07 Dec 2021

Baker McKenzie responds to ‘completely valid’ questions over hiring of ex-UK privacy tsar

Global firm underlines commitment to good governance after campaign groups criticise Elizabeth Denham’s consultancy role

Elizabeth Denham Image courtesy of Baker McKenzie

Baker McKenzie has underlined the care with which it handled the employment of former UK information commissioner Elizabeth Denham as a consultant after the move was criticised by campaign groups.

Having announced Denham’s appointment as a consultant last Thursday (2 December), the firm this week acknowledged that the move raised ‘valid’ and ‘understandable’ questions. It said it had respected ‘her previous regulatory role and responsibilities’ when planning her appointment.

Denham will join Bakers’ global data and technology team in London in January having completed her term as UK Information Commissioner at the end of November. 

The nature and speed of her appointment after stepping down from her public role, however, drew criticism from campaign groups including Transparency International, which told Politico that “tougher controls over top officials entering and leaving public office” were needed.
 
Politico noted that Bakers had led Facebook’s defence against enforcement by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) over the role it played in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

In a statement, Bakers said: ‘Both Elizabeth and Baker McKenzie are very conscious of the need to respect her previous regulatory role and responsibilities as well as all confidentiality and professional obligations that arise from them. All of this has been considered and planned for appropriately.’

Bakers added it has a ‘strong commitment to good governance and the rule of law, which is one of the reasons why we are so excited to have Elizabeth join us and bring that regulator's perspective to our team. In addition to the legal obligations placed on any serving former commissioners by the Data Protection Act 2018, Elizabeth's work will not involve any contact with or representations to her former office for a period of at least one year.’

While UK civil servants must seek approval from the UK’s Advisory Committee on Business Appointments to join the private sector, this does not apply in Denham’s case as ICO employees are not civil servants.

However, when asked about Denham’s move into private practice, the ICO said information commissioners are required by law to maintain the confidentiality of information they receive as part of their job, which applies both during and after employment.

It added that it has ‘strict policies governing the declaration of any interests’ and that ‘no conflict of interest has been identified with regard to this role’.

Denham told Politico that legal confidentiality requirements, which carry criminal liability, and contractual terms with Baker McKenzie addressed possible conflicts of interest.

“I start my role in January and by contract I am bound by a minimum one year cooling off period with regard to my former office. With these legal and contractual conditions possible conflicts will be addressed and my role carried out with high standards of integrity,” she said.

A veteran data protection specialist, Denham began her term as UK information commissioner in 2016 and prior to that spent 12 years in senior positions in privacy regulation in her native Canada, including as information and privacy commissioner for British Columbia and assistant privacy commissioner of Canada.

When her appointment was unveiled last week, Brian Hengesbaugh, chair of the Bakers’ global data privacy and security business unit, described it as “a real coup.”

“No stranger to grappling with some of the thorniest issues in the field of technology and how our data is used and accessed, Elizabeth's appointment will bring greater strength and depth to this core area of focus for the firm," he added.

At Bakers Denham is expected to advise clients on data protection best practice, strategy and wider technology regulation trends.

UK head of cybersecurity, Paul Glass, described data protection and data privacy as “a crucial part” of the firm’s technology offering that is increasingly in demand from clients across its network.

“We are very excited that Elizabeth will be joining us and lending her expertise to this area of our business. Few global regulators have been closer to the cutting-edge issues in data regulation than Elizabeth," he added.

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