Sunday 7 March 2010

Has the DPA registration fee, like the dog licence, had its day?

We have a new ICO.
It has a fresh mandate.
And a fresh logo. Out with the old. In with the new.
But what will really change?

The new ICO has a new mission, and a series of challenges it has set itself. By 2012 it is to be:

• More committed
• More joined up
• Better integrated
• More focussed
• On the ball
• Alert to the needs of its stakeholders
• World class

It makes you wonder what the previous Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, was doing all that time then, if this is to be the new focus of the Office. But how will it do this when it has to exist solely on the income it derives from DPA registration fees? It’s not immediately clear how great the additional revenue will be from the larger controllers, who now pay £500 a year. But equally it’s not immediately clear what damage the economic recession has done to the great majority of businesses, or start ups, whose finances are stretched and who may overlook a £35 fee. That’s less than the price of a decent seat to watch a home match featuring Arsenal Football Club. In fact, unless you are a senior citizen or a Junior Gunner, that’s less than the price of any seat for a Category A match at the Emirates Stadium.

So, who will value something that costs just £35 to register for? I’m just about old enough to remember dog licenses, which were abolished in 1987, at which time it stood at it 37½p and was held by only around half of dog owners. The system fell into disrepute as no one could really be bothered to enforce the law. Apparently, the Dogs (Northern Ireland) Order 1983 continues to provide for a licence system in Northern Ireland, because it was felt that there was a greater problem of stray dogs and sheep worrying. But as I don’t visit Northern Ireland very often, I’m really not sure whether its enforcement is currently considered a priority – or whether anyone actually bothers to license their dogs anyway.

Perhaps one of the greatest services performed for the ICO were the old registration scams, where various companies would set up and advertise the requirement to register – and offer a registration “consultancy service” to help people fill in the registration forms – at a significant fee, of course. They probably charged far more than the £35 registration fee for their assistance – but it must have been useful for the teams in Wilmslow to receive boxes of these registration papers, as that would have generated a very healthy income stream. Where is the income stream now, as regulatory action against these “consultancy services” (or cons) has stemmed the flow of new business.

Do I see ICO registration campaigns anywhere, like the TV license fee detection campaigns? Do I see ICO detection vans driving around the country, with its antenna sniffing out unregistered data controllers? I do not.

So how will the ICO manage to deliver on its new mission then? Its new fining powers will simply fill Treasury coffers, as unlike the Spanish Data Protection authority, they won’t get to keep any of the money they manage to get from the miscreants. These hard economic times will continue to reduce the flow of start up companies, and so I suppose the ICO is only left with planting media stories about the horrific consequences of the failure to register. I can’t see it featuring as a main storyline on Eastenders or Coronation Street, though.

The battle lines will be drawn. Will the ICO win through, by publicising the existence of the requirement, and persuading the relevant parties to part with their £35 each year, or will it go the same way as the dog license?

Or will the demise of the registration scheme lead a cunning plan for funding the ICO which will be as clumsy as the Dangerous Dogs Act, which was introduced in 1991, just 4 years after the abolition of registration? Registration didn’t address the problem of dangerous dogs. Nor did the Dangerous Dogs Act, for that matter.

If data controllers are to truly value the ICO, I would presume that it would greatly help if the registration fees they will be expected to pay will at least exceed the administrative costs of dealing with an annual demand for £35.

If I were the relevant bod at the Ministry of Justice, I would recommend that the standard fee be raised to £50 with immediate effect. The fee has remained constant since 1998. Unlike any other bill I have to pay. Otherwise, I do fear it will suffer the same fate as the dog licence did.