Blackwash outrage as MPs ‘publish’ their expenses

THE House of Commons last night stood accused of spending more than £2 million on a bungled cover-up, after publishing details of MPs’ expenses with huge swathes blacked out.
Critics said the heavily-edited disclosure showed the worst abuses at Westminster would never have come to light without a complete version being leaked.

Records of 1.2 million claims were finally put on the parliament website at 6am yesterday, after a four-year Freedom of Information battle. They included a wealth of detail about the ways MPs spend public money — including on odd items such as matches, a milk frother, assertiveness training and issues of the Racing Post. However, the material bore little resemblance to that obtained by the Daily Telegraph, publication of which has led more than 20 MPs to resign over the past month.

As part of a rearguard action against publication, the Commons passed a measure exempting addresses and other “security-sensitive” information. Huge areas of paper were simply blacked out as a result, meaning many of the dubious tactics exposed by the Telegraph — such as “flipping” second home designation to maximise expenses claims — would have been virtually impossible to detect.

This partial disclosure could also have saved many MPs from being forced to quit at the next general election after having questionable claims exposed.

Freedom of information campaigner Heather Brooke, who won a High Court case forcing MPs to publish their expenses, said the security argument had now been “totally discredited”. She added: “I have seen some original documents, and avoiding embarrassment has been the key motivating factor.”

Last night the fall-out continued as it was revealed MPs have repaid nearly £500,000 amid public fury over abuses of the Westminster system.

Former Labour minister Elliot Morley yesterday said he had repaid a further £20,000 as his claim for £16,888 of “phantom” mortgage payments continued to be investigated.

Tory MP David Davies was also forced to defend paying a family firm from his parliamentary allowances. The Monmouth MP claimed £1,933.83 he paid his father’s haulage firm for stamps, producing leaflets and a screen for an exhibition stand. He said the work was done at cost price and at short notice.

However, former minister Hazel Blears last night survived a vote of no confidence to deselect her at a meeting of her Salford constituency Labour Party.

Liberal Democrat Norman Baker, who has long called for greater transparency, condemned the editing of claims as “censorship”.

The redacted claims threw up bizarre anomalies, with Gordon Brown’s subscription to Sky TV — which he reclaims from the taxpayer — being partly concealed to hide the name of the TV firm, even though the Prime Minister published the details in full a year ago.

Mr Brown said: “I didn’t choose to redact that and I don’t quite understand all the rules applied by the House of Commons.

“My principle in this is the maximum transparency — it’s got to be consistent of course with security, but I think people have got to be as transparent as possible.”

The claims of Sir Menzies Campbell, the former Lib Dem leader and MP for North East Fife, were typical of many MPs. A multitude of entries were blacked out, revealing only his fondness for taking taxis, a bill for £500 for party “away-days” and claims of up to £400 a month for food.

Tory leader David Cameron announced he was repaying £947 after calculating he had overclaimed for mortgage interest and other items.

The sum includes £647 he claimed for the removal of wisteria plants at his constituency home, which he had already promised to repay. He said he was “very sorry” to have made excessive claims and he admitted that taxpayers would be “disappointed” to discover how much information about MPs’ claims had been withheld.

Claims made by First Minister Alex Salmond, in his role as an MP, showed the taxpayer footed a £14,000 legal bill for advice on how to force Tony Blair from office over the Iraq war.

In 2004, the SNP and Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru jointly attempted to impeach Mr Blair — and then split the bill and reclaimed it on their expenses.

Chancellor Alistair Darling and his Tory shadow, George Osborne, were last night both the subject of complaints to the anti-sleaze watchdog.

Mr Darling is accused of “flipping” his home four times in four years — a practice now banned. Mr Osborne, who was revealed to have charged the taxpayer £47 for two DVDs of himself in a debate on “value for taxpayers’ money”, was accused of overclaiming for mortgage interest payments.

New laws are expected to be passed before Westminster breaks for the summer recess next month, establishing a Parliamentary Standards Authority, an independent body that will take responsibility for paying expenses.

The committee on standards in public life is due to report this autumn on tighter rules on expenses. Many of the claims exposed in the recent revelations have already been banned — such as the ability to claim £400 a month for food and £250 a month in petty cash without receipts.

WHAT THEY DON’T WANT YOU TO KNOW

HERE is a list of the information MPs were allowed to remove from the expenses disclosure:

– Any residential address of a Member of either House of Parliament

– Travel arrangements of a Member where the arrangements are regular

– The identity of any person who delivers or has delivered goods, or provides or has provided services, to a Member at any residence of the Member (this does not apply to Members’ offices)

– Expenditure by a Member on security arrangements

– All names of hotels/guest houses used

– Correspondence or advice letters to or from Department of Resources/ DFA

– All manuscript additions to forms, receipts etc where these have been made by HoC staff

– Dates and times on till receipts where the name of the supplier is included

– Bank and credit card statements (but mortgage or rental agreements or statements will be published to the following extent: names of mortgagee/landlord/chargee, amount of interest and rent and information contained on statements of account such as value of mortgage)

– Itemised parts of telephone bills listing calls to individual numbers

– Personal items on till receipts and invoices for which no claim has been made

– Misfiled pages relating to another Member

– Names and addresses and other details of members of staff on claims for staff expenses

– Other information that is not central to the purpose of the claim or which could aid identity fraud including:

– Personal telephone numbers and other contact details

– Barcodes

– Cost centres and departmental identification numbers

– Personal data of third parties (excluding the name of mortgagees, chargees or landlords)

– Bank/Giro details

– Photocopies of cheques

– Account, invoice, delivery, order, NI or reference numbers

– Signatures

ROSS LYDALL