Freedom Of Information: MPs reach end of road in battle over secret expenses
A request to see MPs' expenses seemed innocuous enough. But, says Robert Verkaik, Law Editor, the Commons authorities decided to fight it tooth and nail
Friday 23 May 2008
Having spent more than two years battling to keep secret details of MPs' spending the authorities of the House of Commons will today finally admit defeat. At 4pm officials of the Palace of Westminster have agreed to hand over hundreds of documents, including expenses claims made by Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, to freedom of information campaigners and two Sunday newspapers.
It will mark the end of a rather inglorious and disagreeable chapter in the history of our much respected Parliament.
For those of us who have watched with increasing disbelief as MPs and their officials find new ways to obstruct legitimate requests for information about those who govern us, this sorry saga has been as baffling as it is infuriating. It also raises suspicions, perhaps unjustified, that MPs have something to hide. And the cost to the public purse in trying to keep prying eyes out of MPs' affairs, must run into hundreds of thousands of pounds, including fees paid to outside lawyers. Later today we will find out what the Commons was so worried about, although it is understood that some papers relating to items of expense claimed by Tony Blair have already been shredded.
The decision to cave in to requests for information was forced upon the MPs after a High Court ruling ordered the publication of the detailed breakdown of their expenses claims.
It was the third ruling that went against the Commons officials, confirming that the Information Tribunal acted within its powers when it demanded that details of MPs' additional costs allowances must be provided under the Freedom of Information Act.
The Commons Members Estimate Committee decided that it would not seek leave to appeal against the ruling and would comply with the court's order that the details of 14 MPs, including Brown, Blair, and Cameron, be made public. Details of all the remaining MPs' expenses – thought to number around one million individual items – will be published in the autumn.
MPs' expenses have come under sustained criticism in recent months following the publication of the so-called "John Lewis list" of household items MPs can purchase under their £23,000-a-year second homes allowance.
The freedom of information campaigner Heather Brooke – whose FoI request, along with those from journalists on the Sunday Telegraph and Sunday Times, led to the court ruling – has welcomed the committee's decision. But for MPs and House of Commons authorities the outcome could not be more damaging.
In their ruling, Sir Igor Judge (President of the Queen's Bench Division), Lord Justice Latham and Mr Justice Blake also ordered that the addresses of MPs' second homes should be disclosed. This has now become the issue of greatest concern to MPs, even those who have always been relaxed about the disclosure of additional details of their expenses.
Nigel Giffin QC, appearing for the Commons in the High Court hearing, argued that the Tribunal's decision, which requires breakdowns to include receipts and the addresses of properties bought, meant there would be "a substantial unlawful intrusion" into the lives of MPs and their families that could threaten their security at the hands of the "mad and bad".
Rejecting the QC's arguments, the judges said it was "highly significant" that none of the MPs subject to applications had suggested that they claimed allowances on the basis that detailed information would not be disclosed.
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