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Correspondence between IPSA and MPs regarding capital expenditure claims before the General Election
CAS-14957
Disclosure Date:16 Jun 2015
Categories: CORRESPONDENCE
Exemptions Applied: Section 36
Request

Please may I make the following foi request in relation to the following minute in the most recent board meeting: 

"IPSA had written to 60 MPs who had bought items of significant Capital Expenditure (such as iPads and laptops) shortly before the moratorium on such purchases six months before the General Election, to seek assurance that the expenditure was for equipment that was exclusively and necessarily required to carry out their parliamentary functions. Some MPs had taken exception to these requests for assurance.

  • The team had recommended to the MPs in question that these items should be donated to charity after the General Election, although IPSA had no powers to enforce this. Consideration needed to be given to tightening the rules in this respect and should form part of the Fundamental Review of the Scheme."

Please may you provide a copy of the letters sent to the MPs, a list of MPs the letter was sent to and the items that they claimed for which raised suspicion. I would be grateful if you would match the item to each MP. Finally, please may you provide a copy of any replies received or notes made following a phone call from an MP who took exception to the letter. 

Response

IPSA holds the information that you request.

The MPs’ Scheme of Business Costs and Expenses (‘the Scheme’) states:

For the six months prior to the expected dissolution of Parliament, claims for purchases of office equipment, IT and furniture under Office Costs Expenditure will not be allowed. In exceptional circumstances where such purchases are necessary, prior approval from IPSA will be required.”

As noted in our Board minutes, we wrote to a number MPs prior to this rule coming into effect, as part of our regular assurance programme, to confirm that all expenditure fully confirmed with the rules of the Scheme.

In processing your request for information, we have considered the application of the exemption at s.36 of the FOI Act, where disclosure of the information you requested would, or would be likely to prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs. As you may be aware, the exemption at section 36 can only be engaged if, in the reasonable opinion of a ‘qualified person’, disclosure would result in any of the effect set out in section 36(2) of the Act. IPSA’s qualified person, Sir Neil Butterfield, as designated by the Lord Chancellor under s.36(5)(o)(iii) of the FOIA, considered whether the information requested would, or would be likely to inhibit the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation, in accordance with section 36(2)(b)(ii) of the FOIA.

Sir Neil considered competing arguments for and against the application of the exemption, before coming to a ‘reasonable opinion’ as to whether the exemption should be engaged. He then undertook a public interest test to assess whether the public interest in withholding the information outweighs the public interest in disclosure in relation to the s.36 exemption.

In balancing the arguments, Sir Neil has commented as follows:

“The claims and the details relating to them to which the Minute refers will be published on the IPSA website as part of the regular publication process relating to all claims made by MPs under the Scheme. The IPSA validators approved all the claims and all were paid in full. My consideration is accordingly confined to the additional detail sought by Mr. Thomas.

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 that such part of the material to which Section 40 (personal information) might apply can be redacted and that some of the information contained in the correspondence is routine in nature. In addition I acknowledge that it is in the public interest that a publicly funded independent organisation should be transparent in the way it interacts with MPs. I also acknowledge that there should be a high degree of transparency and accountability relating to expense claims and the expenditure of public funds. I further accept that transparency regarding MPs’ justification for their claims could help to assure the public that all claims are in accordance with the rules.

However, I have also given weight to the consideration that releasing this correspondence, even if redacted, might lead to a significant breakdown in trust between IPSA and MPs for the following reasons.

IPSA wrote to MPs to seek their justification for claiming for items of capital expenditure in the period shortly before the moratorium began as part of an assurance process given the increased level of scrutiny likely to arise as the date of the General Election approached. Specifically IPSA sought an explanation as to why the purchase was necessary at that time and further sought an assurance that the items were purchased exclusively for parliamentary use. In consequence of the replies from MPs IPSA was able to determine whether it was appropriate to meet the claims. In the event each claim was met in full. IPSA wished to encourage MPs and their staff to engage freely and frankly in providing information relating to the expenditure. Disclosing the correspondence between IPSA and the MPs would be likely to discourage MPs from co-operating fully and openly in the future. Such a situation would be detrimental to the conduct of the affairs of IPSA and would not be in the public interest.

Where MPs believe that IPSA is wrong in respect of a claim it is right that they should say so. MPs and their staff must feel comfortable in making 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 properly 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 engaging frankly and openly with 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 their correspondence with IPSA relating to these issues released to the public notwithstanding that some communications between MPs and IPSA may from time to time be deemed eligible for release. I have concluded that they would not expect that letters they wrote on this topic would be put into the public domain, and that such an expectation is wholly reasonable.

It is in the light of these factors that I consider that the release of the information sought by Mr. Thomas into the public domain could lead to a significant breakdown of trust between IPSA and the MPs whose correspondence was released and in consequence with other MPs. Such a breakdown in trust, if it occurred, is 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 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 significantly reduce the confidence they would otherwise have in dealing openly and frankly with IPSA.

For the reasons set out above it is my reasonable opinion that the release of the requested information would be likely to be prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs.”

As such, we have engaged the exemption at section 36(2)(b)(ii) of the FOIA to withhold the information that you have requested.