Data Protection and Freedom of Information
Orders of the Day
8:30 pm

Queen's recommendation signified.

8:45 pm
Photo of Jack Straw

Jack Straw (Lord Chancellor, Ministry of Justice; Blackburn, Labour)

I beg to move,

That, in respect of service from 30th November 2007, the salary of the Information Commissioner shall be at a yearly rate of 140,000.

The position and role of Information Commissioner arise out of two sets of decisions by this House and the other place: the Data Protection Acts of 1984 and 1998 and the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Even when the post was simply concerned with data protection, its duties could involve a conflict with the Government of the day, since the commissioner acts on behalf of the individual to protect personal information held on those individuals, not least by Government. Still more, there is a fundamental conflict of interest in the commissioner's role under the Freedom of Information Act, which this House and the other place passed after much debate in 1999 and 2000—and, indeed, strengthened as a result of pressure from both sides of the House and in both Houses, including in respect of making Parliament subject to the Act. That Act involves enforcing the public's right to have access to information against public authorities and the Government where, by definition, the issue will only land on the desk of the Information Commissioner if the public authority has refused to provide the information requested.

The role of the commissioner, therefore, is one that requires great independence and integrity, legal facility and an ability to make difficult and balanced judgments. I think I speak for the whole House in expressing my gratitude to Richard Thomas for the way he has conducted himself in this post through the birth pangs of the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act. He showed that he has those qualities of independence, integrity, legal facility and an ability to make difficult and balanced judgments.

The Government have carefully considered the commissioner's salary in the light of the changes to his role and responsibilities since it was last reviewed in March 2001, shortly after the Freedom of Information Act was formally passed by this House and received Royal Assent, but a full four years before it came into force. The extraordinary prevailing economic conditions quite properly place constraints on public sector pay settlements. However, the Government position is that the particular circumstances of the Information Commissioner's case warrant the increase set out.

There are three reasons for that. First, the world has changed considerably since the data protection registrar was originally appointed in 1984 to safeguard personal information. There is no need to explain to the House the astonishing revolution in the collection and dissemination of personal information of all kinds as a result of the IT and internet revolution. Secondly, the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 effectively doubled the range of the commissioner's responsibilities, combining those for data protection and freedom of information in one job description.

Recently, there have been two further sets of changes, both of which add to the commissioner's responsibilities. First, as all Members are aware, there has been great public and parliamentary concern about data security within both the public and private sectors. This has led to a great deal more work for the Information Commissioner and, so far as Government are concerned, it has led to us proposing to the commissioner—which he has acceded to—spot checks of Government Departments and the production by him of an annual surveillance report.

Secondly, and more fundamentally, on 25 October 2007 my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced that he had asked Professor Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, and Mr. Thomas, the Information Commissioner, to undertake a major review of data sharing in the public and private sectors. The report of the review was published on 11 July 2008 and, in a written ministerial statement today, I have announced the Government's response to it. The consequence is that the commissioner will be taking on further responsibilities, including greater inspection powers to ensure data protection compliance, powers to demand information necessary to assess compliance, a statutory duty to publish a data sharing code of practice, and a new tiered notification fee with an extra penalty for false registration. Those changes will improve the transparency and accountability of organisations dealing with personal information, and that is important if we are to regain public confidence in the handling and sharing of that personal information. The significant expansion of the commissioner's responsibilities has been matched by an increase in the importance and status of his post.

Photo of James Brokenshire

James Brokenshire (Shadow Minister, Home Affairs; Hornchurch, Conservative)

The Lord Chancellor is talking about the Information Commissioner's enhanced role, and he referred to the statement he made today. Mention has been made of the new statutory code of practice on data sharing, and I note that the statement envisages some overarching governmental authority for the Secretary of State on that. What rights will the Information Commissioner have under these new plans to enforce that new statutory code? As I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, this concept of data sharing is a sensitive one.

Photo of Jack Straw

Jack Straw (Lord Chancellor, Ministry of Justice; Blackburn, Labour)

The Information Commissioner will have considerable rights, and I shall give the hon. Gentleman the precise answer when I sum up, if I have your permission and that of the House to do so, Madam Deputy Speaker. He rightly says that data sharing is a sensitive issue, but data sharing is necessary and it is not prohibited by the Data Protection Act 1998, nor by subsequent legislation. What is crucial is that if data sharing takes place, it does so in strictly regulated circumstances, so that the data that are shared lawfully are regulated, and severe penalties and procedures are in place to ensure that data are not wrongly shared.

Photo of Rob Marris

Rob Marris (PPS (Rt Hon Shaun Woodward, Secretary of State), Northern Ireland Office; Wolverhampton South West, Labour)

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend that those protections are extremely necessary, but many of my constituents welcome data sharing because they are sick of being asked for the same information two, three, four or five times. The balance between the protections, on the one hand, and the "ask once, use many times" approach, on the other, is a difficult one to strike.

Photo of Jack Straw

Jack Straw (Lord Chancellor, Ministry of Justice; Blackburn, Labour)

My hon. Friend makes an important point, with which I think the whole House agrees. It illustrates the difficulty inherent in the role of the Information Commissioner—he must balance both sets of interests. Each of us have personal data that we wish to remain personal and to be used only for the purposes for which they were given. At the same time, we do not want to be bothered by having to provide the same data three or four times. In respect of the electoral register, there is provision for the data to be shared, because sharing council tax data and so on will greatly improve the comprehensive nature of the register and its integrity.

Photo of Simon Hughes

Simon Hughes (Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party President, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities; North Southwark and Bermondsey, Liberal Democrat)

Following on from the intervention made by Rob Marris, I wonder whether the Secretary of State has addressed the fact that official organisations often ask for information—for example, if one is involved in a telephone exchange with them about some matter—but do not make it clear that supplying it is voluntary, rather than compulsory. Could clear guidelines be given to show that where a Government official or agency of Government asks someone questions, they should indicate that the provision of that information is voluntary—one can give it, but one is at liberty not to do so? An example of such information might be an office phone number or a date of birth, which may not be required for the exchange.

Photo of Jack Straw

Jack Straw (Lord Chancellor, Ministry of Justice; Blackburn, Labour)

I shall certainly follow that up, because it is an area in which the Government must ensure that what happens on the ground reflects the law and practices.

I wish to make two final sets of points. The first is about the way in which this role has moved from being that of Data Protection Registrar, which was a fairly modest role out of the public eye, to that of Information Commissioner, which is a large role in the public eye. The change has been a considerable one. The Information Commissioner is in the media almost every day. Last year, he had to appear before nine Select Committees, which, I believe is more than any Minister has had to do in a year.

Secondly, I am happy to respond to questions about the Information Commissioner's remuneration, but I should just say that the level of remuneration was carefully scrutinised within government and it is not only comparable with, but, in many respects, lower than that for many other posts that bear less responsibility. With those considerations in mind, I commend the motion to the House.

8:54 pm
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Nick Herbert (Shadow Secretary for Justice, Justice; Arundel and South Downs, Conservative)

I suspect that the Secretary of State for Justice might agree that the timing of this proposal is unfortunate. On a day when the Government have been forced to announce significant future tax rises for working families, the House is considering a significant salary increase for a senior public servant, amounting to a 40 per cent. increase in salary, from 100,000 a year to 140,000. Of course, that will be backdated to last November, which means that for this year we are talking about an 80 per cent. increase. We must therefore consider this motion carefully, especially in view of how the public may regard it.

I suppose that Mr. Thomas will at least be glad that he has escaped the new top rate of income tax band that the Government have announced today. It is true that the additional sums of public money that will have to be found to fund his salary will be a drop in the ocean compared with the 1 trillion of national debt that this country now faces.

I sympathise with the Secretary of State in that we are having to decide a salary increase for a serving official, as opposed to deciding whether an increase for a new occupant of the post, as yet unnamed, would be merited. Nevertheless, that is made easier for us by the fact that the official concerned is of clear stature, and has spoken out with authority and independence on matters of data protection. He can command the confidence of the whole House.

It would have been more helpful to the House if we had had some information about the justification for the increases in advance, although I accept that the Secretary of State has raised the issue with some of us beforehand. His comments about the proposed increase were fair. First, the position is increasingly important, as are the issues involved. We need to ensure that someone who is exceptionally able, and has sound judgment and experience, holds the position of Information Commissioner. As the Secretary of State pointed out, the office holder now also has to be comfortable in the public eye.

Mr. Thomas has certainly demonstrated the independence that the House requires. Only today he publicly confirmed that, despite the Secretary of State for Children and Families stating that he had contacted the Information Commissioner's Office about releasing certain sensitive matters—

Photo of Sylvia Heal

Sylvia Heal (Deputy Speaker)

Order. I remind the hon. Member, and other hon. Members, that the motion that we are discussing relates to the salary of the said person.

Photo of Nick Herbert

Nick Herbert (Shadow Secretary for Justice, Justice; Arundel and South Downs, Conservative)

Of course, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was just pointing out that one of the justifications for a significant salary rise was that the Information Commissioner has to exercise great judgment and independence and that, only today, he had demonstrated that independence by being willing to say something publicly about a claim made by a Cabinet Minister. That reinforces the need for a person of stature and quality in that position.

The second reason that the Secretary of State for Justice gave for the salary increase was the increase in work load that the Information Commissioner has experienced. The pay is being backdated, but the work load has clearly increased in the year to which the backdating will apply. In his annual report in July, Mr. Thomas pointed out:

"After such a tumultuous year the ICO is set to grow significantly."

Of course, he has had to deal not least with the serial data losses over which the Government have presided, beginning with the loss of data from Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs last year. Again, that has involved him in difficult decisions and in exercising his judgment about what to say publicly on the matter. That underlines the importance of his independence.

The third point is that given the seniority of the Information Commissioner's position, the increase in salary will not put him out of line with other public sector salaries. Indeed, given his work load and the importance of his position, it could be argued that his salary is low in relation to those of other public officials.

Photo of Keith Vaz

Keith Vaz (Leicester East, Labour)

Parliament has also added to the burden on the Information Commissioner. The report by the Select Committee on Home Affairs on the surveillance society requested that he produce an annual report to Parliament. That would also justify an increase not just in his salary but in the funding for his office.

Photo of Nick Herbert

Nick Herbert (Shadow Secretary for Justice, Justice; Arundel and South Downs, Conservative)

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. It is clear that the work load of the Information Commissioner has increased considerably since the incumbent took office.

Photo of Bob Spink

Bob Spink (Castle Point, UKIP)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that "the powers that be" have just reduced the chairman of the Electoral Commission proposed pay of 150,000 a year to only 100,000 a year? Does not that give a lead as to what salary should be set in this case? It should not be 140,000 a year but nearer 100,000.

Photo of Nick Herbert

Nick Herbert (Shadow Secretary for Justice, Justice; Arundel and South Downs, Conservative)

I do not think that the two situations are related. Compared with chairman of the Electoral Commission, the Information Commissioner will be working for a different period—for more days in the week, I think, than the current chairman. It is not possible to make the easy read-across that the hon. Gentleman suggests.

I was making the point that given the Information Commissioner's work load and his seniority, he is paid rather less than a number of other senior public officials. We know that 800 local government officials now earn more than 100,000 a year—an increase of 27 per cent. on the previous year. Some 132 council managers are paid more than the annual salary of a Cabinet Minister. It is also true that the Information Commissioner has been in the same salary bracket since 2005-06. I do not think that it is sensible to fix a senior public servant's salary in such a way and to have a particularly large rise to compensate for that fact, rather than making arrangements whereby his salary would increase sensibly in line with other salaries in the public sector year on year.

Finally, it is clear that the Information Commissioner's responsibilities are growing. Today's announcement of additional powers for the Information Commissioner is largely welcome. There are concerns about the proposals for data sharing, which we will no doubt debate on a different day, but they underline the fact that the commissioner, who is responsible for a growing annual budget—it is now 16 million a year—and for 260 staff, will have to deal with those thorny issues. He will face continuing challenges. No doubt he will have more cases of Government data loss with which to contend over the course of the next few months, if the last few are anything to go by. He will have to deal with ensuring data protection in the private sector, too, and with the sensitive matter of data protection issues relating to Members of this House. We hope that he will maintain his firm resistance to the planned communications database.

The Opposition's conclusion is that data issues are no longer peripheral; they are central to public concerns about personal privacy and to good government. Therefore, the Information Commissioner must be rewarded appropriately. We need to ensure that the post has an occupant of stature, quality and integrity. It is vital that that person has those qualities and can maintain the independence that the office demands.

9:04 pm
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Simon Hughes (Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party President, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities; North Southwark and Bermondsey, Liberal Democrat)

I have generally the same analysis of the position as Nick Herbert: it is somewhat ironic that, today of all days, we are debating this apparently very significant increase in salary. My initial instinct was to be concerned about the increase. I looked at the figures since we first had an Information Commissioner—a post first created in 2000-01, when the salary was in the 70,000 to 75,000 range. It was still about the same when Elizabeth France finished and Richard Thomas took over. It has gone up gradually. Until today, it has been just about 100,000.

The proposal is that it should go up by 40,000, as the Secretary of State for Justice says. I am persuaded, having looked at the evidence and compared similar jobs in the public service, that that is the right remuneration. I understand that the increase is justified by two arguments, the first of which is that the Information Commissioner has a huge additional workload. Keith Vaz, who is Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, has just referred to one additional piece of work. The Secretary of State referred to the fact that the Prime Minister asked the commissioner to co-author another investigatory report. The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Mr. Wills, has today given a written answer that deals with further work in the pipeline, so I am persuaded that plenty of extra work has come and plenty of additional work will be done.

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David Taylor (North West Leicestershire, Labour)

Did the hon. Gentleman hear the figures quoted a moment ago by Nick Herbert? I hope that I heard him correctly, and perhaps he will intervene on the hon. Gentleman if I did not. He said that the commissioner was responsible for a budget of 16 million a year. If so, is that not rather out of kilter with, for instance, the Secretary of State for Health, who is responsible for budget of at least 96 billion a year, which is a multiple of 6,000 times that of the data protection and freedom of information commissioner? There is something adrift, is there not?

Photo of Simon Hughes

Simon Hughes (Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party President, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities; North Southwark and Bermondsey, Liberal Democrat)

There is a serious point: we do not look at these salaries in the round. The proposal is for one salary for one person for one post; some salaries either come to the whole House or go to a Committee upstairs, and we should look at them comparatively. I take that point. There is an argument that Ministers, who are politicians, might for all sorts of reasons be paid relatively much less than people who are not, but we certainly ought to have the debate.

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. 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.

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Nick Brown (Chief Whip (technically Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury); Newcastle upon Tyne East and Wallsend, Labour)

Hear, hear.

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Simon Hughes (Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party President, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities; North Southwark and Bermondsey, Liberal Democrat)

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 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

"a step too far for the British way of life".

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. 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—

Photo of Sylvia Heal

Sylvia Heal (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.

Photo of Simon Hughes

Simon Hughes (Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party President, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities; North Southwark and Bermondsey, Liberal Democrat)

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.

Photo of Bob Spink

Bob Spink (Castle Point, UKIP)

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?

Photo of Simon Hughes

Simon Hughes (Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party President, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities; North Southwark and Bermondsey, Liberal Democrat)

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 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 Rob Marris said. The Information Commissioner has not yet been 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
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Rob Marris (PPS (Rt Hon Shaun Woodward, Secretary of State), Northern Ireland Office; Wolverhampton South West, Labour)

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.

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Bob Spink (Castle Point, UKIP)

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.

Photo of Rob Marris

Rob Marris (PPS (Rt Hon Shaun Woodward, Secretary of State), Northern Ireland Office; Wolverhampton South West, Labour)

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, 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. 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 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.

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Simon Hughes (Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party President, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities; North Southwark and Bermondsey, Liberal Democrat)

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.

Photo of Rob Marris

Rob Marris (PPS (Rt Hon Shaun Woodward, Secretary of State), Northern Ireland Office; Wolverhampton South West, Labour)

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—

Photo of Sylvia Heal

Sylvia Heal (Deputy Speaker)

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

Photo of Rob Marris

Rob Marris (PPS (Rt Hon Shaun Woodward, Secretary of State), Northern Ireland Office; Wolverhampton South West, Labour)

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 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.

Photo of Rob Marris

Rob Marris (PPS (Rt Hon Shaun Woodward, Secretary of State), Northern Ireland Office; Wolverhampton South West, Labour)

No, I am finishing now.

9:23 pm
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Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills, Conservative)

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.

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—

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Simon Hughes (Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party President, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities; North Southwark and Bermondsey, Liberal Democrat)

The salary is 140,000.

Photo of Richard Shepherd

Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills, Conservative)

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 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.

Photo of Rob Marris

Rob Marris (PPS (Rt Hon Shaun Woodward, Secretary of State), Northern Ireland Office; Wolverhampton South West, Labour)

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?

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Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills, Conservative)

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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Rob Marris (PPS (Rt Hon Shaun Woodward, Secretary of State), Northern Ireland Office; Wolverhampton South West, Labour)

The hon. Gentleman should not be so peevish.

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Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills, Conservative)

I have listened to the hon. Gentleman for a long time and watched his technique, and it rolls over this House. However, there is a serious and substantive issue to discuss.

We understand that the commissioner's office is now fast-tracking some of the cases that it identifies as being of particular significance so that new complaints do not all automatically go to the back of the queue. That is useful development. Nevertheless, the delays are a major concern and a threat to the effective operation of the FOI Act. By the time that the information is disclosed, if that is what the commissioner requires, it may be too late for it to be of use to the requester, who may also have become disillusioned with the Act during the process and reluctant to make further requests. At the same time, some authorities may decide to exploit the long delays, calculating that even a plainly unjustified refusal may go uncorrected for a prolonged period.

The problem is at least partly attributable to the level of funding provided to the commissioner's office, although efficiency gains may be possible. The whole office has been underfunded, and it has not had the resources honourably intended by the Government. I know that every section of this House cries out for yet more money. We have all heard, even today, about the genuine constraints that exist within expanding, very desirable offices. However, when I look across the west midlands and see what the chief executive of Walsall metropolitan borough council is paid, I think of a very significant public figure, who has been of service to this House and the country, who has met the criteria set by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West, and who is fully justified in receiving 140,000. It is a remarkable comment on where this country has arrived at that BBC executives can earn three or four times what the Prime Minister earns. We now have a system whereby the political people who are held accountable by this House and by an electorate at election time are paid significantly less than people who are doing jobs such as chief executive of a local authority or town clerk and who, when I was a boy, earned something immediately comparable with what a Member of Parliament received, or a little more.

I believe that Richard Thomas is a significant public servant. He is retiring at the end of next year, having come into office around 2000. He has had a monumental job to do, and he has accomplished much. I would like him to have been able to accomplish much more, as, I am sure, would many Members of Parliament. However, within the constraints with which we have operated, he has been a fine public servant, and I do not begrudge him the amount of money that the Government have sought through an Order of this House.

9:33 pm
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Bob Spink (Castle Point, UKIP)

I cast no aspersions whatever on the Information Commissioner's performance or integrity—I am sure that he is an honourable man who does an excellent job. However, given the economic background at the moment, particularly today, I am surprised by the mood of the House. I know that it is very easy to give away public money, but how much money is being given away as result of this decision?

I am particularly concerned about the backdating by one year of this pay award to someone who is retiring in a year's time. My constituents will say to me, "Is this jobs for the boys?", and "Are you rewarding your friends?" People will rightly raise those concerns. Over a four-year period, with the one-year backdating, we are talking about 250,000 of additional public money being given for a job that is not, in essence, changing. This public servant may deserve that amount, but many public servants who work diligently in very important jobs would want that sort of pay increase. I wonder how the Government, and particularly the Secretary of State, will respond to teachers, firemen and police officers who are told that they have to live with a low, constrained pay rise next year when their turn comes round. Those people might raise the issue of a 40 per cent. pay rise, backdated one year, for this individual who is already reasonably highly paid compared with many other important public servants.

We must not set a precedent. I do not want to be churlish or upset the mood of the House, but I am concerned about this matter, and the case of other individuals, such as the chairman of the Electoral Commission, whose proposed salary was reduced from 152,000 to 100,000 following the amendment in the names of David Taylor and myself last week. The House should consider such matters carefully, and I am not sure that we have.

9:35 pm
Photo of Jack Straw

Jack Straw (Lord Chancellor, Ministry of Justice; Blackburn, Labour)

With the leave of the House, I shall respond to the points made. First, on the level of the salary, my hon. Friend Rob Marris asked why we were debating the salary of one individual. We are doing so because of a statutory provision. When the Freedom of Information Bill was going through the House, the House was anxious, as were the Government, that this individual should be an officer of Parliament, not a creature of the Government. Although there has to be a strong relationship between the Information Commissioner and the so-called sponsoring Department, which is mine, the salary and much else is set by the House. There may be better ways of setting the salary in future. All I say is that if other salaries were set in this way, including those in the BBC, we would not see the most ludicrous salaries paid on the most ludicrous non-justifications. The chief executive of the BBC is paid an astonishing 800,000 on the grounds that it is the market rate—a market that is set entirely by the BBC.

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Simon Hughes (Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party President, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities; North Southwark and Bermondsey, Liberal Democrat)

I understand why we are dealing with the measure here. Will the Secretary of State arrange for the list of all those whose salaries Parliament sets to be put in the Library as soon as is practical, showing the current post holders and their salaries?

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Jack Straw (Lord Chancellor, Ministry of Justice; Blackburn, Labour)

Yes, I can do that.

For the benefit of the House, it was proposed that the salary of the chair of the Electoral Commission—this has been accepted by Jenny Watson, the candidate who was selected by the Speaker's Panel—be reduced from the 150,000 advertised by the House to 100,000. That amount is for a three-day week. On a pro rata basis, she would be paid 166,000 for a five-day week, which is more than the salary of the Information Commissioner, notwithstanding the fact that we are talking about an executive position that combines the posts of chairman and chief executive, as it is a corporation sole. The Electoral Commission post is that of chairman only.

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Bob Spink (Castle Point, UKIP)

The right hon. Gentleman may not be aware that there is an amendment to reduce that 100,000 to the level of an MP's salary.

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Jack Straw (Lord Chancellor, Ministry of Justice; Blackburn, Labour)

That is a matter for this House, but I was speaking ad referendum, and merely making the point that the salary of 100,000 has the approbation of the all-party Speaker's Panel; it is a comparable point.

I accept what my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West said about the importance of public service. A sentiment is shared among the parties that that idea has got slightly out of kilter, and we need to readjust it. It is striking that in the United States, the salaries of public officials are typically lower than they are here, including those of the judiciary. People simply accept that if they are going to be public servants, they will get less. They may be able to make up the difference later on.

A point was made about the nature of the functions. The operation costs 16 million a year for 250 staff. I say with respect to those who raised the matter that that is not comparable to a large executive, administrative operation. It involves quasi-judicial functions, and the amount paid to the Information Commissioner is significantly less than, for example, that paid to a Court of Appeal judge, who has no administrative functions or Department behind him. One expects to have to pay for the high quality, integrity and independence necessary to make judicial decisions.

I was asked about the availability of resources and backlog. We are conscious of the backlogs, the responsibility for which is not by any means to be laid principally at the Information Commissioner's door. Such backlogs are partly inherent in the process, which Parliament established. Public authorities, including Departments and the House, are tardy with responses to requests from the Information Commissioner. The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend Mr. Wills, who has been leading on the matter in the Department with the Information Commissioner, has taken many steps to improve the resources available to the Information Commissioner, including through secondments from the Government to his office.

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Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston, Labour)

Apropos the resources that have been given to the Information Commissioner, much of his hidden work is chasing facts about some of the data protection cases that he has to undertake. There is much information that he fails to get. For example, the Royal Bank of Scotland has refused him some information. Should not we ensure that we give him the tools as well as the salary to do the job?

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Jack Straw (Lord Chancellor, Ministry of Justice; Blackburn, Labour)

The commissioner has made no request for further powers. He has the tools to do the job as well as significant enforcement powers. Funding arrangements for data protection are different—it is self-funded from fees, and we propose to change from the 35 flat-rate fee to a tiered fee, which takes account of the size of the data holders.

My original proposal nine years ago was that a significant part of the Information Commissioner's funding should come from a modest fee for each information request. That was not followed through in 2001-02 and, when the Government suggested it more recently, it was met with a loud raspberry.

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Simon Hughes (Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party President, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities; North Southwark and Bermondsey, Liberal Democrat)

Mr. Shepherd said that the Government should be proud of creating the structure. However, does the Secretary of State accept that long delays often obviate the benefit of the whole system? Producing a draft dossier about weapons of mass destruction five years later is not nearly as useful as producing it a year later.

Photo of Jack Straw

Jack Straw (Lord Chancellor, Ministry of Justice; Blackburn, Labour)

That was not principally the Information Commissioner's responsibility.

James Brokenshire asked about enforcement of the new data-sharing code of practice. It will be a statutory code, subject to scrutiny by Parliament. It will be admissible in legal proceedings and taken into account by the courts and the information tribunal in determining relevant questions such as compliance with data protection principles.

The last point to which I need to respond is the reason for dealing with the matter now, when it dates back to November 2007. The Government are not perfect and I am not perfect. In a more perfect world, the matter would have been tackled earlier, but I am glad that the proposal has the approbation of the three main parties if not that of the whole House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That, in respect of service from 30th November 2007, the salary of the Information Commissioner shall be at a yearly rate of 140,000.