UK Liberty

High Court dismisses Commons appeal against release of MPs’ expenses

The Guardian (also the Times):

The Commons Speaker, Michael Martin, today [Friday 16 May] lost a high court battle to prevent the disclosure of the details of second-home expenses claimed by 14 prominent MPs.

Today’s ruling, given by Sir Igor Judge, the president of the Queen’s bench division, Lord Justice Latham and Mr Justice Blake, will increase pressure on Martin, who has been criticised for his decision to block the publication of the information.

The Commons authorities challenged the Information Tribunal’s demand that a detailed breakdown of MPs’ additional costs allowances (ACAs) had to be provided under the Freedom of Information Act.

The allowances cover the expenditure incurred when an MP is away from home on parliamentary duties, including the cost of running second homes and general household bills.

The judgement is on Bailii.

Some highlights:

The carefully structured decision of the Tribunal covers 28 pages of closely reasoned judgment. It provides a careful analysis of the relevant facts, with appropriate findings where the facts were in dispute or potentially controversial. … Seen in relation to the public interest that public money should be, and be seen to be properly spent, the Tribunal found that the ACA [additional costs allowance] system was deeply unsatisfactory, and its shortcomings both in terms of transparency and accountability were acute.

We have no doubt that the public interest is at stake. We are not here dealing with idle gossip, or public curiosity about what in truth are trivialities. The expenditure of public money through the payment of MPs’ salaries and allowances is a matter of direct and reasonable interest to taxpayers. They are obliged to pay their taxes at whatever level and on whatever basis the legislature may decide, in part at least to fund the legislative process. Their interest is reinforced by the absence of a coherent system for the exercise of control over and the lack of a clear understanding of the arrangements which govern the payment of ACA. Although the relevant rules are made by the House itself, questions whether the payments have in fact been made within the rules, and even when made within them, whether the rules are appropriate in contemporary society, have a wide resonance throughout the body politic. In the end they bear on public confidence in the operation of our democratic system at its very pinnacle, the House of Commons itself. The nature of the legitimate public interest engaged by these applications is obvious.

The principal ground of appeal asserts that the Tribunal misdirected itself by failing to recognise the existence of and therefore give appropriate weight to the reasonable expectations of MPs about precisely how information about the ACA claims would be made available to the public.

In our judgment the submission that the Tribunal failed to address the arguments advanced to it in the context of the reasonable expectation of MPs is unrealistic. The judgment speaks for itself. The Tribunal expressly recorded the argument, and expressly rejected it. It did so by reference to the facts, including the publication scheme itself and the relevant letters. We can find no misdirection or other error of law which would justify interfering with the decision of the Tribunal.

[in relation to disclosure of addresses] None of this is intended to suggest that the disclosure of an individual’s private address under FOIA does not require justification. In the present case, however, there was a legitimate public interest well capable of providing such justification. Thus, for example, there is evidence which suggests that one MP claimed ACA for a property which did not exist, and yet further evidence may demonstrate that on occasions MPs claiming ACA were letting out the accommodation procured from the ACA allowance.

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