MPs staff: Appeal to Information Commissioner

TO: Richard Thomas
Information Commissioner
Wycliffe House
Water Lane
Cheshire SK9 5AF

6 April 2005


Dear Mr Thomas

I am appealing a refusal notice issued by the House of Commons in relation to my request for the names and salary details of MPs staff. I have attached my letter to the House of Commons sent 2 January 2005 along with the House of Commons response 31 January 2005, and the results from their internal review 24 March 2005. I have also attached a Word file of our collected email correspondence.

This issue should be expedited due to the General Election as it involves the propriety of MPs and the way they hire and pay staff.

I made the request in order to abolish the needless secrecy surrounding the identity of staff working for our public representatives. The House of Commons is claiming that ‘Members of Parliament in their individual capacities are not public authorities subject to the 2000 Act’. I cannot see how this is true. MPs are our public representatives and the primary component of the House of Commons, so if they do not fall under the definition of the House of Commons, who does? MPs are public authorities while carrying out official duties and this includes hiring and paying for staff.

The HoC also claims that MPs’staff are not public employees. Yet these people are paid for with public money, and I understand their benefits, terms and conditions of employment are much the same as other public employees. How on earth can a democratic institution argue that ‘staff employed by Members can reasonably expect that their identities will not be disclosed (except as required by the register) and, to an even greater extent, that their individual salaries will not be published.’ An employee is responsible ultimately to the person who pays his or her salary. That ‘person’ can be a corporation or an entity – in this case it is ultimately the public. Therefore it is only reasonable that these employees are accountable to the public.

I am not convinced that the information I seek meets the definition of ‘personal’ as defined in Durant v FSA. While it is true that the staff concerned are the focus of the information, I do not see how their privacy is affected. To be identified as working for an MP certainly does not adversely affect one’s reputation, quite the opposite.

The ICO’s own guidance states that, ‘Where information requests is about the people acting in a work of official capacity then it will normally be right to disclose.’ And also: ‘Information which is about the home of family life of an individual, his or her personal finances, or consists of personal references, is likely to deserve protection. By contrast, information which is about someone acting in an official or work capacity should normally be provided on request unless there is some risk to the individual concerned.’

Supposing that this information does meet the definition of what is personal data, then the information should still be published. The Data Protection Act 1998 states that information can be disclosed if it is done ‘fairly and lawfully’ and at least one of the conditions in Schedule 2 of the DPA is met.

As stated earlier, it is not unfair to expect that if you take the public’s money you will need to account for yourself to the public – that involves, at the very least, telling the public who you are, how much of their money you are taking, and for what purpose. It is lawful in that the disclosure is made under the statutory requirement of the Freedom of Information Act.
My request meets paragraph 3 of Schedule 2: The processing is necessary for compliance with any legal obligation to which the data controller is subject, other than an obligation imposed by contract. And 5, in particular 5 (d) for the exercise of any other functions of a public nature exercised in the public interest by any person.

Schedule 2, paragraph 6 of the Data Protection Act allows for the release of personal information where it is for legitimate interests. The burden is on the public authority to show that the processing of this personal information is unwarranted. They have failed to do so.

The processing of this information is clearly necessary and my asking for it as a member of the public is a legitimate task. There is a practice in parliament of engaging spouses and relatives in employment and there is concern that this nepotism is an abuse of public funds. There is a legitimate need to know who these people are and what work, if any, they are doing. The investigative reporter Michael Crick estimates that around 100 MPs employ family members, and while most may work very hard, some may do nothing at all. The public need to know the names and relationship with the MP in order to have faith that public funds are being used correctly.

In respect of my request, I would also ask the Information Commissioner to issue guidance requiring all future public employee contracts to state that the names and salaries of public service staff will be made public unless the person can show some reason why this would adversely affect their privacy and safety.

Heather Brooke

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