- EXCLUSIVE: The UK Information Commissioner’s Office is investigating itself after Insider discovered it spent more than £6,000 ($US8,220) on luxury chocolate in the holiday season.
- “We believe that the transaction has been made contrary to ICO policies,” an official told Insider.
- The money was spent at Hotel Chocolat, a luxury brand chocolatier.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
UK officials have begun an internal investigation after thousands of pounds were spent buying high-priced chocolate on a government-funded agency credit card a few days before Christmas.
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) started its probe into a potential breach of its finance policies after Insider made it aware that Â£6,248.40 was spent on a corporate credit card at Hotel Chocolat, a luxury brand chocolatier, on a single day.
The transaction, dating from December 21, is included in the ICO’s corporate charge payments in excess of Â£500 for the 2020-21 tax year. The chocolate purchase is the single largest transaction made on an ICO corporate credit card in the last 10 months.
Most of the other amounts charged to the ICO’s corporate credit card are for adverts, job listings, and web design. The ICO is an independent, government-funded agency that regulates data use, privacy issues, and the Freedom of Information Act.
After being asked by Insider what the agency bought from the chocolate shop for its money, an ICO spokesperson said: “This payment is currently subject to an internal investigation.”
They added: “We believe that the transaction has been made contrary to ICO policies. The ICO is committed to upholding high standards in all aspects of our financial management and controls. Should a contravention of our finance policies be confirmed, we will take appropriate action, including ensuring the payment is reimbursed.”
FOI experts were unimpressed
“My experience of the ICO is that the case officers are great,” said John Slater, an FOI campaigner. “They have ridiculous workloads and get far more right than they get wrong.
“The management team, on the other hand, I’m not impressed with,” Slater added. “I don’t know what’s worse: the fact that someone who had access to the credit card did this, or that they thought it was OK.”
The most expensive chocolate available on the Hotel Chocolat website is a 147-piece collection of solid and filled chocolates and biscuits, called The Signature Cabinet. At Â£170, the allegedly free-spending ICO employee under investigation could have bought 36 Signature Cabinets.
The ICO is funded through a combination of private organisations who pay a “data protection fee,” similar to a tax on all companies who process personal data, and grants from public money. In the 2019-20 tax year, the ICO received Â£4.6 million of funding from the UK government â€” around 10% of the total funding it receives.
Jon Baines, who is chair of the National Association of Data Protection Officers, told Insider: “On the face of it, it looks extraordinary that someone at the ICO made a Â£6,000 card payment to Hotel Chocolat.
“Whatever the rights and wrongs of that, the fact the ICO published this information under public sector transparency measures shows both the benefit of those measures, and the benefit of someone taking the time to review the information.”
The organisation was criticised recently because its commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, one of the country’s highest-ranking civil servants, worked from her home in Canada for a number of months during 2020 following a car accident involving her octogenarian mother.
An ICO spokesperson told reporters at the time that Denham was “fulfilling all aspects of her role,” despite working in a time zone eight hours behind the UK and her staff.