Freedom of Information campaigners and journalists have expressed surprise and anger after MPs launched a legal battle to keep the details of a £23,000-a-year expense allowance secret.
The House of Commons Commission, chaired by Commons Speaker Michael Martin, lodged a High Court challenge yesterday to overturn a ruling by the Information Tribunal last month that ordered MPs to reveal the details of their spending under the Additional Costs Allowance – used primarily to pay for the upkeep of members’ second homes.
The tribunal found in favour of journalists Ben Leapman of the Sunday Telegraph, Jonathan Ungoed-Thomas of the Sunday Times and FoI campaigner Heather Brooke, who originally requested the ACA details of 11 MPs including Tony Blair and David Cameron in 2005, when the FoI Act came into force.
During a two-day hearing at the tribunal, it emerged that MPs can claim up to £400 in food without submitting a receipt and can claim for £10,000 kitchens, £6,000 bathrooms and other mod-cons from a so-called “John Lewis” list, which Commons officials use to gauge whether a claim is legitmate based on a price guide from the department store.
Leapman said he was ‘surprised’that the Commons decided to appeal to the High Court, since officials had been briefing journalists that a challenge was unlikely.
MPs are concerned that the tribunal ruling will reveal their home addresses, though Leapman said that this was in the public domain already.
He told Press Gazette: ‘All parliamentary candidates’ home addresses already appear on ballot papers, they’re hardly secret. This case has been widely reported as being about fish tanks, tellies and kitchens, but it isn’t.
‘Most of the money claimed in ACA is spent on mortgage and rent, and the press and public can’t scrutinise that – to see whether MPs are paying rent to a family trust, or have remortgaged to obtain a cheap loan at taxpayers’ expense – unless we can see the full details of which property the claim refers to, which has to include the address.”
The commission’s appeal against rulings by the Information Commissioner and the tribunal on this issue have already cost £50,000 of public money.
Heather Brooke said: ‘They have had 28 days to do this so why the last-minute theatrical farce? What a shocking waste of taxpayers’ money. The people who are keeping things secret are being subsidised by the taxpayer.’