The warning has been issued by data protection experts Amberhawk, set up by former Pinsent Mason lawyers Dr Chris Pounder and Sue Cullen. They claim there is a significant risk that a future government could use powers in both bills to reduce parliamentary scrutiny of its own processing of personal data or threaten the Commissioner into not taking regulatory action.
Before publication of the Public Bodies Bill, dubbed “the bonfire of the quangos”, the Information Commissioner’s Office appeared safe from abolition. But the powers in the bill mean the ICO could be axed or merged at the stroke of a ministerial pen.
Amberhawk cites an example of what might happen if the Commissioner is concerned about how government processes personal data. “If the Commissioner is viewed by the minister to be too pushy or unhelpful, the bill allows the minister to change the powers and functions of the Commissioner or transfer those functions to a more compliant body.
“The Commissioner cannot now be guaranteed to possess total independence from government,” according to the law firm. The risks associated with the Public Bodies Bill make the overwhelming case for the Commissioner to be taken away from the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice, and to report to, and to be funded by, Parliament.
It concludes: “Whether the above effects are deliberate or inadvertent can be argued. What can’t be argued is that the Coalition Government is creating a very dangerous structure that cannot guarantee individual privacy.”
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