Freedom of Information: Parliament is not exempt from its own secrecy law

The right to information held by public bodies must include Parliament. Robert Verkaik, Law Editor, examines why some MPs are demanding an exemption
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The Independent Online

Two years ago Parliament cheered the arrival of Britain's first freedom of information laws. MPs were falling over each other to tell us how much we would all benefit from this new era of openness. But it seems the reality of living with an instrument that gives the public rights of access to the very darkest corners of Westminster has proved a little unsettling for MPs who consider some of their business to be strictly out of bounds.

The sticking point for many members of the House of Commons was a recent attempt by their fellow MP Norman Baker to disclose full details of all Members' travel expenses.

When the authorities of the House of Commons rejected Mr Baker's request he took it to the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, who ruled in favour of full disclosure.

After all, a question about how public servants spend taxpay-ers' money is surely exactly the kind of enquiry for which the Freedom of Information Act was designed. Not so, said the Commons, who decided to press their case attheInformationTribunal,where they argued breach of data protection rules. Earlier this month the tribunal rejected that argument, upholding Mr Thomas's original decision notice.

Under the current Commons rules MPs' expenses are published annually, but only under broad headings. Eleanor Grey, for the Commons authorities, said that it was understood that public scrutiny of the use of public funds by elected office-holders is a "legitimate interest". But she added: Strength of that interest has to be assessed against the background of the extensive information that has already been put in the public domain about MPs' expenses, including their travel expenses, and requires a judgment on whether or not it is necessary to require further disclosure.

The tribunal, headed by John Angel, did indeed judge it to be necessary to require MPs to divulge more information. Mr Angel said:

Having considered all these interests we find that the legitimate interests of members of the public outweigh the prejudice to the rights, freedoms and legitimate interests of MPs. We consider our decision will only result in a very limitedinvasionofanMP'sprivacyconsidered in the context of their public role and the spending of public money.

In coming to this decision the tribunal noted that the Scottish Parliament has for some years disclosed the detailed travel claims of MSPs supporting mileage, air travel, car hire and taxis.

MPs backing the challenge had suffered a bloody nose and helped to rack up thousands of pounds in wasted legal fees fighting the case in court. And yet the lesson does not appear to have been learnt.

Last Friday, when most parliamentarians were distracted by the arrest of another Blair aide in the "cash for honours" saga, David Maclean, the former Tory chief whip, sneaked through a Private Member's Bill to exempt MPs from enquiries made under the Freedom of Information Act. Mr Maclean has been reported as saying that the main reason for his Bill was to prevent MPs' letters on behalf of constituents being released to the press and public. But the effect would be to exempt Parliament from the public's newly won rights.

Two years ago it would have been inconceivable that an MP, from any party, would wish to turn back the tide of Britain's new openness laws.