Monday, May 11, 2009

Contracted out MPs' expenses not exempt from FOI

The Speaker of the House of Commons has confirmed in a statement this afternoon (11 May) that an 'operational assurance unit' will be established to audit MPs' expenses. A report in The Times suggested this was part of a plot to remove MPs' expenses from the FOI Act by contracting out the work of the unit to a private company. Sir Stuart Bell MP told The Times "Receipts would be available under FOI in the unit [when it is part of the Commons] but when they go to an outside unit they would not".

However, this is not correct. Information about MPs' expenses would still be available under FOI, as the information would be held by the contractor on behalf of the House of Commons. Section 3(2) of the FOI Act provides that information is held by a public authority for the purposes of the Act if "it is held by another person on behalf of the authority".

In a case involving information held by a contractor (Atos Healthcare) for Jobcentre Plus, the Information Commissioner ruled:
"the Commissioner has concluded that where the contractor is contractually obliged to provide information to the public authority upon request and/or where information is created as a result of the contractor carrying out functions conferred upon the public authority, that information is held on behalf of the public authority by virtue of section 3(2)(b)."
When this came up at the No. 10 press briefing this morning, the Prime Minister's Spokesman said:
"Asked whether the Prime Minister would oppose any changes that would make the details of MPs expenses exempt from FOI rules, the PMS replied that the Prime Minister’s view was that of course there needed to be a tougher audit, but he was not of the view that this should be at the expense of transparency."
In response to a question by Alan Beith MP, the Speaker also confirmed:
"There is no intention that any action that we take will, inadvertently or otherwise, allow the freedom of information to be restricted."

Have your say: MPs' Expenses

The Committee on Standards in Public Life is currently gathering evidence for its Inquiry into MPs' expenses. One of the questions the Committee will be considering is what level of detail of expenses claims should be routinely available to the public without the need to make Freedom of Information Act requests for it:
Openness and Transparency
4.10. As a result of a High Court ruling on a Freedom of Information request, details of all MPs expenses, down to receipt level, are to be published. After some hesitation, the House of Commons decided not to legislate to exempt details of expenses from the Freedom of Information Act. Arrangements are currently being made to publish receipts used to support claims for the financial years 2004/05 to 2007/08. MPs are being given the chance to redact any personal information which is not relevant to the claim made.

4.11. Questions have been raised about the proportionality and potential security implications of making this information available. The Committee is interested in views on what level of information should be routinely published on MPs' expenses.
For more details about the Committee's Inquiry, including how to submit evidence or make your views known, you can download a copy of the Issues and Questions paper (pdf 227Kb). Or contact the Committee at the address or phone number listed below and we will send you a copy in the post.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life
35 Great Smith Street

+44 (0)20 7276 2595

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