'Powerful forces' stopped disclosure of MPs' expenses

UK data watchdog Richard Thomas speaks out

The parliamentary expenses scandal, and the political furore engulfing the Government this weekend, was a direct result of politicians trying to hide their public affairs "behind closed doors", according to the man who first ordered the House of Commons to disclose MPs' spending.

Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, in his first interview since the staggering scale of the abuse of public money by MPs first emerged four weeks ago, said the "controversy" demonstrated the true power of the Freedom of Information Act.

Mr Thomas described the three-year struggle to publish MPs' expenses as a complex legal saga involving a battle against "powerful forces". He said: "The combination of the Freedom of Information Act and journalism had brought home the importance of transparency and accountability."

Speaking exclusively to The Independent on Sunday, Mr Thomas said: "The controversy shows the value of bringing into the open how public money is spent and the possibility of things not being done properly if people do things behind closed doors... It has put Freedom of Information on the map and transformed it from being a fragile flower to a permanent fixture."

Mr Thomas also said that, after such a high-profile public battle with the House of Commons, it would be "very difficult" for the Government or MPs to try to water down the legislation by introducing more exemptions. A private member's bill, tacitly sup- ported by the Government, would have exempted the Commons from the right-to-know laws, but in the end it failed to find a sponsor.

The Information Commissioner, who stands down at the end of this month after more than six years in the post, also defended his decision to order only restricted publication of MPs' expenses and not the disclosure of individual receipts for specific items.

"MPs are entitled to some privacy, but I think that it [the decision to publish figures under category headings only] would have enabled people to find out about things like 'flipping' [where MPs change the address of their main residence to claim more money] because, although addresses were not to be revealed, it would have been possible to know where the property was." He advocates publishing partial postcodes so the public would know roughly where the properties involved were.

In June 2007, Mr Thomas ruled that MPs must release details of how much taxpayers' money they claim for running a second home, under headings such as mortgages, food, service charges, utilities, telecoms bills, furnishings, cleaning, insurance and security. He said the public had a right to know more about the "additional expenses" claimed, but blocked disclosure of a full, itemised list of expenditure, saying it would invade the privacy of MPs and their families.

Mr Thomas said that the Commons was one of a number of "powerful forces" he was forced to battle. Others included the Government and the media. He named the controversy over the release of the Attorney General's advice on the Iraq war and the huge loss of personal information by HM Revenue and Customs as two defining moments of his time in his post.

"I am very proud about what we have done. I hope that we are respected for being serious about the targets we select. We get some good results."

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam