Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Home Office Shredders

Friday, November 28th, 2008

What’s really amazing about the arrest of Opposition Immigration Minister Damian Green isn’t simply that such a thing has happened in a supposed democracy (though I’ve long maintained that the UK isn’t a democracy) but the simple existence of any Home Office documents available for him to leak in the first place! Green is accused of disclosing to the public Home Office crime statistics and how thousands of illegal immigrants were granted licenses to work in the security industry. Hardly matters of national security – yet he was arrested by nine counter-terrorism officers who also searched his home and work-place and seized phones and computers.

It’s hard enough to get anything like accurate empirical data out of Government. So full praise for Mr Green for bringing important matters of public interest to our attention. A democracy is meant to be comprised of an informed electorate. If this government isn’t busy shredding facts then the next best thing seems to be to arrest those who expose them.

The number of shredders purchased by the Home Office for the last 5 years.

Date: Wed Feb 22 00:00:00 GMT 2006

How many shredders has the Department bought for the last 5 years, how much did they cost and when were they purchased providing all information detailing the reasons for the purchases.

Response

Shredders provided in 2005 for the Department’s HQ relocation to 2 Marsham Street were supplied by Anne’s Gate Property plc within the scope of their overall PFI contract for the provision of accommodation services. There are around 42 shredders in 2 Marsham Street for 3,500 staff.

Their purchase cost to AGP is not known, nor is the very small element of the monthly PFI charge that notionally relates to the costs of shredders. The shredders are provided for the destruction of privacy marked papers which are not required to be archived. This can be for a number of reasons including the retention of electronic copies and destruction of duplicates.

UK MPs to be given extension for disclosing expenses

Monday, October 20th, 2008

The Telegraph has revealed that MPs will now receive a months ‘grace period’ before the full details of their expenses claims are published.

Before details are made public, MPs will be able to use the appeal period to decide which entries are a risk to their security and therefore should be omitted from the public records. These records can include details of expenses for security systems and claims for services that would give clues to the location of their homes.

YRTK’s Heather Brooke commented:

‘”What other employee gets extra time to filter out embarrassing expenses from their boss? Yet again MPs think it’s one rule for them and another for the rest of us.”

“Business names need to be disclosed to ensure MPs aren’t giving sweet deals to their friends and relatives. If they have nothing to fear then they should have nothing to hide.”

Once the first round of expenses are made public, up-to-date details of all MPs’ latest expenses claims will be published by the Commons four times a year.

Article: Lament for the public loo

Friday, October 10th, 2008

Public services should be for the many not the few
The Big Issue, September 2008
By Heather Brooke

In for a penny in for a pound or at least 50 pence. That’s how much you’ll pay to visit the so-called public toilets around Parliament.

Local councils say the reason for leasing out the loos to private companies is purely economic. In a Westminster cabinet member report, officials say that the £2.7 million the council spends on public toilets is “a high level of expenditure for an entirely discretionary service.”

What? Pissing is discretionary? Tell that to your bladder the next time you get a call from nature. I suppose they mean peeing in public. We could go home or buy something in Starbucks or a pub and use their toilet. But should we have to? And what about those who have nowhere to go or the money for a purchase? And really, what else are taxes for but to provide common public services for which there is no commercial incentive?

Surely it’s basic human dignity (and hygiene) to have access to a clean toilet. Yet the number of public loos has diminished by 50 per cent according to Mike Bone, Director of the British Toilet Association, a finding backed up by other government investigations. London has seen the worst decline with just 400 public toilets left in a city with nearly 7.5 million people. That’s one for nearly 18,000 Londoners. Quite a queue!

It gets worse. There are 28 million visitors to London, of whom 12 million are from overseas and there is just one public toilet for every 67,000. That’s even before we consider the 2012 Olympics. Public transport is no better: of data supplied by 255 Tube stations, only 88 (35 per cent) have public toilet provision.

Beijing spent $48million (£27million) to provide 4,700 public toilets for the 2008 Games, one for every 500 metres. In addition all restaurants, shops and hotels have to offer their toilets for the use of non-customers for free.

I’m a healthy young woman and I find the lack of public loos in London extremely inconvenient so how much worse it must be for older people, pregnant women, parents with young children and those with urinary health issues. These people suffer while the young men who piss publicly on the street are given extra street urinals. Will it take a cadre of women urinating in public before we are given adequate resources?

When I think of all the nonsense my taxes pay for such as social engineering projects, public relations (which is little more than political propaganda) and top officials’ salaries, I am livid. According to the Town Hall Rich List (http://tinyurl.com/3xnw6v), 818 council managers earned more than £100,000 in 2006-07, up from 645 the previous year and in 2007 Tower Hamlets, England’s most deprived borough, paid 27 staffers more than £100,000!
(more…)

Get your nose stuck into the council’s books

Wednesday, September 24th, 2008

Get your nose stuck into the council’s books
The Big Issue, August 2008

Government bureaucrats spend a lot of money telling us what they wants us to know but very little on what we actually want to know, namely how they spend our money.

I discovered this first hand after putting MPs’ rhetoric to the test in relation to their claims of supporting open government and grassroots activism. I asked to see all the receipts for expenses they claim from the public purse. They fought for nearly four years before they were forced to concede this basic tenet of democracy.

Recently I discovered that for every person employed by police forces to answer freedom of information requests (what we want to know) there are on average 8.4 press/PR staff (telling us what they want us to know). In Thames Valley Police that ratio is 27 to one.

The same muddled thinking is operating in our local councils. Here we find numerous officials signing up to the mantra of ‘citizen activism’ and yet when it comes to the one real power citizens have to scrutinise council spending they are suddenly mute.

I’m betting few of you realise that August is the month when most councils and police authorities must by law throw open their account books for 20 days so the public can inspect them. This right is granted under Section 15 of the Audit Commission Act 1998. This law allows any elector or taxpayer in the area to inspect and make their own copies of all the detailed contracts, invoices, receipts, books and bills that are related to the accounts of the recent financial year for the council or police authority.

It’s a powerful right and one of the only ways for the common man (or woman) to see the nitty gritty detail of council spending. It is the only way to find out, for instance, how much police spend on informants (the Metropolitan Police in London paid out more than £2.2m to informants in 2006/07).

The end of the financial year is 31st March but the accounts aren’t usually completed until the end of July so the inspection time starts from then and can go until September. For a guide to see when your local area opens its books see the website http://www.orchardnews.com/audcomact.htm or call your local council.

This tiny window is the only opportunity local people get in this country to see the full detail of the millions spent by councils. By law, notice of this time must be placed in the local newspaper but who of us regularly reads the legal smalls of our local newspaper? And even if you do and read, as Julian Todd did last month, that the City of Liverpool’s accounts would be available every day between 8:30am and 4:45pm from 2 July to 29 July, it doesn’t necessarily mean the council is prepared for the public to take it up on the offer.

As Julian says: “Now, this ad was not meant to be followed up, because when I presented myself between 8.30am and 4.45pm at said offices, nothing was prepared.”
He then battled with the council’s accountants before finally getting to see the contracts and details that were supposedly open for public inspection.

Where are the glossy ads or pamphlets telling people about this powerful right to hold their local representatives to account? Where will you find it on the website? Most councils keep very, very quiet about this public obligation, preferring instead to spend taxpayer money on propaganda. I recently received one of these ‘spin sheets’ from Kensington & Chelsea council and the Met Police telling me about ‘Anti-Social Behaviour and what your council is doing about it.’ This 8-page glossy is thick with photos of councillors buddying up with police, removing graffiti and working with youth.

What a waste of money. Give me the name and direct telephone number of my local community officers. Better yet, tell me the date and times when I can go and inspect the police authority and council’s accounts and see exactly what these people are actually doing about youth crime.

Still not getting it

Monday, June 23rd, 2008

MPs are still not getting it. Instead of embracing the principal of open government and beginning the slow process of re-building their reputation with the public, they want to give themselves more money by stealth.

MPs set to claim £40,000 perk

Members of parliament could receive a standard allowance of £40,000 a year on top of their salaries to pay for a second home in London, under proposals to be finalised this week. A committee of senior MPs, chaired by Michael Martin, the Commons Speaker, wants to add the payment to MPs’ salaries of £61,820. Under the new arrangement, MPs would be spared the scrutiny that comes with submitting individual receipts for the running costs of their properties….

But this is nothing new as a keen reader of the blog pointed out. As long ago as February 2007, Nick Harvey MP had indicated this strategy for avoiding direct accountability to constituents:

‘Standing Committee’ on Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill – David Maclean’s Bill to exempt Parliament from the FoI Act – 7 February 2007, cols 16-17:

Nick Harvey: “… The problem, however, is that requests under the Freedom of Information Act are becoming increasingly intrusive, particularly on issues such as the additional costs allowance. In that respect, they are getting into very personal realms ­they are going behind the front door and into Members’ homes. I have found myself having to defend Members on the radio against the proposition that the public have the right to know exactly what is spent in each bedroom of their homes if the money is claimed under the additional costs allowance. That is too intrusive and is going too far.

Again, that is perhaps a wider deficiency in the legislation, beyond the way in which it applies to Parliament.

However, I should tell those who press and press such issues that, sooner or later, the allowances will be rolled into our salary, handed out without any claim mechanism or dealt with under some other device, because it is intolerable that this intrusion into Members’ private lives should have to be endured or should be permitted, and something will happen to prevent it from going too far. We can see what will happen: local news reporters and local political opponents will start trying to air these issues in public, which will be demeaning, as well as reducing the stature of Parliament and damaging our democracy. It cannot be right that things should reach such lengths.”

Tweaking tails: the battle to reveal MPs’ expenses

Monday, May 26th, 2008

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.

Meet the redhead…

Tuesday, May 20th, 2008

The Members’ Estimate Committee (aka Speaker Michael Martin) met last night and decided they would not appeal last Friday’s High Court ruling that MPs must disclose details of their second homes allowance. This means that I should be getting a whole load of receipts and claims no later than 4pm Friday (23 May 2008). Who wants to take bets that the info will arrive late even though the Commons’ authorities have had three years to get it together?

Good coverage of the High Court win. Here’s a sampling including my fave in Saturday’s Daily Mail:

A day of judgment

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

The High Court judges will tomorrow hand down their judgment in my case for the details of MPs’ second homes allowances. I know the result already but must keep quiet until publication. Yes, I know, another silliness of the English legal system, but that’s how it is.

The judgment will be handed down Friday 15 May 2008 at 9.15 at the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand, London.

Stay tuned for more action tomorrow.

Not bloody likely, mate!

Thursday, April 3rd, 2008

When making a Freedom of Information request, I always ask for the response to be sent in electronic format if possible. It’s cheaper, more convenient, and usually the form in which the information is being held anyway.

So imagine my disappointment to receive the following response from the Parliamentary Archives of the House of Commons, regarding their records management policy. A stack of paper nearly three and half inches high!

Government in action

Why, you might ask, is such a waste of paper justified? Even if the documents are not available online, surely it would still be cheaper and easier to run them under a scanner rather than churn out reams of photocopies?

Fortunately, the cover letter explains all. It turns out that:

Some of the keywords used to classify Parliamentary records […] are used under licence […] from the State Records Authority of New South Wales. The licencing arrangements do not enable us to publish this information on the Internet.

Clearly this is dangerous stuff, because they continue (my italics):

In order to mitigate the risks associated with disclosing this information and in view of the fact that in some cases the information is now only held in hard copy, we are sending the information to you in hard copy.

They are also careful to warn me against infringing the copyright of New South Wales by reproducing the documents – even though these are papers which any member of the public has a right to request.

So there you have it. Important information about how Parliament is run, created at public expense, and the only people not allowed to see it are the general public, because a small part is now owned by the Australian government!

A Commons lack of reasoning

Thursday, March 27th, 2008

The farce continues!

In their attempt to avoid disclosing details of MPs’ expense claims, the House of Commons Commission and Speaker Michael Martin took the last-minute decision on Tuesday (March 25th 2008) to appeal the Tribunal’s ruling to the High Court. When angry MPs yesterday tried to find out the exact nature of the appeal, Speaker Martin gagged them, claiming the matter was ‘sub-judice’ and could not be discussed. The plain fact is that the Speaker has the discretion to allow this discussion on the House floor, and I can only assume he tried to stifle MPs’ queries because he knows that the reasoning behind the High Court appeal will not stand up to legal (or even public) scrutiny.

He might have refused to disclose the details to MPs but as a party in the case he cannot refuse to serve the appeal notice on me. I received it this morning and so, in the spirit of public service, here it is:

House of Commons Notice of Appeal to High Court