I have been stunned, as has anyone with the remotest interest in politics, by the revelations in the Telegraph over the last couple of days over MPs expenses.
The real hero behind these stories is Heather Brooke, a freelance journalist and freedom of information campaigner. You can see a link to her “Your right to know” blog on my blog list on the right of this screen. That link has been there since I came across her in late 2007 when she got in touch with me in relation to the work I did on the Congestion Charge finances. You may have seen her Dispatches programme on the tele recently.
I am totally disgusted that the response of the House of Commons authorities has been to shoot the messenger. Malcolm Jack, Clerk of the House and Chief Executive, wrote in an e-mail yesterday:
The advice which I have received is that there are reasonable grounds to believe a criminal offence may have been committed in relation to the way this information has been handled. Having informed Mr Speaker I have today made a report to the Metropolitan Police, asking them to consider the matter.
It would have been rather better if he had talked about reform and punishing the wicked. I was reassured to read in the Telegraph this morning that the Met’s Sir Paul Stephenson has said the Met should focus on “serious crime” rather than being “dragged into party political games”. I hope he tells Jack to bog off or even better that he considers the more serious crime to be the expenses fiddles not their leaking. Twice the Commons have been ordered to publish these receipts, once by the Information Commissioner and once by the High Court (read all about it on Heather’s blog). No jury in the country is going to convict the person who leaked the receipts even if they stole the files and sold them to the highest bidder.
For the last two days it has been Labour figures who have been getting a roasting. There will no doubt be more stories about Tory and LibDem figures to come not forgetting the continuing scandal of Sinn Fein MPs who think it is OK to claim expenses and salaries but not actually turn up for duty. Although the Tories and LibDems will have some embarrassments they have been noticeably better than Labour who do seem to be particularly venal in their claims. For instance all but two Tories voted against the £10K communications allowance (and one of those was Quentin Davies who later defected to Labour), see previous posting. I am sure though that there will be some longstanding Tory MPs who have been misbehaving. I hope that they are sent into the wilderness by David Cameron as was Derek Conway. It was telling that Harriet Harman referred to Conway twice yesterday on the Today programme. I hope that senior Labour figures get the same punishment that he did. Having the whipped removed and being deselected as a candidate in the next election is the only sensible approach to the worst offences. David Cameron has not been outspoken enough on this issue in my opinion but he has been on the side of the angels. He has proposed the following measures to tackle this issue so far (list taken from ConservativeHome):
• MPs living within a reasonable distance of the Commons should not be able to claim.
• MPs who co-habit could only claim once.
• Mandatory annual public declarations by MPs justifying designation of primary and additional home.
• MPs would not be able to claim for stamp duty, TV bills, furniture or decorations.
• All claims and receipts must be published online within 28 days. Receipts would be required for all claims.
• The abolition of the £10,000pa Communications Allowance.
• No Conservative MP with a grace-and-favour residence should be able to claim the second homes allowance.
• MPs’ staff should be employed centrally by the House of Commons.
• Greater transparency on remuneration from second jobs and tighter controls on ex-Ministers taking jobs.
• Independent spot-checks and audits of expenses.
If you want to get some insight into the £500 million a year that gets spent by Parliament take a peek at this piece I did for ConservativeHome yesterday.