Information commissioner leaves post empty

Elizabeth France has left her post early to champion consumer complaints against telcos. Her departure leaves the UK without a privacy tsar until December

Information commissioner Elizabeth France, a champion of privacy rights in the UK and beyond, has stepped down from her post two months early to take up her new role as the UK's first telecoms ombudsman.

France had been due to leave her role in November, when her contract expires. The premature departure means that the Commission is without a figurehead until France's replacement, city lawyer Richard Thomas, arrives in early December.

Deputy commissioners Francis Aldhouse and Graham Smith will head the unit in the interim. Officials said the department would not suffer from two months without a commissioner. "To be honest, in an organisation that has grown to the size we have, a month here or there doesn't make any difference," said assistant commissioner Jonathan Banford. "It's not as if we're left without policies or direction, but clearly when the new commissioner takes over there will be important issues he will want to look at."

The government's proposals for the widespread use of ID cards for people who want to claim state entitlements is likely to be one such issue, said Banford. "That is something that clearly he will have his input on, but in the intervening period there is nothing that absolutely requires a commissioner."

France announced her decision to quit last Christmas. The announcement followed weeks of disagreement with the home secretary over his controversial anti-terror legislation, but her staff denied that the decision not to renew her contract was linked to a row she had with home secretary David Blunkett in December over the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill.

France had been opposed to a voluntary code of practice contained within the Bill, which makes sweeping provisions for the retention of communications data by public communications providers for later access by law enforcement agencies. Her objections centred on concerns that the Bill could be incompatible with the Human Rights Act 1998, by interfering with a person's right to respect for private and family life.

France's replacement is likely to be a similarly fierce defender of the right to privacy. Richard Thomas, who is currently director of public policy at city law firm Clifford Chance, is a board member of the National Consumer Council, and has previously served as a director of consumer affairs at the Office of Fair Trading. He was involved in setting up the Insurance Ombudsman Bureau and the Banking and Building Societies Ombudsman schemes.

Meanwhile, as telecoms ombudsman France will investigate complaints from consumers against their telecoms company. She will have the power to order companies to provide compensation if they are found to be at fault.

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