The British Parliament Expenses Scandal: A Comparative Lesson in Freedom of Information Laws

The political scandal currently unfolding in Britain, in which numerous Members of Parliament have secretly billed taxpayers for reimbursement of their personal expenses, highlights the different approaches to Freedom of Information laws on opposite sides of the Atlantic.  And interestingly, these records might not have been made public were it not for the efforts of an American journalist. Two weeks ago The Daily Telegraph began to publish a series of articles detailing how MPs had received taxpayer reimbursement for home renovations and other personal expenses - some of the more colorful examples have included expenses for landscaping, interior designers, big screen TVs, chandeliers, bags of manure and most notoriously the cleaning of a moat which circles one MP's country home.  In the aftermath, several MPs have been suspended or resigned, including Speaker of the House of Commons Michael Martin, who became the first Speaker ousted in over 300 years.  The extensive public outrage has resulted in calls for elections and estimates that at least half of the House of Commons' 646 MPs will be swept out by forced resignations, retirements and losses at the polls.

Records of these expenses have not been a matter of public record, but were scheduled to be published in a redacted form in July, after MPs fought unsuccessfully (in court and in parliament) to keep the records exempt from Britain's Freedom of Information Act.  The current revelations come from an unredacted version of two million expense receipts leaked to The Daily Telegraph and rumored to cost the paper about $140,000.

The planned redactions would have effectively kept secret some of the most egregious cases of wrongdoing - officials had intended to redact the addresses of properties related to the expense receipts, which would have masked several MPs reported exploitation of the system to "flip" properties by using taxpayer funds to make renovations and then sell at a profit.

Parliamentarians Attack Public Right to Know in Response to Scandal

From the perspective of the American observer, one particularly interesting aspect of the scandal is how the response of some parliamentarians has demonstrated very different attitudes towards the public's right to public records.  After The Daily Telegraph first reported the story, Clerk of the House of Commons Malcolm Jack made a complaint to police over the "handling of the leaked material," claiming that there were "reasonable grounds to believe a criminal offence may have been committed"-which police ultimately declined to pursue.

Conservative backbencher Anthony Steen, who has announced he would not run for reelection following reports he spent over £87,000 in taxpayer money over the last four years, responded to the scandal by explicitly blaming the Freedom of Information Act instead of apologizing for his improprieties.  Steen, whose reimbursements included significant expenses to maintain his 19th century country home, said:

  • "I think I behaved if I may say so impeccably.  I've done nothing criminal.  What right does the public have to interfere with my private life?  None!"

Steen continued with remarkable candor:

  • "Because it was this government that introduced the Freedom of Information Act and it was this government which insisted on the things which have caught me on the wrong foot - which if I'd been clever they wouldn't have done."

Further, several of the MPs who had previously supported unsuccessful legislation to exempt MPs' expenses from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act have turned out to have benefitted considerably from the reimbursement scheme.  According to The Daily Telegraph, Tory MP David Maclean, who had introduced the legislation to exempt MPs' expenses from disclosure, had billed taxpayers for £20,000 in renovations for his "second home" before selling the property, but avoided paying capital gains taxes by claiming it was his main home for tax purposes.

The American Catalyst

The scandal itself may not have come to light were it not for the efforts of American-born reporter Heather Brooke, who waged a five year battle to get MPs' expenses released as public records.  Back in 2004 and 2005, Brooke submitted requests for the expenses, which were blocked by authorities at the House of Commons.  Three years later, Britain's information ombudsman sided with Brooke and ordered the release of the records, but Speaker Martin appealed the decision to Britain's High Court.  Brooke won the appeal in May 2008, and authorities planned to publish the expenses in July of this year after redacting certain information-which was preempted by the leak to The Daily Telegraph.  Said Brooke:

  • "I think there's a culture of deference here, where the public believe that people who are in power -- the great and the good -- still know what's best for everyone.  I come from an American tradition, that you should always be skeptical of government and have a right to know what's been done with your money."

A Comparative Context: Britain's Freedom of Information Act

Unlike its American counterpart, Britain's Freedom of Information Act is a relatively recent legal addition.  The British FOIA law was enacted in 2000, to fulfill a promise of the 1997 Labour Party Manifesto to end "unnecessary secrecy in government," and did not come into full effect until 2005.  Prior to the 2000 law, Britain had no law requiring government to make information available to the public apart from a 1994 code which outlined voluntary guidelines for release of some information.  Whereas American FOIA law provides relatively narrow exemptions for prohibiting the release of information that would "harm" national security, foreign policy or personal privacy, the British FOIA law uses a weaker exemption test, prohibiting the release information that would "prejudice" the public interest.

For a recent comparative example between the FOIA laws and the broader American and British approaches to public access to information, look no farther than their respective handling of "stress tests" of the nations' banks.  Last week, the Britain's Treasury Secretary refused to release the results of those tests in response to a FOIA request from Bloomberg News, on the grounds that disclosing the results "may lead to uncertainty in financial markets, either in relation to specific institutions or more generally."

For more information about Britain's FOIA law, see this BBC guide to the legislation.