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New bid to exempt MPs’ expenses from FOI Act

Updated: 23 January 2009

The government had been proposing to rush through an amendment to the Freedom of Information Act to exclude information about MPs’ and Peers’ expenses from the Act’s scope. However, it has been forced to withdraw the proposal – at least for now.

The proposal, contained in the draft Freedom of Information (Parliament) Order 2009, was announced by the Leader of of the House, Harriet Harman MP, on Thursday 15 January 2009. It was due to be voted on in the Commons and the Lords only a week later, on 22 January. If approved, it would have become law the following day.

Had the proposed Order been approved:

  • Information about MPs’ and Peers’ annual expenditure, broken down by subheading, would be published each year as part of Parliament’s publication scheme.
  • But information about all individual items of expenditure would have been secret and outside the scope of the FOI Act altogether.

In 2008 the Information Tribunal ruled that such detailed information could not be withheld under the Act. The House of Commons appealed against that decision to the High Court and lost.

Last year, a private member’s bill to remove both Houses of Parliament from the FOI Act altogether was approved by the House of Commons but fell when no peer was willing to introduce it in the House of Lords. You can read more about that bill here.

The latest proposal has now been withdrawn – though the government has not ruled out the possibility of a future attempt to restrict access. The about-turn occurred after the the Conservatives announced that they would join the Liberal Democrats in opposing the measure. The government maintain that the Conservatives had previously agreed to support it – the Conservatives deny this.

The House of Commons has approved the remaining elements of the package, which in themselves are welcome. The Commons’ publication scheme will be improved so that the annual publication of information about MPs’ expenses will be broken down into 26 categories instead of the existing 13, providing some additional detail about expenditure. New independent auditing of MPs’ expenses will be introduced and the rules on what expenses MPs are permitted to claim will be clarified.

Crucially, the government has now confirmed that the disputed information will be published. Detailed information will be provided about all MPs’ expenses claims between 2004 and 2008 including scanned copies of the individual receipts. There will be some delay before these are ready to be disclosed, as each receipt is being examined individually to identify and remove any personal information whose disclosure is not required (eg spending on other purchases for which the MP has not sought reimbursement).

However, Harriet Harman, refused to rule out a future attempt to restrict access. The High Court had said the individual receipts had to be disclosed partly because of the serious shortcomings in the existing system of expenses. The improvements now being introduced, such as independent auditing of MPs’ claims, might change the position and allow detailed information about future expenses to be withheld, she suggested. She added that it might nevertheless be decided to carry on disclosing them even if they believed they were not required to do so. The Campaign has no doubt that they should do so.

Before the measure was withdrawn, the Campaign had encouraged people to write to their MPs asking them to vote against the Freedom of Information (Parliament) Order and sign Early Day Motion (EDM) 492 sponsored by Jo Swinson MP opposing the Order. Although the Order has been withdrawn, it is still worth asking your MP to sign the EDM. You can write to your MP via the WritetoThem website. An up-to-date list of MPs who have signed the motion is available here.

The detailed expenses of all public officials, across the whole public sector, are publicly available on request under the FOI Act. The Campaign believes it deeply inappropriate – and damaging to Parliament’s reputation – that MPs should seek such special protection from a measure which they have deemed should apply to everyone else.

On this page you can read:

What the Campaign said about the proposal

Press coverage

What others said about the proposal

Parliamentary debates and publications

Links to the proposed Order

Please let us know if you come across any other comment that should be added to this page.


 

What the Campaign has said

 

Press comment

 

Regional press

 

What others have said

 

Parliamentary debates and publications

 

Text of the Order

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