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The strange case of the UK’s missing information commissioner

The post of information commissioner for the UK remains vacant, with new appointee, Elizabeth Denham, still in Canada awaiting a Crown warrant of appointment

Christopher Graham, the UK information commissioner for the past seven years, retired from his post on 28 June, with his successor Elizabeth Denham still in Canada. His deputy, Simon Entwistle, is currently holding the fort. 

The unusual handover followed a failure to date by the government to obtain the Queen’s consent for Denham’s appointment.

“The appointment of the Information Commissioner is being progressed routinely and we expect the administrative process to be finalised shortly,” a spokesman from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport [DCMS] told Computer Weekly.[1]

Computer Weekly asked a series of questions, including the reasons for the apparant delay, whether it was normal practice for the government to leave obtaining  royal consent to a matter of days before an official takes up a new post, and whether this constitutes efficient administration of government. The DCMS declined to provided specific answers.

Denham’s spokesperson, Michelle Mitchell, at the Office of the British Columbia Information Commissioner, confirmed that Denham’s term in British Columbia would finish at midnight on 5 July,  after which she would be travelling to the UK.

Mitchell said she had no information about the lack of approval from the Queen for Denham’s appointment.

Notable track record

Denham was shortlisted in April, and approved for the post of information commissioner by the Parliamentary Committee for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport on 27 April.

The Parliamentary Committee noted the new information commissioner’s views “with interest”.

The Committee chair, Tory MP Jesse Norman, said at the time: “The Committee noted with interest Ms Denham’s views on a range of topics, including the possible retention of emails as official records, the extension of FOI [Freedom of Information] and directors’ liability for data breaches, in particular.

“We also noted Ms Denham’s track record on data protection with government in British Columbia, and her proactive approach to protection of privacy with major international technology companies.”

Denham was appointed information and privacy commissioner for the Canadian Province of British Columbia in May 2010, having previously held the post of assistant privacy commissioner of Canada.

During her stint in office, Denham persuaded Facebook to amend some of its data collection practices. She also got Google to amend its street imaging practices in Canada.

She was also noted for diplomatic handling of the post-Snowden Prism revelations of US mass surveillance. This affected Canada profoundly, but the US made clear it was not open to negotiations on the matter.

Denham made sure the issue did not become public, as it has in Europe.

In the UK, Denham will be expected to pick up the pieces following the collapse of Safe Harbour

In his farewell report, the outgoing UK commissioner Christopher Graham hardly mentioned the most significant event in US European commercial relations for decades; the European Court of Justice striking down Safe Harbour, the arrangement under which European and UK data was sent to the US.

Denham will be expected to deal with the continuing fallout, which is now mired in the Irish High Court where her old protagonist Facebook is attempting to overturn the Irish data commissioner’s ruling that the interim arrangements for data transfers to the US are invalid.

Denham is a director of the Centre for Law, Ethics and Applied Research in Health Information, and a member of the IAPP Canadian Advisory Board.

She holds a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in archival and information science from the University of British Columbia. In 2013, she received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for her service as an Officer of the Legislature of B.C.

The UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) previously fell under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice, but, since September 2015, is now part of the remit of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Updated 7th July 2016

The DCMS was initially quoted as saying;"There were some problems with the appointment arrangements, but they are now being sorted out." The spokesman denied that he used the word "problem" in his reponse to Computer Weekly, following publication of the story. Computer Weekly stands by its original written record of the conversation.



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