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Westminster Expenses : They work for you, are paid for by you, have possibly stolen from you, but they feel they are not accountable to you

18 Jun

House of CommonsWestminster publishes MPs expenses online with most details blanked out. The House of Commons has finally published MPs expenses online, however many of the details have been blanked out, because while we as taxpayers are paying MPs salaries and their expenses, we are it seems not entitled to see what we are paying for, or by the looks of it, any returns the country actually gains by allowing politicians to claim for all & sundry from us, the taxpayer.

MP Phone BillAn MP’s British Telecom reminder blacked out – would you pay a bill if it landed through your letterbox in this state ?. While members of the House of Commons seemingly can get anything & everything paid for by the taxpayer, from mortgage interest, to second homes allowances, to telephone bills to the removal of moss from their umpteenth house, or duck houses and repairs to swimming pool boilers .. the ones paying it – us, are not entitled to see exactly where the money is going and what the justification is for their huge expenses to the country, particularly in these crushing financial times.

For a couple of samples of today’s publication of expenses from Westminster, via Freedom of Information (in other words, the blacked out version, as opposed to the Telegraph ‘warts and all’ version) we see among the Scottish contingent, Alex Salmond claiming for mortgage expenses and a rather costly envelope folder, as well as curtains & bedding .. with Scottish Conservative MP David Mundell keeping the First Minister company on mortgage expenses, which I’m sure probably most of the country would like to join in with, having mortgages, bedding, curtains, food, and letter folder contraptions paid for out of thin air out of other people’s taxes & hard work.

A sample of First Minister Alex Salmond’s Westminster Expenses as an MP :

Alex Salmond Expenses examples

A sample of South of Scotland MP David Mundell’s Westminster expenses :

David Mundell Mortgage expenses

Virtually all the documents have blacked out parts, leading one to conclude democracy, transparency and accountability have most definitely been blacked out in the entire country. I wonder where politicians learned that little trick from ? It surely couldn’t be the legal profession, could it ? … and lets not forget Kenny MacAskill, Scotland’s Justice Secretary is busy trying to keep the Law Society of Scotland exempt from Freedom of Information laws, just in case we begin to find out many of the dirty secrets of Scotland’s less than honest legal profession : MacAskill’s ‘no intention to include Law Society in FOI review’ allows lawyers to keep scandals & criminal records hidden from public scrutiny

Telegraph front pageIf it had not been for the Telegraph newspaper, we would have been none the wiser on crooked politicians expenses claims. Exposing this organised ‘thieving’ from the country of course, fell to the Telegraph newspaper, rather than Freedom of Information legislation, because as we now see in today’s release of expenses information from Westminster, it would not be possible to see who had been flipping homes, and who was claiming what for which property. It is therefore clear that FOI legislation will have to change because it is being used to deceive rather than empower, just as we have seen the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission use FOI to cover up scandalous workings within its increasingly bizarre operations of allegedly regulating the Scottish legal profession.

I reported some rather secretive goings on at the SLCC where similar blacked out documents were issued to hide controversial information here : FOI disclosures censored to law journalists as MacAskill’s legal complaints commission prefers secrecy to public accountability

David Mcletchie taxiMSP David McLetchie was among those politicians caught out at Holyrood claiming thousands for expenses. MSPs might like to think they are whiter than their Westminster counterparts, but as we know here in Scotland, that is most certainly not the case. While MSPs expenses are now published online, again, it took pressure from newspaper investigations such as those in the Sunday Herald to force the changes at Holyrood which Westminster will now have to go through.

You can read more about MSPs expenses milking in an earlier article, here : First Minister Alex Salmond admits he’s not ‘whiter than white’ over Westminster expenses scandal as questions arise over £800 food allowance claims

If you want to find out more about your own MP’s expenses at Westminster (and there is a lot to find out !), click the following link which leads to the BBC News website :

MPs’ expenses: Find your MP

and the main story from BBC News :

MPs’ expenses made public online

The expenses claims of every MP for the past four years have been published, but with some key details blacked out.

Commons authorities have published the details after a long-running Freedom of Information battle.

The addresses that claims relate to – and correspondence – have been removed on privacy and security grounds.

This means it is not possible to see if MPs “flipped” second homes – a key part of the Daily Telegraph’s revelations from its leaked version of the data.

MPs have said some details, like addresses and travel patterns, have to be withheld for security reasons .

But other details have been removed in the official version such as Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s claims for his Sky television subscription – despite the fact it was published last year, also under the Freedom of Information Act.

The uncensored details obtained by the Daily Telegraph have led to weeks of revelations and a slew of resignations from MPs.

On Wednesday Treasury minister Kitty Ussher stepped down amid reports that she changed the designation of her constituency home to avoid capital gains tax.

Ms Ussher said she acted within the rules but wanted to protect the government from further embarrassment amid public anger about expenses.

The BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson said that if the full uncensored claims had not been leaked to the Telegraph, then MPs like Miss Ussher would still be in their jobs.

Among Daily Telegraph revelations that do not appear in the blacked out versions of MPs’ receipts are:

  • Andrew MacKay – From the official receipts it would not have been possible to know the Tory MP claimed for a second home without having a main constituency home.
  • Margaret Moran – The Labour MP who claimed £22,000 for dry rot on her second home. The receipts do not show her second home was in Southampton -100 miles from her Luton constituency.
  • Sir Peter Viggers – Tory MP who tried to claim £1,645 for a “duck island”, the official receipts show no evidence of the unsuccessful claim.
  • Hazel Blears – The former Labour minister claimed second home expenses for three different properties in a single year but the redacted receipts do not show this as addresses are blacked out.

Heather Brooke, one of the campaigners who brought the Freedom of Information case, told the BBC the official publication was a “substandard version”.

She pointed out the High Court had ordered that second home addresses be published – MPs rejected this in a later Commons vote, arguing it would jeopardise their security.

“It’s the only way to police effectively whether there is a second home and whether the mortgage exists whether it’s been paid off or not and they are still claiming. It’s really the only way we can hold them to account on that second home allowance.”

‘Seismic changes’

She said the security argument had been “totally discredited” adding: “I can see that avoiding embarrassment has been the key motivating factor of what’s been deleted.”

And Maurice Frankel, of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, also said the official version was a “very poor substitute”: “The mood of the House of Commons was that they did not want any of this information to be published and, failing that, as little as possible.”

But cabinet minister Hilary Benn told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The argument for keeping bank details, phone numbers and addresses confidential I think is a fair one.”

But he said the system needed to change: “That’s why we’ve seen seismic changes, that’s why Parliament has already taken steps to alter the rules why Christopher Kelly’s committee will look at what the new system will be.”

He added the problems were the result of self regulation – now expenses would be audited independently.

For the Conservatives, shadow Commons leader Alan Duncan said: “I think the black ink is justified where it is things like ex-directory phone numbers … and personal details and bank accounts.”

He said changes had been made to ensure MPs could not “play around with the second home address in order to extract as much money as possible out of the system”.

Exclusions

But he said “at the very least” addresses should be properly audited.

“Whether the exact address should be put up which would allow people to walk up your front drive I think is a grey area – but the verification of the house and the consistency of the house that is registered is important.”

More than a dozen MPs have said they plan to stand down since the furore over expenses began and many have had to repay money – more than £300,000 has been repaid.

Claims made by all 646 MPs under three different allowances since 2004 have been published alphabetically on the Parliament website with thousands of receipts made available in a series of PDF files.

The Telegraph’s reports focused largely on the additional costs allowance, designed to cover costs associated with second homes.

WITHIN THE RULES

£24,000-a-year Additional Costs Allowance, which covers the running of MPs’ second homes

£22,193-a-year Incidental Expenses Provision, which pays for running an office

£10,400-a-year Communications Allowance, which funds websites, newsletters, stationery and postage

The paper highlighted the practice of “flipping” – by which some MPs switched the designation of their homes and claimed allowances for several properties over the four year period and other claims that were within the rules – but questionable.

Last year, the Commons agreed to blank out certain information considered sensitive including addresses and all communications with the Fees Office. MPs have been able to suggest further exclusions.

Other information published on Thursday includes the incidental expenses provision for office costs and the communications allowance – Parliament had been ordered to publish them by the High Court.

Labour has referred MPs accused of making questionable claims to an internal disciplinary panel, which has barred five MPs from standing at the next election.

The Tories have asked all its MPs to submit their claims to an internal panel for scrutiny, with a handful of MPs either being forced to stand down or choosing to retire.

The furore has led to interim changes to the second homes allowance while the Committee of Standards in Public Life is holding an inquiry into expenses and will recommend changes to allowances rules.

Gordon Brown has said oversight of MPs expenses must be handed over to an external regulator as part of a root and branch reform of Parliament.

The Daily Telegraph’s assistant editor Andrew Pierce told the BBC they would publish the entire list of claims submitted by the cabinet on Friday and every MP’s expenses on Saturday – to allow people to draw their own conclusions about what had been “censored”.

“I suspect it could be that more MPs will be considering their position and maybe their party leaders will be considering whether they are really fit to be an MP,” he said.

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