It is up to politicians even whether they should be given access to documents that pertain to their personal finances or those of party members. This may no longer be the case, according to leading law professors.
Aftenposten has revealed in a series of articles how politicians benefit from the plans they have created for themselves. And how the Office of the Auditor General for several years did not review the control routines of the Storting administration with these schemes.
Both the Auditor General and the Prime Minister have publicly thanked the press for developing the travel housing cases.
But what few people know is that access to the press can be stopped at any time by the current political majority in the Storting.
The highest body that decides whether the Storting documents will be kept secret is the presidency. Here are the same politicians who have adopted the schemes from which they themselves benefit.
The guidelines for the allocation of accommodation for travelers, for example, have been adopted by the chairmanship of the Storting. Meetings take place behind closed doors.
In working on the travel housing cases, Aftenposten has requested access to various documents. One of the many documents that the Storting will not provide full access to is this form.
It shows which politicians got rid of free traveler housing in 2014 and whether politicians have reported usage as required by the rules:
The Storting administration justifies secrecy with the third paragraph of the Law on Public Access to Information § 24. This means that the administration believes that the information is adequate to facilitate the commission of criminal acts or expose people to danger.
The administration has also leaked parts of documents related to the allocation of traveler housing to the Storting’s acting chairman, Tone W. Trøen. Gossip can be completely legitimate.
But the Storting administration has informed Aftenposten that if we want to complain about this gossip, the complaint will be processed by the Storting director. It is directly subordinate to the chairmanship of the Storting, which is chaired by Tone W. Trøen until a new chairmanship is elected.
The administration has handled the case in full compliance with the law. The Storting has made its own Take action on public access to documents at the Storting.
It states that the Storting’s own leadership will be the body of appeal of everything that the administration wishes to keep secret, also with regard to the Storting politicians’ own profits:
- If the employees of the Storting administration want to keep the documents secret, the head of the Storting is the appeal body.
- If the head of the Storting keeps the documents secret, the chairmanship of the Storting is the body of appeal.
This means that the same politicians who investigate the press have the power to decide how much knowledge the press should have.
Or that the director runs the risk of being an appeal body in cases of access to documents that may reveal errors for which she is responsible.
The Aftenposten articles have revealed, among other things, that politicians have been allocated accommodation for travelers to which they are not entitled.
Several law professors now advocate for changes in the law.
– The Storting should establish an independent appeal body
If the press requests access to documents that could cast a critical spotlight on the top management of a municipality, neither the councilor nor the city council decides whether the documents should be published.
Only the state county manager has the authority to do so. They are the body of appeal in such cases. Thus, the issue of secrecy is decided by an environment that is not responsible for errors or irregularities that appear in the documents. The state administrator is considered one Independent appeal body in relation to municipalities.
Several prominent law professors now believe that the Storting should adopt the same for access to documents in the Storting administration.
– In the light of recent cases related to accommodation for travelers, the Storting should ask itself whether, for reasons of trust in the Storting, it should establish an independent appeal body in matters related to access to documents before the Storting administration or regulate impartiality in the rules of the Storting.
That’s what Erik Holmøyvik says. He is a professor at the University of Bergen and an expert in Constitution and constitutional law.
– Remove the veil of suspicion
Holmøyvik points out that neither the government nor the Storting are bound by the fairness rules of the Public Administration Act. Currently, the government conducts impartiality evaluations on an allegedly illegal basis.
Does this mean that the chairman of the Storting can make the decision to keep the documents about his commuter address secret?
– Yes, but later as a majority decision in the Presidency.
Holmøyvik notes that it is a political question whether the Storting wants an independent appeals body or internal rules of fairness. He himself believes that it may be prudent:
– It will remove the veil of suspicion on those who have to make decisions in cases that concern them. It won’t surprise me if something like this happens, says Holmøyvik.
– The Storting has been conscious on previous occasions to show openness to counteract the impression of mixed roles. For example, by establishing a register of the positions and financial interests of parliamentary representatives.
The goat and the bag of oats
– This is the goat and the bag of oats. Not good. What to do with it? There is nothing more to do than simply change the rules, says Arvid Aage Skaar.
He is an emeritus professor and expert in tax law and tax administration law at the University of Oslo.
– Further investigation should be made as to whether it will be the Office of the Auditor General or someone else. In any case, it cannot be the Storting himself. The goal of an appeals system is that you should be able to have an independent review of the decision. You will not receive this if the appeal is to be considered in the same setting that it was rejected in the first instance. All fairness rules have to do with trust in the person making the decision.
– Serious for democracy
– It is necessary to clarify what advertising rules will apply to the Storting, believes Christoffer Conrad Eriksen.
He is a professor of public law at the University of Oslo and an expert in public law and legal methods.
– The debate that has arisen after the suburban housing cases has raised several unresolved questions about whether the Storting itself follows the rules that apply. And what is the administration or presidency based on in their assessments. It can weaken confidence in the Storting. It is serious for Norwegian democracy.
– Does that mean you think we will be served by an independent appeals body?
– Exactly how to solve it must be investigated. And that should be a priority.