The story behind Dispatches: The Westminster Gravy Train

From the Channel 4 Website

The Palace of Westminster is meant to be the mother of all Parliaments. It is lauded as a beacon of democracy. Dispatches set out to examine the state of our primary political institution: how democratic is it and how accountable are MPs and Lords to the citizens they are meant to represent.

I had my own reasons for being concerned with the state of our democracy. When I first made a freedom of information request for a detailed breakdown of MPs’ expenses five years ago I was pretty much laughed at. It was considered inconceivable that the average member of the public could be allowed to trawl through an MPs’ ‘personal’ receipts. I put the case that these receipts had nothing to do with an MPs’ personal life. Expenses and allowances can only be claimed to meet costs incurred on MPs’ parliamentary duties. There should be nothing personal about them.

Five years on and having won a case in the High Court I am still waiting for these receipts. I did not anticipate the truculence with which Parliamentary authorities and some politicians met the public’s demand for greater transparency and accountability. While the public are looking for ‘Google Government’, a place where they can access all information easily in a format that is accessible, Parliament seems to exist on another planet, at least another century. Too many seem to believe that they can pass laws that affect the public and spend public money without putting forward their detailed reasoning or being directly accountable to citizens. This has led to a feeling that politicians are more concerned with representing their own interests rather than the public’s.

The structure of Parliament appears to favour political insiders at the expense of the general public who pays the bills. What other person has a boss who allows an expense system like that outlined by Andrew Walker in The Green Book? Walker, the director of the Department for Finance & Administration, stated in The Green Book: ‘It is your responsibility to satisfy yourself when you submit a claim.’ He also states that his office prides itself on the ‘high quality of our service and on our confidentiality.’ I wondered why they were so proud to offer confidentiality as one of their services. After all, the fees office distributes the public’s money. Expenses can only be claimed by an MP for his official duties. There should be a commitment to transparency, not confidentiality.

I thought the story was over when I won my Information Tribunal case in February 2008 which ordered the receipts be disclosed. Leadership comes from the top, primarily the Speaker of the House Michael Martin who chairs the Members Estimates Committee and who introduces the rules in the Green Book, the rules by which MPs claim allowances. But it was Mr Martin who rejected the advice of his original legal team and hired another one at vast public expense to appeal to the High Court. If he thought the threat of going to the High Court would dissuade me, he was wrong. I went ahead with the help of my own lawyers and we won.

In May 2008, the High Court judges ordered disclosure of all receipts and claims of the 14 MPs in the original requests, along with the addresses of their second homes. The House of Commons acknowledged their sound defeat by stating all receipts for all MPs would be published in October 2008.

That date came and went. I was then told the receipts would be published in December. That date, too, came and went. Still no receipts. The Commons claimed that it was time-consuming work, scanning all the receipts and blacking out sensitive information. But this ‘sensitive’ information was being defined subjectively by the MPs, not – as the High Court ruling stated – by certain defined principles. Why should Margaret Beckett be allowed to redact, or black out, the name of the firm who she tried to purchase a pergola from at taxpayers’ expense?

After the winter recess, MPs came back and had the gall to try for a second time to exempt themselves entirely from the Freedom of Information Act. Eventually, they were shamed into dropping this highly unpopular proposal. They were more successful, however, in exempting their home addresses from public scrutiny. The High Court had also ruled that these addresses were the only way to ensure the second homes allowance was being correctly spent.

At 9pm on 2 March 2009, just as debate on the Political Parties and Elections Bill was about to end, Julian Lewis MP stood up and inserted an amendment that exempted all MPs addresses from the Freedom of Information Act. So we have the situation now where the only class of people excluded from the electoral registers is our elected representatives! The point is that only by knowing these addresses can cases such as that of Jacqui Smith and Tony McNulty be known. As long as these addresses are kept hidden, the public can have no confidence that MPs’ second homes claims are being used properly.

Many of the MPs Dispatches talked to wanted to see full-scale reform. Ben Wallace MP told us: ‘I don’t want the innuendo. I don’t want to go shopping in my constituency and see people sort of wink at me and say ‘yeah, you’re all on the take’. He made the decision to publish all of his expenses online. He was the first MP to do so. Surprisingly few, however, have followed his lead. That seemed indicative of a culture which placed more value on the opinion of political insiders than on constituents.

The failure to publish has led to a drip, drip, drip of scandal after scandal. Too many in Parliament don’t seem to understand that openness is in their best interests. It is the only way to re-build public trust. What people want from Parliament is what they expect from the internet: easy access to information which they can utilise in ways which best suit them. That is they way to empower people and get them re-engaged in the political process.

That there can be so much public anger over a system and it remain unchanged speaks poorly of the state of this democracy. It is wrong that an MP is more afraid of his colleagues than he is of his constituents. We pay for public servants. We pay for the information they collect. It is in our name that such public information is collected. Why should it be that we aren’t allowed access to it? The time is ripe for Britain to enter the 21st century and become a democracy in practice not just in principal.

22 Responses to “The story behind Dispatches: The Westminster Gravy Train”

  1. Roy says:

    Yes this is a very revealing and sad state of affairs. However, I believe that the persistance shown and great efforts made by you and others like you will eventually prevail and we shall get justice.

    I will be in the Far East when the Dispatches programme is aired but I have already set my Skybox to record it.

  2. Julian Todd says:

    Looking forward to the program. Unfortunately I feel you’re going to fail to show people where they can find the lists of MPs who were the good guys. They’ll be available in places like this:

    http://www.publicwhip.org.uk/division.php?date=2007-05-18&number=121&dmp=996

    Unless people get into the habit of singling them out for favour, as opposed to cynically assuming they’re all on the take, there will be no incentive (and a lot of disincentive) for any of them to be good.

  3. Linda says:

    Longer than I care to remember I reached the age to vote. When I told my parents I had no interest as all I could see were MP’s going into political life with average wealth and coming out a lot richer my parents told me if I wanted to change things the only way was through the ballot box. Sadly this has never happened and I wonder if I will ever see democracy and accountability in my life time. The system we have in Britain is not controlled by the people who vote but by career Politicians whose only interest is how much money they can make while elected. This greed has spread down to Councils, Education, Health Trusts Banks etc, all are ruled by greedy Managers with their hands open for the next bonus or pension increase while doing little work and no accountability. Basic services and health care are at an all time low and yet still these MP’s are claiming millions of pounds in expenses. We have to stop them and we really need more independent MP’s who are controlled by their conscience and not the party. Heather you are one of the few glimmers of light in a very dark tunnel!

  4. Mark says:

    When you wrote, “So we have the situation now where the only class of people excluded from the electoral registers is our elected representatives!” that’s not quite accurate. There is a category of anonymous registration which is open to anyone to apply for. They have to show good reason (e.g. to protect themselves from a stalker), but if they can then they register can go on the electoral register anonymously.

    But also I think you misunderstand Julian Lewsis’s amendment, which was to allow MPs to not have their address appear when details of candidates are published at election times. I’d agree with you that the amendment is a bad idea, but that wouldn’t remove MP names from the electoral register, which seems to be what you’re saying?

  5. Whilst much of this programme appeared quite radical, it was basically toothless.

    Like the European Commissioners a few years back, UK MPS are washing their hands and bemoaning the actions of an allegedly “small” group of avaricious MPS who are grabbing everything they can within the so-called “rules”

    But what are the Uriah Heaps doing to CHANGE the situation other than crying crocodile tears?

    As far as the TV programme showed, absolutely zip, zero, nil, nada, nothing.

    As the saying goes:

    “All that good men have to do to allow evil to triumph is – NOTHING!”

    And despite the fact that these sanctimonious twits are allegedly in the majority, NOTHING is exactly what
    these people appear to be doing.

    ALL MPs need to be judged by what they ACTUALLY do, not by their empty words.

  6. Alexander Johnston says:

    I am full of admiration for what you are doing which is no less than trying to save our democracy.
    I am appalled by the behaviour of so many of our politicans who are undermining our institutions by their
    dishonest, self-aggrandising behaviour.
    At the next election I shall be voting for the candidate of honesty, openness and integrity irrespective
    of political affiliations.

  7. Lorenz Heil says:

    Heather- we the British public salute you! Well done for uncovering such a mess! You faced off some supposedly powerful people who are now squirming and forget in the ivory towers of parliament that they are only powerful if we allow them to be.
    Part of the trouble is they have that sheltered subsidized life there- food & alcohol costs up? They don’t notice as we pay for it in the Westminster bars.
    Saw on” this week” comment that there’s no way mp’s would “go for” dormitories as overnight stays?! The arrogance is incredible! Why ever not?! Plenty of people stay in motels etc when work spills into next day.
    Of course the speaker hired an expensive legal team to fight you when you won the ruling- he didn’t pay for it did he? We did!

    How dare he spend OUR money fighting you in court-appalling!

    Some hope that not all the mp’s had snouts in the trough but overall it’s very sad

    Keep going , keep at them don’t let them off the hook- you , Suzie squire and I think Mark Thomas are shining lights in a miserable fog of lies and obfuscation- keep on – keeping on!
    Regards Lorenz Heil

  8. Enzo says:

    We need more people like you to tell the public what is really going on , I think you and the Despatches team do a grate job but unfortunately everyone seems to complain but no one does anything about it, I have recently started a website called YourVoiceYourSay.com, where I was hoping people would log on and give there thoughts on different issues, the site also works out percentages on peoples opinions but despite my efforts no one seems interested in adding their views, I think you and the Despatches team are providing a service to the people, It saddens me to see that you don’t have millions of people leaving their comments, I think a public reaction would help to get the country out of the mess

    Thank You
    Enzo

  9. Richard Nichols says:

    I have just watched the Dispatches programme (“The Westminster Gravy Train”) on Channel 4, and just felt I had to respond in some way. Normally, I don’t bother.

    An interesting and objective piece of journalism which I am very glad that I watched. Strangely(!), I was not surprised by many of the comments of your interviewees. Nor, I suppose, was I surprised when many potentially *key* interviewees declined to comment.

    A quote from Lord Acton (1834-1902): ”Everything secret degenerates, even the administration of justice; nothing is safe that does not show how it can bear discussion and publicity.”

  10. Liam H says:

    It was a good program nice to see solutions being offered too.

  11. Thank you for your excellent programme and for all the work and effort that went into the gathering of the information.

  12. P M Bradley says:

    Excellent programme, by a REAL Journalist, not those ‘cheap stories tabloid people’. It adds to my personnal belief that the
    voting citizen should boycott the polling stations at the next election, why vote for un-trustworthy people to represent us?
    In the present economic situation, when most working people ( I say working, because they have their hard-earned wages
    automatically docked taxes for parliament) have to watch what they spend their money on. Can’t afford to visit the local pub
    anymore, having to choose whether they can afford the car to get to work because of higher fuel bills, the next holiday is on
    hold! etc etc. When are these ‘upper-class’ type people that are supposed to be our peers, our representatives for our
    community, our leaders in upholding the law, going to realise that they are voted there on merit and their actions are
    abusing the peoples’ trust and faith in them?
    Stand up Britain, and boycott the ballot box until the government can show the people it represents that they are spending
    our taxes responsibly.

  13. Ivan Benjamin says:

    I think the most disgusting example of exploitation of the expenses gravy train is that of Sir Nicholas Winterton and his wife, who after having paid off for their home (no mortgage) put it into a trust then rented it from the trust and claiming £60,000 over a number of years for the rent. On investigation, it was found that, in doing this they had,in fact , broken the rules but were not asked to pay the money back.

    I, am also not enamoured by the situation wherebye Ed Balls and his wife Yvette Cooper not only claim on what is very clearly their de facto main home in London (from where their children go to school), but that each of them are allowed to claim on the same property, effectively doubling up on their allowance.

  14. John Page says:

    It was nice to see a specialist allowed to front their own subject – se we knew you knew what you were talking about.

    Doubtless you had your reasons for being gentle.

  15. Gladys MacRae says:

    Whilst I appreciate the effort expanded to expose the ‘cheaters’, I think the actual programme was biased in its selection of Lib Dem MPs interviewed. They appeared holier than thou and yet, a blogger had worked out that an average of claims made by the Lib Dem MPs was the highest of the 3 parties. So, does this mean they know they may never be in government so, they can stand on the sideline and throw mud as they are already so covered?

    I think Channel 4 and its researchers should give produce a fair expose and not one that is a political broadcast for the Lib Dems.

  16. heather says:

    There were just as many Conservative MPs interviewed. There was one from Labour, too. Other Labour MPs were asked – including the Speaker who, as leader of the House, has a responsibility to defend the rulebook he put in place. He refused our request, as did the others. That speaks for itself and I feel no need to hide this appalling lack of accountability.

  17. heather says:

    Hi John – yes I would have liked the show to be a bit more biting. The gentleness came from the Channel 4 lawyers. You can’t believe the amount of legal vetting a film like that has to go through to get on air. Meanwhile ministers hide behind the curtain of ‘collective responsibility’.

  18. John West says:

    Northern Ireland’s politicians are also in urgent need the ‘Heather Brooke’ treatment.

    We have individuals here claiming expenses as Councillors, MLAs and MPs. How many homes would that allow them?

    Let’s be honest, there’s a suspension that some of these people have been let off with murder, should we also turn a blind eye to their snouts jammed into the trough?

  19. Kate says:

    Is it just me or am I the only one wondering how they have got away with disregarding a High Court judgement? Why is no-one at their doors with a battering ram and why was the 2nd March 2009 amendment allowed to happen before they had fulfilled their obligations of the High Court judgement? Why does everything in parliament take so long to happen that by the time it does everyone seems to have forgotten where and why the debate started? Thank you Heather for bringing this all to our attention, but what happens next?

  20. Kate Mclean says:

    For 30 years I was self employed and I had 2 V.A.T officers scrutinise my accounts for 3 hours. They found no wrong doings or errors !
    Had they have done they would more than likely have informed the Inland Revenue and ALL my past accounts would have been looked over with a magnifying glass. If no fault was found then it is probable that they would have pulled a figure out of the hat to fine me. This happened to one of my customers. Now we are faced with what is nothing short of corruption and theft by the very same people who direct the Inland revenue in the course of their duty.

    The other issue that has not been highlighted yet is the massive payouts to executives in the NHS. These payouts are handed out sometimes on annual basis to staff who have implemented cut backs in patient care . In Manchester alone an Executive was pais £50,000 for a few years running on top of his annual pay. There are many others. If the money is not thee for patient care then how come it is available for bonuses ? This is what I think is called an upside down pyramid.

    Yours sincerely

    Catherine Mclean

  21. F. John Horn says:

    The speaker Mr. Martin was again on the 11th inst. very angry in the House of Commons not about the expense claims but about who leaked the documents. This shows how out of touch members of Parliament have become. Freedom of information is still most unwelcome to the members. Our local MP Mr. Derek Conway is still sitting in Parliament, now as an independent member, despite having had to repay some expenses that were judged to be excessive. The excesses of Mr. Conway would have led to criminal investigation and he would have been sacked, but he is an MP and so above the law.

  22. Kudos to your almost single-handed revival of the Fourth Estate; apparently the autocracy believed that the public purse WAS their private estates’ maintenance fund.

    The (self-anointed) kings (and queens) are dead, long live……….the people…and, you, of the heather, who would not brook their self-service.

    An Admiring American Anglophile

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