Tweaking tails: the battle to reveal MPs’ expenses

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.

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17 Responses to “Tweaking tails: the battle to reveal MPs’ expenses”

  1. anon says:

    More recently Derek Conway, another Conservative MP, faced calls for his resignation after paying £260,000 to members of his own family.

    Yet, no prosecutions.

  2. Geoff says:

    Thank you for all your excellent work and yes it is truly diabolical how MP’s think they are above the law.

  3. Jo Coles says:

    It is little wonder that the general public are fed up – not only with the government – but also with the general behaviour of our politicians both at Westminster and locally. The behaviour of our elected representatives who appear to feel that, once elected, they are both above the law and the peasantry who put them in their positions of power, is nauseating to watch. How we shake our heads in disbelief at the behaviour of the old French aristocracy and of renaissance prices who ran their fiefdoms with complete disregard for the positions of the masses. What is diferent now in the behaviour of our politicians?

  4. Peter says:

    Thanks’ Heather for such an eloquent article! You’ve actually said what I and most of the voting population of this country would have wished to have said, if only we had a voice (but you said it without the use of my shop-floor language).
    I think they should be made to return their ill-gotten gains to the public purse.

  5. Colin says:

    May I echo Peter’s thanks and sentiments. I do not understand the press’ low key reaction to this. If I understand it correctly Tony Blair claimed allowances to meet what was effectively (i.e. to the extent that it exceeded his mortgage costs) a personal loan. If so I simply do not believe that was within the rules and/or the spirit of the rules. I simply do not understand how this seems to slip under the radar because it is tantamount to fraud – obtaining money by deception. Further there have to be taxation implications – where are the Inland Revenue in all of this?

  6. michael-john says:

    brilliant article and well done for the campaign!

    It is about time MP’s returned to the real world where you have to account for any expenses accordingly…..if it is tax payers money you are claiming then it is only fair that this has to be explicitly detailed and have absolutely no margin for “error”. The mind boggles at the sheer amount of money they have swindled over the years. I understand that valid expenses should be awarded, but this has to be investigated properly by an independant body…if politicians have no grasp of the real expenses of day to day living then how can they govern our country accordingly??!!! on a more genral point do all politicans actually need a second residence in London?

    Fianly any exposure of fraud should be dealt with as fraud and criminal convictions should be pursued!

  7. George (Merseyside) says:

    A brilliant piece of investigative journalism . The reality is that politicians have disengaged themselves from the electorate and not the other way round .For real empowerment of the electorate I would like to see The Idiots Guide To using the Freedom Of Information Act.If MP’s can get away with this what are our local councillors doing ..not just collecting allowances ,there must be a repayment of expenses ,to them .

  8. Bill Baker says:

    The people of Colchester will be interested to find they have a Conservative MP. Last time they looked Bob Russell was a Lib Dem.

  9. richard says:

    Well done Heather,keep up the good work, the parasites need to be exposed.

  10. Nick says:

    Colin – according to the letter on the BBC’s Open Secrets website, the Blairs only claimed for the portion of the mortgage payments that represented the interest on the amount outstanding on their home. They didn’t claim (according to that letter) for the increased loan.

  11. Mark O says:

    “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.”

    Great article and thanks for all you have done, but can the media really claim all the credit for the failure of MacLean’s bill to exempt Parliament from FOI? There was a wave of public revulsion at the double standard being applied to privacy in the UK and I seem to remember doing a bit of letter writing myself, including via the ‘Write to a Lord’ facility on http://www.writetothem.com.

  12. Podcast Bob says:

    Heather I applaud you for your stirling efforts, determination and calm eloquence. I wish there were more like you to keep these guys on their toes. They Work For Us for goodness sake!! You may get a call from Adam Curry from The Daily Source Code at some stage. He will be up for a serious chat if you have the time.

  13. Lincoln V Rasalingam says:

    Hi Heather

    After reading your article in the times, I ordered your book ‘Your Right to Know’ and got the book today from Waterstones. I read it, could not put it down. Every sentence in the book is a bullet point. I have been simmering all my life to express my anger an frustration with the conduct of Law Makers and bureaucrats but you have expressed it so succinctly. The book is the modern day Bible that every citizen and every household should own one. Well done Heather and I wish you success and happiness.

  14. Bob C says:

    Heather I just wanted to congratulate you on your efforts and say how much the man in the street appreciates that someone, somewhere has the ability, knowledge and tenacity to do this and follow it through. I’m not sure if you’ve heard of Adam Curry from the Daily Source Code podcast? He is currently endeavoring to motivate the British Public to start asking more questions and protesting against the draconian state this country has become. They Work For Us! Just wanted to say well done and thanks.

  15. Evan Owen says:

    Yes Heather, well done, these people MUST be made accountable which is why I am also busy with the FOIA.

    I wish I’d known I could have employed Barristers and the like!

    My Information Tribunal decision was 47 pages long, it dismissed the pleadings of HM Treasury and raised more interesting points. I did it without any legal assistance whatsoever and my own education stopped at a Comprehensive school, a Welsh one at that.

    There is second hearing, yes second, of another FOI request appeald by the FSA before the Information Tribunal in July. Why do these people waste so much time and money in what is simply a stalling exercise? They should have to pay the legal bills out of their own pension pots.

  16. Nemesis says:

    Well done Heather, power truly corrupts even the most righteous of the species!
    It seems to me whether Euro MP’s, Westminster MP’s or local councillors, they all share a common and parasitic trait. While Britain burns, they fiddle and oh how they fiddle. They are all at it to varying degrees, even the ones who are supposed to police them!!
    When caught they should face the same penalties that any citizen would face according to the size of their sin. If faced with the sack or even imprisonment, perhaps they would think a little longer before raiding the public purse, no better than grubby little drug addicts pinching to fund their lifestyle.
    They would hang their heads in shame if they felt any, but they stick two fingers up to us their employers and carry on regardless. Even now, no doubt, they fiddle.

  17. Revelation says:

    Well done and keep battling for full disclosure. One reason why MPs may be so anxious to protect details of their IEP expenditure is that some of them divert monies from this allowance to fund party political work – which is, of course, not a legitimate use of public funds. You might also want to check out the grounds for the payment of bonuses to MPs’ staff – who, although often underpaid for the demanding work that they actually do, are not usually required to meet any particular targets in order to qualify for such bonuses. Rather the bonuses often seem to be paid only to protect the allowance for future years and are random and not shared amongst all staff or MPs offices equally. Unnecessary office furniture etc also seems to be purchased on the grounds of ‘use it or lose it’. ‘Project’ work paid for through the Staffing Allowance could also do with greater scrutiny…..

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