The Minister for Media and Data
(Mr John Whittingdale)
I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the motion: That, from 1 November 2021—
(1) the Information Commissioner shall be paid a salary of £200,000 per annum and pension benefits in accordance with the standard award for the civil service pension scheme;
(2) all previous resolutions relating to the salary and pension of the Information Commissioner shall cease to have effect.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. The Information Commissioner’s Office is now one of the most important regulators in the United Kingdom. It is responsible for supervising almost every organisation in the country. We want to invest in its future success and to sustain its world-leading reputation.
The Information Commissioner must play an active role to keep the ICO at the forefront of regulatory best practice, continuing to develop governance, key decision making and other processes to reflect the ICO’s evolving role. There is an opportunity for the UK’s ICO to take a lead internationally, at a time when the establishment and development of, typically, governance structures for data, artificial intelligence and other new technologies are critical. The Information Commissioner therefore has a key role to play to drive the responsible use of data across the economy, to build trust and confidence, and to communicate the wider benefits of data sharing for our society in competition, innovation and growth.
This Government’s ambition is to make the UK the data destination across the world, and to use data to drive growth and innovation and to deliver our levelling-up agenda. Our national data strategy, published recently, sets out that ambition for the UK’s pro-growth and trusted data regime. We want to help innovators and entrepreneurs to use data responsibly and securely, without undue regulatory uncertainty or risk, in order to drive growth across the economy. Data is a strategic asset, and its responsible use should be seen as a huge opportunity to embrace. Getting that right is critical to jobs and growth as the UK economy becomes increasingly digitised and data-enabled.
We want the public to be active agents in the thriving digital economy and to have confidence and trust in how data, including personal data, is used. That will mean maintaining high standards of data protection without creating unnecessary barriers to data use. The opportunity to create a new and independent data regime is one of the key benefits of the UK’s departure from the European Union. We have no intention of dismantling our high standards of data protection, but we are no longer required necessarily to follow every dot and comma of the General Data Protection Regulation. We will be looking to see how we may better utilise data and enable it to flow more freely, while at the same time maintaining those high standards.
We need to attract world-class individuals who have the skills necessary to balance protecting individual data rights while simultaneously ensuring that data enables digital growth and innovation. We also need to attract people who can represent the UK on the international data stage. The Information Commissioner’s responsibilities have increased since we left the European Union; they now include overseeing existing EU adequacy decisions by 2024, as well as strategic engagement with European and international competent authorities. The UK now has a huge opportunity to use data responsibly as a strategic asset that can drive growth.
One of the other opportunities arising from our no longer being a member state is the ability to apply the framework of transfer tools inherited from GDPR in a more flexible way. As the ICO has now left the European Data Protection Board, we are able to be more agile than was possible when we were within the EU. The ICO has a strong international reputation and an influential position in key global regulatory forums. It engages effectively with foreign partners and EU adequacy. Therefore, the next Information Commissioner will not only focus on privacy, but ensure in part that people can use data to achieve economic and social goals. The next commissioner will need to have a deep understanding of how businesses use data in a cutting-edge way.
Data has many societal benefits and, as we emerge from the covid pandemic, the UK has an opportunity to be at the forefront of global data-driven growth. The next Information Commissioner will play a critical role in delivering that agenda. We need to attract an outstanding individual to take the ICO forward. They will have a key role to play. They need to build trust and confidence in responsible data use, while also being able to communicate the wider benefits of data sharing.
Since 2018, the salary of the Information Commissioner has fallen below the market averages for comparative roles. Salaries of heads of data protection regulators internationally range up to £270,000. In Italy, the Data Protection Authority chairman and chief executive officer both receive €240,000. We have received some outstanding applicants for this role, but they would potentially need to take a cut of up to 50% of their current salaries if they were to accept even the £200,000 salary that we are debating. Without the motion, the salary of the Information Commissioner would remain at £164,000, and we would risk losing the outstanding candidates we so badly need.
The introduction of GDPR and the rapidly developing data protection landscape have vastly increased the responsibilities of the Information Commissioner. They have increased still further since our exit from the EU. The global position of the ICO, the increased workload after leaving the European Union and the rapidly increasing demands on the sector and the statutory requirements of the organisation mean that it has grown by two thirds to more than 850 employees since 2018.
The ICO has had an increased enforcement role since the introduction of heavier fines and penalties. That is in addition to the commissioner’s increasing role in the regulation of the privacy and electronic communications regulations. In particular, the ICO continues to tackle nuisance telephone calls and texts, which I suspect every Member of this House knows can cause huge distress to the public. In the fourth quarter of 2020-21 alone, the ICO issued fines amounting to more than £1.1 million under PECR to companies that have been sending out nuisance calls and texts.
In summary, we believe that the proposed increase in the commissioner’s salary appropriately reflects the increased importance, challenge and responsibilities of the role. Finding the right candidate to fill that position will be a critical component of delivering our ambition to make the UK the most technologically innovative and growth-driven economy in the world.