Degree Speeches

Summer 2000

 

Dr Elizabeth France

Public Orator, Professor Charles Oppenheim, presented the Honorary Graduand at the Degree Congregation held on Tuesday 18 July 2000 at 3.00pm


Chancellor, Lord Lieutenant, Vice-Chancellor, Mayor and Mayoress of Charnwood, graduands, ladies and gentlemen: like most of you, I have the highest regard for the journalists who work on our Sunday newspapers. Fearlessly exposing corruption and criminals, probing politicians' motives, analysing the news events and, most importantly, offering the latest on David Beckham and Posh Spice, they enjoy the esteem of the vast majority of us. However - and I know you will be shocked to learn this - now and again they make mistakes. Last autumn, the Sunday Times and the Observer produced separate lists of the most powerful people in the UK. There was a key omission on both lists. They failed to mention one of the most influential people in the UK today, our Honorary Graduand, Elizabeth France.

Elizabeth France was brought up 15 miles from Loughborough. One of her hobbies is change ringing bells, which provides a continuing link with Loughborough as Taylors of Loughborough is one of two remaining great bell foundries in the country. Elizabeth attended University College Wales at the same time as Prince Charles and Neil Hamilton, and was President of the University's Debating Union. Having qualified with a degree in political science in 1971, she became a career civil servant. She started in the Home Office as a trainee and worked her way upwards through a number of Departments until she became head of the Establishment Division in the Police Department. Then, in 1994 aged 44, she became the Data Protection Registrar. The job title has changed - she will soon be Information Commissioner, also responsible for Freedom of Information.

So why is Elizabeth France one of the most powerful people in the UK? You will all be aware of the development of the information society. The explosive growth of computer usage, of the Internet and of e commerce have led to unprecedented opportunities for people to play their full parts as citizens, to obtain life long learning, to do business, to pursue leisure interests (and to make and lose a fortune if you are a dot.com entrepreneur). However, the new technologies have also given ample opportunities for individuals to be tracked as they leave their footprints in the electronic snow. This means that others ­ perhaps criminals, perhaps private investigators and credit ratings agencies, the police, perhaps organisations that wish to sell to you - can find out more than ever before about your interests, your purchasing habits and the like. It is not just on the digital networks that issues of privacy arise. The proliferation of CCTV in our city centres and at work also means that increasingly our day to day activities are being tracked.

It was against this backdrop that Elizabeth France became Data Protection Registrar. And what a Registrar she has proved to be! She is pro-active, and under her regime, privacy and data protection have moved to a high place on the political agenda. She has been vigorous in evidence to Parliament and government, has helped implement new laws on data protection, and her office has taken on some high profile legal cases. She regularly gives talks to conferences. She has also made several announcements that indicate that her Office is prepared to rely on all available means to publicise the importance of data privacy
Laws, for example :

Elizabeth France is far too important to be missed from lists of the most influential. She is the key person in the UK in guarding our privacy, and in the near future, will be important in helping us identify and obtain information held by Government once Freedom of Information becomes law. The future of our style of democracy depends upon the cases she takes on and the issues she deems important.

Therefore, Chancellor, I have the honour to present Elizabeth France, Data Protection Commissioner to you, and the University, for the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.


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