'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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
News
i100
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown, daughter of the late singer Whitney Houston, poses at the premiere of
people
News
people
News
The frequency with which we lie and our ability to get away with it both increase to young adulthood then decline with age, possibly because of changes that occur in the brain
scienceRoger Dobson knows the true story, from Pinocchio to Pollard
Voices
The male menopause: those affected can suffer hot flushes, night sweats, joint pain, low libido, depression and an increase in body fat, among other symptoms
voicesSo the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Life and Style
health
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen