A good day to bury bad news on MPs' expenses

While attention was focused on Heathrow, ministers acted to protect members from scrutiny of their claims
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Indy Politics

Ministers faced condemnation last night after announcing plans to block publication of a bill-by-bill breakdown of MPs' expenses.

MPs will vote next week on an order that would prevent up to one million pages of receipts being released, despite having last year lost a long-running freedom of information battle.

Under the plans, released quietly yesterday alongside major announcements on Heathrow and Equitable Life, MPs' expenses will be exempted from the Freedom of Information Act – thus preventing the public from seeking a full breakdown of legislators' taxpayer-funded allowances.

Officials had planned to release a full breakdown of MPs' expenses, down to the last receipt, after the Commons authorities lost a three-year legal battle over FOI requests demanding disclosure of a receipt-by-receipt breakdown of MPs' spending on second homes.

However, the autumn deadline for publication passed, with officials complaining that the process of scanning and redaction – expected to cost about £1m – was proving even more complex than first thought.

Under the new plans, the full expenses will remain secret. Instead, the House of Commons will publish MPs' expenditure under a series of headings, although officials will increase the number of categories used from 13 to 26. Yesterday, campaigners attacked the decision as a "disgrace", while the Conservatives said the decision did not go far enough.

Commons leader Harriet Harman told MPs: "The public will have more information than they ever had before, and we will take it back to 2005 so that, for all Members each year, their allowances against 26 headings will be made public." Officials angrily denied that they had tried to bury bad news, insisting the announcement had been long planned. But Matthew Elliott of the TaxPayers' Alliance said: "It is an absolute disgrace that the Government are going to such absurd lengths to keep MPs' expenses secret from the very people who pay the bills.

"This is taxpayers' money, these are elected representatives, and the people have a right to know how their money is being spent.

Freedom of Information Campaigner Heather Brooke, who won a legal battle to secure the publication of a full breakdown of expenses for 14 high-profile MPs, condemned the decision as "outrageous". She told the BBC: "This is the problem with the Parliamentary system – if they don't like the law, they can just change it, unlike the rest of us. It's a way to change the law without having a public debate."

A Conservative spokeswoman welcomed the commitment to publish more details of expenses, but said the Government should allow people to apply for full details of claims.

The decision came as MPs published a new guide to their expenses and allowances.

This "Green Book" shows they can still claim for white goods, furniture, electrical goods and cutlery for second homes. Maintenance, utility bills and decoration costs can also be claimed. The document gives details of a new flat-rate £25-a-night allowance for MPs' staying away from home.

But it details new internal audits for claims, and warns MPs that "claims must be above reproach. MPs must consider "How comfortable do I feel with the knowledge that that my claim will be available to the public under freedom of information?" it said.