Wednesday, 21 March 2012
Defending the Indefensible
The book I'm reading at the moment - No Expenses Spared - on the Westminster MPs' expenses scandal gives a detailed account of the last Labour government's attempts - to undermine the principles of its own Freedom of Information legislation.
Here are a few telling extracts:
"The tribunal upheld the decision of the Information Commissioner, saying in its judgment that: 'The ACA system (of MPs' expenses) is so deeply flawed, the shortfall in its accountability is so substantial, and the necessity of full disclosure so convincingly established, that only the most pressing privacy needs in our view ought to be permitted to prevail.'"
"Faced with this latets defeat, and a growing public backlash, it seemed unlikely to most observers that Parliament would put up any further resistance to the publication of MPs' expenses. Even the Speaker's own legal team advised him against any further legal appeals, telling him the game was up. But Michael Martin wasn't about to let a trio of journalistic upstarts poke their noses into what he regarded as the sacred world of MPs' finances; so he found anew legal team who were happy to take the case - and pocket large fees which would, of course, be footed by the tax payer."
Later on - after yet another court appearance - the book records:
"Speaker Michael Martin had lost hands down. His attempt to block the publication of MPs' expenses had cost the taxpayer ans estimated £100,000 in legal fees.
Aware that the ruling meant it would be unable to resist any further FOI requests, the Commons grudgingly announced it would publish all of the expenses claims and receipts submitted by every MP between April 2004 and March 2008. The publication date was set for October (2008), only for the renewed deadline to come and go without so much as a single slip of paper from Tesco being published.
Were MPs up to something? The answer came when Parliament returned from the Christmas recess, at which point Harriet Harman, the Leader of the House of Commons (and Deputy Labour leader), suddenly and unexpectedly tabled a motion to exempt MPs' expenses from the Freedom of Information Act. Labour MPs would be subject to a three-line whip on the issue - meaning they were obliged to support the vote or face disciplinary action from the (Labour) party. There was more than a whiff of panic about the move, heightening the already fevered speculation that MPs, including senior members of the government, had something terrible to hide."
Now this move was ultimately defeated - the government was eventually forced to back down.
But what a dark day for the Labour party which claimed - even then - to be the party of the people - the party of decency, of traditional values and common sense.
Yet Harriet Harman stood the values of the Labour party completely on their head - by saying one thing then doing complete opposite - over Freedom of Information.
And to my mind that's exactly how some Labour run councils in Scotland have behaved - over equal pay.