Freedom of Information and MP expenses

I remember at 6th form that our politics teacher had a letter detailing where Virgina Bottomley (Health Secretary at the time) lived – she was the local MP. We wanted to view it but he told us that under the Official Secrets Act he could not tell us where she lived or show us the letter in question. Which as  politics students we were slightly miffed about at the time.

Now under the Freedom of Information Act it has been ruled that MPs must disclose to the public their expenses and where they live. More transparency and accountability is a good thing – especially if it reveals that your wife has claimed thousands of pounds on taxis for shopping trips from the tax payer. Though maybe the husband may not have that opinion …

Below from BBC News.

Commons loses MPs’ expenses fight

Commons Speaker Michael Martin

Speaker Michael Martin led those challenging the ruling on disclosure

The House of Commons has lost its High Court battle against a decision to force disclosure of MPs’ expenses.

The Commons challenged the Information Tribunal’s “unlawfully intrusive” demand that a detailed breakdown of second home allowances must be given.

It also failed to overturn the decision that MPs’ addresses could be published.

The Commons must release the details by next Friday. Gordon Brown’s spokesman said the PM was “relaxed” about his expenses being published.

But he added that there were security “issues” about giving out MPs’ addresses.

The Commons has until 1200 BST on Tuesday to appeal.

The Members’ Estimates Committee, the body which deals with MPs’ pay and allowances, is due to meet beforehand to decide whether to take the case any further.

Security

The Freedom of Information (FOI) request at the centre of the dispute asks for a detailed receipt-by-receipt breakdown of expenses for 14 MPs and former MPs, including Mr Brown and Tory leader David Cameron.

The Commons authorities argued that full disclosure would lead to MPs’ home addresses being released which it said should be barred on security grounds.

This ruling makes clear that in a democracy it is the people who are the masters and politicians must be directly accountable to them
Heather Brooke
FOI campaigner

But this argument was rejected by the High Court in its ruling.

It said: “An individual who is determined to discover the residential address of an adult, law-abiding citizen is likely to be able to do so by one legal means or another.

“And where the person concerned is a holder of public office and in the public eye, an inquiry is likely to be easier.”

The Commons authorities have also been ordered to pay at least £33,500 in costs.

‘Victory for democracy’

The High Court ruling is a victory for journalists and information freedom campaigners Heather Brooke, Ben Leapman and Jonathan Ungoed-Thomas.

Giving her reaction, Ms Brooke said: “This ruling makes clear that in a democracy it is the people who are the masters and politicians must be directly accountable to them.

“Anyone making a claim on the public purse must be prepared to put forward their receipts to justify their expenses and to make those receipts public.”

It was also welcomed by pressure group The Taxpayers’ Alliance.

Chief executive Matthew Elliott said: “This is a victory for taxpayers and democracy in Britain.”

Under their “additional costs allowance”, MPs can claim up to £23,000 a year towards the cost of maintaining a second residence, normally in their constituency.

The allowance covers expenditure incurred when an MP is away from home on parliamentary duties, such as the cost of furniture and household bills.

‘John Lewis list’

The original demand for a detailed breakdown of the additional costs allowances of 14 MPs and former MPs was made under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Information Tribunal said the breakdown should be given, but the battle was then taken to the High Court by the Commons Commission.

MPs were criticised when the so-called “John Lewis list” of household items was published earlier this year.

All of them could be bought using the second home allowance, and included £10,000 kitchens and £6,000 bathrooms.

Commons Speaker Michael Martin was himself criticised when it emerged that his wife had claimed £4,139 on taxis – largely for shopping trips.

But on Wednesday, Parliament’s standards chief John Lyon ruled Mary Martin’s claims were “reasonable”.

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