Page last updated at 10:54 GMT, Saturday, 9 May 2009 11:54 UK

Risks and gains of expenses leak

By Iain Watson
Political correspondent, BBC News

House of Commons
The information was due to be officially released in July

The latest batch of leaked details on MPs' expenses claims have been published. But what are the costs and benefits of these revelations to the press, public and politicians?

Most of the detail of MPs' expenses was due to be published in July, but the Daily Telegraph pre-empted this with their series of scoops - obtaining leaks of the information held by the Commons authorities.

There are advantages and dangers in this approach.

The first advantage is pretty obvious - the paper has upped its profile, probably its circulation too - and has been able to set the news agenda by controlling the flow of information and how it is presented.

The second benefit is not just for the newspaper, but for everyone who is interested in how MPs use the expenses system.

In July, we would have found out the nitty gritty of MPs' claims, but we wouldn't have been given their addresses. By obtaining the information unofficially - the Commons authorities say potentially illegally - the Telegraph has been able to check which properties politicians designate as a second home.

Voters can form their own judgment over their MPs' behaviour

In doing so, they highlighted the practice of "flipping" - whereby, within the rules, MPs are entitled to say their London home is the main home and their constituency home is their second home or vice versa. In addition, they can change that designation quite simply by informing the parliamentary authorities.

So, for example, an MP could claim a second homes allowance to pay for repairs and furnishing for one home, change the designation, then claim similar items using the second homes allowance for their other home.

And in the case of the Luton South MP Margaret Moran, the paper says the second home she claims for is neither in London nor her constituency but in Southampton - about 100 miles from Luton and 70 from Westminster.

Voters can form their own judgment over their MPs' behaviour - but some of the information to do so would not have been in the public domain but for the leaks.

Rushed in

But there are also quite a few dangers in the Telegraph's approach.

The paper says that the immigration minister Phil Woolas charged the Commons authorities - that is, ultimately us the taxpayers - for nappies and women's clothing, despite a ban on expenditure of a personal nature, whether for him or his wife or child.

If some MPs knock down Telegraph stories about them on the detail, that could cast a cloud of doubt over the paper's other revelations

But he says the paper got it wrong - those items appear on the same receipt as legitimate claims for food which he submitted to the Commons authorities, despite not being required to do so, in the interests of transparency, and that he never claimed for the personal items.

Had the Telegraph waited until July for the information to be officially released, the Commons authorities would have made it clear exactly what the minister had claimed for and what he had not.

But instead, they rushed in and acquired the raw material - a large, multi-item receipt - and possibly came to the wrong conclusion. Phil Woolas says he is now considering legal action against the paper.

The wider danger is that if some MPs knock down Telegraph stories about them on the detail, that could cast a cloud of doubt over the paper's other revelations, even if the bulk of them turn out to be completely accurate.

And the final risk is quite simply this. Seemingly endless stories about MPs who, in the main, have not broken any rules - even if the rules themselves are being questioned - diminishes, from a low base, any remaining public trust in politics.

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