Posted on May 11th, 2009 No comments
For those of you who haven’t had enough of MPs’ expenses here is an interesting piece from a journalist in the centre of the storm.
My four-year battle for the truth;
The Sunday Telegraph journalist who exposed the expenses story
When I set out four years ago to uncover the secrets of the second home allowance, I had a fair idea that I would turn up some rather dodgy claims.
But what I never anticipated was the lengths to which MPs would go to try to prevent us, the taxpayers, from discovering what they spend our money on.
It was January 2005 and the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act had just come fully into force. It was, and should still be, one of Labour’s proudest achievements. Lord Falconer, then the lord chancellor, declared that year: “The culture of secrecy in Whitehall and beyond is cracking open.”
To test the new Act’s reach, I asked to see the receipts submitted in support of claims made by six MPs for Additional Costs Allowance, the fund, now worth up to pounds 24,000 a year, intended to allow MPs whose seats are outside London to meet the extra cost of running two homes.
Since Parliament had passed the Act, and had taken the admirable decision that its own affairs should fall within the scope of the new law, surely it would comply with this request?
It appeared not. Months passed. My request was rejected, then rejected again. I appealed to the Information Commissioner who, inexplicably, took two years before proposing, in June 2007, a compromise. This would have seen each MP’s annual claim broken down into categories such as rent, or household goods, but without receipts or further detail.
We would have never known if the household goods claim was for a table or a fish tank.
The Commons authorities thought that even this was a step too far, and appealed to the Information Tribunal. It was a bad strategic error. The tribunal rejected the Commons’ case and instead backed my counter-appeal, ruling in February 2008 that details of expenses claims should be published in full, including receipts.
Under the leadership of Michael Martin, the Speaker, the Commons went to the High Court to try to overturn this ruling, running up a bill of pounds 150,000 in the process.
But the judges upheld the tribunal’s decision, declaring in their ruling last May: “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.”
So I won, and the expenses for the six MPs were released to me. They covered the period 2001 to 2004. Despite this being a test case, the Commons authorities have now destroyed all other MPs’ receipts from that period (they even destroyed some of Tony Blair’s receipts, which I had asked for, while my request was under consideration; they later apologised for this “mistake”.)
Crucially, both the tribunal and the High Court agreed with me that MPs’ addresses must be disclosed in order for the system to be fully open. Without this step, all sorts of bogus claims, such as MPs paying “rent” to close relatives or claiming for properties they do not genuinely live at, could carry on undetected.
So too could “flipping”, the practice, now shown to be widespread, of changing the designation of “second home” back and forth between properties to enable major refurbishments at each address to be carried out at the taxpayers’ expense.
Such abuses ought to be spotted by the fees office, of course, but MPs have never given it the teeth or the funding to operate as a policeman. Instead it works on trust, which all too often turns out to be misplaced.
Even when the Commons authorities began last summer to prepare the one million receipts we now see emerging, MPs still did not get it. Some, led by Julian Lewis, the Tory member for New Forest East, campaigned to keep their addresses secret, citing security concerns.
Their campaign was successful. Last July, Parliament quietly approved an order which exempted MPs’ addresses from the scope of FoI.
The tragedy of the expenses affair is that the MPs who fought so hard for secrecy have made themselves and their colleagues look furtive as well as greedy. They have brought politics into disrepute.
Over and over again, from the Private Member’s Bill proposed by David Maclean, Tory MP for Penrith and the Border, in 2007, to the attempt by Harriet Harman, the Commons leader, in January this year, backward-thinking MPs have tried to exempt their expenses from the reach of FoI, only to be thwarted by the Lords, the public and their wiser colleagues.
The current series of disclosures in the Telegraph has demonstrated that questionable allowance claims can sometimes only be exposed by careful scrutiny of the addresses.
Gordon Brown talks of an urgent need to change the system, but it is too late.
The mistakes have been made, and MPs will have learned their lesson.
Let’s reverse the law that exempts addresses from FoI, but otherwise leave the system as it is.
Now that MPs know the public is watching they will, surely, be paragons of thrift.