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Parliament has lost its appeal against a decision that it must disclose a breakdown of travel expenses for each one of the UK’s 646 MPs.
The house of commons was today given 30 days to release a breakdown of expenses by each MP for travel by car, rail and air for the past three years. It can, however, delay disclosure further by appealing the information tribunal’s decision to the high court on a point of law.
The information commissioner, Richard Thomas, ruled last year that the house of commons must meet requests filed under the freedom of information act (FOIA) for the details.
The commons had refused to disclose the details, citing the exemption under FOIA relating to personal information.
Its position throughout the case has been that it would be “unfair” on MPs to disclose such details and so would breach the data protection act. It said that it gave members of parliament notice in a letter in 2002 of the information that it would, and has, made public on its own initiative. This included the total level of annual travel expenses for each MP. It would be unfair to disclose more than was described in that letter, the Commons claimed.
In one of the most notable “decision notices” issued by the information commissioner on complaints about how public bodies have responded to FOIA requests, the regulator rejected that argument.
The commons appealed to the information tribunal, which has endorsed the commissioner’s approach to the case, agreeing that there should be less protection for individuals with regard to their “public”, as distinct from their “private”, lives.
The tribunal said: “The consideration given to the interests of data subjects who are public officials, where data are processed for a public function, is no longer first or paramount.
“Their interests are still important, but where data subjects carry out public functions, hold elective office or spend public funds they must have the expectation that their public actions will be subject to greater scrutiny than would be the case in respect of their private lives.
“This principle still applies even where a few aspects of their private lives are intertwined with their public lives but where the vast majority of processing of personal data relates to the data subject’s public life.”
The tribunal’s decision continued: “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 limited invasion of an MP’s privacy considered in the context of their public role and the spending of public money.
“In coming to this decision we have noted that the Scottish parliament has for some years disclosed the detailed travel claims of MSPs supporting mileage, air travel, car hire and taxis. Also we note that in [one] decision, the Scottish commissioner went further and ordered the release of the destination points of taxi journeys of an MSP.”
A client of the FOIA Centre is one of scores of requestors who sought details under FOIA from the commons on MPs’ travel expenses.
The commons revealed to the tribunal that it had received approximately 167 such requests. It has refused all requests for a more detailed breakdown on travel expenses, pending the information tribunal’s decision.
As we pointed out when we reported on this case in March last year, public bodies are all too ready to misinterpret the data protection act to avoid disclosing “personal information” under FOIA.
They have come to treat section 40 (2) of FOIA, information whose disclosure would breach the data protection act, as an absolute exemption for all personal information. This manifests itself in a variety of ways, this case concerning only one of them.
We can only stress, as we said then, that disclosing personal information does not necessarily equate to a breach of the data protection act.
The information tribunal has endorsed this view in deciding upon whether MPs’ travel expenses should be disclosed. It is a clear and useful decision.
Public bodies, which like to play dum, have no excuse to continue regarding personal information as subject to an absolute exemption under FOIA.
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Commons told to release MPs’ travel expenses