What are the circumstances faced by the new Information Commissioner Christopher Graham? What will he make of the legacy of Richard Thomas; and what is he likely to be thinking about his clients in Whitehall, and the chances of a Conservative Government next year?
Rather schematically, under Richard Thomas the ICO developed in two directions. There were the statutory functions under the Data Protection and Freedom of Information Acts; and there were the organisational stances in these areas over and above what a strict understanding of what these functions amounted to. In both cases we could say that the IC became more than a regulator.
On the data protection side, the IC became more of a Privacy Commissioner on the international model, with an ambition to develop public awareness on big privacy themes. The Surveillance Society debate was the most obvious example of that, and even if you didn’t agree with the analysis, it did stimulate public awareness, and did create an impact in the media and in Whitehall.
On the FoI side, the IC became more of a constitutional operator, more a champion of open government, than required by the legislation. He was handed quite a few open goals by a Government determined to appeal and litigate hopeless cases. The Government was much more irritated by this FoI position than by the Privacy Commissioner stance
Nevertheless, both sides his office showed (and are still showing) signs of serious strain, particularly in dealing with data protection complaints and the more routine FoI appeals.
What will Mr Graham make of this? To some extent it will depend on him as a person, something of an unknown quantity as yet. Richard Thomas was also an unknown quantity when appointed, and probably no one expected him to go where he did, particularly in the last few years of his time in office. It seems a bit unlikely that the government will have wanted to take the same risk again.
Yet as Christopher Graham surveys the policies of a conservative government, he must be thinking that there are commitments in many of the areas that Richard Thomas developed as radical departures – the issue of surveillance and the database state, ID cards, and so on. While the FoI policies are less clear, the Conservative commitment to Transparency and Empowerment of the citizen doesn’t fit with a tight agenda on FoI.
So he could, were he cautious and moderately minded, quietly withdraw from some of the high profile stances of his predecessor, and concentrate more on his bread and butter business, while applauding from the sidelines as a new government takes on those big issues.
We will have to see what happens in the autumn, which is bound to be interesting. Also, for starters, see today’s statement by the IC on the Government’s Interception Modernisation Programme (on the ICO site).