Telegraph Begins Publishing MP Expenses
The 8th of May 2009 AD
What became a saga of scandal began, at least in terms of hard revelations, with the Daily Telegraph edition of May 8 2009. This was the culmination of efforts by freedom of information campaigners, most notably Heather Brooke, dating from the start of 2005 when the Freedom of Information Act 2000 came into force. Politicians appeared surprised that the act applied to them; as it eventually became clear many of them were surprised that such things as probity, laws on fraud and false accounting, and straight dealing also applied to them.
The disconnect between the governors and the governed has rarely been so clearly seen, some effectively saying that being able to milk the system was compensation for salaries inadequate for people of their enormous talent.
Those in power fought to avoid the impact of the measure: Harriet Harman , who made her name as a civil liberties advocate, as Leader of the Commons tried in January 2009 to amend the act, but failed dismally. Mr Speaker Martin seemed far more concerned at the information being leaked than what the information said, a stance that saw him hounded by some MPs until his historic resignation on June 21 2009 . Even after it was clear that details would have to be released, certain illustrative and incriminating aspects therein were to be omitted.
The Daily Telegraph paid a six-figure sum for a hard-drive containing details of parliamentary expenses claims, supplied by a person or persons in the system said to have been disgusted at the abuses. The newspaper deserves great credit for not making it a party matter, but ensuring all the dirty linen was aired, regardless of political affiliation.
It is hard to over-estimate the public anger at some of the revelations, seen most dramatically when Margaret Beckett , a Labour Minister, tried on Question Time with a breath-taking misreading of the situation to play down the affair and was heckled aggressively and derisively.
In spite of the lax rules found to have been in place, eventually prosecutions did occur. Those thrown to the wolves were coincidentally perhaps the most expendable as far as their parties were concerned: Jim Devine, David Chaytor, Eric Illsley, and Elliot Morley all received custodial sentences. Two peers were also found guilty of abuses and served time.
Scores of others escaped prosecution when their actions in the outside world would have resulted in immediate dismissal and in many cases in court appearances. The average repayment of ‘incorrectly claimed’ expenses was around £3000. Some instances where inexplicably no prosecution was brought remain extremely hard to stomach, and several left a stench of corruption that will take a generation to dissipate.
The General Election of 2010 saw large numbers of those whose reputations had to say the least not been enhanced by the affair stand down as MPs, along with more honourable colleagues. But many other transgressors survived, including prominent figures. It is hard not to recall their shortcomings when some of these appear on TV and radio.
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