly 27 months and the fourth and fifth longest decisions took 26 months. Only six of the 20 cases were dealt with in less than 12 months.

The fastest of the investigations published in September took six months, and the next fastest took six months, seven months, eight months and 10 months respectively. The average time taken to investigate the 20 complaints was almost 19 months. The Information Commissioner’s Office received some additional funding from the Ministry of Justice earlier this year, and at the same time arrangements were made to second central Government staff to the Information Commissioner’s Office. However, it is not clear whether that will result in a significant reduction in delays.

In 2007, the Information Commissioner’s Office’s objective was to deal with 80 per cent. of freedom of information complaints within 365 days, indicating that it expected to take more than a year in 20 per cent. of cases. However, according to the Information Commissioner’s Office’s corporate plan for 2008 to 2011, that target has been reduced; the current target is to deal with 70 per cent. of FOI complaints within a year. The new target therefore assumes that 30 per cent. of complaints will now take more than a year.

Rob Marris: Does the hon. Gentleman deduce from those statistics that the Information Commissioner should be paid more, that there should be more staff in his office, or both?

Mr. Shepherd: The hon. Gentleman has an irritating habit of asking out of the air questions that are clearly part of the drift of the argument that one is making. Although that gives him a high score in the Hansard reports of how many interventions he has made, we will get to where I was going anyway.


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