Speaker stops Commons discussion of expenses appeal

Commons Speaker Michael Martin today barred MPs from debating the High Court battle over whether their expenses should be released to journalists under the Freedom of Information Act, saying the matter was sub judice.

Martin’s decision came amid signs of a backlash from some MPs over the decision by the House of Commons Commission to appeal against the release of their second home allowance claims.

Martin’s comments came as Labour MP David Winnick raised concerns in the chamber about the surprise move, announced yesterday at the 11th hour.

Winnick was cut off by Martin, who said: “This matter is before the court and therefore it is sub judice for the House of Commons.

“I know that the media can talk about it, but for the House of Commons the rules are quite clear.”

Speaking outside the chamber shortly after the exchange, Winnick criticised the decision by the Commons Commission, which is chaired by Martin, to launch an appeal without consulting MPs.

The Commission appealed a ruling, made by the Information Tribunal following FOI appeals by journalists, to release a breakdown of 14 MPs’ claims under their £23,000-a-year Additional Costs Allowance. The Commission claimed that the publication of MPs’ addresses presented a security risk.

Winnick said that was a legitimate point, but questioned the decision to block the release of all the details.

He said: “The House of Commons Commission was wrong to take this case to the appeal court, except on the question of addresses, without consulting Members.

“It’s been done in a way that suggests this is a unanimous view of the House of Commons and that is not the case.

“The danger is unfortunately that people get the impression that we have something to hide.”

He said there should have been a debate in the Commons, and possibly even a vote, before the decision was taken to appeal.

The legal challenge is expected to cost more than £100,000 – on top of the £52,000 the Commons has already spent opposing freedom of information rulings.

Liberal Democrat MP Mark Oaten, who is among the 14 covered by the ruling, said the Commons should have published the information yesterday.

“The 14 MPs weren’t consulted about this and I find it rather strange that the first I heard the Commons was going to appeal was on the car radio,” Oaten said this afternoon.

“We would have been better getting on with it yesterday and I had all my material ready to go.

“The appeal’s going to cost a lot of money, it sends out all the wrong signals that we have something to hide and I think it’s a very strange decision to take.”

Other MPs covered by the ruling include Prime Minister Gordon Brown, his predecessor Tony Blair and Conservative leader David Cameron. Brown’s spokesman said yesterday the premier was not opposed to having his expenses published.

Cameron had indicated he was relaxed about the expected publication, saying he was “happy” about it. The Evening Standard today cited aides of the Tory leader saying Cameron was “unhappy” with the appeal because he feared it would undermine public trust in politicians.

The Lib Dems today urged the Speaker to publish the expenses details – minus MPs’ addresses – as soon as possible.

While the Lib Dems support the decision to challenge the release of second home addresses, they do not think it should hold up the publication of all information.

Chief Whip Paul Burstow has contacted Mr Martin raising concern over the issue and asking when the expenses details will be released.

A spokeswoman for Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg said: “We agree with the appeal about the publication of addresses. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of the expenses cannot be published now.”

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