It was the day the Westminster gravy train was derailed. The ruling by the Information tribunal that MPs must reveal what they spent their second-home expenses on, reported in Press Gazette last week, is a significant victory for the public and the media.
Many MPs will be embarrassed, and some may be disgraced, unless the Commons authorities, led by Speaker Michael Martin, decide to appeal and manage to overturn the ruling in the High Court.
Besides the impact on Parliament, the case also carries important lessons for journalists seeking to use the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to hold public figures to account.
The tribunal’s decision stems from an investigation I carried out in 2004 into the Additional Costs Allowance, a payout now worth up to £23,000 a year for most MPs, which is meant to cover the extra cost of running two homes.
I was left with unanswered questions. For example, Barbara Follett MP and her husband Ken Follett, the millionaire novelist, already had several homes and it was not obvious why she needed to claim.
Then-Tory MP John Wilkinson told me that he had designated a seaside flat on the Isle of Man as his ‘main home’and claimed for his ‘second home’in his outer-London constituency.
So just days after the Freedom of Information Act came fully into force, in January 2005, I requested details of the claims made by these two MPs and four others, including receipts.
The Commons authorities turned me down, so I complained to the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, in April 2005. His office took more than two years to reach a decision.
During that time, his staff met several times with senior Commons officials to hear their pleas for secrecy. They were polite to me on the phone, but not once did they offer to meet me or give me a chance to rebut the other side’s arguments.
Last June, the Commissioner finally announced his decision. Full disclosure would breach MPs’ privacy, but as a nod to openness, the Commons should publish a breakdown of each MP’s claims by categories such as mortgage, groceries and repairs.
(The proposed categories were actually unworkable, as the Commons was quick to point out, and, as there was no separate category for rent, the system would have caused massive confusion if implemented.)
Instead of accepting such a compromise, the Commons appealed to the tribunal. I and two other journalists who had lodged similar requests – Jon Ungoed-Thomas of The Sunday Times and Heather Brooke, a freelance – counter-appealed.
As the only party without legal representation, I sat with the lawyers and cross-examined the only witness: Andrew Walker, the Commons director general of resources.
His evidence damned his own side. He admitted that MPs did not have to submit receipts for purchases up to £250. He admitted that fishtanks could be bought on expenses.
He admitted that until 2006, an MP who owned two properties outright could remortgage one and put the interest on expenses.
In its judgment, published on 26 February, the tribunal called the expenses regime ‘lax”. Crucially, it points out: ‘Mr Walker was unable to think of an example of a formal investigation into an MP’s expense claims which had been initiated other than as a result of a tip-off or other unauthorised leak of information.”
Thus the ruling establishes an important precedent that in FoI decisions, public interest in exposing possible wrongdoing can trump privacy concerns, in cases where the organisation does not seem to be doing all it can to prevent such wrongdoing.
The tribunal was scathing about the way in which some records were destroyed after I requested them. This would be illegal if done deliberately, but the tribunal found that it was cock-up, not conspiracy.
The Guardian reported last week’s verdict as a victory for Mr Thomas. Far from it. Besides rejecting his cautious approach, the tribunal called the long delay ‘very unsatisfactory”.
As Press Gazette has reported, such delays in the Commissioner’s office are all too common and undermine the good that FoI can do.
MPs who oppose openness are busy scaremongering, claiming that my victory will force them to disclose what they eat for dinner. Again, far from it. They can claim up to £400 a month for groceries without submitting receipts, so my request for the paperwork will turn up very little.
On the other hand, any MP who has claimed expenses to cover ‘rent’paid to a family trust on a property they used to own themselves, like Nick and Ann Winterton, is likely to find the details being made public.
My case carries three lessons for journalists using FoI. First, persevere. In a 24-hour news environment, it is an injustice if information is wrongly withheld for months or years, but if the issue is important enough, the details will still be newsworthy.
Second, do not be outfaced. The tribunal staff, and chairman Andrew Bartlett QC, were very helpful in guiding me through the process. They listened carefully to all sides and even if the decision had not gone my way I would have been confident that it was thought through.
Third, trust your instinct – if the refusal by a public body or the Commissioner to sanction the release of information feels wrong, that may well be because it is wrong.