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Monday, May 19, 2008

UK shows a lead on Freedom of Information

The High Court dismissed an appeal by the House of Commons from a decision of the Information Tribunal requiring disclosure of payments relating to the Additional Costs Allowance, an allowance payable to Members of Parliament who represent constituencies outside London or outer London constituencies.The judgment includes this observation :
"We have no doubt that the public interest is at stake. We are not here dealing with idle gossip, or public curiosity about what in truth are trivialities. The expenditure of public money through the payment of MPs' salaries and allowances is a matter of direct and reasonable interest to taxpayers. They are obliged to pay their taxes at whatever level and on whatever basis the legislature may decide, in part at least to fund the legislative process. Their interest is reinforced by the absence of a coherent system for the exercise of control over and the lack of a clear understanding of the arrangements which govern the payment of ACA. Although the relevant rules are made by the House itself, questions whether the payments have in fact been made within the rules, and even when made within them, whether the rules are appropriate in contemporary society, have a wide resonance throughout the body politic. In the end they bear on public confidence in the operation of our democratic system at its very pinnacle, the House of Commons itself. The nature of the legitimate public interest engaged by these applications is obvious."
Unlike the UK , none of Australia's freedom of information acts extends to information held by our parliaments. The Australian Law Reform Commission Open Government Report, in one of 106 recommendations in 1995 that have not been acted on, recommended this be rectified in the case of Federal parliamentary departments. Only patchy information is available about payments to members of parliament, for example where relevant documents are held by a government agency responsible for some payments such as travel.Parliaments generally handle payments of allowances and entitlements.

And while we continue to see ongoing resistance here to disclosure of advice documents, several decisions in the UK have found the strong public interest in knowing what advice government received justified disclosure after a decision on a matter has been made within government, as outlined in this article by Maurice Frankel of the Campaign for Freedom of Information. Similarly while Minister of State Faulkner introduces a registration requirement for lobbyists, in the UK, in the light of a recent decision, the lobbying industry is on notice that representations to government are not automatically confidential, given the public interest in knowing who is seeking to influence decision making.

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