Case Summary and Outcome
The U.K. High Court upheld a decision of the Information Tribunal that specific details regarding the expenditures and addresses of Members of Parliament should be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act of 2000, notwithstanding protections under the Data Protection Act of 1998 against disclosure of personal information.
The House of Commons refused to disclose detailed breakdowns of allowances claimed by several Members of Parliament on requests made by the three applicants.
The Court reasoned that the taxpayers’ right to be informed of how the government makes use of taxpayer money is a matter of direct and reasonable interest to taxpayers and therefore constitutes an obvious and legitimate public interest.
This case analysis was contributed by Right2Info.org.
In 2005 and 2006, Jonathan Ungoed-Thomas, Ben Leapman, and Heather Brooke (the applicants) individually requested specific details of the allowances claimed by certain Members of Parliament (MPs), including Tony Blair, David Cameron, and Gordon Brown, and addresses of their second homes related to the allowances.
After the requests were refused, the applicants filed complaint under section 50 of the Freedom of Information Act of 2000 (FOIA) to the Information Commissioner, who ordered disclosure of a limited breakdown.
The Corporate Officer of the House of Commons appealed to the Information Tribunal (the Tribunal), arguing that disclosure of the requested information could result in prejudice to the rights or legitimate interests of individual MPs. The applicants cross-appealed on the basis that the information requested should be disclosed in full. The Tribunal rejected the Corporate Officer’s appeal and effectively allowed the cross-appeals for full disclosure.
The Corporate Officer appealed the Tribunal’s decision to the High Court.
This case presented the Court with a potential conflict between the FOIA, intended to promote disclosure of information held by public authorities, and the Data Protection Act of 1998, the first and second sections of which protect against disclosure of personal information and sensitive personal information.
The Court began by establishing that there was an obvious legitimate public interest at stake, given the taxpayers’ right to be informed of how the government makes use of taxpayer money. The Court then concluded that, as a matter of law, the Information Tribunal had given sufficient consideration to the MPs’ reasonable expectations regarding the extent of information to be made public. Contrary to the Corporate Officer’s claim, the information that had been presented to MPs with the coming into force of section 19 of FOIA (publication schemes) had in fact indicated an expansion rather than a restriction of rights to access information. Given that MPs knew or should have known that the FOIA would make more information publicly available, it was not unreasonable for the Tribunal to dismiss the claim that MPs had formed a reasonable expectation that disclosure would be limited to total expenditures rather than specific details.
Nor, as the Tribunal had concluded, was information regarding the MPs’ addresses necessarily precluded from disclosure in all circumstances. While disclosure of an individual’s private address under the FOIA requires justification, the Court found that “there was a legitimate public interest well capable of providing such justification” due to evidence that MPs were abusing the system and claiming allowances for property which did not exist.
The Court dismissed the appeal of the Corporate Officer of the House of Commons accordingly.