MPs expenses: The best example yet of why FOI is a good law

You may have seen a few months ago that mySociety led the campaign to stop the Freedom of Information Act being changed to conceal MPs expenses. And we won, which was nice.

Given the wall-to-wall revelations about taxpayer funded moats and bathplugs, and the new wave of  resignations and repayments,  we want to exercise a little accountability by reminding readers of the arguments that were used to conceal this information twice in the last two years. These helpful examples should assist mySociety’s friends in keeping an eye out for similar dubious logic in the future.

First, in 2007, a concealment bill was tabled by a backbencher, but which oddly made it all the way to the Lords before failing (it would normally have been struck down by the government). The argument used then was that private mail sent by constituents to MPs would end up in the hands of unscrupulous characters, even though there was already another law to prevent this, and even though hardly anyone appears to have complained to the Information Commissioner about what the proposing MP described as a ‘vexed problem‘.

Then, back in January this year, a different and bold explanation was given: none. Instead, a strange pretence was played out in Parliament, in which the fact that MPs were being given the opportunity to vote to overrule a court-mandated order to publish was simply not mentioned: Watch the video of the Leader explaining what’s going to be voted for – any idea why people might be laughing as she stands up? Can you spot where she explains why the court needs overruling? The only explanation I could find anywhere for this reversal of openness was an anonymous quote in the Guardian.

So here we are after both attempts to hide expenses were defeated, watching as the rules around expenses change substantially and as MPs reach deep into their own pockets: all things that would not have taken place if either of the above proposals had passed. Simply the fact that the rules are changing and that the leaders of parties are apologising must make it clear that the excuses and non-excuses given above were, even if unintentionally, blocking better government.

Despite the obvious pain for MPs this week, and the fact that the whole act is doubtless being cursed across Westminster, we must shout from the hilltops that this week is a great success for the Freedom of Information Act, and a clear justification for why it is worth having on our books.

Bad policies that both wasted money and eroded public trust are being swept away, and it is entirely down to the  Act and its supporters. More Freedom of Information will mean more such improvements, and people of good will should support its defence and its extension.

Note: When can the rest of us have the data, please?


  1. I would be great once you have the data if you could cross reference it against our MPs so we can decide whether or not to vote for them at the next election!

  2. The FOI is a first step. You can only really ask a FOI if you know what you are looking for.

    Lets have all contracts and all public accounts automatically published.

    Google can then index it, and we can see what’s going on.

  3. It’s a partial victory in that we still can’t see the actual accounts. The drip-feed is very frustrating; I’d like to be able to make up my own mind.

  4. In what way is this a victory for the Freedom of Information Act? It certainly explains why the Government has fought it tooth and nail and why effective FOI is a necessary part of good government, but the Telegraph information came from a leak. If we’d relied on FOI, we may eventually have got a watered down version of the facts, with anything abitrarily flagged for privacy or security stripped out.

    We still can’t rely on the FOI regime working as it should. If anything, these revelations show we’ve got to keep pushing for more transparency where it matters: in the detail.

  5. @Richard: would you go as far as disclosure of credit-card numbers and facsimile signatures? Is that she sort of arbitrary flagging for privacy and security you’re worried about?

  6. Sidney Whitaker

    This message started:”You may have seen a few months ago that mySociety lead [LEAD?!!]the campaign…” Heavy! (cf. reds (under the) bed, fed, wed, ted.

  7. It was Heather Brooke’s use of the FOI which first drew public attention to the MP’s expenese. See my blog, MP’s Expenses: Drippygate not Watergate

  8. @Bob Melton: That’s a pretty impressive straw man. No, I wouldn’t go as far as disclosure of those details, because the public has no legitimate interest in them. I’m talking about things like the addresses of second homes – there’s an argument about concealing these for security, but there’s also a real public interest to be weighed.