I am writing to make a request under the Freedom of Information Act for details of complaints made to IPSA by MPs and copies of correspondence relating to this. For the calendar years 2013 and 2014 so far (to today’s date), please provide a list of MPs who have submitted a complaint to IPSA in connection with the handling of their expenses claims, or any other administration.
In each of the cases, along with the name please provide the date, a summary of the complaint, a copy of all correspondence relating to the complaint, and a summary of the outcome.
IPSA holds the information that you request.
Please find attached, at Annex A, a list of MPs who have submitted a complaint to IPSA in connection with the handling of their expenses claims during the calendar years 2013 and 2014, to date, alongside the date, a summary of the complaint and a summary of the outcome, where held.
In processing your request for the correspondence, we have considered the application of the exemption at s.36(2)(c) (prejudice to the effective conduct of public affairs) of the FOI Act. The application of this qualified exemptions also requires a public interest balancing test.
IPSA’s qualified person, as designated by the Lord Chancellor under s.36(5)(o)(iii) of the FOI Act, is Sir Neil Butterfield, who has considered the competing arguments and has provided a reasonable opinion.
In balancing the arguments, Sir Neil has commented as follows:
I am asked to consider whether the exemptions provided in Section 36 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 should apply to part of a recent FOI request made by Paul McNamara.
Mr. McNamara has requested for the calendar years 2013 and 2014 up to 3rd June 2014 the provision of a list of MPs who have submitted a complaint to IPSA in connection with the handling of their expenses claims, or any other administration. For each case he asks for the name of the MP, the date of the complaint, a summary of that complaint, a summary of the outcome of it and copies of all correspondence relating to the complaint.
In response to the request IPSA will be releasing the complaints log for the relevant dates. The complaints log sets out the names of MPs who have made formal complaints, the date of the complaint, a summary of that complaint and the outcome of it. My consideration is accordingly confined to the correspondence relating to the complaints.
As the Qualified Person designated by the Lord Chancellor under Section 36(5) of the Freedom of Information Act my duty is to assess whether the public interest in withholding the information outweighs the public interest in disclosure in relation to the exemption specified in Section 36 of the Act, and in particular in this case whether disclosure is likely to be prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs. In doing so I have considered all the correspondence to which the request relates and the arguments for and against applying Section 36.
In determining whether in my reasonable opinion the release of some or all of that correspondence would, or would be likely to prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs I have given full weight to the presumption in the FOIA that information should be released on request. I further recognize and take fully into account that such part of the material to which Section 40 (personal information) might apply can be redacted, that some of the information contained in the correspondence is routine in nature and that it is in the public interest for a publicly funded organization to be transparent about complaints made in connection with its operations.
However, I have also given weight to the consideration that releasing this large quantity of correspondence, even if redacted, might lead to a significant breakdown in trust between IPSA and Members of Parliament for the following reasons.
MPs and their staff must feel comfortable in making formal complaints to IPSA, whether those complaints are justified or not and whether those complaints are articulated in moderate language or more forcefully. Only in such circumstances can the concerns of MPs be fairly addressed by IPSA. Further, it is only in such circumstances that IPSA can identify where processes may have been at fault and take measures to improve the quality of the service it provides to MPs. If the correspondence were to be put into the public domain it is overwhelmingly probable that it would attract media comment which, whether objectively reasonable or not, would be highly likely to discourage MPs from making formal complaint to IPSA in the future. Such discouragement would be detrimental to the functioning of IPSA and to MPs. MPs would not feel free to raise issues of concern to them and IPSA would not be able to review the issues raised and address any shortcomings.
I have also considered whether MPs would reasonably expect to see all their correspondence with IPSA relating to complaints they have made released to the public in response to what is in essence a wide-ranging and unfocussed application and have concluded that they would not reasonably have such an expectation.
It is in the light of these factors that I consider that the release of the correspondence into the public domain could lead to a significant breakdown of trust between IPSA and the MP whose correspondence was released and in consequence with other MPs. Such a breakdown in trust, if it occurred, is highly likely in my view to have a considerable impact on the way in which MPs and IPSA relate and interact with each other generally. I am firmly of the view that trust between MPs and IPSA is of fundamental importance. If MPs felt that they were unable to communicate with IPSA without all their correspondence being put into the public domain that would unquestionably be detrimental to the way in which they dealt with IPSA. The release of the information requested would have an adverse effect on the relationship with IPSA not only in respect of the MPs directly affected but all MPs. It would much reduce the confidence they would otherwise have in dealing openly and frankly with IPSA. The information which IPSA proposes to release provides wholly adequate detail of the complaints received and the outcome of them.
For the reasons set out above it is my reasonable opinion that the release of the requested correspondence would be likely to be prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs.
In the light of this conclusion I, as the Qualified Person, apply Section 36(2) of the Act to exempt that part of the requested information relating to the correspondence from being released.
For these reasons, Sir Neil has, in his capacity as the Qualified Person, concluded that the public interest in disclosure of the information is outweighed by the application of the exemption and has, therefore, applied s.36(2)(b) and s.36(2)(c) of the Act to exempt the requested information from being released.