Speaker of House of Commons blocks information release again

Michael Martin, the Speaker of the House of Commons, has opened up a new row over Parliamentary secrecy by blocking the release of information about MPs' foreign trips.

The dispute erupted after Alda Barry, the Commons Registrar of Members' Interests, ruled that MPs should not have to declare details of trips they make abroad as guests of the British Council, a taxpayer-funded body.

Since February 2007, 12 MPs have travelled overseas with the British Council to destinations including Thailand, India and Malawi, often at a cost of thousands of pounds.

MPs must normally declare any hospitality they receive from outside organisations, and the British Council does not appear on a list of bodies whose gifts are exempt from the requirement.

When The Sunday Telegraph used the Freedom of Information Act to ask the Commons authorities why the trips were not being declared, Mr Martin stepped in and took the highly unusual step of signing a special certificate preventing the release of any information about how the decision was reached.

The document, headed 'The Certificate', cites Parliamentary privilege as the reason to impose secrecy. It even halts any further investigation by Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, who would normally have the power to intervene.

The Speaker's move to block information that campaigners claim should be in the public domain has been condemned by MPs from all parties as well as civil liberty advocates.

In recent months, Mr Martin has been heavily criticised for trying to suppress details about MPs' expenses and for trying to exempt aspects of their work from the Freedom of Information Act.

It is also not the first time that he has used the controversial certificate. In 2006, Mr Martin issued a certificate banning the release of a list of MPs' staff under Freedom of Information laws.

He claimed at the time that identifying the employees would "prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs" despite the Information Commissioner ruling that there were no legitimate grounds for hiding the names.

Speaker Michael Martin in secrecy row over British Council trips (Telegraph.co.uk, 7 February 2009)