BHF executive criticises Information Commissioner's handling of fine

Richard Macmillan, head of legal services at the heart charity, says the ICO went straight to fines because of political and media pressure

The debate: Richard Macmillan, second from left
The debate: Richard Macmillan, second from left

The head of legal services at the British Heart Foundation has criticised the way the Information Commissioner handled its investigation of data law breaches at the charity, arguing that it bowed to political and media pressure.

Speaking at a panel debate on the regulation of charities, organised by the legal practice Russell-Cooke at RSA House in central London yesterday, Richard Macmillan said he took issue with the way the ICO issued the fine the BHF received last December.

The ICO fined the BHF £18,000 for breaches of the Data Protection Act, after it was found to have engaged in the practice of wealth screening. The fine was later reduced to £14,400 for swift payment.

Speaking at the event, Macmillan said the BHF disagreed with how the ICO acted, saying the regulator had always stated that fines would be a last resort. "We actively approached the ICO and said help us improve, but they wouldn’t engage," he said. "It went straight to the fines. I think that was partly party political pressure and also media pressure."

He said the fundraising crisis did feel political, "particularly how the Daily Mail and other tabloids reported on it".

The fine the BHF received was reported in the Daily Mail before the regulator issued an official public statement, which drew criticism from some in the fundraising community.

The issue of charity chief executive pay was also discussed by the panel after an audience member asked whether they agreed that the right-leaning press had turned this into an issue in recent years.

Sarah Atkinson, director of policy and communications at the Charity Commission, said that executive pay levels at charities had featured as an issue in its public trust research since 2004. She said: "Is the media always fair? No. Is its interest always legitimate? No. But it is sometimes about riding the wave of what the public is interested in. The media looks at its figures and what people are interested in and what they read and share. All regulators and public bodies pay attention to what the public is saying. The public has been saying that they’re interested in chief executive pay."

But Andrew O’Brien, head of policy and engagement at the Charity Finance Group, said that charities should try to talk less with the media about chief executive pay. "We have to say: ‘Come on guys, what’s the point of this?’ We know that the public don’t like it.

"But unless we change the market economy tomorrow, charities are going to have pay people large amounts of money because that’s what they have to do.

"We need to have the confidence to say no, we’re not going to get into a debate about that and say this is what we do and I want to focus on something else."

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