Views: 1135 | 23-05-08, 08:36 AM #1
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Freedom Of Information: MPs reach end of road in battle over secret expenses
As Reported by R.Verkaik in The Independent UK
A request to see MPs' expenses seemed innocuous enough. But, says Robert Verkaik, Law Editor, the Commons authorities decided to fight it tooth and nail
Friday, 23 May 2008
Having spent more than two years battling to keep secret details of MPs' spending the authorities of the House of Commons will today finally admit defeat. At 4pm officials of the Palace of Westminster have agreed to hand over hundreds of documents, including expenses claims made by Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, to freedom of information campaigners and two Sunday newspapers.
It will mark the end of a rather inglorious and disagreeable chapter in the history of our much respected Parliament.
For those of us who have watched with increasing disbelief as MPs and their officials find new ways to obstruct legitimate requests for information about those who govern us, this sorry saga has been as baffling as it is infuriating. It also raises suspicions, perhaps unjustified, that MPs have something to hide. And the cost to the public purse in trying to keep prying eyes out of MPs' affairs, must run into hundreds of thousands of pounds, including fees paid to outside lawyers. Later today we will find out what the Commons was so worried about, although it is understood that some papers relating to items of expense claimed by Tony Blair have already been shredded.
The decision to cave in to requests for information was forced upon the MPs after a High Court ruling ordered the publication of the detailed breakdown of their expenses claims.
It was the third ruling that went against the Commons officials, confirming that the Information Tribunal acted within its powers when it demanded that details of MPs' additional costs allowances must be provided under the Freedom of Information Act.
The Commons Members Estimate Committee decided that it would not seek leave to appeal against the ruling and would comply with the court's order that the details of 14 MPs, including Brown, Blair, and Cameron, be made public. Details of all the remaining MPs' expenses – thought to number around one million individual items – will be published in the autumn.
MPs' expenses have come under sustained criticism in recent months following the publication of the so-called "John Lewis list" of household items MPs can purchase under their £23,000-a-year second homes allowance.
The freedom of information campaigner Heather Brooke – whose FoI request, along with those from journalists on the Sunday Telegraph and Sunday Times, led to the court ruling – has welcomed the committee's decision. But for MPs and House of Commons authorities the outcome could not be more damaging.
In their ruling, Sir Igor Judge (President of the Queen's Bench Division), Lord Justice Latham and Mr Justice Blake also ordered that the addresses of MPs' second homes should be disclosed. This has now become the issue of greatest concern to MPs, even those who have always been relaxed about the disclosure of additional details of their expenses.
Nigel Giffin QC, appearing for the Commons in the High Court hearing, argued that the Tribunal's decision, which requires breakdowns to include receipts and the addresses of properties bought, meant there would be "a substantial unlawful intrusion" into the lives of MPs and their families that could threaten their security at the hands of the "mad and bad".
Rejecting the QC's arguments, the judges said it was "highly significant" that none of the MPs subject to applications had suggested that they claimed allowances on the basis that detailed information would not be disclosed.
(The emphasis in the last para is that of mine--Ganpat)
Freedom Of Information: MPs reach end of road in battle over secret expenses - Home News, UK - The Independent
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24-05-08, 03:25 PM #2
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Re: Freedom Of Information: MPs reach end of road in battle over secret expenses
‘Embarrassed’ MPs fear their expenses cannot be justified
As reported by: Tomos Livingstone, Western Mail May 24 2008
MPs were last night accused of fighting an expensive legal battle to keep their expenses secret because they were “embarrassed” at what was being claimed.
The Commons authorities finally threw in the towel last week after initially challenging a ruling from the Information Tribunal that details of 14 MPs’ expenses should be made public.
The data was released last night, just 30 minutes before the final deadline, and at a time when MPs had left Westminster for the 10-day Whitsun recess.
MPs can claim up to £23,000 a year (the Additional Cost Allowance) from taxpayers to spend on costs incurred while staying away from their main home – including televisions, rent or mortgage payments. They can also claim up to £400 a month for food without claiming a receipt.
Stevenage MP Barbara Follett, the wife of millionaire novelist Ken Follett, claimed more than £1,600 for window cleaning at her London home, with the cleaners visiting on 18 occasions at £94-a-time during 2003-04.
Among the claims made by Tony Blair were £10,600 for a new kitchen at his home in Sedgefield, and works to accommodate an Aga cooker.
Tony and Cherie Blair were also warned in 2005 that they had fallen £147.11 behind on their water bills for Myrobella House and bailiffs could be sent in if they did not pay up.
A form letter from Northumbrian Water addressed to “Mr C L Blair” [his full name is Anthony Charles Lynton Blair] notes: “We appreciate that you may be experiencing some financial difficulties... If you are experiencing difficulties please contact us to discuss payment.”
Mr Blair’s successor Gordon Brown even claimed £15 for light bulbs.
Some of the initial Freedom of Information requests were tabled as long ago as 2005. The Commons authorities had resisted moves towards greater publication until it decided not to appeal a High Court ruling last week.
Freedom of Information campaigner Heather Brooke, who was one of the three individuals who submitted the FOI requests, said: “By dragging their heels, MPs have only lowered themselves in the eyes of their constituents.
“The issue here is not so much the content as MPs’ willingness to be open and engage directly with their constituents.
“All honourable Members will welcome this level of transparency as will all other public figures.
“It is up to constituents to decide whether they believe spending thousands of pounds on new kitchens, house renovations, TV licences and garden maintenance is an acceptable use of public money.
“What is utterly unacceptable is the secrecy of the system and it indicates that MPs did not feel able to justify these expenses to their constituents.
“This revelation also gives the lie to MPs’ arguments that these receipts would damage their security or privacy. The only reason they were held back was to avoid embarrassment.”
One area of contention has revolved around the publication of MPs’ home addresses, which the Information Tribunal ruled should take place. One hundred MPs have signed a motion calling for the addresses to remain secret.
Certain sensitive details on the original documents – including the address of Mr Brown’s constituency home and Mr Cameron’s mortgage account number – have been blanked out of the photocopies which were made public.
Under the terms of the court ruling, details may be withheld from the public where there are “specific security concerns”.
The documentation reveals that then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott approached the Commons Department of Finance and Administration for guidance after press stories in 2005 over his decision to treat his grace-and-favour flat in Whitehall’s Admiralty House as his main residence, while claiming on council tax and other bills for his constituency home in Hull.
The practice, followed by many Government ministers who enjoy free accommodation in London by merit of their positions, has been repeatedly questioned on the grounds that the MPs involved do not have to meet the expenses of a second home. But Mr Prescott was reassured in a phone conversation that it did not breach Commons rules.
Source: ‘Embarrassed’ MPs fear their expenses cannot be justified - icWalesDefeat is not final when you fall down. It is final when you refuse to get up.