From The Sunday Times, May 25, 2008
Tweaking tails: the battle to reveal MPs’ expenses
By Heather Brooke
Here I am opening up another box of delights. It’s about 15 years since I last rifled through a politicians’ expenses. The first time, I was a young reporter in Washington state: I simply walked into the clerk’s office of the Legislature, asked to see the expenses and a very friendly member of staff handed them over – everything from hotel bills and room service to flights and stationery costs. The whole matter was concluded in a matter of days at no cost to the taxpayer.
By contrast, our three-year-battle with the House of Commons for a similar breakdown has been met with obstruction and obfuscation at every turn. Michael Martin, the Speaker, has sanctioned the expenditure at least £200,000 of taxpayer’s money preventing the public from finding out how public money is spent. Even now, we must wait until the Autumn for a full breakdown of individual claims and receipts for all MPs’ allowances.
MPs seem to live in a different world to the rest of us. Where the director of a business must declare his home address in Companies House, MPs believe theirs should be kept secret. Where the Inland Revenue requires employees to provide receipts for all claims and keep those records for six years, MPs don’t have to produce receipts for any claims under £250. While MPs have passed new laws that demand not just our addresses but our health records, emails, phone messages and DNA, they have the gall to demand secrecy for how they spend public money.
Such secrecy invites scandal. Michael Trend, the former Conservative MP, was forced to resign in 2002 after it emerged he claimed £90,000 for a fictional second home. More recently Derek Conway, another Conservative MP, faced calls for his resignation after paying £260,000 to members of his own family. One can’t help thinking they are the tip of a very substantial iceberg.
MPs should be paragons of accountability and transparency, setting the bar for other public figures. Instead, they have been the exact opposite. Last spring David MacLean, who sits on the panel charged with reforming MPs’ expenses, proposed a Private Members’ Bill that would exempt all MPs from the Freedom of Information Act. The bill received overwhelming support in the Commons, and only failed when a massive media outcry meant it couldn’t find a sponsor in the House of Lords.
On Friday, we found out what they were so desperate to hide. Tony Blair and his successor Gordon Brown spent almost £15,000 of taxpayers’ money between them getting new kitchens while Barbara Follett, the wife of millionaire novelist Ken Follett, claimed more than £1,600 for window cleaning at her London home at £94-a-pop. Blair was once threatened with debt collectors for failing to pay his water bill while Margaret Beckett put through a claim for nearly £2000 for her garden in Derby while living in a taxpayer-funded flat at Admiralty House, London.
It’s up to constituents to decide if this is an acceptable use of public money but the way MPs sought to keep these details hidden indicates they did not think they were justifiable. The details were kept secret purely to avoid embarrassment and to allow the system to continue unchecked. Yet we had to battle three years and listen to countless arguments about ‘security’ and MPs’ ‘privacy’ to get this far.
The battle began on January 4, 2005, when The Sunday Times put in a Freedom of Information request asking for a detailed breakdown of Tony Blair and Margaret Beckett’s expenses. A year later I followed asking for details of all MPs ACA claims. I was told it would cost too much money to tell the public how public money was spent so I had to narrow my request to 10 MPs.
Since then I have been amazed at the level of arrogance from both MPs and the speaker, who seem to think we’ve no right to know the niggly details of their claims. My argument has always been that if an MP can take the trouble to claim back £1.20 from the public purse then he can jolly well take the trouble to account for how he spent it.
This was a view shared by the Information Tribunal, which in February gave a scathing ruling on how the Additional Costs Allowance is doled out, describing it as “a recipe for confusion, inconsistency and the risk of misuse”. Andrew Walker, the House of Commons official in charge of expenses, admitted that even he did not have a complete grasp of how the system worked, with its loopholes and unwritten rules.
The Tribunal ordered full disclosure yet the Speaker further dragged MPs through the mud by appealing to the High Court, where Nigel Griffin, QC, put forward the most ludicrous arguments for maintaining secrecy. He insisted that to publish the addresses would expose MPs to the “mad and bad”, which seems to be what MPs call their constituents these days. This is ironic as these are the same MPs who have passed more laws than any others allowing the state to snoop on private citizens. Frankly, the public have more to fear from MPs than MPs have to fear from the public.
Thankfully, the High Court saw sense. Sir Igor Judge, President of the Queens Bench, said: “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.”
It is shaming that in the ‘mother of parliaments’ I had to fight so long for so basic a level of accountability. If MPs were smart, they would realise that being open with citizens is the best way of re-establishing trust in Parliament. It is also the best way of ensuring those going into politics do so because they actually want to serve the public rather than as a means to plunder the state for its resources and privileges.
The battle is far from over. The Commons continues to refuse my other FOI requests for a full breakdown of MPs Incidental Expenses and the names and salaries of MPs’ staff. Bob Russell, a Conservative MP, was last week so incensed by the High Court’s ruling that he tabled an early day motion demanding the addresses of all judges to be published.
What is clear is that the current expenses system honours the dishonourable. Those MPs who want an open democracy directly accountable to the people are ostracised and punished; the ones who are in it for the money or to further their own career move up the greasy pole. MPs must be prepared to put forward their claims so that their constituents can decide with their votes whether they believe their MPs offer value for money. If your snout is in the trough, expect to have your tail tweaked.
Tags: Sunday Times