Leading article: MPs and voters alike will gain from greater transparency

The need for reform of the expenses system is now clearer than ever
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The Independent Online

Everyone knew it was coming, and so did MPs. The years of clubby confidentiality over expenses were always going to end by July. But it was shocking nonetheless to see how much information was still not subject to disclosure when the heavily expurgated records of MPs' expenses claims were finally released. What is more, many of the more colourful, and so memorable, details were missing: the moat-clearing, the duck-house and the like were nowhere to be seen.

Such embarrassing, if entertaining, revelations were symptomatic of an ingrained and cavalier attitude to spending from the public purse. The bigger scandal, though, is that if The Daily Telegraph had not obtained the unredacted version of MPs' claims, and filleted it for publication, those who made serious money from their position would have got clean away. The secrecy MPs were granted for their addresses – itself, it could be argued, a privilege that should not go unchallenged – kept crucial information about claims for second homes under wraps.

There would have been no hint that Margaret Moran's claim to remove dry rot was for a house nowhere near either Parliament or her constituency; no hint either that several ministers had avoided paying Capital Gains Tax by virtue of "flipping" their main and second homes. Some MPs also designated one and the same residence their second home for the sake of maximising their parliamentary allowance and their first home for minimising CGT. Strictly legal this may have been, but ethically it was out of bounds.

Voters sensed this at once, which should console anyone who feared Britain had lost its moral compass. The revelations unleashed a crisis of confidence in Parliament and prompted questions about the whole political system. We doubt whether all MPs yet understand the public mood.

There are other questions to be asked. The role of the Commons Fees Office, which advised and signed off on the claims, deserves scrutiny. Sir Christopher Kelly's inquiry into MPs' expenses seems to be working to an unnecessarily leisurely timetable, while Speaker Martin's expensive efforts to exempt MPs' claims from the Freedom of Information Act were reprehensible. Without the dogged efforts of Heather Brooke and her campaign, we might know none of what we know now.

That the path from there to here was so long and thorny is inexcusable. What had to be done was clear pretty much from the start. Any reimbursement MPs claim from the taxpayer must be completely transparent and spent only and necessarily in the course of duty. If private companies can manage this, so can Parliament. It is true that MPs from outside London need to live in two places, but too many turned inconvenience into an opportunity for property speculation. And MPs must not benefit from special tax arrangements; legislators need to feel the pain of the levies they inflict on everyone else.

These are basic, and obvious, guidelines. It is to MPs' collective shame that they could not accept reasonable reform of the system far sooner. The one consolation from the resulting mess is that the public has re-engaged with politics and that wider reforms are back on the agenda. The momentum must be maintained.