The Secret Seven

Last year, I wrote about the fact that Councillor Alex Ganotis, Labour leader of Stockport Council is also a group manager at the Information Commissioner’s Office. After an FOI request, the ICO admitted that he managed the teams responsible for complaints about political parties and local councils. At the time, I argued that this was an unacceptable conflict of interest, and something had to be done about it.

In May this year, shortly after being elected as Manchester’s new Mayor, Andy Burnham appointed Cllr Ganotis as his Environmental Tsar. You can watch a video of the announcement here, and ponder such fascinating questions as why Burnham’s nose is so red, or why throughout the first two minutes, the camera keeps cutting to a wide shot that captures Ganotis’ uncomfortable facial expressions while Burnham is talking. The announcement piqued my interest. If he was organising a grand summit of environmental worthies, would Cllr Ganotis really have time to work at the ICO? And if so, what effect would the review into political activities that Elizabeth Denham announced have on his role?

I made an FOI request to the ICO for the following information:

1) In 2016, the ICO confirmed to me that Alex Ganotis was manager of the team that dealt with complaints about councils and political parties, despite being Leader of Stockport Council at the time. Can you confirm whether Mr Ganotis is still a member of ICO staff, and if so, what is his current job, and what arrangements have been made to avoid any potential conflict of interest?

2) What is the current ICO policy and process for dealing with political party affiliations and potential conflicts of interest?

3) In August 2016, the Information Commissioner announced in an interview with the BBC’s Martin Rosenbaum that she had ordered a review of the involvement of ICO staff in political activities. I would like to see any report or findings arising out of the review, or other summary of the review and its findings, and details of any actions that were taken as a result of it.

4) I would like to receive all current declarations made by any member of staff of involvement in political activities

5) What specific measures have been taken in respect of each staff member who has made a declaration to ensure that there is no conflict of interest?

The response made for fascinating reading. For one thing, Cllr Ganotis remains a Group Manager at Wilmslow and although his group no longer deals with political parties, it still covers issues related to all local authorities in the UK except for those in Greater Manchester, Cheshire or Derbyshire. How politicians and others in every council outside the North West feel about complaints about their authorities still being supervised by the Leader of a Labour Council and a close ally of Andy Burnham is hard to judge. They might be thrilled. Maybe the ICO should ask them.

The report I received under item (3) of my request did contain an option to remove Cllr Ganotis from work involving local authorities altogether, but one of the reasons that this option was not recommended was the fact that “it could be seen to question the professionalism of Alex and other members of staff and their ability to apply the law without bias or political influence“. How Cllr Ganotis’ political career could possibly be seen to reflect on other people is beyond me, but it is jarring that a significant factor in the decision to keep him involved in council work might have been the effect on him, rather than the Commissioner’s ability to operate independently. To be blunt, the ICO as a whole is more important.

UPDATE: I have attached the ICO’s report into the conflict of interest here, so readers can judge whether how objective and balanced it is: Commissioner Information Note – Political Activities.pdf

Unless every team in the ICO handles complaints about local authorities (and to lesser extent, government), Cllr Ganotis should have been moved to one that doesn’t. Having decide to pursue a high-profile political career, asking him to make a sacrifice to avoid conflicts of interest and their perception would not be too much. I am surprised that Cllr Ganotis has not requested such a transfer himself. To risk even the perception of influence over decisions about politically-run organisations, and at the same time pursue a high-profile political career suggests either an enormous amount of faith in one’s ability to compartmentalise, or just old fashioned hubris.

The review identified gaps in the ICO’s Political Activities Policy, with recommended “updates” including a stipulation that staff must avoid party political activities which might impair their ability to perform their duties impartially, a requirement to inform the ICO if their activities or areas of responsibility change, and the scope to remove permission to undertake political activities if an individual’s ICO role or political activity changes. Needless to say, this means that none of this existed before.

The rest of the FOI request suggests a continuing unwillingness to face the issue of political involvement. Including Cllr Ganotis, eight staff members have made declarations of involvement in political activities, but the ICO refused to tell me who the other seven are, or what they do, claiming that the data is sensitive personal data. This is true, but it is not automatically a barrier to disclosure. For one thing, the Secret Seven could be asked for consent, and this is not the only route to disclosure.

There is surely a legitimate interest in knowing whether people working for an independent regulator such as the Commissioner have political affiliations, especially when you consider the ICO’s involvement in political matters. Over the past few years, the ICO has fined Leave.EU, David Lammy MP over his London Mayoral Campaign, the Daily Telegraph for its pro-Tory emails during the 2015 election, and in recent months, they took no action against Virgin Trains following Jeremy Corbyn’s antics in a train vestibule. More importantly, the Commissioner herself announced a formal investigation into the use of data analytics for political purposes with no small amount of fanfare, involving 20 staff. The ICO is knee-deep in politics and transparency over the declared political activities of the staff is in the public interest.

As the data is sensitive personal data, legitimate interests would not be enough; a condition must also be met from Schedule 3 of the Data Protection Act as well. One of the conditions is that the Data Subject has put their sensitive data into the public domain. If, for example, a senior ICO staff member was to mention on their LinkedIn page that they were a Councillor for 9 years, the Campaigns and Communications Officer for an MEP for five years, listed the Liberal Democrats as one of their main interests and was recommended for ‘politics’ and ‘political campaigning’ by dozens of people, I think I can argue that at least this one has manifestly made their political views public. The ICO refusal says “our staff do not have a reasonable expectation that their declarations would be disclosed into the public domain“, but the staff member in question was a candidate for the LibDems in the 2015 General Election, so I humbly suggest that the cat is out of the bag. Either this person is one of the seven, and the ICO’s arguments are false, or they haven’t made a declaration, and the ICO’s claim to me that “the review and policies are sufficient to demonstrate that we avoid conflicts in our work” is nonsense. Again, did they consider this before refusing me?

Every national, local, or internal party election or referendum runs on personal data, and personal data is exploited, analysed, shared, lost, stolen and misused in every single one of them. If you can name a major vote in this decade that hasn’t resulted in a DP snarl-up, you’ve a better memory than me. If there is one word that shines through everything the Commissioner sent me on this topic, last time and this time, it’s  complacency. The policies and procedures that existed before and the ones that have replaced them are built on an obvious assumption that a box needs to be ticked. Of course nobody is actually going to do anything untoward, the managers are on top of it, staff will proactively declare any conflicts of interest and besides, we have a procedure. But they thought it was all fine before. If I had not written my blog last summer, Cllr Ganotis would still be responsible for managing complaints involving his council, his party and his opposition.

I don’t think the Commissioner’s Office takes this seriously. I am amazed that Alex Ganotis is still allowed any influence over the ICO’s decisions about local government, regardless of how objective or benign that influence might be. I am appalled that anyone in the ICO’s senior management could think that this is acceptable. Every time the Commissioner acts or doesn’t act on a political issue, do we always need to ask: who was involved? What bias, conscious or unconscious, did they bring to bear? What other interests do they serve? In a world dominated by fake news and internet froth, the ICO’s independence and objectivity should be their highest priority. It isn’t.

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