The information commissioner has ordered the House of Commons to release information on expenses claimed by prime minister Tony Blair and five MPs under the additional costs allowance, which covers running costs for a second home near Westminster.
The ruling on a request made under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) comes amid an outcry over attempts to exempt MPs from the act in the Commons.
Conservative MP David Maclean’s private members’ bill – ostensibly aimed at protecting MPs’ correspondence from constituents from public scrutiny – was backed by the Commons. But freedom of information campaigners were outraged that the bill would allow MPs to exempt themselves from the act.
This week Maclean’s bill was effectively defeated by his failure to secure a sponsor for it in the House of Lords, and the government has now pledged to issue new guidance to public bodies in an attempt to defuse the row.
But the ruling by information commissioner Richard Thomas on an FOIA request made in January 2005 could reignite the row.
The information request covered Tony Blair, Labour MPs Barbara Follett, Alan Keen and Ann Keen, EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson – then a Labour MP and former cabinet minister – and the then conservative MP, John Wilkinson.
Thomas ordered that the total amounts claimed by the MPs under the additional cost allowance – which allows MPs to reclaim expenses for running one home close to Westminster and one in their constituency - should be released under specific headings.
These include mortgage costs, hotel expenses, other food, service charges, utilities, telecommunications charges, furnishings, maintenance and service agreements, cleaning, insurance, basic security measures and “other”.
The commissioner ruled that, as expenses are claimed directly by MPs in relation to their public duties, the public has a right to know the total amounts claimed under these specific headings.
A statement from the Information Commissioner’s Office said the ruling drew a balance between transparency and accountability for public expenditure and the private lives of MPs and their families.
“The information commissioner does not believe it is necessary to disclose the full itemised details of expenditure on the running of an MP’s private household. To do so would invade the privacy of MPs and their families,” it added.
The original FOIA request sought copies of original expenses submissions with copies of receipts, rental agreements or mortgage interest statements from the six named MPs in 2001/2, 2002/3 and 2003/4 under the additional costs allowance.
The House of Commons refused the request on the grounds that it was personal data and that disclosure would be unfair.
The commissioner found that the House did not hold rental agreements or mortgage interest statements in respect of all the six named MPs. He also ruled that the requested information was personal data and that its fully itemised disclosure would be unfair.
But Thomas decided that it would not contravene the data protection principles to disclose information showing the totals paid under specified headings within the additional costs allowance.