Correspondence between Conservative MPs and IPSA

Request

“Could I have access to emails and letters sent by Tory MPs to IPSA, specifically after it set up its review of MPs pay and pensions.”

The requester later clarified that ‘set up its review of MPs pay and pensions’ referred to the launch of the IPSA’s public consultation on 11 July 2013.


Response

IPSA holds the information that you request.

In response to your previous related request for correspondence, of 17 July 2013 (reference F1314-078), we estimated that compliance with your request would take IPSA significantly over the appropriate cost limit of £450 (part 1 of Schedule 1 of the Freedom of Information Act) and we, therefore, informed you that we would not be obliged to respond to your request. 

In light of this, for your current request, we undertook a test to estimate the hours of staff time it would take to locate, retrieve and extract the information requested and have estimated that it would be within the appropriate cost limit.

However, in responding to your request, we have also considered the public interest arguments surrounding the release of the correspondence sent by MPs to IPSA.

Our qualified person, Sir Neil Butterfield, as designated by the Lord Chancellor under s.36(5)(o)(iii) of the FOIA, 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.

Sir Neil has conducted the public interest balancing exercise in relation to the engagement of the exemption at s.36(2)(c) (prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs) of the Act. In doing so, Sir Neil considered the correspondence requested and the arguments for and against applying s.36.

Sir Neil considered that the presumption of Freedom of Information legislation is that information should be released on request.  Sir Neil also considered whether releasing such correspondence could lead to a significant breakdown in trust between IPSA and MPs, affecting directly the manner in which MPs and IPSA interact with each other and whether this could have a detrimental impact on the conduct of public affairs.

He also considered whether the MPs in question would reasonably expect to see their correspondence with IPSA released to the public, notwithstanding the fact that certain communications may from time to time placed in the public domain.  He considered whether MPs have a right to a level of confidentiality in their communications with IPSA, taking into account that such a right is not absolute and whether if MPs as a class believe that their communication with IPSA is likely to be released they are likely either to minimise contact with IPSA – resulting potentially in increased self-funding of their parliamentary functions – or to seek to communicate with IPSA through other avenues, for example by seeking informal meetings or making direct approaches by telephone.  The latter consequence would impede IPSA’s ability to work effectively and the former would likely impede the MP’s ability to work effectively – in both cases impeding the effective conduct of public affairs.

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

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 was likely to be prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs. In doing so I have considered a substantial part of the correspondence to which the requests 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.

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. 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. I have also considered whether MPs would reasonably expect to see all their correspondence with IPSA 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.

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.

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.

In the light of this conclusion I, as the Qualified Person, apply Section 36(2) of the Act to exempt the requested information from being released.

Sir Neil has, therefore, in his capacity as the Qualified Person, applied s.36(2)(c) of the Act to exempt the requested information from being released.

As outlined in our response to your previous related FOI request, we publish responses to consultations undertaken by IPSA since it was established in May 2010 on our website, except in cases where respondents have requested anonymity.  These include any letters or emails received from MPs in response to the consultations.  We have already published responses to closed consultations, including in relation to IPSA’s annual review of the MPs’ Scheme of Business Costs and Expenses and to the work IPSA has already carried out on the review of MPs’ pay and pensions.  You can access the published information via this link to the Consultations section of our website.

Section 22(1) of the FOIA states that information intended for future publication is exempt from release.  We have considered whether the public interest in releasing the information outweighs the application of the exemption. It is our opinion that the public interest is best served by publishing the conclusions and responses to consultations in a complete form rather than on an ad hoc basis.   It is for this reason that the application of the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosure at this stage.

Further, as noted above, in some cases respondents to consultations have specifically requested anonymity.  In IPSA’s view, this information is exempt under Section 41(1) of the FOIA. Section 41(1) provides an exemption to the right of access where disclosure to the public of information that has been provided to IPSA in confidence by another person would constitute an actionable breach of confidence. This is an absolute exemption and therefore not subject to a public interest test.

Ref:
F1314-098
Disclosure:
September 30, 2013
Categories:
CORRESPONDENCE
Exemptions Applied:
Section 36