For the last eight days in Britain, it has been as though news has completely ceased to exist with one exception: the slowly trickling out details of the expenses claims that House of Commons MPs have made in recent years. Almost no high-ranking official in any party has been spared (although admittedly Labour has taken it hardest) and the claims have been eye-rolling at best, jaw-dropping at worst. It was not, however, until today that I caught wind of the mechanism by which the information had been obtained, or at least part of the story. Some of the details are in today’s Guardian, in a commentary piece written by Heather Brooke, a campaigner for transparency. Look at most stories mentioning her name this week and you will see “London-based journalist and Freedom of Information campaigner… ” and not see “born and raised in America” as part of her bio. And really, you have to dig pretty deep to find information about her at all, an ironic twist in this story.
I was only made aware of her because of an interview I saw with an Associated Press (AP) chief, who was being asked about the reaction to the MP expenses scandal in countries outside Britain, and he noted that the story was big in America because of her roots there. And also that no one in America could believe that (a) this information had been secret in the first place (held close to the Commons on the usual political grounds of “Security” and “Privacy”) and (b) it had taken so long and such extensive efforts for the details to come to light. It was only the case by Brooke, an independent journalist, fighting it all the way to the high court that started to unlock the doors to bogus claims of residency in illogical second homes, husband and wife MPs claiming different residences, evidence of “flipping” properties to avoid capital gains taxes… the list goes on and the details are not so important here. What IS important is transparency, of rules that make sense (more on that in a mo’) and of government officials who do not think that they are above the law.
The AP chief did note that while this had been an interesting story in America, and on front pages of newspapers with international interests on more than one occasion, the reaction in Britain has been (as usual for the British press) completely disproportionate. I have to agree. Seeing interview after interview with Joe-on-the-street types who want to banish all MPs gets old after a while, as does the occasional call for the Queen to disband parliament and take over. Hopefully not in my time here. What has been quite amusing, however, are the non-apologies, along the lines of “I am very sorry that the people in my constituency have been let down by my making perfectly legal expense claims that were approved fully by the fees committee. I see now that I should not have claimed for x.” The classic non-apology; I don’t apologise for what I did, but I do feel badly that you are upset by my actions (please vote for me again). The AP chief also noted that the way the information has been trickling out this week has been a masterful marketing plan on the part of the newspaper(s) (?) doing the leaking, and I have to agree. There’s another big name in the headlines every day, and heads are starting to roll.
Now I admit, I have one additional point on this subject. And yes, it is a matter of personal preference, but I don’t bother to go through the effort of claiming back every single allowable reimburse-able expense that I incur. There’s a tradeoff there for time (and paperwork) versus money that would definitely have led me to not claim some of the items that could have been claimed. (There’s a nice picture-slideshow thing here that shows some of the more silly items.) I like it when there is a sensible per diem benefit for eating in foreign locations, because if I have to turn in the receipts, I’ll probably never get around to it. I’d have to eat at home too, and the burden of paperwork definitely does not become worth my while for a bagel and coffee at Bruegger’s when in the states for a conference. But maybe that’s just me. Sensible rules help, and I’m actually with Gordon Brown (for once!) in suggesting a flat allowance for MPs and not all of this mortgage and second home funny-business.
Now that brings to the forefront a significant difference between me and the MPs, they have staff members who are the ones actually filling out the paperwork. Yes, at the end of the day it is the MPs who have to sign off on the claims (the wording of which has been floating around today) but there is an additional large group of people who have participated in this little bit of creative accounting, and about whom I have heard nothing. Do you really think Clare Short is preparing her own forms for submission to the rules office? Do you think Hazel Blears is the one sending emails to the fees committees to see whether a line item on some claim fits within the letter of the law? Sure, they sign off and thus have something akin to fiduciary responsibility. BUT where are the rest of the parties who participated in this little charade?