In May 2016, the Labour member for Heatons North, Alex Ganotis, became Leader of Stockport Council, having been a councillor for some years. A month or so later, I read a story mentioning him in the Manchester Evening News, and his name rang a bell. Alex Ganotis is also a Group Manager at the Information Commissioner’s Office – I know this because he has signed hundreds of FOI Decision Notices on behalf of the Commissioner.
I made an FOI request to the ICO to find out more about Mr Ganotis’ role – in particular, I wanted to know how likely it was that a professional politician might be involved in complaints to the ICO involving political parties or local government. If Mr Ganotis worked on financial services or health, for example, he would need to maintain a high degree of professionalism and neutrality, but there would be no immediate conflict of interest. So I asked the ICO what team he manages. The answer:
“Mr Ganotis manages a team of staff who deal with complaints and concerns about councils and political parties“
I had to read this several times before I could take it in.
The ICO’s Policy on party political activities is helpfully published on its website. It makes reassuring reading:
“The ICO is an independent body and it is important for it to be free from party political bias, and to be clearly seen and acknowledged as being free from such bias……. It is of paramount importance that the ICO is acknowledged as being free from party political bias and influence. The work that we do can often be of a politically sensitive nature and any substantiated allegations of bias would have serious repercussions for the future of the ICO.”
The policy sets out a process through which an ICO employee can gain approval for party political activities. I asked when Ganotis went through this process, and the ICO revealed that he was approved in October 2008, which means that his dual ICO / councillor role went on for nearly eight years before he became Leader – he did not seek re-approval when he became Leader, so it seems that the ICO has not reassessed his role now he is a council leader, nor has he asked for this to happen.
I asked for recorded information about the approval process for his role. The ICO has nothing. I asked for any recorded information about measures taken to ensure, in the Policy’s words, that ‘potential for conflicts of interest’ have been minimised with regard to Mr Ganotis’ role. Nothing is held. The ICO added “Mr Ganotis’ line manager and his peers are responsible for assigning decision notices and make a judgement on a case-by-case basis as to what he is assigned, taking into account whether individual cases could pose a potential conflict of interest.” There are no formal arrangements, no written criteria or parameters, nothing to measure or audit against. The ICO enthusiastically fines organisations hundreds of thousands of pounds for failing to maintain properly documented processes, but in the case of having a professional politician managing a team that deals with hundreds of complaints about political parties and councils, the ICO itself sees no need for rigour. Trust whoever decided that this is OK, Wilmslow says, because we have nothing else to offer.
Mr Ganotis is a Group Manager, answering to a Head of Department, but the ICO’s response makes clear that the former Information Commissioner himself, Richard Thomas, approved of the arrangement: “the Commissioner at that time was made aware of his standing and subsequent election“. When I wrote this blog originally, I assumed it was Christopher Graham who was Commissioner, but he did not take over until 2009. ICO trivia fans may remember that Graham was himself once a councillor (for the Liberal Party) and a twice-unsuccessful parliamentary candidate – one wonders if he knew about Ganotis’ status, and if he did not, why nobody told him.
Anyone who has political beliefs or leanings and works in local or central government knows the awkward but vital requirement to set those beliefs aside and act neutrally in the public interest. As a Labour voter in every election since 1992, I have done it myself. It is not easy, but you don’t need to be a saint to achieve it. I cast no doubt on Mr Ganotis’ personal integrity, or ability to do the same. But anyone who thinks that’s the point just needs to Google the title of this blog.
Mr Ganotis has signed hundreds of FOI decision notices on behalf of the Information Commissioner, exercising the Commissioner’s statutory powers. Those notices include councils across the UK, and government departments run by ministers who, in his other role, Mr Ganotis publicly opposes, and he has been doing so for years. The ICO disclosed to me a spreadsheet of the cases that Ganotis’ team has dealt with since January 2014 (records before that are routinely destroyed). A quick glance at the organisations concerned give a flavour of the issues that pass across the team’s desk in just one month. In July 2016, I can see the Labour Party (8 times), Momentum, Saving Labour, and Progress. It is hard to imagine any team would be more steeped in politics and arguments about political activity than this one, and the (former) Information Commissioner decided that a professional politician was the right person to manage it.
Over the past few years, the Labour Party has carried out its obnoxious and unfair purge, struggled with allegations of member data misuse on all sides (Corbyn, Momentum and Owen Smith), and demonstrated the traditional party blindness to PECR. I have myself blogged sorrowfully but repeatedly about Labour’s Data Protection and privacy woes for several years. In all of that time, only David Lammy’s doomed automated calls have faced any enforcement action (and he wasn’t even an official Labour candidate in the election concerned). To be clear, I have no evidence of any influence being brought to bear on this. But, as the ICO’s own policy states explicitly, “the organisation does seek to ensure that the potential for conflicts of interest is minimised as is the possibility of the ICO being accused of being politically biased“. In this, Mr Ganotis, his line manager and the former Commissioner have failed, and failed spectacularly. How can anyone in politics have confidence in the ICO’s decisions?
Any FOI decision notice involving a council or a government department signed by Mr Ganotis could be tainted, and there are hundreds of them. The ICO’s failure to take action against the Labour Party for a consistently terrible approach to Data Protection and privacy issues is no longer just over-caution, but potentially something far more objectionable. Every case Mr Ganotis has been involved in could be perfect, but the ICO cannot guarantee this with a straight face; their own policy recognises the problem of perception, but their practice is blind to it. They could have moved Ganotis at any point since 2008 to another job of equal standing, and the problem would have evaporated. He is still in place.
That Mr Ganotis could not see that continuing to manage a team responsible for complaints about political parties and councils was incompatible with his role first as councillor and then as Council Leader raises a question about his judgement. That the ICO’s management was either unwilling or incapable of identifying and remedying the potential conflict of interest is a matter of serious public concern.
I have spent a decade and a half criticising, satirising and annoying the ICO in the hope that for no other reason than to spite me, they will become a more effective, more enthusiastic regulator of Data Protection. But this is too much. This is a genuine failure of governance. It could pollute a host of formal decisions (and indecisions) stretching back for years. It has to be dealt with.
I don’t understand how Mr Ganotis could ever sensibly manage the team responsible for political parties and enjoy the confidence of the public. Richard Thomas and Chris Graham should have stopped it, and I hope that the new Commissioner will ask questions about how her managers and Human Resources team could allow such a shocking situation to occur. But if all this isn’t put right, if this bizarre conflict of interest continues acknowledged but unaddressed, we should all look very closely at every decision that emerges from Wilmslow with a more sceptical eye than even I thought possible.