Study of the House of Commons’ Board of Internal Economy

Submission to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs

November 20, 2013

The Honourable Joe Preston
Chair
Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs
Sixth Floor, 131 Queen Street
House of Commons
Ottawa ON K1A 0A6

Study of the House of Commons’ Board of Internal Economy
Submission to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs

Dear Mr. Preston:

I wish to thank you and your Committee for the opportunity to submit this written statement concerning a study regarding the House of Commons’ Board of Internal Economy.

My understanding is that the Committee is specifically interested in my views with respect to the publication on the web of Members of Parliament’s expenses, including invoices and names of people met by MPs.  We are not making any comments with respect to obligations that may arise under the Lobbying Act.

The Privacy Act

The Privacy Act does not apply to Members of Parliament or Senators. However, beyond the strict applicability of the Act, I would be pleased to offer some general principles that may provide guidance regarding possible disclosure of MPs’ expenses. 

Balancing transparency and privacy

As you may know, I have signed, along with the Information Commissioner of Canada and our provincial and territorial counterparts, a joint resolution in 2010 endorsing and promoting open government as a means to enhance transparency and accountability.

While these are essential features of good governance and critical elements of an effective and robust democracy, they also need to be balanced with privacy.  In this respect, the resolution states that, in implementing open government policies, the governments should give due consideration to privacy and confidentiality.

Application of a privacy analysis framework to expenses disclosure

Expenses disclosure is not a novel concept at the federal level. Ministers, ministerial staff and senior public service officials are currently under the obligation to pro-actively disclose certain types of expenses, such as travel and hospitality, contracts over $10,000, and grants and contributions over $25,000. Canadians deserve such an accountability measure.

That said, as with other initiatives that may touch on personal information of individuals, I would encourage parliamentarians to examine the potential privacy risks of publishing all details of MPs’ expenses through the application of a privacy analysis framework that addresses the necessity, effectiveness, and proportionality of such a measure, and whether less privacy-invasive means exist to achieve the same end.

The first question evaluates whether the proposed measure is required to achieve a particular objective. Often, a range of instruments is available to achieve a specific goal, ranging from voluntary codes to binding rules and laws.

The second question considers whether the proposed measure will be successful in achieving the stated goal. It is important to carefully consider the results that will be realized.

The third question – which focuses on proportionality – is critical to assessing the privacy impact of a proposed measure. There are some important issues to be considered at this step such as identifying all the potential privacy implications of the proposed measure, how many individuals will be affected, the extent of the privacy loss, and then making a determination as to whether the benefits of the proposed measure balance out these losses.

The final step seeks to determine whether the proposed measure can be substituted by another measure that might have a less significant effect on privacy.  While this is not always possible, careful consideration should be given as to whether other options can yield similar results, but in a less privacy-intrusive way.

In some instances, and depending on circumstances and stated objectives, a possible way to reduce potential privacy intrusion while still achieving accountability objectives may be to limit the scope of disclosure to aggregate numbers, disclosing certain categories of information (for example, travel or hospitality) or to withhold (or anonymize) the names of individuals with whom MPs interact, or to disclose the names of their organizations or affiliations instead.

I hope you will find these general principles useful in guiding the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs’ reflection regarding the public disclosure of MPs expenses, and I thank you once again for providing me an opportunity to share my thoughts on the balancing of transparency and privacy objectives.

Sincerely,

(Original signed by)

Jennifer Stoddart
Privacy Commissioner of Canada

Date modified: