MPs voting against publication of their expenses
Update: thanks to opposition from the public no vote took place but we cannot afford to be complacent this could come back at any time
Saturday 17 January 2009
MPs are voting on 22 January 2009 to block publication of their expenses, by changing the Freedom of Information Act. The Government issued this news on the same day as the Heathrow expansion, and they are rushing it through parliament to avoid anyone noticing or objecting.
Please visit this blog post to see how you can help: How can I help?
Technical details on the amendment
- This is the proposed change: Text of Freedom of Information (Parliament) Order 2009
- This order needs to be approved by both House of Commons and House of Lords
- It amends the new text introduced by the Freedom of Information (Parliament & National Assembly for Wales) Order 2008 (SI 2008/1967) which prevented addresses of MPs from peing published
- It prevents any detailed expense information (including retrospective claims) from being published. Only annual totals by 10 categories will be published.
- Expenses of MPs and Lords will not be published.
- Expenses of Welsh Assembly Members or MSPs are not affected by this legislation
- Some background info: Leader of the House tables a motion and explanatory memorandum on the Order
FOI Request to be made on 20 January 2008
FOI REQUEST MADE - http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/mps_expenses
Dear Sir / Madam
For the purposes of the Freedom of Information Act, this request will have been received on the 20th January 2008. Please immediately confirm the receipt of this request.
I would like to request all receipts, expense claims, paymenents and associated meta-data that have been scanned and redacted ready for release as part of the budgetted £950,000 work to make Members' expenses available at receipt-level following on from the Information Tribunal decision EA/2007/0060-63,0122,0123,0131  & subsequent High Court appeal . To be clear, I'm not interested in the specific information related to ACA that was released following this judgement, but of the work that the Commons authorities has been doing to make this information freely available via your publication scheme.
Parliament Standard Note SN/PC/04732  (page 7) says that work is underway on behalf of the House by the Stationery Office and House staff in both scanning and editing/approving the information ready for release. I am only therefore only interested in the individual items of "work" that have been completed and cleared for release.
My preferences for receipt of the data is for electronic data transfer at a mutually agreeable date, location & file transfer mechanism.
I envisage that you may want to apply exceptions to release of this data. I would therefore ask you to carefully consider the following points.
__ Section 77(1) Destruction of records
IMPORTANT - I would like to draw your attention to the Freedom of Information Act Section 77(1) relating to the destruction of records -
77 Offence of altering etc. records with intent to prevent disclosure (1) Where— (a) a request for information has been made to a public authority, and (b) under section 1 of this Act or section 7 of the [1988 c. 29.] Data Protection Act 1998, the applicant would have been entitled (subject to payment of any fee) to communication of any information in accordance with that section, any person to whom this subsection applies is guilty of an offence if he alters, defaces, blocks, erases, destroys or conceals any record held by the public authority, with the intention of preventing the disclosure by that authority of all, or any part, of the information to the communication of which the applicant would have been entitled.
In addition, the Information Commissioner guidelines  state:
- "If information is held when a FOIA request is received, you may be able to lawfully say that you do not hold it if it would normally be destroyed before the deadline for responding. However, you should as a matter of good practice suspend any planned destruction and consider disclosure as usual."
- "Destroying requested information outside of your normal policies is unlawful and may be a criminal offence if done to prevent disclosure."
- "As a matter of good practice, you should keep all requested information for at least 6 months to allow for appeals to the Information Commissioner."
The Freedom of Information Act legislation as it stands today does not include the Freedom of Information (Parliament) Order 2009 that is being voted on in Parliament on 22 January 2009. There can therefore be no plans for destruction of these records today beyond your normal record retention policy. I therefore demand that none of the records requested are destroyed.
__ Section 22 - Information intented for future publication
I understand that FOI requests received since the High Court decision have been rejected using FOI exemption Section 22 - Information intended for future publication - for example, see the reply made via the WhatDoTheyKnow.com website 
Section 22 is a qualified exemption, and given the High Court's view of the Public Interest in favour of disclosure, and given the risk of the FOIA being changed to exempt this information, there can be now be no reason for witholding the requested, vetted information as it currently stands.
In addition the work requested would already have been vetted to be suitable for release under FOIA Section 1(1)(b).
__ Section 12 - Excessive costs
If you are considering applying Section 12 (Excessive costs), please provide a breakdown of your estimated costs in line with official guidance. I understand that this data has been scanned into a document management system, and that redaction/editing would take place in this system, and those records which had been cleared for release also flagged as such in the system. Therefore I do not believe that it would take more than £600 (3.5 mandays) to write a query to extract and dump the required data to disk.
-- Section 1(1)(a) - Information held
If you consider that the information would not be "held" at the end of the 20 working day period, then I would ask you to check Section 1(4): "The information [...] is the information in question held at the time when the request is received, except that account may be taken of any amendment or deletion [to the information] made between that time and the time when the information is to be communicated under subsection (1)(b), being an amendment or deletion that would have been made regardless of the receipt of the request."
Today the information is "held", so Section 1(4) only applies if the destruction of the records is planned. As at today, there can therefore be plan for destruction of the information (the Order may not get approved), only that the information is intended for future publication.
The ICO says "Destruction outside of retention and disposal schedules: If information is held when a FOIA request is received, destroying it outside of your normal records management policies will result in a breach of the Act." 
I have copied this request to the Information Commissioner, as I am extremely worried that Section 77 may be breached before the statutory 20 working day limit you have to reply to this request.
-  http://www.informationtribunal.gov.uk/Documents/decisions/HOCfinaldecisionwebsite260208.pdf
-  http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2008/1084.html
-  http://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/briefings/snpc-04732.pdf
-  http://www.ico.gov.uk/upload/documents/library/freedom_of_information/practical_application/fep004practicalguidancedestructionv1.pdf
-  http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/breakdown_of_expenses_incurred_b