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Parliament has been ordered to disclose a breakdown of travel expenses for each of the UK's 646 MPs.
The information commissioner, Richard Thomas, has ruled that the house of commons must meet requests for the details made under the freedom of information act (FOIA).
The commons was asked in January last year to supply a breakdown of expenses by each MP for travel by car, rail, and air for the past three years.
It refused to disclose the details, citing the exemption under FOIA for personal information whose release would breach the data protection act.
The commons also told the commissioner, who regulates FOIA in the UK, that it gave MPs notice in a letter in 2002 of the information that it would, and has, made public on its own initiative. This included the overall level of annual travel expenses for each MP.
It argued that it would be “unfair” on MPs to disclose more than was set out in its letter of 2002, such as a breakdown of travel expenses.
But in one of the most significant “decision not-ices” made by the commissioner on complaints about how public bodies have responded to FOIA requests, the regulator has ruled that the commons “incorrectly withheld the requested information.”
“The commissioner is of the view that the inform-ation requested relates to individuals acting in an official as opposed to a private capacity.”
“Disclosure of this additional information would not impinge on the personal privacy to which individual MPs are entitled in their private lives.”
“The commissioner is minded that the information sought is personal data relating to MPs carrying out parliamentary business for which they are receiving an official allowance.
“In addition, the commissioner notes that the in-formation sought in this case only differs from that already released into the public domain by dividing total figures for annual transport expenses into figures for three separate categories of transport.”
Disclosure would therefore “not be unfair”, he says. “The requested information is personal inform-ation which can be disclosed without contravening any of the principles of the data protection act 1998.”
The commissioner also makes clear in his dec-ision that the motive behind a FOIA request is irrelevant.
The commons had told the commissioner that it believed had struck the right balance on the level of disclosure it had set in its letter to MPs in 2002. MPs should not have to produce evidence of specific prejudice resulting from further disclosure, it argued, in order to counterweight the legitimate interest of the requestor.
It would be unfair to require MPs to produce such evidence when “the requestor needs only to establish that his legitimate interest is a general one in the spending of public funds and not anything specific to him.”
The commons said that it needed to know why the requestor wanted the information and what was to be done with it.
But the decision notice says: “It is the view of the commissioner that the act takes no account of the purposes for which information might be sought and how it might be used.”
He says that, under deadlines set by FOIA, the commons must release the information to the two requestors by April 5.
However, the commons is determined to maintain secrecy surrounding the travel expenses, saying that it will appeal to the information tribunal. This would stop the release of the material pending the outcome of any appeal.
Public bodies are all too ready to use the data protection act to avoid disclosing “personal information” under FOIA.
Under section 40 (2) of FOIA, information whose disclosure would breach the data protection act is specifically exempted from release. However, public bodies often fail to appreciate, perhaps deliberately, that disclosing personal information does not necessarily mean a breach of the data protection act.
The information commissioner has, not for the first time, made this distinction clear. He has already ruled, in a decision notice in January on the department for education and skills, that the standard Whitehall practice of, for example, redacting names from minutes of committee meetings that identify who made specific contributions, citing the data protection act, is wrong.
And in this case, he finds that disclosing personal information in the form of a breakdown of MPs' travel expenses is not a breach of the data protection act.
This ruling is important to those who regard free-dom of information as a force for good. It will give heart to FOIA specialists in Britain, who have hitherto shared a profound sense of disappointment in the performance of the office of the information commissioner so far. First, and most importantly, it is proving far too slow to adjudicate on complaints. Indeed, even these adjudications on the commons result from FOIA requests made more than a year ago. Second, it has focussed on procedural matters and seemed more willing to adjudicate on local authorities, rather than making substantive findings that might upset powerful public bodies such as central government departments.
But the decision on MPs' travel expenses is important for three reasons.
First, it is a strong finding on an often misinter-preted exemption.
Second, the regulator is beginning to show poss-ible signs of courage by making this strong finding in relation to a national public body. In making this decision, he may even upset some MPs, although they should herald this fresh breath of openness.
Third, it reinforces a fundamental belief that we at the FOIA Centre hold, that a requestor’s motive in seeking specific information is irrelevant to the issue as to whether the public interest is best served in its being withheld rather than disclosed. Under FOIA, as the commissioner has found, the requestor merely needs to establish that the balance should be in favour of disclosure if it is, in a general sense, in the public interest: any interest that is specific to the requestor is irrelevant.
Nonetheless, parliament still wants to maintain secrecy, and is appealing the decision. MPs no doubt need no reminding that David McLetchie stood down as Tory leader in Scotland’s parliament after disclosures forced by FOIA showed that he spent £11,500 on taxis, including many trips from Holyrood to the Edinburgh legal firm where he was working.
So, we await the release of MPs' travel expenses by the commons with great interest.
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