Transparency vital for MPs’ expenses

Article by Jo Swinson on the MPs’ expenses row (Scottish Mail on Sunday, 25 Jan 09)

This week’s MPs’ expenses row was both depressing and uplifting. Depressing because yet again it seemed that fellow MPs in the House of Commons were intent upon shrouding our affairs in secrecy. This kind of behaviour fuels the negative perception of politics that is so damaging to our democracy. Ultimately uplifting, however, because in the space of less than a week, tens of thousands of people joined forces to demand transparency from our elected representatives. The Government’s humiliating climbdown on this issue was not just a victory for openness, but for people power too.

For years, the House of Commons has resisted moves towards transparency over expenses. When Freedom of Information campaigners asked for the detailed expense breakdowns of Tony Blair and other high-profile MPs, Parliament refused to provide them. When the Information Commissioner ruled that the information should be made public, Parliament challenged this in the courts – and billed the taxpayer for £150,000 of legal costs in the process. Last summer, after the High Court ruled against Parliament, the House of Commons finally and reluctantly agreed to publish all the detailed expenses of every MP, going back to 2004. These were due to be released in the autumn, but Parliament attributed the delay in publishing the expenses to the huge task of scanning and organising more than 1.2million receipts.

Last week, however, on a busy day in Parliament with debates on the crisis in Gaza, the Equitable Life scandal and Heathrow’s third runway, the Government sneaked out a new proposal to exempt MPs from the scope of the Freedom of Information Act. By changing the law in this way, the High Court ruling would no longer apply, so the detailed expenses would not be published. Months of work and the £2million cost so far of preparing the expenses for publication would have been wasted. The vote was planned for just one week later, leaving hardly any time to organise a campaign against the change.

When I heard the news, I was back in my constituency for my weekly advice surgeries. For a second I was in disbelief: does the Government not realise how hiding MPs’ expenses will undermine trust? Then frustration, as I thought about how difficult it would be to win the vote.

Media sources claimed that the Government had come under pressure from backbench Tory and Labour MPs, keen to avoid embarrassing expense revelations shortly before an election. If that was the case, then the Government would surely have the votes it needed to win.

Nonetheless, I decided to see if we could build a coalition of MPs who opposed the secrecy, and drafted a Parliamentary motion urging the Government to withdraw its plan to exempt MPs from the Freedom of Information Act. I contacted MPs with a track record of campaigning for an open Parliament, like Richard Shepherd (Con), David Winnick (Lab) and Norman Baker (Lib Dem), to ensure it was a cross-party initiative, and therefore more likely to gain support from MPs in all parties.

Then the social networking came in. I confess, I’m a bit of a fan of using websites like Facebook and Twitter for trying to connect politics with the public, and create two-way dialogue. It’s also a particularly good way of reaching younger people, and as the youngest MP in Parliament I’m always keen to get young people more involved in politics. So I joined a couple of Facebook groups that had been set up on this issue, and posted the information about my Parliamentary motion, so people could write to their MP asking them to support it. MySociety, the organisation behind the excellent website, then emailed its 75,000 users to ask them to get involved in the campaign.

Over the next few days MPs were suddenly bombarded with dozens of emails from constituents on the issue, asking what their position was and whether they would support my motion instead of the Government line.

MPs were now not just worried about embarrassment over their expenses details, but also embarrassment over being seen to vote against transparency. I hear that many Labour MPs went to their whips to say they could not support the Government, and the Tories decided to vote against. From the start, the Lib Dems opposed these plans and Nick Clegg announced that Lib Dem MPs would be on a three line whip to vote them down. 74 MPs of all parties signed up to my motion.

By Wednesday, the Government confusion was clear. First, they put a three line whip on Labour MPs to vote through the change, then they said the vote would be unwhipped, and finally they announced that they were dropping the plans altogether.

Twenty years ago, it would have been impossible to mount this kind of campaign within a week. The time taken to inform people about the problem, and for them to write and post a letter to their MP, would have meant that the vote would have been over before the campaign kicked in. The power of the internet to organise like-minded people is huge, and will surely be an increasing feature of political debate and decision-making in this country.

People power delivered a thoroughly welcome, if astonishing, victory for Parliamentary transparency and the public’s right to know how their money is being spent.

After all, that is the basic principle at stake here. The public has a right to know.

It is a huge shame that the House of Commons has had to be dragged kicking and screaming towards transparency. By contrast, the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly have embraced full publication of the expenses claimed. The whole issue of MPs’ expenses has been allowed to fester for far too long, leading to distrust and cynicism about politics.

Let’s be clear, MPs’ expenses are there to pay for legitimate and necessary costs of doing the job of an MP. The headline figures bandied about in the media for “MPs’ expenses” would not be called expenses in any other job. When I worked in business not once did the salaries of the people I managed get included in my expense figures. Yet the vast bulk of the £87million “expenses” is actually the salaries of MPs’ staff – the people who answer the phones, work on cases for individual constituents and provide research and briefings to help MPs hold the Government to account.

Running a constituency office incurs expense – rent, rates, utilities, office equipment, stationery, telephone bills and so on. It does cost money to travel an 800-mile round trip every week between my constituency in Scotland and Westminster, but my constituents rightly expect me both to be active in the local community and regularly standing up for their interests in Parliament. And when I’m in London, I need to have somewhere to stay overnight.

We could have a system with no MPs’ expenses, but it would be like going back to the nineteenth century when the only people who could be MPs were wealthy landed gentry. MPs visited their constituencies perhaps once a year and did not reply to correspondence from constituents, let alone help them through complex problems with tax credits or housing difficulties.

I believe that most people appreciate that these are reasonable costs associated with having MPs who can be accessible and responsive. Where the suspicion comes is when these costs are hidden. That’s why I’m in favour of transparency – people will see where the money goes and it’s up to them to judge whether their own MP is spending the money wisely.

This week the principles of transparency and accountability won the day. Thursday’s crucial vote was cancelled, but there was still an interesting debate on MPs’ expenses. Despite the generally constructive speeches arguing for the expenses being public, there were two points for concern. One is the suggestion that now that MPs will be publishing more detailed expenses under 26 categories, the legal requirement for every last receipt to be scrutinised under freedom of information could be overturned. The other is that both the Government and the Conservatives refused to rule out bringing back the proposal to change the Freedom of Information Act to exempt MPs.

I do hope that the House of Commons will come to see the wisdom of publishing detailed expenses as a matter of course, and abandon any future plans to opt-out of the legislation. But if the issue rears its head again, we now have a ready-made group of MPs and campaigners mobilised and ready to fight the cause for freedom of information. If this week’s result is anything to go by, that’s a powerful asset.

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