'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."