David Winnick: Restoring Parliament's glorious reputation

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The Independent Online

Let there be no doubt: the official disclosure by the Commons of the detailed expenditure of MPs over the past four years is a victory for transparency and public accountability.

It wasn't intended, by any means, to be this way; just two years ago, a Private Member's Bill from a former Tory chief whip had, as its aim, to exempt Parliament from the Freedom of Information legislation. Needless to say, the reason given for this wretched Bill was not to conceal how much MPs claimed in detail, or for that matter how much was spent on the Palace of Westminster; no, it was all about data protection, we were told, and how Members would be harmed in so many ways unless the Bill became law. I was one of the small number who argued that it would be the height of hypocrisy to have passed the Freedom of Information Act, which was to apply to all public bodies, but then exempt ourselves. Sad to say, the Bill was carried in the Commons, though with more than three-quarters of Members not voting. The reason it didn't become law was that no one in the Lords could be found to sponsor it, and hence it fell.

Then we had the House of Commons Commission bringing cases to the courts to exempt some information over expenses from being revealed. Again, it's fortunate that all those attempts failed, though of course it was public expenditure used for such purposes. On one occasion, I asked the Speaker on a point of order what the grounds were for lodging an appeal against a decision and I was told to go to the court and find out. Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Apart from anything else, harm was done because I suspect a good number of people now believe that the overall total amount claimed by MPs is all about second homes. In fact, the bulk of the money is for genuine office and secretarial costs, including local constituency offices.

Taking all the cases which have come to light, I doubt whether the number who have abused the system comes to 100, but that number is still less than one-sixth of the total Commons membership. It has never been my view that the large majority of MPs wish to claim public money to which they are not entitled.

The final point is this: that while MPs have throughout the centuries frequently been harshly criticised with some justification, the Commons is one of the great blessings which the British people have. One reflects on the last century and considers the number of parliaments abroad that succumbed to fascism, military rule, communism or defeatism. Not the British Parliament, and we must work to restore that glorious reputation.