'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
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
Sport
football
Life and Style
Agretti is often compared to its relative, samphire, though is closer in taste to spinach
food + drink
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Kelly Osbourne will play a flight attendant in Sharknado 2
people
News
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
people
News
The dress can be seen in different colours
i100
Sport
Wes Brown is sent-off
football
Voices
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
2015 General Election
May2015

Poll of Polls

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

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?