Debate on the Information Commissioner's Salary

Nick proposes that the Information Commissioner's Salary is increased

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): 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-

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): 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.

Nick Herbert: 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.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): 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.

Nick Herbert: 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.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (UKIP): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that "the powers that be" have just reduced the proposal to pay the chairman of the Electoral Commission £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.

Nick Herbert: I do not think that the two situations relate. The chairman of the Electoral Commission will now 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 losses 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.

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24 November 2008

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