MPs have rights too

The Guardian reports on MPs’ concerns that IPSA’s proactive commitment to transparency is putting them at risk. Could those MPs use the Data Protection Act to stop IPSA publishing?

Anyone who has worked in the fields of Freedom of Information (FOI) and transparency will have come across colleagues or third parties who fear that one will simply disclose information, including personal information, into the public domain, without any thought. The reality is very different: FOI and transparency  professionals need to be expert not only in FOI law, but also other laws, such as breach of confidence, and, especially, the law of data protection: the FOI Act’s most cited exemption is at section 40(2), which provides an absolute exemption to disclosure where to do so would contravene someone’s rights under the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA).

With this in mind, and at least on the face of things, I have some sympathies with MPs concerned at proactive disclosure of details of mileage claims by IPSA (the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority). (Although the law requires candidates for parliamentary seats to declare their home address, as UKIP’s Paul Nuttall has recently been reminded, candidates can ask that the addresses not be made public.) The Guardian reports that the SNP’s Angus Robertson has ordered colleagues to stop submitting claims, because

data now required to make a claim for mileage, including the locations of journeys travelled to and from on a daily basis, was now being publicised [by IPSA]

Robertson says

Ipsa have been aware for some time that they are inadvertently confirming the home locations of parliamentarians, which runs contrary to basic security advice

Although IPSA appear to dispute that what is being published could locate specific properties, it is important to note that the expenses information being published is the personal data of the MPs involved. Therefore, any processing of it by IPSA must be in accordance with their obligations under the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA). The first data protection principle (in Schedule One of the DPA) requires that processing must be fair and lawful: if Robertson and others are right that there is a risk of disclosure of their home addresses (maybe by combining the IPSA data with other publicly available data), there is a strong argument that the processing is not fair.

So what can MPs do? Well, in addition to refusing to submit claims (which is rather cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face), the DPA offers a possible option. Section 10 allows a data subject to serve a notice in writing requiring a data controller to cease a specified act of processing, on the grounds that the processing is causing unwarranted substantial distress. Upon receipt of such a notice the data controller has twenty one days to respond, either by ceasing the processing, or stating why it considers the notice unjustified. At that point the data subject can ask a court to rule on whether the notice was justified, and order such steps as are appropriate.

Were an MP or MPs to serve such a notice, it might be difficult for IPSA to dispute the potential for substantial distress to be caused – if MPs reasonably fear that disclosure of their home addresses could occur (and it seems to me to be quite possible that they could – a location frequently travelled from at the start of a day, and to at the end of the day is quite likely to be a place of residence) then, given the horrendous murder of Jo Cox last year, and general ongoing security threats, I don’t think it would be surprising for such distress to be caused. And if the distress caused is real and substantial, could IPSA say it was warranted? I very much doubt it – the publication of this information is not necessary for the performance of IPSA’s core functions.

IPSA say that they have “consulted police” and feel that there is not a risk, although the Guardian suggests that both the Met and “senior security sources” have expressed concerns.

MPs’ expenses of course play an important part in the history of FOI in the UK, and some of the abuses of the system which were revealed when the requested information was leaked to the Telegraph were egregious (although it’s always worth remembering that were it not for the leak, a lot of the more gory details would probably not have emerged). But threats to MPs are real and serious, and one wonders why IPSA, even if it thinks the risk of identification of home addresses is low or even non-existent would not want to review the practice. A section 10 notice would, though, force the issue.

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.

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Filed under Data Protection, Freedom of Information, parliament

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