Over in the United Kingdom, Thursday the 18th June 2009 was the Big Day for the nation's newspapers, as this was the day that the House of Commons published details of the expense claims by members of Parliament. Or at least it was a Big Day for all those newspapers that were not members of the Telegraph Group, since of course the Telegraph was already in possession of a hard disk drive containing all that information and more. But at least it allowed everyone else to finally get in on the act.
However, since the information released related to three different expense allowances, in respect of 646 MPs, and for four different accounting years, there was rather a substantial amount of documentation to plough through. Fortunately in the Age of the Internet, 'publishing' meant no more than making the documents accessible on the Parliamentary website, which meant that anyone could access the informat
'Join the MP expense claim hunt' said The Guardian as it therefore invited its readers to join in the fun and help scrutinise the 19,000 or so documents that the House of Commons had provided, each of which contained hundreds of scanned images of expense claims and supporting documents. Throughout the course of the day its website also featured a live blog featuring minute by minute coverage of this exercise in citizen journalism. The Times had the same idea, as it boasted, 'Live: MPs' expense claims - all the latest news as it happens', whilst the BBC also had a 'What you've spotted on expenses' post on its website.
Many did indeed take up the challenge, although one suspects that many might have eventually sympathised with Damian Whitworth, a Times journalist working on their minute-by-minute commentary of the action, who described the experience as "mesmerising, if mind-numbing" as he realised he had just wasted two hours of his life "lost in the world of James Purnell". Nevertheless highlights from this wide-ranging search included the revelation that the aforementioned James Purnell claimed £247 for the cost of purchasing 3,000 promotional fridge magnets, presumably to promote himself, as well as a 3kg jar of mint imperials for £16.64 plus VAT. Other items of note included the fact that Jeremy Hunt submitted a phone bill which listed a single twelve second mobile phone call for the total amount of one penny, that Alistair Darling once claimed the cost of a thirty pence bus ticket, that Lembit Öpik had claimed £19.99 for the "Mother of All Wigs", a cost apparently "incurred while supporting a Charitable Event", and that Ben Bradshaw had claimed the £30 for an engineer to attend his office and connect a scart lead to a television set. But then Bradshaw was only the Secretary of State for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, so why would he be aware of such things.
However the publication of this information by the Commons was not without its detractors. The one constant complaint was of an 'Expenses blackout' (as The Sun Put it), as the information provided by the House of Commons had been heavily redacted, which was to say that much of the supporting documentation featured large black blocks which had been superimposed in order to ensure that such things as addresses and other 'sensitive' information where complexly obliterated. Indeed the House of Commons had even previously amended the Freedom of Information Act to specifically remove residential addresses from the scope of the Act. The House claimed that all this was necessary to "protect the privacy and safety of MPs".
Not that the press was impressed by this line of reasoning, with headlines such as; 'Blackout: the great MPs' expenses cover-up' (Daily Telegraph), 'MPs accused of censorship over edited claims' (The Guardian), The blackout: Another dark day and that's just the half of it (The Independent), 'Freedom of Information drowned in sea of black ink' (The Times), and 'Shameless: Mps Censor Their Expenses' (Daily Express). The Daily Mail even felt it necessary to put it even more plainly as it proclaimed, 'Just how stupid do they think we are? Fury as MPs finally publish their expenses - with swathes of evidence blacked out'.
As The Sun pointed out, "Had the expenses details not already been leaked to newspapers, many of the shocking abuses would not have been revealed." For once the rest of the press agreed with The Sun, as they all pointed out that most of the worst abuses, including the actions of the phantom mortgage trio, would have remained undectable under this regime. Indeed there appeared to be little logic behind much of this censorship; as the Telegraph noted, the word 'chauffeur' had been blacked out on certain receipts submitted by the soon-to-be former Speaker Michael Martin. It wasn't clear how this contributed to the protection of Martin's privacy or safety. What was more, it was also reported that a number of backbench MPs were complaining that they had been 'warned off' by the Commons authorities from publishing their own uncensored versions of their own expenses.
Of course since the expenses details had already been 'leaked' to the Telegraph, and that paper had already spent the past five weeks scouring the records for dirt, there never was that much chance that anyone else would succeed in uncovering a really choice scandal during the course of the day. Much of the press was therefore reduced to running the news that David Cameron would be repaying a sum close to a £1,000. He had already pledged to repay one £680 bill for repairs to his second home, but had now increased this to £947.29 having been through his expenses with the finest of fine toothcombs.
The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail also felt obliged to report that former Prime Minister Tony Blair had submitted a claim for £6,990 of "roof repairs" on his designated second home on the 25th June 2007 just two days before stepping down as Prime Minister and announcing his intention to leave Parliament. Blair let it be known that work had actually been carried out in January 2007, which of course made everything all right, since at least it meant the taxpayer had the benefit of this expenditure for six months rather that only one.
Of course, now that all this information, albeit slightly censored, had been unleashed on the British public, one can perhaps understand why Gordon Brown decided to set up a helpline offering legal advice and support for 'distressed' Labour members. It was only likely to get worse, as the Daily Telegraph announced that it would shortly be publishing a "comprehensive 68-page supplement setting out a summary of the claims of every sitting MP", whilst it also promised to release its own version of an online database of expense claims in the coming weeks, with substantially less in the way of a blackout imposed on the evidence.
The House of Commons released information regarding a) the Additional Costs Allowance, which reimbursed MPs for the cost of maintaining a second home; b) the Incidental Expenses Provision, which covered the cost of running a constituency office; and c) the Communications Allowance, which covered the cost members incurred in informing their constituents of their activities.
- See the British press for the 18th and 19th June 2009.
- MPs' expenses – live coverage, The Guardian, 18 June 2009
- Live: MPs' expense claims - all the latest news as it happens, The Times, 18 June 2009
- What you've spotted on expenses, BBC News, 18 June 2009