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A Victory for Transparency in the United Kingdom

The resignation of the Speaker of the UK House of Commons demonstrates the power of transparency.

(This story first appeared on The Access Initiative blog.)

In a historic and momentous move, Michael Martin, the Speaker of the UK House of Commons, resigned his position this week. It's the first time a Speaker has resigned in three hundred years.

The events were precipitated by proceedings under the new Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that took effect four years ago.

It all started when Heather Brooke, a US journalist, made a request for expense receipts from a few UK Members of Parliament. The FOIA came into force in 2005. The House of Commons refused to release the receipts, and Brooke had to ask the UK Information Commissioner to intervene under the FOIA. The Information Commissioner backed the request, but did not order the receipts to be released. Brooke appealed to the Information Tribunal under the FOIA and the Tribunal backed her request for receipts.

That's when former Speaker Martin decided to block the release of the receipts. He retained legal counsel (at the expense of the taxpayer) and challenged the Information Tribunal’s and Commissioner’s rulings before the High Court. Fortunately for the public, the High Court upheld the ruling and ordered that the MP’s receipts be released to Brooke.

In its ruling of May 2008 the High Court had this to say:

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.

All the MP’s expense receipts were due for release this summer, but someone leaked the documents to the Daily Telegraph early. Within days it became clear that MPs had used tax payer’s money to pay for everything from chandeliers to cookies and moat cleanings to mortgage payments. The rules are clear that expenses should relate to parliamentary work and should not damage the reputation of Parliament.

The British public was outraged and the scandal took the House of Commons by storm. Clearly, the Speaker had dragged his feet and acted against the general public interest, perhaps with a mistaken sense of protecting MPs. In essence, he lost the confidence of the House of Commons and of the public.

Commenting on the situation, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg told the BBC that Michael Martin the Speaker had “proved himself over some time now to be a dogged defender of the way things are, of the status quo. And what we need very urgently is someone … who will lead a wholesale radical process of reform."

The ability of transparency to ensure compliance with the law and corruption free politics is clear. Indeed, the events leading to this historic resignation began with a modest request under the UK's new freedom of information law. In this case, Michael Martin stood on the wrong side of the line perpetuating secrecy and protecting wrongdoers.

Today, over 80 countries have FOIAs and citizens all over the world are beginning to enjoy the right of access to information, a basic human right rooted in the freedom of expression.

Learn more about issues surrounding access to information at The Access Initiative.

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