Smaller Government: Shrinking the Quango State - Public Administration Committee Contents

Written evidence from Information Commissioner's Office

  I am writing to correct certain erroneous statements that were made about the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) in evidence before your Committee on 23 November. The uncorrected minutes of that session have just been posted on the Parliament website.

  Questions 270-276 deal with the appropriateness or otherwise of tax-payer funded lobbying activity undertaken by "quangos". The exchanges covered the engagement of public affairs consultants, exhibiting at party conferences, and other conflicts of interest.

  At Question 277, Robert Halfon MP asked a question of the witness from the Taxpayers' Alliance that was based on a false premise and included misleading information. I quote the question and subsequent exchanges:

    Q277 Robert Halfon: Just to give another example, the Information Commission, which has come under fire in recent weeks for lack of doing what it is supposed to do, has, it emerged through a written question that I tabled, spent between £10 million and £13 million on PR and internal communications over the last few years. Do you think that is an abuse of taxpayers' money?

    Matthew Sinclair: I think a substantial portion of that will have been an abuse of taxpayers' money. There is a need to maintain communications within staff; if that is running a corporate intranet and things like that, it is part of running an organisation, but I would expect that a substantial portion of that is being spent on PR and publicity, and is illegitimate and is an abuse of taxpayers' money.

    Q278 Robert Halfon: Do you think that it should be banned completely?

    Matthew Sinclair: I think that is harder to ban. With external PR, you have a clear, identifiable amount and you have expense on political consultancies. Internally it is harder to police, but that obviously doesn't mean that it can be neglected, because otherwise you just encourage people to bring this in-house. I think that will be a matter for proper monitoring through spending and HR transparency, and trying to stop it. I am not sure how one would do that.

    Q279 Chair: Perhaps use of the Civil Service code.

  The ICO is by no means an "example" of a public body engaging in lobbying, hiring public affairs consultants, exhibiting at party conferences, nor do we have any conflicts of interest. We do none of these things.

  It is also wrong to say that the ICO has spent £10-13 million on PR and internal communications in "recent years". In fact, the figure reflects the ICO's total spend on communications activities over 10 years—including the launch of the ICO itself and the implementation of the two Acts of Parliament it enforces.

  As Information Commissioner, I have statutory duties under the Data Protection and Freedom of Information Acts to communicate to organisations and members of the public. Both Acts require me to promote good practice to organisations, disseminate information to the public and to report annually to Parliament. I am also obliged to raise awareness among organisations such as trade bodies, businesses and public authorities. Under the Data Protection Act I also have an obligation to produce codes of practice.

  The ICO's Corporate Plan clearly states that our role is a dual one of education and enforcement, and that education is the most prominent of the two roles.

  Given these facts, it can hardly be a matter of surprise that we spend a proportion of our budget on communications activities such as providing guidance on our website, producing reports and publishing statutory codes of practice, as well as internal communications.

  Commenting on a supposed communications spend of £10-13 million "over the last few years", the witness said "I would expect that a substantial portion of that is being spent on PR and publicity." This assumption is incorrect.

  I strongly refute the suggestion that the ICO's communications activity is a waste of taxpayers' money. Our services are in demand and the demand is growing as privacy and transparency rise high on the public agenda.

  Please take this as a formal submission to your Committee, to be published in due course, I would hope, alongside the transcript of evidence. I would be happy to provide further information to the Committee should that be required.

November 2010


Letter from the Chair of PASC to the Information Commissioner's Office

  Thank you for your letter of 29 November expressing your concern about our evidence session of 23 November relating to the question asked by Mr Halfon about the Information Commissioner's Office expenditure on "PR and internal communications over the last few years." I should stress that the members of a select committee are responsible for their own questions. You may therefore wish to approach Mr Halfon directly about your concerns.

The Committee seeks to be fair and accurate in pursuing its inquiries. You have asked that your letter is taken as a formal submission in our Inquiry and I am happy to propose this to the Committee. If approved, the Clerk will arrange for it to be published alongside the rest of our evidence on this inquiry.

  In the meantime, it would help the Committee if you could provide us with more detail about the spending at issue. I suggest that you provide us with a breakdown of the actual expenditure over the period (or if this is going back too far, then I suggest that you provide information over, say, the past five years) which could demonstrate a full and fair representation of the facts. I would be happy to put this to the Committee as well.

  You may wish to be aware that, in due course, the Committee will also be considering the government's "transparency" agenda as part of our scrutiny on good governance. Your views on that and related matters will be very helpful. Such an evidence session could also provide the Committee with the opportunity to clarify issues such as this one.

  I am grateful for your drawing your concerns to my attention.

Response from the Information Commissioner's Office to the Chair of PASC

  Many thanks for your letter of 1 December. In response to your suggestion of further and better particulars about the ICO's spend on communications activities and in addition to the answer given in Parliament by Mr Djanogly on Monday 8 November, I will be able to provide a full analysis of the annual totals for the last six years and will forward this to you on Monday on my return from Brussels. Detailed information for the years prior to that period is no longer available. It is our practice to retain detailed information for the last year and the five years previous to that.

  I hope the Committee will find this helpful.

Parliamentary written question tabled on 6 December 2010 by Robert Halfon MP

  Robert Halfon: To ask the Secretary of State for Justice pursuant to the answer of 8 November 2010, Official Report, columns 59-60W, on departmental communications, if he will publish an itemised account of the amount spent by the Information Commissioner's Office on (a) internal and (b) external communications in each year from 2000-01 to 2009-10. [29612]

  Mr Djanogly: The following table provides an itemised account of spending by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) on internal and external communications where information is available. Detailed information on expenditure is retained for six years. Therefore no figures are available before 2004-05.

  The figures provided are based on actual invoices. Therefore they vary slightly from those given in the answer of 8 November 2010 which were based on the ICO's annual accounts, which are accruals rather than cash based. They do however reconcile. This information has been provided by the ICO.

Cost headings2009-10 2008-09 2007-08 2006-07 2005-06 2004-05

Annual report
44,341.81 46,667.04 39,240.22 35,198.62 27,510.74 34,917.04
Campaigns53,229.88 364,208.48 73,322.35 163,727.44 (1) —
Media monitoring and press cuttings 24,697.73 28,243.96 53,048.77 39,607.04 32,575.37 26,822.89
Media relations34,329.79 8,448.10 48,884.72 211.50 44,206.57 195,703.38
Conferences and seminars 74,397.59 70,093.91 36,102.48 24,774.25 86,647.06 31,915.58
Design and print 258,210.13 74,884.66 160,278.55 428,274.38 311,252.10 197,137.43
Distributions103,439.92 135,313.21 140,680.08 106,485.05 78,617.80 50,306.88
Management fees (2) 385,465.71 347,184.28 339,218.93 341,473.39 282,533.58 146,507.47
Online 220,059.42 245,837.90 271,303.94 434,735.87 236,190.32 196,223.54
Research 76,522.16 140,145.05 283,585.60 256,183.13 278,625.42 187,664.10
Internal communications 11,582.91 12,323.06 36,999.21 20,334.86 (3) — (3) —

1,286,277.0 1,473,349.6 1,482,664.8 1,851,005.5 1,355,222.0 1,067,198.3
555 301

(1)   Represents a refund for a cancelled campaign.

(2)   Fees paid to professional partners and consultants, eg for running the ICO Press Office (in-house from 1 October 2010); and also to the Central Office of Information.

(3)   Not available. There was minimal expenditure on internal communications during 2005-06 and 2004-05 and what expenditure there was cannot be individually identified.

Official Report col 494W 13 December 2010

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