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Parliament was today ordered by the high court to disclose details of expenses claimed by MPs. The high court dismissed an appeal by the house of commons against an order in February by the information tribunal to disclose details of MPs’ claims under the “additional costs allow-ance” (ACA).
The allowance, introduced in 1971, is payable to MPs with constituencies outside London or in outer London “for expenses wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred when staying overnight away from their main UK residence… for the purposes of performing parliamentary duties.” This includes the cost of second homes.
The information tribunal made an order in February for disclosure of more information than that demanded in a decision by the information commissioner.
This ruling represents another lost appeal by the house of commons against orders to disclose various details of MPs’ expenses in response to requests under the freedom of information act (FOIA). Requests for details of MPs’ expenses were made by journalists, FOIA campaigners, the FOIA Centre and even at least one MP.
The commons has argued throughout that disclos-ing details would amount to an unfair breach of MPs’ privacy as provided by the data protection act.
It also said that the need for public scrutiny was fulfilled by an annual audit. It said that it would be unfair for MPs to be exposed to criticism for claims made within the rules. Disclosure would lead to further questioning of MPs by the media. The figures would be liable to be misunderstood, and false comparisons might be drawn. This would distract from more important parliamentary business, it argued.
The information tribunal in February said, in rel-ation to specific requests from three journalists, that the public interest in disclosure outweighed the privacy and other concerns.
It said that rules on accommodation allowances were “redolent of a culture very different from that which exists in the commercial sphere or in most other public-sector organisations today.” The system as operated, “coupled with the very limited nature of the checks”, was confused, inconsistent and risked misuse.
The commons was unable to challenge these findings on the allowances, and could only appeal on any errors of law made by the information tribunal.
In today’s ruling by the high court, Lord Justice Latham and Justice Blake said: “We have no doubt that the public interest is at stake. We are not here dealing with idle gossip, or public curiosity about what in truth are trivialities. The expenditure of public money through the payment of MPs' salaries and allowances is a matter of direct and reasonable interest to taxpayers.”
“Their interest is reinforced by the absence of a coherent system for the exercise of control over, and the lack of a clear understanding of, the arrangements which govern the payment of ACA. Although the relevant rules are made by the house itself, questions whether the payments have in fact been made within the rules, and even when made within them, whether the rules are appropriate in contemporary society, have a wide resonance throughout the body politic.
“In the end, they bear on public confidence in the operation of our democratic system at its very pinnacle, the house of commons itself.”
The commons also claimed in its appeal to the high court that the information tribunal misdirected itself by failing to take into account the “reasonable expectations” of MPs that only limited information about expenses claims would be made public.
The high court ruled that the tribunal “rejected the argument”, and “was entitled to do so.”
It added: “Once legislation that applies to parlia-ment has been enacted, MPs cannot and could not reasonably expect to contract out of compliance with it, or exempt themselves, or be exempted from its ambit.
“Such actions would themselves contravene the ‘bill of rights’, and it is inconceivable that MPs could expect to conduct their affairs on the basis that recently enacted legislation did not apply to them, or that the house, for its own purposes, was permitted to suspend or dispense with such legislation without expressly amending or repealing it. Any such expectation would be wholly unreason-able.”
“Even if (which we do not accept) MPs were justif-ied in anticipating that the details of their claims for ACA would not normally be disclosed, once it emerged, as the tribunal has found, that the operation of the ACA system was deeply flawed, public scrutiny of the details of individual claims was inevitable. In such circumstances, it would have been unreasonable for MPs to expect anything else.”
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