New expenses blow for MPs after landmark FoI victory

Freedom of Information campaigner Heather Brooke and two Sunday newspaper journalists are celebrating winning a three-year battle to allow full access to MPs’ expenses claims under the FoI Act.

The Information Tribunal, which adjudicates on FoI disputes, today ruled that the current system of regulating MPs’ Additional Costs Allowance (ACA) was ‘a recipe for confusion, inconsistency and the risk of misuse”.

The panel of three judges ruled that the ‘deeply unsatisfactory’system had a ‘shortfall both in transparency and in accountability”.

Previously Parliament had disclosed a total figure for the ACA – but journalists will now be able to request a detailed, itemised list of MPs’ expense claims, including hotel and tax receipts and the costs of keeping their second home – bringing Westminster in line with the Scottish Parliament.

Ben Leapman of the Sunday Telegraph and Jonathan Ungoed-Thomas of the Sunday Times have also been fighting the case since the Act was introduced in 2005. Ungoed-Thomas had legal representation at a two-day hearing before the Information Tribunal this month and Leapman represented himself.

Brooke, author of FoI guidebook Your Right to Know, said the ruling would help take power from the ‘old boys’ club’and give it to the wider public.

She said: ‘All honest and hard-working MPs will welcome this opportunity to prove their openness to the electorate.

“What’s disappointing is that it took three years of concerted effort to counter the relentless opposition from the House of Commons Commission and Speaker Michael Martin who used taxpayer’s money throughout to block the very information needed for an informed electorate.

‘By their secrecy, these officials have severely damaged public trust in Parliament. The only way to salvage Parliament’s reputation is to embrace transparency and the public’s right to know.”

Louis Charalambous, media lawyer at Simons Muirhead & Burton, who represented Brooke, said: ‘This decision is a wake up call to modernise an antiquated system which was known for its indolence and complacency.

‘These allowances can be sizeable, and may amount to as much as 35 per cent of an MP’s salary, on which no tax is payable. The tribunal has recognised that the public has a right to know what their money is being spent on.

‘It is also a significant development in freedom of information law, consistent with the root and branch reform identified as necessary by the Prime Minister.”

At the two-day hearing,the tribunal said the Commons failed to enforce the guidelines on expenses set out in the official “Green Book”.

It emerged during the hearing that MPs could claim for any expenses incurred in relation to the maintenance of their second home, ranging from gold fish bowls to £400 a month of shopping without receipts.

The verdict coincides with controversy of Speaker Michael Martin’s use of the ACA, after it emerged he has claimed more than £75,000 for a house which does not have a mortgage.

The Information Tribunal said today that the system of “self-certification”, with no formal auditing of claims, was inadequate.

The verdict comes as Mr Martin is leading a review of MPs’ expenses following uproar over the regime in the wake of the Derek Conway affair.

The tribunal said it was not surprised, from what it had seen, that the Prime Minister wanted a “root-and-branch review”.

It added: “On the basis of the evidence which we received, we find as a fact that there is a long-standing lack of public confidence in the system of MPs’ allowances, dating from before the time of the particular requests with which we are concerned.

“In the context of the ACA, the extent of information published is not sufficient to enable the public to know how the money is spent.

“Nor is the system sufficient to create public confidence that it is being spent properly.”

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