Jonathan Walker: All credit for MPs' expenses exposure
It’s obviously been a remarkable week in Westminster, and a remarkable week for those of us who cover politics.
All credit must go to the Daily Telegraph for obtaining a copy of MPs’ expenses claims and publishing details.
Like many journalists, I initially had mixed feelings about what they did. The claims would have been published anyway, in a month or two, and while we don’t know exactly how the paper got its hands on an early version, it must have involved somebody passing them on without permission.
In fact, they are often referred to as stolen, although the Metropolitan Police has declined to follow up requests to investigate, so it appears that they disagree.
However, the Commons planned only to publish “redacted” or censored copies of the expenses, with details such as home addresses and correspondence between MPs and the fees office blacked out. This would have prevented the public and media from knowing which homes MPs had claimed expenses for. So we would not have known, for example, if an MP claimed for a different home each year, or for a “second home” next door to their main one.
It would also have prevented us from knowing when MPs had submitted claims which the fees office rejected, perhaps because they were unreasonable.
Naturally, the Birmingham Post and our sister paper the Birmingham Mail would have liked to publish details of our MPs’ claims, but we couldn’t - because we didn’t have the receipts.
Last week, however, I began the process of contacting local MPs and asking if I could go to their offices and rummage through their expenses claims. Even if the material hasn’t been published by the House of Commons, individual MPs could still let me see it.
Most of them said yes, and so I’ve been in their offices examining documents which contain all sorts of personal details, including credit card and bank account numbers (information which will understandably need to be censored before the receipts can be formally published).
So far I’ve focused on Birmingham and Solihull MPs (including Meriden constituency, which contains a chunk of Solihull). However, Black Country MP Ian Austin (Lab Dudley North) also approached me and invited me to go through his receipts. We should be publishing the results later this week.
MPs are convinced the public thinks they’re all crooks. But I think the public is taking a common sense approach, based on the response to news reports about Clare Short (Ind Lab Ladywood).
She made a mistake on her mortgage claim, and paid the money back - three years ago. As far as I can tell, there’s been little outrage about what does seem to have been an honest mistake.
When people are outraged, however, it is because some of the claims made by some politicians nationally really have been outrageous.