Our political masters hate this process and are resisting it at every turn. Only last May Labour Whips, Government Ministers and backbenchers gave succour to the passage of a Private Member’s Bill promoted by David Maclean (Conservative MP for Penrith and the Border and a former Chief Whip) called the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill, a Kafkaesque title if ever there was one given that its intention was to enable the Commons authorities to withhold from public scrutiny any information concerning MPs expenses and allowances.
Fortunately a considerable expression of public opprobrium at this piece of chicanery ensured that Maclean’s bill died unloved and unlamented upon its arrival in the House of Lords who rightly would not touch it with a bargepole. Yet it is evident that MPs will use every opportunity to resist information about their expenses and allowances being made public and when such does happen, to limit the detail.
Another step on the way to a system of proper accountability was taken recently with a decision of the Information Commissioner to order disclosure of greater information concerning several named MPs expenses. On the face of it this was most helpful yet within the decision lie the seeds of means by which MPs can seek to evade disclosure:
In making his decision the Information Commissioner considered whether the information requested related to individuals acting in an official rather than a private capacity. In the Information Commissioner’s view if individual MPs had not been elected to carry out their role as public representatives they would not be entitled to claim the related expenses. However the Information Commissioner fully accepts that MPs are entitled to a degree of privacy and are entitled to expect that personal information about their private lives will be appropriately protected from disclosure.
The Information Commissioner ruled that it would be unfair to disclose the specific sums paid to named staff members during the year covered by the request. The Information Commissioner believes that releasing the total staffing costs broken down by month for the year requested and the number of staff this pertains to each month would not be unfair.
Now this decision would have enabled Mr. Conway to continue to evade disclosure of the very details of the payments of salary and bonuses to his son which have been declared to be a ‘serious breach of the rules’ and the member of the public who complained would never have had the wherewithal to mount his complaint. The facts would have gone unremarked, unreported and Conway would have gone unpunished.
Indeed as Roger Winnett records at Three Line Whip, this information only became available because some worthy soul decided to leak a document to the team he was working with at the time (on The Sunday Times). It was not information that was publicly available and working up a case concerning Derek Conway and the payments to his son was by no means straightforward as Winnett’s account reveals. These details would still be hidden from disclosure under the Information Commissioner’s ruling.
The issue of MPs and Peers expenses is not going to go away and the sooner that the political class realises this the better and we shall be able to establish a proper system by which they may be openly and fully accountable to us. Such accountability is one of the essential ingredients in the recipe for restoring public trust and esteem for our politicians.
The more scope for evasion which is built into such a system the more people will suspect that MPs have something to hide. It will go on being a corrosive acid eating away at the trust that ought to exist between MPs and the electorate who pay for them.
I must make it plain that I have no problem with the principle of paying MPs and Peers expenses and allowances to enable them properly to carry out their duties. But I draw the line at those expenses and allowances being used as a means whereby MPs substantially enrich themselves or their families unless they are employed after a properly open and competitive process. In addition I see no reason whatsoever why MPs should be able to claim expenses without proof whatsoever of their having been incurred at all let alone properly incurred. No other responsible organisation in the country does that and none would be allowed to get away with it by the Revenue.
Nor can I see any rational basis why Parliament should not forthwith move to a system such as that operated by the Scottish Parliament whereby details of MSP’s expenses are placed online and may be viewed in considerable detail.
I understand the concerns about privacy of MPs and their families and their security but if you are in receipt of public funds for which you must account, some element of privacy and security must be foregone. In that sense the Information Commissioner’s report on expenses cited above must surely now be viewed as redundant.
I mention this not only because it would allow for the concealment of the information which did for Mr. Conway but would, as I have indicated, provide all sorts of means for the evasion of the requirement of full disclosure.
Of course one does not seek such things as credit card details or bank details. But I would envision a second home being purchased with any allowance being subject to disclosure as to its actual and beneficial ownership since this would be an easy means for the concealment of an improper relationship (witness the Robinson-Mandelson affair). Details of relationships to employees ought also to be fully disclosed.
I have no doubt Mr. Conway is a chastened man. He has let his family and his party down very badly as well as make it more difficult, for a moment, to carry the war to the Socialist enemy who is far harder at it than he.
Further revelations are said to be due from the Daily Mail which make matters much worse for his position but that will have to wait until the facts are clear.