The long-running story of how the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) applies to MPs’ expenses took another twist today, with the abandonment of plans to amend FOIA so as to limit disclosure.
In February last year the Information Tribunal ruled that the House of Commons had to disclose detailed information about claims by individual MPs for the Additional Costs Allowance (ACA). Broadly speaking, this allowance defrays hotel or second home expenses incurred in the performance of Parliamentary duties. An appeal by the House of Commons to the High Court was unsuccessful. The effect appeared to be that in the great majority of cases the House of Commons would need to disclose information about each item of expenditure claimed by each individual MP. Although the case was specifically about the ACA, clearly it had implications for MPs’ expenses generally.
Last week Harriet Harman MP, Leader of the House of Commons, announced a proposal whereby information about MPs’ expenses would be published in summary form, under 26 different categories, rather than item by item. FOIA would be amended so as to negate the effect of the earlier Tribunal and High Court decisions.
Today it was announced at prime minister’s questions that the proposed amendment had been shelved. It remains to be seen whether there will be any further proposal to amend the legislation.
For those with a close interest in FOIA, the mechanism used for the proposed amendment was very interesting. The public authorities covered by the Act are listed in Schedule 1. Section 7(3) allows the Secretary of State by order to amend Schedule 1, inter alia so as to limit to information of a specified description the entry relating to any public authority. The proposed order would have provided that the Houses of Parliament were not “public authorities” in relation to information about MPs’ expenses, save to a very limited extent. In other words, section 7(3) effectively allows the scope of the Act to be reduced, without the need for primary legislation.
The Information Tribunal decision referred to above is at https://www.informationtribunal.gov.uk/DBFiles/Decision/i85/HoC3.pdf. The High Court decision is at https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2008/1084.htm. For BBC coverage of the story, see https://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7831565.stm and