Brown in 'humiliating climbdown' as MPs fail to keep expenses secret
GORDON Brown was yesterday accused of a "humiliating climbdown" after the government abandoned attempts to exempt MPs from having to fully disclose their parliamentary expenses.
One day before parliament was due to vote on the matter, the Prime Minister ditched plans to amend the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act to prevent it being used to obtain MPs' receipts.
This is the latest twist in a saga that has seen Commons authorities spend around 150,000 to fight a High Court ruling that requires all MPs to disclose in full how they spend allowances of around 135,000 a year.
Yesterday's decision, which the Prime Minister's aides attributed to a breakdown in an agreement with the Conservatives not to require receipts to be made public, means that the full details of MPs' expenses from 2005 will now be published.
However, this could take several more months – despite expectations they would be published last autumn.
More than one million documents have been scanned, but information is now being "redacted" – or blacked out – to prevent disclosing MPs' home addresses to protect their security. MPs will have a chance to check the documents for accuracy before they are published.
Mr Brown had come under pressure at Prime Minister's Questions yesterday over the proposal to exempt MPs from the FOI Act.
Tory backbencher Douglas Carswell accused him of seeking "one law for the people and another for the politicians", while his colleague Edward Garnier said Mr Brown had shown "hideous" insensitivity by trying to keep MPs' expenses secret when unemployment was heading towards two million.
He was also facing defeat over the matter in the Lords, after peers yesterday accused the government of attempting to rush the changes through parliament without proper debate.
They only emerged last week – on the same day that the government gave the go-ahead to a third runway at Heathrow, revealed a plan to compensate some investors in Equitable Life and the Commons debated the humanitarian situation in Gaza.
Yesterday, Mr Brown told MPs that the Tories had withdrawn their support for the changesm so further consultation would be needed.
The Prime Minister's spokesman said the government had simply been trying to change the rules in accordance with a consensus it thought existed in the Commons, and to ensure the cost of disclosing information remained proportionate.
The spokesman pointed out that Mr Brown's expenses were already published in full following last year's High Court case.
The Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, said: "This is a humiliating climbdown for Gordon Brown after he was forced to accept that people will not tolerate MPs continuing to act like members of a secret society. It is also a victory for everyone who think that politicians should be open and accountable to the people who pay their wages."
David Cameron, the Tory leader, said: "To exempt MPs from the FOI Act would be completely wrong. They should be treated the same as everybody else. This is about the simple principle that MPs are given taxpayers' money to help them represent voters. Taxpayers struggling to get by in this recession surely have a right to know how their money is going to be spent."
The SNP said it was in favour of full disclosure. Finance spokesman Stewart Hosie said: "Westminster should follow the Scottish Parliament and publish expenses on a quarterly basis."
Changes will shrink 'John Lewis list'
MPs will today be given a free vote on plans to change the Commons rule-book on expenses. This would see their spending, from 1 April, catalogued under 26 headings, rather than 13 at present, and would restrict the amount that could be spent on furnishing a second home to 2,400 a year.
This follows huge controversy last year when it emerged that MPs could use a so-called "John Lewis list" to determine how much of their 24,006 second-homes allowance could be spent on items such as plasma-screen TVs and new kitchens.
Under the changes, MPs, who earn 63,291, will be able to claim a 25 "subsistence" allowance for every night they spend away from their main home on parliamentary business. They will also be able to claim back expenditure up to 25 without the need for a receipt – down from 250.
Their spouses or civil partners, and dependent children, could claim up to 30 free journeys a year between London and their constituency. There will be scrutiny of claims by the National Audit Office.
The decision to allow MPs' expenses to be subject to freedom of information laws may finally provide some answers about the final claims of David Marshall, the former Labour MP for Glasgow East.
When he stood down on grounds of ill health last year, he had claimed 675,624 in the six years between the 2001 general election and March 2007. His spending since April 2007, like that of sitting MPs, remains unknown.
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