Elizabeth Denham will be the new Information Commissioner in charge of Freedom of Information and Data Protection laws, the government has said.
Denham, who will need to answer questions from MPs before being official confirmed in the position, is currently the Information and Privacy Commissioner in British Columbia, Canada.
Pending approval she is set to take over the £140,000 role this Summer, after the current Commissioner, Chris Graham, ends his term in the position. Denaham, according to a government press release, is looking forward to taking on dissenting public authorities
But, what is Denham’s history and record on access to information?
Denham has a history of working within information law in Canada and the interest stretches as far back as her time at the University of British Columbia.
According to her professional profile in her current role Denham has been the info and privacy commissioner in the metropolitan region, the 15th largest in Canada, since 2010.
Before this she was Assistant Privacy Commissioner of Canada for three years. She: “Led a ground-breaking investigation into the privacy practices of Facebook,” her current employer boasts. Between 2003 and 2007 Denham was the director, private sector, for the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta.
In a 2012 speech at her old university (that’s embedded below) Denham said she also worked for two public authorities as a archivist. But after this she moved to work in Freedom of Information, many of the “ethical” issues between the two remain the same, she says.
The new UK Commissioner has a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in “archival and information science”.
She is also a director of the Centre for Law, Ethics, and Applied Research in Health Information.
Freedom of Information
Thankfully for FOI requesters in the UK the new Commissioner appears to be a big fan of the transparency law and doesn’t have a problem telling government departments and public authorities that they are wrong.
In 2015 Denham’s office published a report that, according to the Huffington Post, said a minister: “deleted emails, didn’t completely respond to freedom of information requests and then lied about it under oath”. The investigation found that the public authority hadn’t searched for records properly, failed to keep email records and deleted emails, on purpose, to avoid responding to FOI requests.
“When there is deliberate destruction of records, the consequences ought to be severe,” she recently told a committee that was reviewing British Columbia’s FOI law. The original report into the delete emails also suggested penalties for those found to be conducting the practice and the “oral culture” of the government.
Denham has also raised concerns about the record keeping the region’s top office. A report by her office found that government records weren’t kept for 45% of FOI requests. “A citizen’s right to access government records is a fundamental element of our democracy. The right to know promotes transparency in the public policy process, and is an essential mechanism for holding government to account,” Denham said, in response to the report.
Elsewhere Denham has also ruled that the “government is not prevented by law from posting reports [online] that contain personal information”. A 2014 report from Denham said that it was “disheartening” how often public authorities failed to respond to respond to FOI requests in time. She also said there should be more mandatory disclosure of ministers’ information: “Of special note to improve transparency is my recommendation to proactively release Ministers’ and certain senior officials’ calendar information which, if acted upon, would greatly reduce the administrative burden associated with processing these requests.”
In the 2012 talk she said that open data can bring “routine disclosure into the FOI game”. She also said citizens will be the ones that push governments to properly publish open data and make sure it is published correctly.