Westminister was the stage for a political farce yesterday. In the morning, the Prime Minister's spokesman announced that a Commons vote on exempting MPs expenses from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act would go ahead as planned. But by noon, the line from Downing Street had changed and it said there would be further consultation on the matter. Shortly afterwards, Gordon Brown sought to pin the blame for the reversal on the Opposition, although quite why the Prime Minister needs the approval of the Tories to hold a Commons vote went unexplained.
A farce it might have been, but in the broader scheme of things, the humour of this long-standing tussle over MPs' expenses is wearing distinctly thin. The case for full transparency is perfectly clear. If MPs are claiming public money to help them carry out their duties (£87.6m in 2006-07), it is only right that they itemise what they spend it on.
Transparency would have the benefit of discouraging MPs from abusing the system. Moreover, it is the law. That is why the High Court ruled last year that MPs should publish details of every claim, including receipts, under the Freedom of Information Act.
MPs have been unable to muster any convincing counter-arguments. There have been complaints about the cost of publishing the information, but given the fact that the Commons spent £150,000 fighting the legal challenge to non-disclosure, we need not take this professed concern for economy very seriously.
After last year's revelations of the abuses by the Conservative MP Derek Conway, the House can hardly argue that its integrity is unimpeachable. And yet many MPs, with the active collusion of ministers, have persisted in trying to wriggle out of their disclosure commitments.
Exempting MPs' expenses from the Freedom of Information Act, as the Government planned to do, would have been changing the law solely to save members any embarrassment. This attempt to shield the activities of our democratic representatives from the scrutiny of those who elect and pay for them was a disgrace. It must now be dropped for good.
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