Blackout: the great MPs' expenses cover-up
Robert Winnett and James Kirkup – Telegraph.co.uk June 18, 2009
Party leaders struggled to explain the decision to publish heavily blacked-out versions of MPs’ claims as public anger mounted.
Despite a pledge from Gordon Brown that “transparency” was the only way to restore public faith in democracy, the files released by the Commons authorities withheld details that would have exposed the worst abuses of the expenses system.
The parliamentary expenses files do not expose MPs who have “flipped” their designated second homes and many of the most controversial claims have been completely blacked out in the documents.
Details that would have allowed the public to identify interest claimed on so-called “phantom mortgages” — such as in the case of Elliot Morley, the former environment minister — or MPs who were able to avoid paying capital gains tax on the sale of properties — such as Kitty Ussher, the Treasury minister forced to resign — were also excluded.
Controversial claims by Tory MPs for the cleaning of a moat and the purchase of a floating duck island were also omitted.
The decision to publish the information in this way — following weeks of disclosures about questionable claims in The Telegraph — provoked widespread surprise and anger.
The full scale of the censorship of the expense claims made by senior MPs, including the Cabinet, can be disclosed today as this newspaper publishes the details excluded from yesterday’s release.
MPs had originally argued that their addresses be excluded for security reasons, but vast additional swaths of their claims have ended up being censored.
Hundreds of pages of claims have been removed altogether before the expense files were published. Many of these will be made available on the Telegraph website. Tomorrow, The Daily Telegraph, which last month obtained an uncensored version of the expenses files, will publish a special 68-page magazine supplement detailing the claims made by every sitting MP.
Last night, the House of Commons announced that 183 MPs have now repaid claims totalling more than £470,000. MPs who have privately repaid money without making an announcement include Keith Vaz, the chairman of the home affairs select committee, Douglas Alexander, the International Development Secretary, and John Bercow, a Conservative MP hoping to become the new Speaker.
More than 15 MPs have announced that they will stand down at the next election in the wake of the expenses scandal.
The Prime Minister insisted last night that he was “surprised” that so much information had been redacted. Mr Brown was sent copies of what the Commons was intending to release about his claims more than six weeks ago.
David Cameron, the Conservative leader, who has said he would be repaying almost £1,000 in questionable claims, said: “I think that people will be disappointed with the amount of information that is held back.”
Vince Cable, the deputy Liberal Democrat leader, said: “The publication of the expenses in this format has only made people even more frustrated.”
Amid widespread confusion over who was ultimately responsible for the blacking out of claims, backbench MPs said that they had been warned off publishing their own uncensored information by the Commons authorities, who said they could breach data protection laws. Sally Keeble, a Labour MP, said: “We were sent this disgraceful letter saying if we did [publish the information uncensored] we risked getting into trouble and if that happened we would be on our own.”
MPs may now face a legal challenge, as Parliament stands accused of subverting a High Court judgment which ordered the full disclosure of the taxpayer-funded expense claims last year.
Sir Alistair Graham, the former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said: “I am against the sort of redaction and censorship which has clearly taken place.”
Yesterday, Nick Harvey, the spokesman for the House of Commons Commission which published the claims, expressed regret over the way the information had been censored. Mr Harvey, a Liberal Democrat MP, said he had no idea that his colleagues “flipped” their designated second homes until the practice was exposed by The Daily Telegraph. He added that if the commission had been aware, details of MPs’ designations of their first and second homes may have been released, but indicated that it was too late to change the publication plans.
Among the claims which have been controversially censored are:
Receipts submitted by the Prime Minister for money spent at Ikea were removed. In total, nine pages were removed from Mr Brown’s 2004-05 file before publication.
The most notorious expense claims, including Douglas Hogg’s moat cleaning and Sir Peter Viggers’s duck island, have been removed in their entirety and not simply blacked out.
Michael Martin, the Speaker, blacked out the word “chauffeur” from receipts he had submitted. Although the name of the firm is included, the type of business has been removed for reasons which are far from clear.
The lawnmower maintenance bill submitted by Alan Duncan, the shadow leader of the Commons, was redacted. Mr Duncan is the Tory representative on the House of Commons Commission and is thought to have angered some of his senior colleagues by agreeing to the censored publication.
Sir Paul Stephenson, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, said that a decision on whether to open full inquiries into MPs alleged to have made fraudulent expenses claims would be made soon.
Last updated 21/06/2009