Mark Goldring, chief executive of the international development charity Oxfam, has said that he did not mean to pre-empt the findings of the Information Commissioner’s investigation into the charity by telling MPs that the charity had been told its use of data complied with the law.
In an evidence session before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee on 8 September, Goldring told MPs that Oxfam had been informed by the Information Commissioner’s Office that the charity was using donors’ data in a way that was legally compliant, although it might not be what the public would expect.
He was responding to a question from Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin, chair the committee, who had asked how effective the ICO was in regulating charities’ use of data.
But in written evidence submitted to the committee later that day, Goldring apologised for going beyond what Oxfam had agreed it could say about a meeting it had had with the ICO. It had been agreed that nothing should be said other than that the meeting had happened and was positive.
"Following the meeting, I reflected and realised that I had, in my evidence, gone beyond the wording agreed with the ICO," Goldring said in his written evidence. "I am aware that Oxfam is one of a number of charities the ICO are interviewing and that the ICO have not yet completed their inquiries. It was certainly not my intention to pre-empt the findings of the ICO review."
Goldring said that his answer to Jenkin had been based on the knowledge that Oxfam staff had met with ICO representatives to discuss the charity’s approach to obtaining consent to send marketing communications to supporters. "My team came back from the meeting believing, for their part, that no irregularities had been identified," he wrote.
He said that he had written to Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner, to apologise for saying more than what had been agreed could be said publicly. Graham had suggested Goldring also write to the committee to clarify the situation.
Speaking to Third Sector on 8 September, the ICO refused to confirm or deny Goldring's assertion that the charity's data practices were legally compliant. The regulator said at the time that its investigation was continuing.
Steve Eckersley, head of enforcement at the ICO, told a PACAC evidence session held last week that the two investigations it is carrying out relating to charities’ use of data – called Operation Cinnabar and Operation Linden respectively – would conclude "as soon as possible".
He said that Operation Cinnabar – which is looking at the Daily Mail’s claims that charities including Oxfam were involved in the exploitation of loopholes in the Telephone Preference Service system – would take months to be completed.
It would be dangerous, he said, to suggest a completion date for Operation Cinnabar, which was prompted by the newspaper’s claims that data sharing among charities led to a man with dementia being tricked out of £35,000 by unscrupulous companies.