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MP expenses papers must be revealed

Published 28/04/2015

A journalist wanted to see original receipts rather than summary information on MPs' expenses
A journalist wanted to see original receipts rather than summary information on MPs' expenses

Copies of receipts and invoices submitted by politicians in support of their expenses claims must be disclosed following a test case ruling by leading judges.

Three Court of Appeal judges refused to overturn an order that the regulatory body set up after the MPs' expenses scandal in 2009 must release copies of documents requested by a newspaper journalist.

The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa), which oversees expenses payments, said today's ruling has implications for all public bodies.

Lord Justice Richards, who ruled on the case with Master of the Rolls Lord Dyson and Lord Justice Ryder, said that although the appeal was concerned with three specific invoices or receipts "it is a test case and has important implications for Ipsa and, no doubt, for other public authorities".

The judge said the order that copies of the documents at the centre of the case should be released would be put on hold pending any move by Ipsa to the Supreme Court.

An Ipsa spokesman said after the ruling: "We need to study the judgment carefully. The court made clear that this is an important test case with implications not just for Ipsa but for all other public bodies.

"We were right to test the point of law through an appeal to see whether images of receipts add anything additional to all the information about MPs' expenditure that we already release.

"We remain completely committed to openness and transparency, and already publish a detailed breakdown of every claim made by every MP."

The legal action centred on whether copies of original documents should be disclosed, rather than a summary of the information they contain.

It stemmed from a Freedom of Information request by a Sunday Telegraph journalist to Ipsa in 2010.

The reporter 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.

Lord Justice Richards said Ipsa publishes details of claims on its website but does not publish copies of the supporting invoices or receipts.

In 2010 Ben Leapman, then a Sunday Telegraph reporter, made a request to Ipsa for the information contained in three documents to be communicated to him.

The judge said Ipsa responded "with a transcript of information contained in the documents, including information additional to that published on its website, but refused to provide copies of the documents themselves".

Ipsa was set up to restore public confidence following the 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.''

At the hearing, Ipsa's QC Philip Coppel told the appeal judges in written submissions that 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''.

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