On Monday the 12th of April 2010 Parliament was formally dissolved in advance of the forthcoming general election. This has prompted some interesting, and rather bizarre, responses to the Freedom of Information requests which have been made to the House of Commons and House of Lords since dissolution. Each such request made via mySociety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com has received a standard reply stating:
When Parliament has been dissolved there is no ‘House of Commons/Lords’ for the purposes of Part 1 of Schedule 1 to the 2000 Act, and there is therefore no ‘public authority’ to which the 20 day deadline under section 10 of the 2000 Act is capable of applying. The time limits do not, therefore, apply during the period of Dissolution.
The effect of the 2000 Act, including its time limits, resumes when the new House of Commons/Lords first meets.
Requests which were due to receive a response during the period parliament is dissolved have had their “clocks” stopped, with notices saying:
As your request was received before the House dissolved, the 20 working day time limit of your request will be split, ceasing on 12 April 2010 and resuming on 18 May 2010 when the new Parliament first meets.
As mySociety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow automatically publishes requests, correspondence and responses online it’s not just the requestors who can see those responses, anyone can.
During the 2005 election according to the UK FOI blog Parliament placed a notice on its website saying it had consulted with the Information Commissioner and agreed the procedure for extending the time limit for a response.
Clearly the Houses of Parliament still have staff employed and people are still acknowledging the FOI requests. While both houses have stopped meeting, the institutions behind them must surely still be operating, and to claim they have ceased to exist is bordering on the utterly ludicrous.
Are the staff who would otherwise be in a position to respond to requests for things like viewer statistics for the Parliament Live TV stream, content of the Commons’ Intranet or cost of the Parliament Education Service not at their desks at the moment? If they are who’s employing them? Who’s paying them? While it is presumably a busy time for those staff preparing for a new intake of MPs; you might think that without MPs and Lords around it may be a quite time for many staff who might want to use the opportunity to catch up with correspondence like FOI requests. Perhaps in the midst of all this rather British oddness we should be happy that at least the parliament website hasn’t been turned off at this time of peak interest in the nation about parliament and our democratic system.
WhatDoTheyKnow already has to be aware of public holidays and follows some rather complex rules when it comes to calculating deadlines for responses however we have decided against updating the system to deal with this new and unexpected situation. We don’t think it is right that the institution of Parliament should consider itsself not to exist during an election period. We still be marking FOI requests as “late” when the twenty working day statutory time limit has expired regardless of the odd stance being taken by Parliamentary officials.
The House of Commons Commission continues to exist even after dissolution. I have resubmitted my request to the Commission which is the overall supervisory body of the House of Commons Administration. The Commission is a body corporate established under House of Commons (Administration) Act 1978.
I now hope that officials will process my request.
It’s a legal and constitutional fact that both Houses of Parliament cease to exist when they are dissolved. You “don’t think it is right that the institution of Parliament should consider itself not to exist during an election period,” so clearly the MPs we’ve got should continue in office. Or should they?
I think MPs continuing in office is quite a different question to the institution of Parliament ceasing to exist.
Councillors stay in office right up to the election day, so perhaps MPs could too but one major problem would be attendance – MPs would want to return to their constituencies to campaign and having the House of Commons sitting right up to election day may be unfair on those with constituencies far from London.
Even in the run up to local elections (when they’re held alone) the commons is often empty as MPs are out campaigning with their local candidates.
Here, a House of Lords committee published a report two days after dissolution: http://www.parliament.uk/business/news/2010/04/somali-piracy-report-published/
I wonder if the constitutional position after dissolution of Parliament is different for the House of Lords from the House of Commons. According to this page:
‘What does dissolution mean for the Lords?
‘Members of the House of Lords are appointed – not elected – so during dissolution they remain Members. However, all business in the Lords comes to an end, and while Members can access Parliament, only limited facilities and services are available.’
As John said, House of Commons Commission certainly continues to exist (I suppose along the lines of the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body). But now it appears to claim that it is not a public authority within the meaning of the Freedom of Information Act. http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/crowned_portcullis_2#incoming-80758
Information Access Team
Shared Services Directorate
2 Marsham Street, London SW1P 4DF
Switchboard 020 7035 4848
E-mail: FOIRequests@homeoffice.gsi.gov.uk Website: http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk
Our reference: 14742
Dear Mr Stacey,
Thank you for your e-mail of 23 April 2010, in which you ask for an internal
review of our response to your Freedom of Information request 14742.
We will aim to send you a full response by 21 May 2010, which is twenty
working days from the date when we received your request for an internal
If you have any questions about the handling of your request, please do not
hesitate to contact me.
Information Access Team
So, if the Houses of Parliament no longer exists, none of the civil servants and MPs and Lords should receive a penny from public money during the “non existence” period.
Each House of Parliament ceases to exist when it is dissolved (the word, “dissolved”, offers a bit of a clue). Members of both Houses cease to be Members of Parliament for the duration of the dissolution, since there is no Parliament to be a member of.
They receive no remuneration during the dissolution, although MPs’ staff continue to be paid, along with certain commercial commitments like office rent. But no salary, travel allowance, second homes allowance, or whatever.
There are some practical obstacles to the House dealing with FoI requests when it is dissolved. The biggest one is that officials cannot seek the consent of their political masters for their decisions, since they have no political masters.
The comparison with councils is irrelevant since councils are not dissolved before an election.
Sorry to labour the point, but this whole issue is based on a fundamental misunderstanding. The House has thought about this, discussed it with the IC and reached a reasoned conclusion. It’s childish and churlish to keep pursuing it in this way.