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The role of FOI in MPs' expenses

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Martin Rosenbaum | 09:21 UK time, Friday, 8 May 2009

Many MPs have fought hard for a long time, but eventually without success, to prevent the publication of detailed information about their expenses, both through the courts and through trying to change the law.

The Daily TelegraphDuring this process, it was often said that the persistent resistance of the House of Commons to releasing this material was doing more damage to the reputation of Parliament than the information itself would be likely to. We are now about to find out, initially in the pages of the Daily Telegraph, if this is really the case.

The enormous fuss over MPs' expenses was not widely predicted as a consequence of FOI. When the Freedom of Information Act was passed nine years ago, it was generally envisaged that its most high-profile cases would be about scrutinising the decisions of the executive, not of the spending habits of the legislature.

There is plenty of debate as to whether freedom of information has achieved the various aims that some people hoped for when it was introduced here, such as improving public participation in decision-making.

But no-one can surely deny that, on the example of MPs' expenses, it has increased accountability in the spending of public money.

The Freedom of Information (Parliament and National Assembly for Wales) Order 2008Today's revelations would not have happened without the FOI Act, that is clear. Yet they are actually based on a leak, not legally-enforced disclosure. And the material goes beyond what the Act - as amended to exclude MPs' addresses - would require (The Freedom of Information (Parliament and National Assembly for Wales) Order 2008 [45KB PDF]).

From the FOI viewpoint, one of the most interesting pieces in the Telegraph today argues that without these addresses, the newspaper would not have been able to shed light on some of the questionable practices it reveals. So some of today's revelations may be as much as about leaking, or "chequebook journalism", as about freedom of information.

But there is one other point to bear in mind here. It's not always the case that legislatures are covered by Freedom of Information Acts. The United States Congress, for example, is not covered by the US FOI Act.

Ministers took the decision to include Parliament in the Act in the UK. They doubtless did not foresee all the consequences and may be regretting that decision.

Certainly, there are MPs who might not have voted for freedom of information if they'd realised what information was going to be made free as a result.

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