Decision on MPs’ expenses receipts

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Published: Tuesday 28th April 2015 by The News Editor

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The regulatory body set up after the MPs’ expenses scandal finds out today if it has successfully challenged an order that it must release copies of receipts submitted by p oliticians.

The dispute centres on whether copies of original receipts should be disclosed, rather than a summary of the information they contain.

Leading judges at the Court of Appeal in London have been asked to rule on the issue by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa), which oversees expenses payments.

At a hearing last month, Master of the Rolls Lord Dyson – sitting with Lord Justice Richards and Lord Justice Ryder – heard that the outcome of the case could have wide and ”enduring” consequences – not only for Ipsa, but for all other public authorities.

The case stems from a Freedom of Information request by a Sunday Telegraph journalist to Ipsa in 2010 relating to disclosure of three specific receipts submitted by MPs in support of their claims.

Reporter Ben Leapman wanted copies of the originals, but was provided with a typed-up transcript. He complained to the Information Commissioner, who ruled in his favour in 2012, ordering that the receipts must be disclosed.

Following that decision, Ipsa lost its case at two tribunal hearings. Most recently was last year when a judge at the Upper Tribunal (Administrative Appeals Chamber) said that unless Ipsa appealed against his decision, it was to supply the journalist with copies ”with appropriate redactions”.

Ipsa was set up to restore public confidence following the 2009 expenses scandal, which led to some MPs being jailed.

In that same year, parliamentary authorities published more than a million receipts online – with details such as addresses and account numbers hidden.

However, Ipsa decided in 2010 not to publish receipts routinely, restricting its regular releases to a summary of each claim. It said there were a number of factors which had led it to decide that there was ”insufficient public benefit” in publishing receipts and invoices.

In a letter to the Information Commissioner, it said: ”Primarily, a trial of extracting and redacting receipts and invoices for the purposes of publication showed that the cost would be in excess of £1 million for additional staffing and IT costs alone, compared to the approximate £250,000 cost under the chosen model.”

It said ”on balance” it took the view that providing images of receipts or invoices would be ”disproportionate in terms of costs, insufficiently beneficial in terms of transparency and represented a higher risk in terms of data protection”.

The newspaper argued there was a public interest in viewing the requested receipts in their original form as extra details could be seen which would not be known from a summary.

The Information Commissioner concluded in 2012 there were four types of detail which a summary of a claim could not convey – additional text, logos and letterheads, handwritten comments and layout.

When giving his decision, Information Commissioner Graham Smith said: ”The recorded information contained within the receipts/invoices can inform the observer about the legitimacy of the expenses claims.”

The Information Commissioner asked the three judges to dismiss the appeal, arguing the ”cost and burden of providing Mr Leapman with copies of these three receipts would have been negligible”, and that the arguments put forward by Ispa were ”misconceived”.

At the hearing, Ipsa’s QC Philip Coppel said the position of the two tribunals ”has far-reaching and surprising consequences for all public authorities”.

In written submissions to the court, he said although the ”quantitative difference” between what Ipsa has disclosed and what the tribunals have said must be disclosed may seem ”slight”, the ”principles and reasoning they used to reach that difference carry far wider and enduring consequences” for Ipsa and ”for all other public authorities”.

He said Ipsa ”has very good reason to believe that there will be many like requests, all of which would need to be similarly answered”.

All other public authorities would no longer ”have the protection against providing information in a form that is not reasonably practicable or costly”.

Published: Tuesday 28th April 2015 by The News Editor

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