Witch-hunt? MPs don’t get it

Witch-hunt? MPs don’t get it
The Times, February 28, 2008
My battle to make MPs’ expenses more transparent met with obstruction and mystification
By Heather Brooke

Nearly 15 years ago I found myself in a small office digging through boxes of receipts looking at the expense claims of local politicians. Everything was laid bare: all the trips, all the meals, all the hotel bills, all the contracts. I was a young trainee reporter covering the Washington State government, and my editor had suggested I look at these claims to see if there were any instances of corruption or personal enrichment.

The laws of the state required that all expense claims and receipts be open to the public. And do you know what I found? Nothing. Not one instance of an improper claim or misuse of money. That is the result of transparent government.

Fast forward to 2004 and I find myself in London. I decide to replicate the exercise in the Mother of Parliaments. I ask the House of Commons for a detailed breakdown of MPs’ expenses. So unusual is this request that the officials greet my question with stunned silence. The public aren’t even allowed in the Commons Library to access official documents paid for with public money, so there’s no way they’re getting anywhere near expense records.

Later, the officials tell me they’re publishing annual bulk figures. But that’s no good, I tell them. A myriad of sins can be hidden in bulk totals. An MP can claim £23,000 for a second home but there’s no way to see if it is a legitimate expense without a detailed breakdown. Is it for mortgage payments or a new kitchen? Food or a new flat-screen TV?

When the Freedom of Information Act came into force in 2005 I used it to ask for a detailed breakdown of MPs’ travel expenses, staff allowances and finally their second-homes allowance. I encountered relentless opposition from the Commons authorities and Michael Martin, the Speaker. Andrew Walker, the House of Commons’ director of finance and administration, said with a straight face that he believed the transparency I sought was bad for democracy. He thought it mere “public curiosity” rather than “public interest” and that it would impinge on MPs’ jobs to have to account to the public.

Finally, this week, my three-year battle culminated with the Information Tribunal ruling that MPs must disclose all documentation associated with their second-homes claims. But many MPs are angry about this. They think it’s an invasion of their privacy and that my campaign is some sort of witch-hunt. They just don’t get it. In a democracy MPs are supposed to be directly accountable to the people they represent; not accountable to other politicians, or officialdom, but to us.

As I listened to Mr Walker testify, the scale of parliamentary arrogance became clear. He didn’t even try to hide the fact that there were little or no checks on MPs expense claims. Why should there be? They are honourable members. I could just imagine Mr Walker as Lady Bracknell. The public? As though the very idea of an MP being accountable to the public was so beyond the pale it could barely be allowed in polite conversation.

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10 Responses to “Witch-hunt? MPs don’t get it”

  1. Colin says:

    Heather

    You are a star and deserve a big pat on the back well done

  2. Carl Watkin says:

    Heather, when you’re going through hell, keep going!!!!
    These arrogant, snouts in the troughs MP’s will be held to account one way or another.
    Power corrupts and the longer they have that power, the more they believe their corruption is ok.
    While Britain burns, Westminster fiddles, literally!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. leo says:

    Heather, Thank you for that.
    As an ordinary member of the “ripped off” public, I would not have even known where to start to get that info. Please continue to keep us informed.

  4. Chris Dornan says:

    We certainly get it. You are quite right and I am astonished–simply astonished–at the attitude of the MPs. The commons is indeed a very exclusive club.

  5. James says:

    “The public aren’t even allowed in the Commons Library to access official documents paid for with public money”

    From the begining of the 2007/08 parliamentary session papers placed in the Library of either House are available online at http://www.deposits.parliament.uk

  6. colin fowler says:

    these people work for me i pay there wages and i want to see what my tax paying money goes either show me or leave your job if you are fiddling you should be treated the same as a benefit fraudster because that is what you are a tax cheat no differant in fact benefit cheats probably would have more respect keep going Heather

  7. Hamish says:

    Thank you for all that you have done thus far Heather.- Personaly I was quite astounded when I read of all the “add-on” expenses these very expensive people can claim out of the public purse. – A real gravy train….And they are limiting what others get in terms of pay rises to a paltry 2/2.5% – And then have the cheek to tell us how to behave! – Roll on the publication of MPs expenses…I’m sure you’ll uncover a veritable mountain of very interesting reading!

  8. Louis says:

    As stated above by others kudos to you for rising above the circular arguments of aids, an outdated and disassociated bunch of mp’s who have kicked and bucked every step of the way, and now hate mail to expose not the levels of deplorable behaviour by our government ministers and associates. I have always struggled with requests for information from local and central government in the past and do not envy your efforts to get this far.

    I am astonished the architects of our country, see themselves about accountability when all along they continually diminishing the value of an individual’s common sense and personal judgement in favour of a nanny state.
    Perhaps when you’ve finished you could post the names of the few honest MP’s left who didn’t abuse their privilege that might actually help stop the others who abuse the system… (I’ll be eager to see that postage stamp if you do)

  9. gordon v taylor says:

    I`ve been onto the item of MPs expenses for almost as long as you but didn`t make the same amount of progress. My line of attack was that MPs get their second home paid for…in the main… by the taxpayer so when sold the proceeds should go back to the tax payer. Instead the MP pockets the lot …tax free. Other abuses are that married MPs can claim the allowance twice for the same house,or they can claim if they own the house outright OR they can re-mortgage so the taxpayer keeps on paying the building society Interest [which is the bulk of the mortgage at the beginning ]rather than start paying off thd capital [which is not covered by the Allowance ]

  10. Andrew says:

    I work 60 hours a week and pick up less than half what of an m.p gets for being an m.p Can I claim Expenses to got to work on a bike or for my second home (shed in garden) now chance, it is about time that we see how much of our money they are actually spending and what on if i want a new kitchen it comes out of my hard earned cash not an expence account. Why do we put up with this i am waiting for my firm to ask! me how much i would like for my payrise this year then we can vote on it

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