MPs to censor their own expenses
MPs are to set to begin censoring their own expenses records before they are published.
By James Kirkup, Political Correspondent
Last Updated: 10:30AM BST 31 Mar 2009
Members will this week be shown copies of thousands of receipts and other documents due to be published under the Freedom of Information Act.
They will be invited to redact the documents, blacking out information they do not want to disclose.
The Commons is spending thousands of pounds paying security-cleared specialist contractors to remove any sensitive information like bank details from receipts.
But even after the contractors have vetted the documents, MPs will review their claims and make further changes of their own.
Harriet Harman, the Leader of the Commons, says the redaction process is harmless and necessary to preserve the privacy of MPs.
But the editing process has raised fears that MPs will use the opportunity to keep some information secret and even to delay the whole publication, which is supposed to take place this summer.
The Government in January backed down on an attempt to exclude the expenses claims from Freedom of Information laws.
Following a court ruling, every receipt submitted for expenses claims by MPs since 2004 should be published later this year, around 1.2 million in all. The receipts show how MPs use the £24,000-a-year additional costs allowance, which is meant to fund a second home.
Each MP will be asked to review an average of 2,000 documents. They will be given a month to identify information they think should be withheld and submit their changes to the Commons authorities.
The redacting process is supposed to prevent the disclosure of sensitive personal information like credit card numbers.
But in discussions with MPs, Ms Harman has suggested that information like the names and addresses of shops, and even the time and date purchases were made, could be blacked out.
Allowing the subjects of a disclosure request to edit documents themselves is unusual. Most public sector bodies required to publish give the task of editing to other people not involved in the case.
The House of Commons has employed security-cleared contractors as part of a £2 million programme of preparing copies of the receipts for publication. The contractors have been asked to redact any information that should not be published.
However, MPs argue that they must still be allowed to vet their own claims because, they claim, they have unique knowledge of their constituencies and any "local issues" that may be raised by disclosure.
"Although it might be evident to a member what something might reveal, with the best will in the world and however professional they are, it might not be evident to the people doing the redacting," Miss Harman said.
The redacting process will allow MPs to "go through things and say what information should be crossed out and what should be left in," she said.
The MPs' changes will then be submitted to Commons officials working for Michael Martin, the Speaker.
In the event that the clerks believe that a redaction is not necessary, the dispute will be decided by the Members' Estimates Committee, a panel of senior MPs appointed and chaired by Mr Martin.
Nick Harvey, the chairman of the House of Commons Commission, which oversees the publication process, confirmed that MPs will be able to alter their papers.
He said: "On completion of the scanning and editing work, members will need to check the records relating to them, and further editing may then be required."
No date for final publication of the edited receipts has been set, he said.