MPs’ expenses: copies of receipts are subject to FOIA

Following the MPs’ expenses scandal, the then newly-founded Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) decided that it would not routinely publish images of the receipts submitted to IPSA by MPs in support of their expenses claims.  Rather, only text transcribed from the submitted receipts was to be published.

The question that arose in IPSA v Information Commissioner (EA/2012/0242) was whether images of those receipts held by IPSA contained “information” within the meaning of section 1 of FOIA, which was not captured by the transcription process favoured by IPSA. In a decision handed down today, the First-Tier Tribunal held that those images do contain such information, and so dismissed IPSA’s appeal. The receipts in question related to claims made by John Bercow MP, Alan Keen MP and George Osborne MP in 2010, which were requested by Mr Brian Leapman of the Daily Telegraph (whose FOIA requests, together with those of others, had played a vital role in the exposure of the old system of MPs’ expenses). The decision is an unusual and interesting instance of the question of “what is information?” arising for consideration in the FOIA context.

Information is defined by section 84 of FOIA (“‘information’ (subject to sections 51(8) and 75(2)) means information recorded in any form”).  The tribunal concluded that, in this case, this definition included logos, letterheads, “handwriting/manuscript comments”, and “the layout and style/design of the requested documents” – each of which were not disclosed to Mr Leapman as a result of providing a transcription, rather than a copy, of the relevant receipts.  The tribunal rejected IPSA’s submission that those materials were “merely presentational”, and went on to consider further examples of information falling within section 1 of FOIA that could be of forensic value to a person investigating expenses claims by MPs:

“…a signature on an invoice may indicate fraud if it was identical to the claimant’s signature or that of a member of his team; a shoddily presented invoice may call into question the legitimacy of the company said to have issued it, or a letterhead or logo may have changed or be different to the one usually associated with a particular company – again bringing the legitimacy of the invoice into question.

The tribunal noted that IPSA insists on seeing actual receipts for its own purposes, and that the Chief Executive of IPSA had accepted in evidence that “sight of the receipt might be more informative”.

In arriving to the conclusions above, the tribunal rejected an attempt by IPSA to rely on section 11 of FOIA to justify the method by which it chose to disclose information to Mr Leapman. Section 11(4), permits a public authority to use a means of communicating requested information that is “reasonable in the circumstances”; and section 11(1) requires a public authority to give effect to a preference for a particular form of communication to the extent that it is “reasonably practicable”.  IPSA argued that for practical reasons it was not reasonable or reasonably practicable for it to fulfill Mr Leapman’s alleged preference for disclosure by a particular means of communication (see paragraph 14).

The tribunal found, however, that section 11 cannot operate to enable a public authority to limit the information which it is obliged to disclose.  Rather, the principle question for the tribunal was whether the disclosure by IPSA to Mr Leapman in fact conveyed all of the non-exempt information contained within the receipts.  As the answer to that question was “no”, it was not necessary for the tribunal to go on to consider the applicability of section 11.

Robin Hopkins appeared for the Information Commissioner; Philip Coppel QC appeared for IPSA.

Tom Ogg

Revising FOIA?

Tucked away in Jack Straw’s House of Commons statement (24th February 2009) about the veto on disclosure of the Iraq War Cabinet minutes is the following intriguing passage:

Shortly after he became Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister established a high-level inquiry into the 30-year rule under the chairmanship of Mr. Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail. That report, published last month, proposed a reduction from 30 to 15 years of the time after which Cabinet minutes and other papers would automatically be released. I have already told the House that the Government favour a substantial reduction in the 30-year limit. In that context, the report also recommended that we consider protection under the Act for certain categories of information.

The reference to the Dacre Report relates to the following section in chapter 8 of the Report:

8.7 As we noted in Chapter Five, there are genuine concerns among some ministers and civil servants about the early release of particularly sensitive types of papers … Given that we are recommending a substantial reduction to the 30 year rule, we believe that the government may wish to look again at the exemptions set out in the FoI Act.

8.8 We therefore recommend that, in parallel with the adoption of a 15 year rule, the government, in consultation with interested parties, may wish to consider whether there is a case for enhanced protection of such categories of information.

So what may be under consideration is a change along the following lines.  The 30 year rule would be replaced by a 15 year rule; and at the same time some categories of information that are at present covered by a qualified exemption under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 would become subject to absolute exemption.  Possible candidates for this treatment might be Cabinet minutes, or some forms of policy advice in central Government.  A change of this nature might not even need primary legislation; an attempt could be made to implement the change by making an order under section 7(3) of the Freedom of Information Act.  This was the technique that was used in the recent (abandoned) attempt to amend FOIA in relation to MPs expenses:  see

I would make two brief comments.  One is that the Dacre proposals in relation to the 30 year rule envisage that the change to a 15 year rule would be made over a long transitional period, coming fully into effect by 2025.  Presumably any change in the FOIA exemptions would not be subject to any corresponding transition.  A second is that the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR) could not be amended in the same way, since they implement a European Directive.  So if the FOIA exemptions are tightened, expect a great deal more argument about whether particular requests fall within FOIA or EIR.

For Jack Straw’s statement see:

For the Dacre Report see:

MPs expenses – another twist in the tale

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  The High Court decision is at For BBC coverage of the story, see and