Another huge own goal by Britain’s parliamentarians. Everybody knew that they were taking a rather generous view on their expenses, and when a request under the Freedom of Information Act threatened to expose it all, the Speaker, the hapless Michael Martin, took it right up to the High Court. The argument was that the expense chits would show where MPs lived, which would be a security threat. Eventually a compromise was reached — that the information would be published, but with the addresses blacked out.
It is only thanks to the Daily Telegraph that we discovered what such censorship would have concealed. MPs ‘flipping’ their second homes to maximize their allowances, using public money to do up their houses before selling them at a profit, even maintaining a ‘second home’ that is neither in London nor in their constituency. Because the Telegraph saw the uncensored originals.
The receipts published online by Parliament today, however, have all the address information blacked out. So you can see if they’ve been charging the taxpayer 89p for a bathplug — but not whether they told Parliament that one address was their second home, and Revenue & Customs that it was their main residence (and therefore not liable to capital gains tax).
What makes it an own goal, though, is that the story has shifted: it is no longer about expenses, but about the cover-up. The censorship does far more than protect MPs from security threats. It protects them from embarrassment. One MP put in a grocery bill, but we’re not even allowed to see what supermarket it was from, never mind what town it was in. That’s above and beyond the call of security.
Thanks to the Telegraph, we know what has been going on. So the censorship now doesn’t look like a prudent measure to protect MPs’ safety — it looks like a blatant cover-up to save their skins. This will run and run.
Dr Eamonn Butler