freedom of information

Telegraph may have paid £300,000 to criminals for scandal leak, it emerges

Ex-SAS major John Wick exposed as broker in sale of expenses secrets – The Times

So, how much did you think the Telegraph paid for the information it’s been publishing for the last ten days? £10,000? £50,000? More?

According to the Times, the data CDs — which, no matter how much we have a right to see them, it appears may have been obtained through criminal activity — were being pedalled around for £250,000 for the disks and £50,000 for the analysis. An earlier price had been offered at £5,000 an MP, or £300,000 all in.

One man has already commented on the Times story, suggesting that the original source of the leak should be given a knighthood.

What?

I am absolutely adamant that those expenses should have come out. I supported Simon Hughes and Norman Baker in their fight last year to force MPs to release them under Freedom of Information. I am entirely behind Heather Brooke’s five year campaign to get them out.

But paying £300,000 for what was, in all probability, a crime?

The sheer irony of this story is almost baffling. What gives the Daily Telegraph the moral authority to make someone richer to that amount, despite real doubts about the individual’s right to sell the information, and then to accuse some poor bloke of getting his light bulbs changed for a hundred quid?

What’s more, by simple dint of being the bearer of news, the Telegraph has set itself up as the nation’s judge on what expenses should be deemed acceptable.

One MP was pilloried by the Telegraph because she submitted her claims only a few weeks before the closing date. What? Either the claims were valid, or they weren’t. If they weren’t valid, then she should face the consequences. But the Telegraph has cleverly not claimed they were invalid, merely that they were close to the deadline. But how can submitting a valid claim close to the deadline be wrong?

Make no mistake about it. Whether or not they ever face the nation in court, some MPs have feathered their own nest at our expense. They have betrayed the public trust. They do not deserve to remain in our employ, and they should go.

But others have not.

Who should decide which is which? A special commission, perhaps? Popular vote at the next election, almost certainly. But the Daily Telegraph? Never.

This morning, the News of the World has published a list of politicians who should be sacked. But their list is not the list of the culprits who can be shown to be the ones who played the property market at our expense, or claimed for mortgages that did not exist. The News of the World list is simply a list of everyone the Telegraph has fingered. With no chance to explain themselves.

We have come to a terrible, terrible time. On the one hand, at least a proportion of our MPs are shown to be liars and cheats. On the other, our free press is stirring up mob frenzy, with little or no regard for the most elementary form of justice — that no-one is guilty until proven so.

At this point, I almost despair of our public life. We are headed into the European elections with the most likely beneficiaries being the BNP and UKIP. UKIP, that is, who have already lost an MEP to criminal charges of benefit fraud.

I almost despair, but I do not despair.

Some how, we will find a way through this. We will, because we must.

It will probably involve saying a permanent good bye to Gordon Brown. In retrospect, it’s hard to point to anything he has done since becoming Prime Minister which is remotely memorable or worth while. His handling of this affair has been something like a cross between Mr Bean and the Mister Men.

It may involve saying good bye to a generation of MPs who saw expenses not as a reimbursement but as an entitlement — political dinosaurs who could not adjust to a more questioning, less deferential age.

It will probably involve welcoming into the House a tranche of MPs who will discover, in time, that they are nowhere near as morally superior to those they replace as they thought they were.

It is already involving national soul-searching, as we ask the question: who, then, can we trust?

We all smiled when Obama offered Americans hope and a new start. In our smug, confident British way, no matter how much we detested (or simply found mildly comic) Blair and Brown, we knew that our politics was vastly better than the George W Bush regime. But now we need a revival and reawakening of the body politic just as radical as that promised by Barak Obama.

It is our turn to face the music.

Telegraph should not be so smug

MPs’ expenses: the story that changed politics

There is more than one thing wrong with Britain’s public life. The Daily Telegraph’s glee at publishing a set of expenses which were going to be published shortly anyway, and its smugness at engineering ‘one of the biggest parliamentary scandals in British history’ (its own rather pompous words) is one of those things.

Our reactions to the MP expense story could be sorrow, or they could be anger. But smugness, delight, glee, self-righteousness, self-importance, and revelling in muddying the waters as much as possible should not.

The Telegraph’s story about itself reads more like the back cover of a John Le Carré novel (except, with a John Le Carré, you know that the prose inside the novel will be vastly more elegant than what someone made up for the back cover).

But the Telegraph did not ‘uncover’ this material. It merely pre-empted it. The uncovering was done by others. Most notably by Heather Brooke, the US journalist who first put in a Freedom of Information request on MP expenses, after questioning them unsuccessfully since 2004. In April 2007, Tory MP David Maclean tried to introduce a bill exempting MPs from disclosure under Freedom of Information. It was Liberal Democrats Simon Hughes and Norman Baker who used Maclean’s own favourite technique to talk out the bill. But it came back shortly thereafter, as both Brown and Cameron tacitly backed attempts to keep MP’s ways secret.

In June 2007, the Information Commissioner backed disclosure, but not of receipts, but in February 2008, the Information Tribunal ruled that the receipts, too, should be released. The House of Commons appealed, but, in May last year, Brooke won her High Court case, and the claims of 14 MPs, including receipts, were made public.

Following this, all MP claims, with receipts, were due for release this summer.

All that the Telegraph did was buy an illegal copy of the receipts and release them early, for their own purposes.

I cannot emphasise this point strongly enough. Brooke, not the Telegraph, deserves the full credit for the story ‘that changed British politics’. The Telegraph did nothing but breach an embargo. To be sure, it was a sharp piece of newspaper marketing. But the Telegraph contributed nothing to the actual process of disclosure — it merely took credit for it at the end.

Brooke’s response to this is rather less smug, as she outlines in this BBC article. To her, it is a point about democracy, not a prurient interest in which MPs buy champagne and which buy Scotch eggs.

Brooke’s intention was to re-energise democracy, not to boost sales through cheque-book journalism. And, equally, her intention was to show things for what they were, not to pour the maximum amount of scorn whether deserved or not.

As the public, we do not have to buy into the Telegraph’s version of events. Likewise, we do not have to buy into their judgements. Someone who spent money on having light bulbs replaced after an electrical fault is not ‘guilty’ merely because his actions appear comic. A couple who claimed vastly more than should be allowed by a complicated arrangement with second homes should not be allowed to get away with a simple resignation. MPs who claimed for mortgages that did not exist should face the full weight of the consequences.

All these distinctions, the Telegraph attempts to blur. It presents a picture of politicians as all more or less on a sliding scale of corruption.

This was not Brooke’s intention.

The Telegraph should own up: it wasn’t really their story.

As for the public, we must now do the most difficult thing in these circumstances. We must re-engage with politics, not casting away in protest to single-issue parties about which we know very little, but making it absolutely clear to the main parties what we require of them. More people should vote, not less.

Finally, I predict that a number of MPs, while protesting their innocence now, will choose not to stand at the next general election. We therefore need a new cohort of candidates to replace them. This is not a popular thought at the moment. Just by being a parliamentary candidate, one is at risk of being tarred with the same accusation ‘you’re only in it for the money’. But if no-one stands, then democracy dies.

Those who can, must.

Still no action that deserves the name

The story so far:
Last year, Tory and Labour MPs combined to talk out and vote down proposals to make MP expenses subject to Freedom of Information legislation.
This year, courts finally ruled that MP expenses had to be revealed anyway.
The other week, the Daily Telegraph bought a data-set of the expenses, in what it loosely termed an ‘investigation’, and started to publish them in the most sensational way possible.
Since then, everyone in Britain has been getting angrier and angrier. 99.9% of the people have been angry because of the outrageous abuse of the system by some (or many — we still don’t know) MPs. However, Michael Martin, Speaker of the House of Commons, is angry because MPs have been caught out.
Gordon Brown and David Cameron have taken ‘tough’ action. So tough that some MPs are paying back expenses for such things as moat clearances. One minister and one top Tory have had to step down from their positions — but they remain MPs, and they continue to draw their salaries and (if they dare) claim expenses.

So what hasn’t happened? Neither Cameron nor Brown have really done anything which has at all restored the public’s confidence. Neither the Conservatives nor Labour have even attempted to explain why they opposed publication of expenses last year. MPs who have had second homes down the road from their main homes, or ‘flipped’ their second homes in order to speculate on the property market, are busy explaining to us that everything was within the rules, and so it wasn’t their fault.

Time is moving on. We have still seen no action which deserves the name. True, Cameron’s fast footwork made him look more regal than Gordon Brown (but, seriously, it’s not a hard act to follow). But not one single MP has announced that he or she is stepping down from the House of Commons, or even that they will not be standing again at the next election.

Clearly, the worst culprits still believe they will ride the storm.

Victory for democracy, but the system needs an overhaul

BBC NEWS | Politics | MPs info exemption plan scuppered
Liberal Democrats Simon Hughes and Norman Baker — with cross-party support — successfully ‘talked-out’ a bill by a former Tory chief whip which would have exempted MPs from the Freedom of Information laws which parliament itself introduced to make bodies such as the NHS, the civil service, the courts and the police more transparent.

The irony was that ‘talking-out’ was a special tactic of Tory David Maclean, which he had used to powerful effect on many occasions to delay legitimate business in the House of Commons.

Were Hughes and Baker right to use this tactic? Procedurally, absolutely. This is one of the arcane ways of the House of Commons. Morally? Also absolutely. For a body such as parliament to make rules that apply to everyone, and then to exempt itself because the rules are inconvenient is appalling. For politicians — who already enjoy less trust than almost any other profession — to make things easier for them to conceal their activities is bordering on the delusional.

Hughes and Baker — with Winnick and Shepherd — have done us a great service.

But it highlights something important. First, the time for filibustering really should be at its end. The reason they needed to filibuster was that this bill had slipped through on the nod on its first reading, had spent just an hour in the committee stage, and was facing a House of Commons packed with — wait for it — just about ten MPs, since the others were already back on the way to their constituencies.

Legislation that would have damaged democracy almost slipped through because there are no proper procedures for managing this kind of business.

Parliament needs reforming. It’s popular to talk about the need for reform in the House of Lords (and quite right too), but the ways of the House of Commons also need shaking up. Hughes and Baker saved us from a minor catastrophe by playing the game tightly according to its rules. But the rules ought to have been such that there was no need for this kind of thing.

The next generation of politicians must act early in their parliamentary careers to bring British democracy into the 21st century.

We fail in this at our peril.

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