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article imageOp-Ed: The truth about Data Protection — Jobs for the boys? Special

By Alexander Baron     Feb 23, 2012 in World
One of the things David Cameron promised the people of Britain was a bonfire of the quangos. He hasn't made much progress, but one office he might consider shutting down or at least scaling down is that of Information Commissioner.
Is the Office of Information Commissioner a quango? Who knows? More to the point, who cares? Does this body do anything useful? Here and there. Would anyone notice if it disappeared tomorrow? Probably not. Before progressing this polemic any further, here is a quote from a book you should all have read: Animal Farm. Along with George Orwell's other classic, 1984, this sad satire is an accurate reflection of where we are today. It's quite a long quote, but you really should digest it, and if you haven't, and want to read the whole book, you can now download it for free along with much other Orwelliana. Here it is, from Chapter X:
“Somehow it seemed as though the farm had grown richer without making the animals themselves any richer-except, of course, for the pigs and the dogs. Perhaps this was partly because there were so many pigs and so many dogs. It was not that these creatures did not work, after their fashion. There was, as Squealer was never tired of explaining, endless work in the supervision and organisation of the farm. Much of this work was of a kind that the other animals were too ignorant to understand. For example, Squealer told them that the pigs had to expend enormous labours every day upon mysterious things called "files," "reports," "minutes," and "memoranda." These were large sheets of paper which had to be closely covered with writing, and as soon as they were so covered, they were burnt in the furnace. This was of the highest importance for the welfare of the farm, Squealer said. But still, neither pigs nor dogs produced any food by their own labour; and there were very many of them, and their appetites were always good.”
If you want an American view of stupid bureaucracy, and if you have a strong stomach, the February 16 podcast by self-styled Nazi (and closet Libertarian) Harold Covington includes a cute rant by Axis Sally which covers the same ground. Doubtless most people of all political persuasions and none from every country on Earth can relate similar nonsense, but back to the UK, Croydon in particular. If the name sounds familiar, it is where last August Charlene Munro and many others were forced to flee for their lives while their homes were torched by pillaging mobs, and where a furniture shop that survived two world wars and the Great Depression in between went up in smoke by courtesy of some moron with a match.
In view of all that, one would have thought Croydon Council had a lot on its plate, so when a social worker decided to go boozing after work, and had his briefcase, bag or whatever stolen from the pub, the local plod having been informed, that should have been the end of the matter unless and until the thief was nabbed. Right? Not on Animal Farm, unfortunately.
Croydon was not the only council under the spotlight at the material time, but let's keep things simple. Details can be found here, and the full adjudication, here.
The bottom line is that the stolen briefcase/bag contained sensitive material relating to children, including legal papers. Although no one knows what became of it, it is most likely that the opportunist thief cursed his luck and dumped it in a bin somewhere. This though is where the story begins, because having been informed, the Information Commissioner mounted an extensive investigation - remember the importance of all those memoranda and other scribblings? - and issued a colossal fine. And, in the spirit of openness, has published this adjudication for the entire world to ogle and marvel at.
One person at the Office of the Information Commissioner who does actually do something useful - ie communicate - is Press Officer Greg Jones. When asked who will actually pay the fine, he replied:
“The monetary penalty will be paid by the authority, in this case Croydon Council. We have given all organisations an incentive to pay early, with the Commissioner reducing the monetary penalty by 20% if we receive payment within 28 calendar days of the monetary penalty notice being served. In the case of Croydon Council payment in this timeframe would see the penalty reduced to £80,000. ”
Asked to qualify this statement, he said: “It is up to the public authority to determine how it finds the money to pay the penalty. It does not have to come from front line services. It is also important to note that any monetary penalty is paid into the Treasury’s Consolidated Fund and is not kept by the Commissioner.”
Finally, he added: “The ICO has issued guidance on when we will consider issuing a monetary penalty and this information is available on the ICO website...”
In practice, what does this entail? How about money paid by the local authority to central government? This is what a payment to the Consolidated Fund entails.
A fine is supposed to be a penalty, clearly a penalty that has no effect is no penalty at all. Imagine if Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg or some other billionaire were to drop a paper coffee cup in the street, and receive an on-the-spot fine. Clearly a $10, $50 or even a $1,000 fine levied on a person of such colossal wealth is purely symbolic; that is one of the privileges of being filthy rich, but a fine levied on someone else is no punishment at all, and a fine which involves in effect the government taking money from its right hand pocket and putting it in its left hand pocket, well, that really is a joke, but then so is vicarious liability.
Vicarious liability is no liability at all, not for the perpetrator. Who was at fault in this case? Arguably two people: first and foremost the anonymous thief; second and to a lesser extent the social worker concerned. If by some miracle the thief is caught, the police and courts can deal with him as they see fit subject to the law of the land. Clearly it would be both unfair and disproportionate to fine the social worker such an enormous sum, although some disciplinary action might be deemed appropriate, including dismissal if his work record warrants it.
We see vicarious liability all the time, and the result of it, like when a group of thuggish police officers smashed up a pensioner's car for the crime of driving without wearing a seat belt.
Vicarious liability is a scam, it is something that enables people in positions of power to escape culpability for their sins, and at times for their crimes, while forcing the public to pick up the tab. Vicarious liability is the father of the Nuremberg Defence - “I was only doing my job” - and should be done away with. For a discussion of this, the reader is referred to The Wizard Of Oz Syndrome, but there is another issue here.
The Office of the Information Commissioner does do some important work, as is clear from its website, but this sort of nonsense, wasting precious and expensive human resources to in effect shuffle around bits of paper and to move money from one local government or central government bank account to another, should have no place in modern Britain. Or anywhere else.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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