Update on MPs expenses and the High Court
When MPs voted through the Freedom of Information Act eight years ago, they probably didn't guess that one consequence could be having to list their expenses publicly in the manner now adopted by the Tory MP Ben Wallace. On his website he lists everything from £1 parking fees to £250 in petty cash.
The latest High Court decision today (see previous item) will intensify the pressure on his more reluctant colleagues to accept detailed publication of the sums they claim as expenses. And it does further reputational damage to the House of Commons, which already been badly losing the public relations aspect of its battle to resist full disclosure.
MPs have become the real 'victims' of freedom of information. So far the government has only suffered mild embarrassment from FOI revelations, it's the legislators who are being hit (as similarly in the case in Scotland of the former leader of the Tory MSPs, David McLetchie).
The Commons has to decide next week whether to appeal or release the material about what the 14 MPs involved were paying out and claiming on their second homes. It remains to be seen whether the information itself will do more damage to the public perception of Parliament than that already caused by the Commons authorities trying to keep it secret. Since it would set a precedent for other MPs, there may be a few who would find it particularly embarrassing, even if the majority have little or nothing to fear.
The full text of today's High Court judgment is dismissive of the Commons arguments, much to the delight of the journalists who requested the information such as the Sunday Telegraph's Ben Leapman and Heather Brooke. There were two issues at stake. The first is whether it is fair to force MPs to release full documentation of expenses claims when they may not have expected the FOI Act would require this. The second is that invoices and receipts thus released could reveal the MPs' addresses and this would create a security risk.
The judges decided that this was not a matter of 'idle gossip' or public curiosity about 'trivialities', but it had 'a wide resonance throughout the body politic'. They referred to 'evidence which suggests that one MP claimed ACA [Additional Costs Allowance] for a property which did not exist, and yet further evidence may demonstrate that on occasions MPs claiming ACA were letting out the accommodation procured from the ACA allowance.' They argue that this means there is 'a legitimate public interest' in the disclosure of MPs' addresses' (subject to some exceptional security cases).
They only offered the House of Commons one concession - that if the 'deeply flawed systmem' for oversight and control of the ACA is sufficiently tightened up, then there might be no need in future for the disclosure of addresses. The Commons is indeed in the process of tightening up the rules. But that still won't affect information from previous years such as that involved in this case.
But as Nick Robinson reports, whatever the Commons is forced to do on the 14 MPs in this case, there are those in the Commons who are planning to resist hard the future release of any features of the expenses information for others which they assert could imperil security. So even if there is no appeal now, the issue may not be over.
It is particularly interesting to note that this is another case in which the High Court has backed the Information Tribunal in over-ruling the Information Commissioner. The Commissioner, Richard Thomas, originally decided that MPs should only have to publish a breakdown of expenses by category. The Tribunal went much further in insisting on a receipt-by-receipt release, and it is that stance which the High Court has backed.
Two months ago the High Court ruled that the Export Credits Guarantee Department had to release communications with other government departments about the controversial Sakhalin energy project in Russia. This was in line with the Tribunal and in disagreement with the Commissioner, who had supported ECGD's initial refusal to supply the material.