Or how the British House of Commons tried to deal with the vexed question of their expenses and how much the public should know about them.
When the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) came into effect on the 1st January 2005 the House of Commons received a number of requests to provide information regarding the expenses claimed by its members. Their refusal to provide the details of the amounts involved (particularly those paid under the Additional Costs Allowance) led to a long struggle that was not resolved until the spring of 2008. The problem being that there was a fundamental difference of opinion between those that believed that MPs' expenses were a legitimate matter of public interest, and those MPs who believed that it was a purely private matter between them as individuals and the House of Commons as their employer.
The Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill
One of the first attempts to fix the problem was made by David Maclean, the Conservative Member of Parliament for Penrith and The Border, who introduced a Private Members' Bill on the 18th December 2006. The Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill would have exempted both Houses of Parliament from the requirements of the FOIA on the basis of the need to protect members' correspondence from "unauthorised disclosure". It would have also exempted the Commons from the requirement to publish details of MPs' expenses, although the Speaker graciously conceded that the Commons would continue to release the "type of information currently published" on a "voluntary basis". (Being a reference to the decision to publish the bare totals of expenses paid to MPs which had been put into effect since October 2004.)
To the surprise of many, the Bill reached its third reading on the 18th May 2007 when it was passed by a margin of 96 votes to 25, despite attempts by its opponents to 'talk the bill out'. Its success seemed to be explained by the acquiescence of the Government who could (as with any other Private Members' Bill) have killed it had they wanted to. Indeed back in May 2007 Prime Minister Tony Blair refused to make any comment on the bill, whilst Prime-Minister-to-be Gordon Brown wheeled out a spokesman to say that "If MPs have voted this measure through then that is a matter for them" (1). It was a similar case with the Conservative opposition who did not go out of their way to frustrate the Bill's progress, although David Cameron did state that the Conservatives would not support the bill in its current form if it came to a vote in the House of Lords. Indeed given that only 121 out of some 646 MPs were sufficiently motivated to actually vote on the measure, it could well be seen that the majority of the House quietly hoped that the bill would pass into law without any of them having to take the responsibility for it doing so.
Fortunately (or unfortunately) the progress of the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill promptly ground to a halt on the 13th June 2007 when it became apparent that no member of the House of Lords was willing to sponsor the bill. But of more significance (at least with the benefit of hindsight) was the story that appeared in the Sunday Times of the 27th May 2007 under the headline 'MP hires son on expenses' that kicked off what become known as the Derek Conway affair. Essentially the Sunday Times alleged that Conway had abused the parliamentary staffing allowance by using it to provide his student son with a holiday job. Whether this claim had any influence on the lack of enthusiasm for David Maclean's Bill amongst their lordships is not known, but it did inspire a complaint to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Philip Mawer, who later delivered his report to the Committee on Standards and Privileges on the 21st December 2007, who then published their conclusions on the 28th January 2008. It was fairly damning as far as the subject Derek Conway was concerned, as the Committee concluded that he had used his parliamentary staffing allowance to pay his son for work that he had not actually performed.
Naturally the revelation that Mr Conway had been funnelling taxpayers' money into his son's pockets brought forth a torrent of public abuse upon his head. That might have been the end of that except that it was fairly common practice for MPs in general to hire their wives, husbands, whatever in various capacities, and so questions began to be asked as to whether there were other MPs who were similarly enriching their family members at the taxpayers' expenses. It was as a result of this public disquiet that the Speaker of the House of Commons Michael Martin announced on the 4th February 2008 that a "root-and-branch" review of parliamentary allowances would be carried out by the Members Estimate Committee, whilst Gordon Brown made it known that he had written to the Speaker expressing the importance of a establishing a "more transparent system".
The Members Estimate Committee
The Members Estimate Committee (MEC) was, and remains, a rather obscure Parliamentary backwater, being essentially a committee chaired by the Speaker of the House of Commons and comprising two Conservative, two Labour, and one Liberal Democrat member, which was responsible for the payment of MPs' salaries and expenses. Rather confusingly its membership also appeared in another guise as the House of Commons Commission which supervised the House of Commons Administration, but nevertheless it was as the MEC that these individuals set about the task of reviewing the system for the payment of MPs' expenses and coming up with some ideas to reform the system and allay the public concern that had been sparked off by the Derek Conway affair.
On the 23rd June 2008 the MEC delivered the results of its review. Amongst other things, the MEC recommended that MPs should no longer be able to claim reimbursement for furniture and household goods or anything remotely of the nature of a "capital improvement", and that the Additional Costs Allowance should be replaced by an overnight expenses allowance, with a £19,600 maximum annual limit, down from £24,000. It also recommended that the expenses payments should be audited by the National Audit Office, and that every claim, no matter how small, should be backed by a receipt.
What made these proposals perhaps even more timely was that even as the MEC was considering what should be done about MPs' expenses, it had lost its fight to keep the details of those very expenses secret, following a ruling by the High Court on the 16th May 2008. What was worse, the existence of the John Lewis List had become public knowledge, and both the Information Tribunal and the High Court had concluded that Additional Costs Allowance was "flawed", all of which had only served to increase public concern. In such circumstances one might have imagined that the House of Commons would have recognised that something needed to be done to assuage public disquiet. However when the House of Commons considered the MEC's proposals on the 3rd July 2008, Don Touhig, the Labour member for Islwyn and a former government minister, tabled an amendment that rejected their recommendations which was passed by 172 votes to 144.
This rejection was all the more surprising because it was believed that they had the Prime Minister's blessing. However although Gordon Brown was said to support the proposed changes, he did not attend the Commons to vote, and his two parliamentary private secretaries, Ian Austin and Angela Smith, both voted against the reforms. Indeed out of the 172 MPs who voted against the reform package 146 were Labour and only 21 were Conservative, and whilst the Conservative leader David Cameron ordered his shadow cabinet to back the reforms, at least four cabinet ministers and twenty-nine other ministers were amongst those who voted down the reforms.
The Conservatives went so far as to claim that there had been a "secret trade-off" and that Labour banckbenchers had agreed to exercise restraint as regards their salaries, (and so voted by 196 to 155 to reject an extra £650 a year), in return for being allowed to retain their expense allowances. There might well have been more than a scrap of truth behind this claim as even The Guardian was reporting that "Government whips were then seen nodding Labour MPs through the aye lobby" when Don Touhig's amendment was voted on.
In fact there were what were described as "furious scenes" in the chamber as the vote took place, with the (largely Conservative) supporters of the MEC reforms remonstrating with their (largely Labour) opponents. Voices were raised, and at one point the aforementioned Ian Austin was alleged to have told the Shadow Chancellor George Osborne to "fuck off, you toff". In any event Don Touhig and his Labour supporters effectively killed off the MEC reforms, although certain more cosmetic changes were agreed.
Almost a fortnight later on the 16th July there was an Opposition Day Debate scheduled, and the Conservatives opted to return to the subject of expenses. They made another attempt to persuade the Commons to reconsider the MEC's recommendation to end furniture claims under the Additional Costs Allowance (ACA), but the Labour Party wouldn't have that. Instead, "led by the Prime Minister", they proposed limiting such claims to 10% of the ACA or £2,400; a suggestion which simply led to Conservative claims that they were simply replacing the 'John Lewis List' with the IKEA list.
Nevertheless, as a result of this Opposition Day Debate, the Commons did agree on certain reforms, which included the involvement of the National Audit Office, although only in terms of overseeing the new rules and internal audit systems, rather than in terms of auditing the actual expenses themselves, whilst the Advisory Panel on Members Allowances was asked to prepare a redraft of the Green Book setting out some more detailed rules and guidance on entitlements to allowances.(2)
The Committee on Standards in Public Life
In the aftermath of the original rejection of the MEC proposals on the 3rd July 2008, Christopher Kelly, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life was widely quoted as saying that "I would expect the public to react very badly". They did, or at least the press did, with headlines such as 'MPs face fury over vote to keep lavish John Lewis list' from the Daily Telegraph.
The fact that Christopher Kelly felt moved to pass comment on the result posed something of a 'threat', since the Committee on Standards in Public Life was an entirely independent body, established by John Major back in the days when Questions were being asked for Cash in order to ensure that "ethical standards" were maintained "across the whole of public life". The last thing many MPs wanted was for an 'entirely independent body' to begin scrutinising their expenses system. Indeed back on the 29th January 2008, shortly after sentence had been pronounced on Derek Conway, the Daily Telegraph had reported that the Committee was "poised to launch an inquiry" and also that it had "emerged" that Jack Straw had previously "blocked a similar move" in 2007 on the basis it would "embarrass backbench MPs" (3). Now with the failure of the MEC's reform plan, The Guardian reported that a "source" had told them that the Committee was once more ready to launch its own inquiry into MPs expenses. As it was, on the 28th July 2008 the Committee announced that it had decided to take a "pragmatic approach" and had postponed a decision until "next year" when it would review the "new arrangements".
In the autumn of 2008 the Committee announced that the subject of its next investigation would be 'Local Leadership and Public Trust', but nevertheless it was now clear that the Committee would indeed by conducting an inquiry into MPs expenses, although it was also clear that it wouldn't be until the autumn of 2009 that it began work, and hence its report would not be published until well after the expected date of the next General Election. This at least gave the House of Commons a little time to get itself in order.
The first step on this road was taken in August 2008, when Harriet Harman, as Leader of the House of Commons issued a consultation document on the subject of the Audit and Assurance of MPs' Allowances. Of course the only people that she intended consulting on the matter were MPs themselves, whilst it later became known that Christopher Kelly had written to Ms Harman on the 30th September 2008 to inform her that the proposals put forward in her consultation document were not good enough as they did not "address all the public's concerns about MPs' pay and allowances".
Gordon Brown's Plan A
Nevertheless the results of the Harman consultation process eventually bore fruit, as on the 15th January 2009 Gordon Brown's Government released an explanatory memorandum which explained that they would be putting forward a Parliamentary Order which "in respect of members of parliament" would remove "most expenditure information held by either House of Parliament from the scope of the act". Or to put it another way, the FOIA would not apply to MPs' expenses. Problem solved you might think, particularly since the Order would operate retrospectively and therefore nullify the decisions of both the High Court and the Information Tribunal.
The Liberal Democrats didn't like the idea, and the Commons authorities didn't think much of it either, since they has spent the past seven months and something like £1 million in scanning and redacting around one million receipts in preparation for the publication of the details of MPs' expenses that had been forced on them by the High Court defeat of the previous year. It was also alleged that the announcement had been "slipped out" on the same day that the Government announced the 'controversial' decision to approve a third runway at Heathrow Airport in the hope that no would notice. As it was, those that did take notice were told by Downing Street was that the proposal had "support across the Commons", and that in any case MPs' expenses would also be made subject to "tougher auditing requirements".
Unfortunately the Government was then obliged to undertake a "dramatic retreat" at the last moment, as Gordon Brown was forced to make a "surprise announcement" during Prime Minister's Questions on the 21st January 2009 that his Government would not, after all, put forward such a proposal.
The reason for this change of heart was relatively straightforward. Initially the Conservatives had decided to abstain, even though they didn't like the idea of the FOIA exemption. This was because the Government was using a statutory instrument to introduce the changes and so it was an all or nothing deal, and the Conservatives did not want to be accused of wrecking some of the other changes being introduced such as the moves to introduce tighter auditing requirements and reduce how much could be claimed for furnishing second properties. (Unlike parliamentary bills, statutory instruments cannot be amended by Parliament.)
However what happened was that the Conservatives were under the impression that the issue would be decided upon by a free vote, only to become rather put out when they discovered that Labour MPs were being whipped to back the order. David Cameron therefore ordered his MPs to oppose it. The issue wasn't so much that the Government feared losing the vote, but more that they feared actually winning it in the face of Conservative opposition, which would mean that it would have to take the blame for imposing secrecy on MPs' expenses. According to the leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg it was "a humiliating climbdown for Gordon Brown". Which it was, but it wasn't entirely his fault, as it was largely a deal stitched up by Harriet Harman to placate the Conservative 1922 Committee and the Parliamentary Committee of the Parliamentary Labour Party, both of whom wanted to stop the release of the information.
In the circumstances there did not seem anything to do except wait for Kelly's Committee to eventually get around to looking at the question, and since the timescale of that inquiry was so far into the future it could safely be forgotten about. However in the following months the nation's newspapers featured a steady stream of revelations and accusations regarding 'abuses' of the expenses system perpetrated by government ministers such as Jacqui Smith and Tony McNulty, amongst others, including the very newsworthy revelation that Ms Smith had claimed for the cost of two 'adult' films (supposedly watched by her husband) on her expenses. A number of these press reports appeared to be based on well informed and detailed information which could only have come from within the House of Commons itself. Stuart Bell, a member of the House of Commons Commission, announced that there was a "mole hunt" in progress, seeking to establish the identity of the individual who was leaking information to the press, whilst there were rumours that the details of MPs' expenses were for sale to anyone who had the cash to spare.
One of the consequences of these press reports was that it led to a change of heart at the Committee on Standards in Public Life, as on the 31st March 2009 Christopher Kelly announced that the situation had changed over the last few months, and it was "now obvious that this piece of work" needed to be started as "soon as possible". He therefore announced that the Committee would now defer the work on their current inquiry so that they could "begin work immediately" on the subject of MPs' expenses given that there was now "widespread political consensus on the need for reform". There were those that claimed that Kelly's decision was a result of "pressure from Gordon Brown", although Kelly himself gave not the slightest indication that it was anything other than his own decision.
Gordon Brown's Plan B
Whilst the Committee on Standards in Public Life might have now decided it was time to look at the question of MPs' expenses, the earliest their report was expected to be published was sometime before Christmas, although it was more likely that it would have appeared in the early spring, at a time that would have been worryingly close to the expected date of the next General Election in May 2007. If anything, Kelly's announcement of the 31st March made it even more crucial that the Government 'did something' to be seen to 'fixing' the problem before the Committee had its say.
On the 21st April 2009 Gordon Brown therefore came forward with yet another plan to deal with the issue. As it turned out the most bizarre feature of this development was the Prime Minister's decision to announce his plans through a video posted on the YouTube website. It was, as Polly Toynbee described it, an "unilateral YouTube proclamation"; a decision apparently prompted by the belief that this would enable him to drum up support from the public for his proposed changes, and so enable him to overrule any opposition or criticism from within the Commons. As it was the public were treated to a sneak preview of the proposals when Hazel Blears was photographed clutching the memorandum outlining his proposals inadvertently on display in a clear document wallet.
It was difficult to reach any conclusion as to the exact public reaction to this innovation, since it was decided to disable the ability to post comments on YouTube, apparently because the task of "moderating offensive comments would be to arduous". As it was only 6,000 people were said to have taken the trouble to actually view the Prime Minister's performance, and it was likely that far more became aware of its existence when it was featured on Have I Got News For You. Naturally as a satirical news quiz, the programme focussed the public's attention on the way in which Brown inexplicably broke into what was clearly a forced smile mid-sentence as he outlined his proposals. And there was indeed something strikingly creepy about his performance; Charlie Brooker, writing in The Guardian, wrote that it "made him look like the long-dead corpse of a gameshow host resurrected by a crazed scientist in some satirical horror movie".(4)
Despite this constitutional innovation Brown's plan turned out to be quite simple. The second home allowance would be replaced with a flat rate attendance allowance, with Members of Parliament thus being paid a fixed daily sum just for turning up at the House of Commons. No actual sum was mentioned, as it was intended that it would be independently set by the Senior Salaries Review Board, although it was suggested by the media that it would be in the order of £140 to £170 per day. A similar system was already operated by the European Parliament where it was commonly known as SISO or Sign In and Sod Off, as it was well known that a number of Members of the European Parliament simply turned up at the European Parliament building at Strasbourg to register their attendance, only to promptly walk straight out again.
Having thus put forward his big idea, just hours after the Budget 2009 on the 23rd April, Brown convened a "strictly private meeting" where he was joined by David Cameron, Nick Clegg, and their respective Chief Whips, to thrash out an agreement on the issue. Unfortunately these cross-party talks failed to reach a consensus regarding Brown's proposals.
Actually it was worse than that. It was said that Brown repeatedly waved his fist at his counterparts as he shouted "We have to get this sorted! We have to get this sorted!" It was also alleged that Brown's idea of a cross-party consensus was to inform Cameron that he could "Take it or leave it" and that "If you didn't keep raising it at Prime Minister's Questions we wouldn't be in this mess." To which Cameron allegedly replied, "You will get slaughtered. You cannot propose to give people the same amount of money but with no receipts".
As it happened both David Cameron and Nick Clegg were in agreement that handing out money to MPs on a 'no-questions asked' basis that would require no receipts would be even less acceptable to the public than the existing system. It appeared that a substantial number of Labour MPs also agreed with them and made their views known during a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party on the 27th April. Brown was therefore to abandon his great idea. Or as the Daily Mail put it on the following day, Brown was "forced into a humiliating retreat last night over his plans to give MPs a taxfree daily allowance for turning up to work".
In the circumstances Brown tried to save some face by writing to Christopher Kelly on the 27th April and asking his Committee to consider the question of the ACA, and "to come forward with its proposals on this issue as soon as possible and preferably before the summer recess", and also that its proposed solution should "take account of attendance at Westminster". As far as the timing of the Committee's report was concerned, Kelly responded that same day and informed Brown that "the issues here are not simple" and that they were endeavouring to complete the review at the earliest date that was "consistent with doing a thorough job". Which would be the polite British way of saying 'get lost'. And as far as the question of taking account of "attendance at Westminster" was concerned, the rest of the Commons wasn't happy about Brown's rather ham-fisted attempt to resurrect his flat rate attendance allowance, and by Thursday 30th April Brown was forced into a "second climbdown" as he was forced to agree that he would refer the matter to Kelly without any such condition.
But despite the chaos the House of Commons did manage to vote through a number changes to their expenses. The forty-nine outer-London MPs would be unable to claim the second homes allowance from 2010 onwards and would have to settle for the £2,916 London weighting allowance instead; all staff hired by MPs' would now be direct employees of the Commons; new rules would be introduced requiring MPs to declare their earnings and hours worked from any 'second jobs'; and MPs would now be required to produce receipts for all expense claims. Nevertheless the week ending the 1st May 2009 was another bad week for Gordon Brown, as he as forced into successive climbdowns over his expenses inititative coupled with a defeat in a Commons vote over the Ghurkas. As Tony Wright, the Labour chairman of the Public Administration Committee, put it,"It is rather a large understatement to say that we are in a bit of a mess."
That was on the 1st May 2009. One week to go before the bomb exploded.
(1) It is strangely curious that the member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath should refer to his fellow MPs as 'them'.
(2) The Advisory Panel on Members Allowances was established in 2001 to advise the Speaker and the Members Estimate Committee in matters relating to parliamentary allowances. It was later dissolved by a Resolution of the House of the 22nd January 2009, which was probably just as well, as its chairman was none other than the Rt Hon Don Touhig MP. This author does not know why one committee comprising six MPs should need advice from another committee comprising yet another group of MPs.
(3) As history was to show, such an enquiry could quite well have embarassed a number of frontbench MPs as well.
(4) It also inpsired Ms Blears to pen her now infamous YouTube if you want to article that did so much to derail her own political career.
- Research Paper 07/18, The Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill (Bill 62 of 2006-7) 21 February 2007
- Will Woodward, Speaker promises 'root and branch' review of MPs' expenses, The Guardian, 5 February 2008
- MPs’ Expenses, February 5, 2008
- Members Estimate Committee - Third Report Session 2007-08, 23 June 2008
- Andrew Sparrow and Nicholas Watt, Sleaze watchdog expected to launch inquiry into MPs' expenses, The Guardian, 4 July 2008
- Murray Wardrop, MPs face fury over vote to keep lavish 'John Lewis list' expenses, Daily Telegraph, 04 Jul 2008
- Colin Brown, Tories claim Brown 'fixed' expenses vote, The Independent, 5 July 2008
- News Release - Consultation On Proposals For The Audit And Assurance Of Mps' Allowances Gets Under Way, 5 August 2008
- Audit and Assurance of MPs’ Allowances, August 2008
- James Kirkup, Standards Committee rejects Gordon Brown move on MPs' expenses, Daily Telegraph, 23 Oct 2008
- Explanatory Memorandum To The Freedom Of Information (Parliament) Order 2009, 15 January 2009
- Expenses probe to be speeded up BBC News 31 March 2009
- Allegra Stratton and Andrew Sparrow, Details of MPs' expenses 'for sale', The Guardian, 31 March 2009
- MP attendance pay plan abandoned, BBC News, 28 April 2009
- Nicholas Watt, Gordon Brown's second climbdown fuels Commons fury, The Guardian, Friday 1 May 2009