FoI campaigners condemn MPs' bid to hide expenses

The Government has been accused of “disgraceful” behaviour after another bid was launched to sidestep a ruling ordering publication of details of MPs’ expenses under Freedom of Information law.

The Commons authorities have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds scanning and redacting about a million receipts from claims since losing a lengthy FoI battle last May.

But none of them will be released under plans set out by Leader of the House Harriet Harman this afternoon.

Instead, the law will be changed retrospectively so that MPs’ expenses are published annually under 26 categories, rather than the current 13.

“The public will have more information than they ever have before and we will take it back to 2005 so that for all members, each year their allowances against 26 headings will be made public,” Harman told the Commons.

A spokesman for the Commons leader confirmed that if parliament approved the measures, the receipts would not be published – although the Information Tribunal and High Court had ordered that they should be.

But the House authorities said the process of redaction would continue at least until the proposals were passed.

Matthew Elliott of the TaxPayers’ Alliance said: “It is an absolute disgrace that the Government are going to such absurd lengths to keep MPs’ expenses secret from the very people who pay the bills.

“This is taxpayers’ money, these are elected representatives and the people have a right to know how their money is being spent.

“These desperate measures will only harm Parliament’s standing by making people wonder what it is that politicians have to hide.”

The Commons authorities ran up a bill of some £150,000 over three years fighting Freedom of Information requests for disclosure of a receipt-by-receipt breakdown of MPs’ spending on second homes.

They appeared to have admitted defeat last May after the High Court backed the Information Tribunal’s decision.

But the autumn deadline for publication passed with officials complaining that the process of scanning and redaction – expected to cost around £1m – was proving more complex than first thought.

Senior figures had been privately indicating that the material was unlikely to be ready before next autumn – although until now there has been no suggestion the publication would be scrapped.

Harman used business questions in the Commons to outline changes to the regime, but made no explicit reference to the FoI ruling or receipts.

She said the public had to be given information about expenses in an “affordable and proportionate” way, and added: “We want to make sure that the public have confidence that there are clear rules and they know what is going on.”

She also set out new tighter auditing processes, in the wake of a Government consultation on how to improve trust in the £93m parliamentary expenses system.

The consultation followed a long-running review of MPs’ allowances which culminated in MPs scrapping, under pressure from the Government and party leaders, the much-derided “John Lewis list”.

Following pressure from party leaders, MPs voted to scrap the List and tighten lax auditing procedures so that any spending over £25 required a receipt.

Under the new proposals, Personal Additional Accommodation Expenditure – the new term covering second home allowance – will list “headline” figures for mortgage interest, rent, hotel costs, council tax, fixtures, fittings and furnishings, subsistence and other household costs including service changes, utilities, telecommunications, maintenance and repairs.

But Campaign for Freedom of Information director Maurice Frankel said the headings were too vague for the public to have confidence about how their money was being used.

“The individual expenses claims of senior officials across the public sector are publicly available under the FoI Act,” he said.

“There is no justification for allowing members of parliament to meet a lower level of scrutiny than senior officials across the public sector.

“Chief constables, local authority chief cxecutives, senior BBC executives and others have to release their individual expenses claims, and that should be the case for MPs too.”

The campaign group pointed out that the FoI Act was amended in July 2008, to exclude MPs’ addresses from the scope of FoI requests and to prevent the disclosure of any regular spending on travel or future travel arrangements.

These changes were justified as necessary to protect MPs’ security, but the group said the new proposals cannot be justified on security grounds.

Freedom of information campaigner Heather Brooke told Sky News: “It’s shocking that one of the first things MPs plan to do upon their return is to further erode public trust in their probity.

“The Speaker and the House authorities promised the British people on numerous occasions that all MPs’ expenses would be made fully transparent by October 2008.

“The date was moved to December. That date came and went. Then we’re told the expenses will be published in summer 2009.

“Now MPs plan to override a high court ruling by changing the law so they continue to keep secret their expense receipts.”

She added: “Changing the law when you don’t like what the judiciary has to say is the sort of thing we expect from Silvio Berlusconi. It seems our MPs are using him as their role model.

“Constituents can be certain that by their secretive behaviour, MPs have made it clear they have a lot to hide.”

MPs will vote on the proposals in the Commons next Thursday and, if passed, they will be implemented this year.

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