Thursday, 18 June 2009

The work of Winston Smith

Winston Smith, the anti-hero of George Orwell’s fictional 1984, spent his unrewarding days squirreling away in the Ministry of Truth editing news articles, erasing history and sending the results down the truth hole for updated publication. Several Mr Smiths must have been at work late into the night in the palace of Westminster altering and censoring the expenses claims of MPs over the last year.

Yesterday was meant to be a moment of truth after a torrent of leaked claims against MPs but it became simply another black day for British politics. A sea of black ink covered many pages of what MPs were claiming over the last four years and were only forced into publishing after a lengthy legal battle over Freedom of Information legislation.

The expenses claims and supporting receipts feature large blacked-out areas so it is not always clear what has been obscured. The names and details of people and companies to whom payments were made using expenses have also been removed, and correspondence between MPs and the Commons fees office has been deleted. Some pages are simply blacked out in their entirety.

The expenses of 646 MPs expenses over four years is huge amount of data. Some 1.2 million documents were posted online at 6am yesterday for the public and hapless journalists to plough their way through. The vast volume of censored information meant that there was little in the first trawl of the documents to add to the dramatic revelations of the Daily Telegraph over the last number of weeks.

However the documents could claim further scalps. Last night list of 180 MPs who are ready to pay back up to £500,000 of expenses was the expected to result of the release of the information.

The blacked out documents, while they hid much of the truth about what public money is spent on, stood as testament to the incredible work that Telegraph the newspaper had undertaken in sifting through the scanned, sometimes hand-written, receipts.

The result of the redacting exercise means that many of the MPs’ personal details have been censored. There are no addresses for MPs’ homes, making it virtually impossible to identify the practice of "flipping", changing the designated second homes, had the Telegraph not published its uncensored versions of the claims. Sir Peter Vigger’s claims for a £1645 duck house, the most notorious of the MPs’ expenses, or Elliot Morley’s claims for a mortgage overpayments would not have seen the light of day were it not for the leaked information that shook Westminster to the core.

Heather Brooks, the freedom of information campaigner who spent five years fighting for the right to see MPs expenses said that the whole exercise had been discredited. "I have seen some of the original documents and avoiding embarrassment has been the key motivating factor in what was deleted," she said.

Officially the reason for the blackout, like censored wartime letters, is to maintain the security and privacy of MPs. Gordon Brown argued that the transparency had to be in line with security but David Cameron took the high ground again, calling for a common sense approach to the situation that would allow more information to be made public. However, the Commons authorities indicated that the next batch of documents, for 2008-09, will be published in the same blacked-out condition.

Mr Cameron made a further effort to paddle out of the mire engulfing Westminster by writing a cheque for nearly £1000 to the Commons authorities. The figure was an overclaim on his mortgage which he realised by checking his bank statements and includes the £680 he had already agreed to repay for repairs to his constituency home, which including clearing wisteria and vines from the chimney, replacing outside lights and resealing the conservatory roof. The Tory leader claimed a total of £82,450 on his second home allowance over five years.

The Commons authorities spent more than £140,000 on the abortive effort to avoid revealing details of expenses, before finally being defeated in the High Court in May last year. The process of scanning and editing all the receipts from 2004-8 has cost a further £2 million. It took 13 months of work to get into the blacked out version that Big Brother would have been proud of.

Yesterday was not entirely without its rewards. We learned that Tony Blair billed the public for roof repairs costing £7000 just days before he stood down as an MP.

We learned that Shadow Chancellor George Osborne billed the taxpayer £47 for the purchase of DVDs of a lecture he gave - about saving the taxpayer money. Mr Osborne nearly had the bailiffs at the door over unpaid bills, something he had in common with Alistair Darling who tested the patience of Scottish Power and Edinburgh City Council over unpaid bills.

David Cameron billed £150 for losing a Tory party pager in 2005, 99p for a staple remover and £10.99 for a book of historic speeches. Dominic Grieve, shadow Justice secretary claimed £55 to replace a lost key for a garden shed. He wasn’t the only one lost. Bob Ainsworth, now Defence Secretary, charged £550 for a sat nav as did Michael Connarty, although his model was cheaper at £349.

Lembit Opik claimed £20 for "the mother of all wigs" for a charity event and Angus MacNeil, the crofting MP, charged £17.98 for wellingtons, all the better to visit his constituents in. Several Scottish MPs were caught supporting two or more different football teams in their constituency with advertising hoardings.

Alex Salmond’s expenses revealed how the public purse had paid £14,000 for legal advice on how to impeach Tony Blair in the aftermath of the Iraq War.

The legal advice was taken from Matrix, Cherie Blair’s legal chambers and Mr Salmond’s spokesman said it was "perfectly justified". Labour peer Lord George Foulkes, who also sits in the Scottish Parliament, has asked John Lyon, the parliamentary commissioner for standards at the Commons, to investigate what he called a "party political stunt".

For a short time an invoice for a child to attend a nursery in Portsmouth mixed into Mr Salmond’s invoices set Holyrood ablaze and seemed to indicate that the First Minister might have some explaining to do. But the Fees office quickly apologised for the error and Mr Salmond was left holding only an invoice for a cake stand which his aides insisted was really a nest of tables in disguise.

Winston Smith’s supervisors at the Ministry of Truth would not have allowed such a simple clerical errors to occur. History would have been altered to make the receipts read like they ought to be read .

But those who do not learn from history are forced to repeat it and by redacting so much information politicians are simply going to be put through the wringer again by the Daily Telegraph who for weeks now, have held all the cards.

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