It seems that the UK is leading the world in one area: our weak and ineffective regulators.
Lets take a look at the roll-call of shame:
The Financial Services Authority
Area of responsibility: Making sure that banks play by the rules.
Area of incompetence: Disappointingly they seem to actually be doing good work with payment protection insurance, but on the other hand they did allow a global financial meltdown on their watch, which isn’t the best advert for competence.
Self regulation? No, set up by government
The Press Complaints Commission
Area of responsibility: Keeping the written press to the straight and narrow.
Area of incompetence: If you’ve only been exposed to these jokers through the Leveson inquiry then you’re lucky. Essentially a private club of editors making sure that other editors could do exactly what they wanted without fear of censure, they made sure that they were ineffective through a breathtakingly narrow term of reference, and through stunningly weak punishments in the one-in-a-million* chance that they ruled against a paper.
Self regulation? At its best.
The Advertising Standards Authority
Area of responsibility: Press, display and web advertising. It should be honest.
Area of incompetence: I’ve dealt with them on a couple of occasions, and some interesting things stand out. They are happy to close complaints without reference to the complainers (which is a neat trick that my bank should consider!), they believe that a term written in 5pt face on page 13 of a contract is as visible as thirty foot high advertising, and they use the blanket excuse that “people expect adverts to lie, so lies are OK in adverts”.
Self regulation? Independent
The Information Commissioner’s Office
Area of responsibility: data protection
Area of incompetence: In this age of data you would think that the ICO would be one of the most important regulators there is. Private companies and public organisations can access and hold vast amounts of personal data – and the use of this data can have huge impacts on people’s lives. Yet the ICO seems reluctant to take on big companies.
They do fine public bodies, but the irony of course is that those fines simply come back to us, the public. The one occasion I can remember where the ICO fined a private company was after they knew it had ceased trading (i.e. there was no-one to actually pay the fine).
To make matters worse the ICO is notoriously reluctant to give advice about the legality of action before it’s taken – why does this matter? Well the landscape is constantly changing. By refusing to give advice the ICO is discouraging honest businesses and is leaving the field open for dishonest businesses**.
It’s time for the ICO to learn the lesson from bad regulators and get its house in order.
*And not in a Pratchett sense
**Or those who simply don’t care