Seeing through expenses transparency
The Guardian, Thursday 23 April 2009
By Heather Brooke
Gordon Brown’s reforms may include some much-needed changes to MPs’ expenses, but they don’t go far enough
On Saturday Gordon Brown said he had more important things to deal with than MPs’ expenses.
On Tuesday morning, there was nothing more important than MPs’ expenses and their immediate reform was a top priority. What had changed in that three-day time period?
Well I’d like to think a little documentary I did for Dispatches – The Westminster Gravy Train – had something to do with his sudden about-face. This film marked the culmination of my five-year battle to chisel out of MPs’ grasping hands the detailed receipts of their expense claims.
You can’t hope for a better result as a campaigner than to have the prime minister announce a major policy change within 48 hours of your documentary. Is this the power of television? Was Brown watching and choking on his dinner?
I’d love to think so, but the reality is that his announcement probably had more to do with the fact a very unpopular budget was coming on Wednesday and Brown needed some good news. Or perhaps he finally tuned into the massive public anger over the excessively generous parliamentary expense system. Maybe he understood at last that the public were so angry that they were not going to forget this issue in a few days, or even a few weeks. That’s what politicians count on. But the stories of expense abuses have kept on coming. Yesterday, cross-party talks on proposals put forward by Brown broke down. And today, Christopher Kelly, chairman of a Westminster sleaze watchdog, said politicians must not be left to decide for themselves how the system should be reformed. For as long as the House of Commons refuses to publish the receipts, the slur on all MPs’ reputations will remain.
Brown’s raft of reforms, which were announced via a bizarre video on YouTube, will be voted upon next week. They include:
• Full receipts for ALL claims.
While this is good, there is no specification that these receipts will be published, like they are in Scotland.
• Getting rid of second home claims for those living within commuting distance of London.
This is a long overdue reform. It is not right or fair that taxpayers should fund the second homes of MPs who live within commuting distance of London.
• No allowance for those MPs living in grace-and-favour accommodation.
Another long overdue reform. There is no reason why a minister with one home free courtesy of the taxpayer should get another.
• Scrap second home allowances and introduce a daily attendance rate.
This is the worst idea of the lot. By paying MPs a daily allowance (not yet set), Brown is effectively giving them another blank cheque. This does nothing to stop the Westminster gravy train but simply changes it from beef gravy to chicken gravy!
• Transparency of MPs’ second incomes.
This is good but singles out opposition party MPs who have the majority of outside jobs. It doesn’t address the laxness of the existing Register of Members’ Interests which affects all MPs. At the moment an MP only has to declare gifts or hospitality above £650. That leaves out all those boxes at Twickenham, tickets to tennis and football matches, cases of wine, fancy dinners and champagne receptions.
• MPs’ staff to become direct employees of the House of Commons.
This is good in part as it means it will be harder for an MP to put a family member on the payroll who does no actual work. But the real change must be that the names and salaries of MPs’ staff are known. The constituents have the most contact with an MPs’ staff so are best placed to know who actually does the work. And yet it’s the constituents who are kept most in the dark about their MPs’ claims.
This is not the first time Brown has made pledges on freedom of information but tangible results tend not to follow the rhetoric. Under his watch the Treasury was one of the most secretive departments in central government. Nor does he get why, in a democracy, it should be to the people – directly – that politicians must account. Not to each other or to other bureaucrats within the system. His latest reforms have some needed fixes but ultimately fail because they don’t in any way address the need for greater transparency and direct accountability to the people.