Blackwash

It’s all there in black and white but it’s the black you notice.

The black costs money. It’s the single most expensive part of the operation to publish MPs’ expenses. It took over a year to produce yesterday’s disclosures but the delay and the cost were needless.

The expenses could have simply been put out for inspection in a Commons reading room at little to no cost. That’s how I looked at my local politician’s receipts in America more than 15 years ago. It was that exercise which prompted my five year campaign to bring transparency to parliament and last year I won a High Court victory in which the judges ruled for full disclosure of second homes allowances for a sample of 14 MPs.

The judges allowed for only seven types of sensitive information to be ‘redacted’. The Commons responded by announcing they would publish all MPs’ allowances for the past four years. Those records were scanned in by October 2008 yet numerous publication dates have come and gone. MPs even tried to pass a bill exempting themselves from their own law of transparency. Finally an insider got tired of waiting and leaked the raw data.

Now we’ve seen the censored version and it’s clear the Commons have not abided by the spirit of the High Court ruling. Instead of a presumption of openness they have opted for a presumption of secrecy in which only six types of information are disclosed. The rest are not for our eyes – even though we paid for it.

The censorship is random, inconsistent and unprofessional. It follows one guiding principal: the avoidance of embarrassment. And yet by exhibiting their censoriousness so boldly, MPs’ have only heaped more ridicule upon themselves.

The deletions we know about give the lie to the now-discredited ‘security’ and ‘privacy’ excuses. We see Gordon Brown’s Sky subscription blacked out along with Margaret Beckett’s plants and pergola.

But the blackness is a victory of sorts. It shows the full extent of the Commons censoring operation. I’m sure they would have preferred to drop all the deletions from our notice, pretend they never even existed. This is historically how disclosures are done in Government. The publication of ministers’ diaries for example only tell us what they want us to know. The censoring of the secrets is secret.

All MPs had to approve their documents and the blackness very visibly reflects their real commitment to openness. So we can see that former speaker Michael Martin, who personally blocked my freedom of information requests, has some of the most egregious black outs. He’s gone so far as to black out the name of the council in his council tax bill!

One has to wonder what the officials in the Members’ Estimate Committee were thinking when they decided yet again to try and suppress information clearly in the public interest. They know the Daily Telegraph has a full version of this data so they leave themselves wide open to a cross comparison and no doubt we’ll see a full expose of the secrets of the black boxes in the coming days.

Just who is doing the Commons public relations? Is their remit to bring parliament into as much disrepute as possible? If that’s the case it seems they’ve succeeded.

9 Responses to “Blackwash”

  1. JTownend says:

    Update on Telegraph’s release of ‘uncensored’ data & Guardian’s crowdsourcing effort with the blacked-out version: http://blogs.journalism.co.uk/editors/2009/06/19/let-the-expenses-data-war-commence-telegraph-begins-its-document-drip-feed/

  2. Mike Law says:

    Proof, if it was needed, that most MPs see themselves as a breed apart.

  3. Tony Kennick says:

    Further proof of the waste of time, effort and money the blacking out was, is the number of MPs whose invoices for their constituency offices and surgery venues (information that is in general held on their website) have had the address blacked out.

  4. As dismal as it seems at the moment, this MPs’ expenses scandal might have a few positive side effects. Parliament and the Government have been exposed for lacking leadership and integrity; with reform of both the style and structures of political discourse imminent. Also, a more considered and transparent form of governance will rise from the ashes of the current one.

    Furthermore, it is proof that there still is good investigative journalists and campaigners out there, with the persistence to achieve concrete change.

    Thanks Heather…

  5. Mike Law says:

    Just started to work through my local MPs forms (Newham, 3 MPs and one MP who lives in the borough and represents another constituency – Dawn Butler).

    Started on Butler’s; cannot understand why her signature is redacted. She must sign hundreds of letters to her constituents and most MPs have a template of their signature to be used on leaflets to voters etc.

  6. BUSTOP says:

    Whilst not wishing to exagerate their intelligence I do not believe our MPs are this stupid, they must know how this will be perceived. Similarly I do not think Brown is so stupid as to think that he could get away with a secret enquiry into Iraq. Then Mendelson drops the Euro quote. Or are they stuipid and are they being manipulated by others? This all makes me scared, because I start to see it all as part of something deeper and more sinister. It almost seems like they are seeking confrontation with a slow, and deliberate winding up of Public outrage. The political elite of most colours face a fundemental problem in the UK, they want Europe and the people do not. Are they trying to make Europe seem the attractive option? Will Europe step in and condemn the UK Parliament – would most of the UK applaud such an intervention now – there was a time the prospect would have caused outrage but now I am no longer sure? I just know that there are more influential people in this country than those in Parliament. It just “smells” wrong.

  7. June Gibson says:

    Hello Heather. It was good to see you in person on the Daily Politics tv programme this lunchtime. I posted to them some while back that you should be given credit for the hard slog beforehand. Well done again and thank you, as your work has undoubtedly benefitted voters in the UK – and elsewhere in the world, I see.
    I too wondered how MPs had the face to issue these censored expenses sheets, knowing that the game was up.
    Another disturbing thing is that before too long wrong-doing MPs of all political parties will be over-generously rewarded from public funds when they stand down (receiving more money than waiting on to be voted out. That’s something else they have engineered for themselves. The Resettlement Allowances are scandalously high, on top of handsome Parliamentary pensions. I can’t see Resettlement Allowances being reformed before the next GE. Those deserting Parliament – including my own MP, who all along has been devoting most of his energies to the Counci of Europe – are getting out whilst the going is good. What a disgraceful crew.

  8. Flemingcrag says:

    Nothing seems to sink in with these pompous gits who love to be addressed as “right Honourable”. They screamed like fury when the Telegraph published the uncensored expenses, lets call it as it is, redacted is just another word for censoring. We are going to publish all this in a few weeks with omissions on data protection and security grounds only they cried.
    If they honestly thought the public were going to buy this blackout and they did, then this proves that when it comes to delusion overtaking reality and morality that Gordon Brown is not the only sufferer.
    If you can match the profile of any of the candidates for Speaker to this; I am for continuig just as we have always done in this place…Put your money on them for next Speaker.

  9. John L Bell says:

    The final piece of evidence!
    At last we can see that MPs KNEW that their fraudulent claims contravened The Fraud Act 2006!
    By trying to conceal the EVIDENCE of their unlawful acts, they have condemned themselves!

    Now….. will the appropriate legal authorities STOP sitting on their hands and proceed to investigate (I would suggest using the Daily Telegraph’s evidence rather that the OFFICIAL version), prosecute, and sentence the guilty for the crimes that have been committed?

    Only then can we talk about making sure nothing like this ever happens again!

    INVESTIGATE all MPs irrespective of political party and seniority!

    PROSECUTE all those who have committed fraud irrespective of political party and seniority!

    SENTENCE those found guilty irrespective of political party and seniority!

    As a taxpaying citizen and victim of these frauds I expect to hear the slamming of cell doors behind the guilty!

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