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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Journalist scoops the pool - FOI unmasks MPs expenses

Well, not Australia but it did happen in Scotland.

The Scottish Journalist of the Year and Political Journalist of the Year has been awarded to the Sunday Herald’s Political Editor Paul Hutcheon, recognising his lengthy investigation into the use of taxis by members of the Scottish Parliament. His reports were based on FOI requests for expense reimbursements by individual members of the Scottish Parliament.

The Parliament provided Hutcheon with details of taxi expenses for the leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, David McLetchie, but deleted the taxi destinations from the documents released. Hutcheon took this issue to the Information Commissioner who overruled the Parliamentary Department and decided that in the circumstances disclosure of this information was not unreasonable.

It took 4 months work to publish the first story, which revealed McLetchie’s claims for reimbursement for travel to football matches, frequent visits to the home of a former female staffer and to his legal practice, and 4 months of follow up stories before McLetchie resigned last December.

A couple of interesting issues: the Scottish Parliament is an agency covered by FOI legislation in contrast to all Australian legislatures, so we never hear much about expenditure from the Parliamentary account including that of non government members; and the Scottish Parliament now publishes on the web detailed information about all expense claims for all members of Parliament.

If you go to this site, click on SPICe briefing – MSPs’ Allowances and Expenditure 2004-05 and pick any member at random you will see that all expenses are listed. In some cases this discloses that members are paying mortgage interest out of their accommodation allowance, and of course a whole range of other expenses. There is no suggestion any of this is underhand. They are all still MSPs despite the disclosures. Details include staff travel and expenses as well.

What a contrast to local practice. The Federal Government publishes details of Parliamentary travel every 6 months (but its not on the web), and the NSW Government has recently released travel details for ministers in response to an FOI application by the Opposition, but its not rushing to make this a routine or comprehensive disclosure.

Another example from elsewhere that FOI reform is long overdue and that full proactive disclosure isn’t the end of the world.

Thanks to Steve Wood’s UK FOI blog for the lead on the Journalist of the Year story.

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