Our politicians are a spineless lot. What we need is a bit of chutzpah. Instead of whining about everything being "within the rules", "having sought the advice of the Fees Office" and "Derek Conway was worse than me", ministers should say: "Yes, it doesn't look great, does it? That is why I have always been in favour of freedom of information, and that is why this Government legislated for it. We had no idea where it might lead, but we realised that it might be a bit uncomfortable for us, and that was sort of the point of it. Now Parliament realises that its housekeeping doesn't look pretty when viewed from the outside, and we're trying to fix it."
There is one big problem with taking that approach, which is that only three – or possibly four – Cabinet ministers could carry it off. They are the three that emerge least scathed by the expenses blizzard: Alan Johnson, St Hilary of Benn and Ed Miliband, who hasn't been given any pocket money yet. Plus Hazel Blears, who is at the other end of the spectrum, having been outed as a serial "flipper", redesignating consecutive properties as her "second" home in a way that maximises the taxpayers' contribution, but who is the only Cabinet minister – apart from Johnson – endowed with any quantity of cheek.
The other thing that holds ministers back from fighting The Daily Telegraph's revelations with any confidence is that so many of their senior colleagues have broken their bats before sending them out to play, to adapt Geoffrey Howe's metaphor from another era. Several ministers have done their best to frustrate attempts to force disclosure of MPs' expenses, while few Cabinet ministers can say that they have always been keen on openness in principle.
Above all, the Prime Minister has a miserable record on expenses and disclosure, while lacking the lightness of touch that would say to journalists in danger of overdosing on sanctimony, "Come off it." His own expenses claims have been only modestly gold-plated.
The Telegraph's decision to lead its report, headlined in a type size suitable for reporting the US bombing of Iran, with the £6,000 he paid for a cleaner he shared with his brother was perverse, while his claim for the same plumber's bill of £153 twice was plainly an honest mistake. No, it is an earlier disclosure that sticks in the mind, of his claim for a Sky Sports subscription. A scrupulous, straight politician, as he presented himself, in contrast to the tacky, money-loving showman, as he presented his predecessor, would not have claimed for that.
Long, long ago, in 1992, Brown made a speech that was incongruous even then, in which he called for the "immediate implementation of a Freedom of Information Act". It was a lecture to Charter 88, a pressure group for open and accountable democracy. He has said almost nothing about it since, while his style in opposition and then in government has been notably secretive. So much so that, when the Freedom of Information Act came into effect, one of Tony Blair's advisers suggested that they should put in a request to ask the Treasury for details of a forthcoming Budget.
Even before he became prime minister, Brown's people sought to block the publication of MPs' expenses. The month before Blair stepped down, Brown's inner cabinet of Ed Balls, Nick Brown and Tom Watson voted for the Bill proposed by David Maclean, the Conservative former chief whip, to exempt Parliament from the Freedom of Information Act. That Bill was killed by the House of Lords, but then Harriet Harman tried in January this year to block publication by parliamentary Order. That prompted such an outcry that it was withdrawn six days later.
Indeed, it was surprising and to his credit that Jack Straw, who was then home secretary, decided not to exempt Parliament from the scope of the Act when it was drawn up a decade ago. Martin Rosenbaum, the BBC's Freedom of Information expert, points out: "The US Congress, for example, is not covered by the US FoI Act. Ministers took the decision to include Parliament in the Act in the UK. They doubtless did not foresee all the consequences and may be regretting that decision."
I am sure that they are. None more so than Straw himself, who has always been a reluctant tribune of open government. He once warned that a rigorous FoI law would lead to a "Post-It note culture" as ministers and civil servants would avoid formal note-taking. Straw reacted like a guilty schoolboy last summer when it seemed likely that the expenses would be published. Suddenly he discovered that he had overclaimed for the council tax on his Blackburn constituency house and repaid £1,632. Straw, whose supporters boasted that he was a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society when he wanted to be Brown's Chancellor, was reduced to the "silly me, I'm no good with numbers" defence.
His is a particularly apt case of the Government's dilemma. Some of its critics have said how disgraceful it is that he appears to have paid the money back only because the claims were going to become public. But he should say: "That is why freedom of information law" – he could even have said my freedom of information law – "is a good thing. It forces us all to be honest. Of course, I would have spotted it anyway, but openness is your guarantee."
Instead we got from him, from the Prime Minister and the rest of them a lifeless defensiveness. Brown's one attempt to take control of the issue, his abortive YouTube reforms last month, was much too late and too clumsy to have a chance of recovering the situation.
Yet the situation will recover itself, I believe, because of that brave decision taken by Straw and permitted by Blair, who was no great enthusiast for open government either. The Freedom of Information Act cannot be turned back. MPs are now accountable for every penny of public money that they spend, and they know it. But Gordon Brown has forfeited any hope of claiming any credit for it on Labour's behalf.Reuse content