In 2005 and 2006, Jonathan Ungoed-Thomas, Ben Leapman, and Heather Brooke (the applicants) individually requested specific details on the allowances claimed by certain Members of Parliament (MP), including Tony Blair, David Cameron, and Gordon Brown, and addresses of their second homes related to the allowances. After the requests were refused, the applicants filed complaint under section 50 of the Freedom of Information Act of 2000 (FOI Act) to the Information Commissioner, who ordered disclosure. The Corporate Officer of the House appealed to the Information Tribunal (the Tribunal), advancing that disclosure of the requested information could result in prejudice to the rights or legitimate interests of individual MPs. The Tribunal rejected claims made by the Corporate Officer, who appealed the Tribunal’s decision to the High Court of Justice.
This case presented before the Court a potential conflict between the FOI Act, intended to promote disclosure of information held by public authorities, and the Data Protection Act of 1998, the first section of which protects against disclosure of sensitive personal information (Para. 13).
The Court began by establishing that there was an obvious legitimate public interest at stake, given taxpayers’ right to be informed of how the government makes use of taxpayer money (Para. 15). The Court then concluded that, as a matter of law, the Information Tribunal had given sufficient consideration to the MPs’ reasonable expectations regarding the extent of information to be made public. Contrary to the Corporate Officer’s claim, the information that had been presented to MPs with the coming into force of section 19 of FOI Act (publication schemes) had in fact indicated an expansion rather than a restriction of rights to access information (Para. 30). Given that MPs knew or should have known that the FOI Act would make more information publicly available, it was not unreasonable for the Tribunal to dismiss the claim that MPs had formed a reasonable expectation that disclosure would be limited to total expenditures rather than specific details (Para. 30).
Nor, as the Tribunal had concluded, was information regarding the MPs’ addresses necessarily precluded from disclosure in all circumstances (Para. 35). While disclosure of an individual’s private address under the FOI Act requires justification, the Court found that “there was a legitimate public interest well capable of providing such justification” due to evidence that MPs were abusing the system and claiming allowances for property which did not exist. (Para. 42).
Judgment of the Court.