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Page last updated at 10:52 GMT, Friday, 15 May 2009 11:52 UK

Public interest or public curiosity?

Newspaper billboard on "Mr and Mrs Dodgy Expenses"
It's our money MPs are spending

The release of MPs' expenses goes back to a US journalist working in the UK who put in the first Freedom of Information request. Here, in a personal opinion, Heather Brooke says behind what might seem like trivial details of moats and dog food is a fundamental democratic point.

Britain trades on a mythical reputation of democracy. The more you dig into the reality, the less you believe that myth.

Heather Brooke
Oct 04: Brooke, right, starts requesting details on MPs' expenses, but is repeatedly refused
Jan 05: Freedom of Information Act comes into force
June 07: Information Commissioner backs disclosure, but not of receipts
Feb 08: Information Tribunal says receipts should be released
House of Commons appeals
May 08: Brooke wins High Court case and 14 MPs' claims, with receipts, made public
All MPs' claims, with receipts, due for release this summer
But unedited details leaked to Daily Telegraph

Some say - always the comfortably off, the privileged and elite - that the exposure of MPs expenses has fundamentally damaged British democracy. That the focus on claims for 5p Ikea bags, manure, moats and bathplugs is prurient, and more about public curiosity than public interest.

Stephen Fry calls the scandal a "rather tedious bourgeois obsession" that is "really not that important. It's a journalistic made-up frenzy."

It's only the bourgeois who think that. And if it's a frenzy, then it's one entirely created by the Commons. Officials had the chance to publish the information maturely back in October 2008 which was when this full disclosure of MPs' second homes allowances was meant to take place.

Their continued suppression has given an unbearably compelling value to the claims. Secrecy has a tendency to do that. It's always the clubs we can't get into that seem the most glamorous. Once we're in we wonder what all the fuss was about.

So it is with MPs' expenses. The continued exclusion of the public has made the public very, very interested in this material.

Perhaps the editor of the Daily Telegraph and I should thank Speaker Michael Martin. If it hadn't been for his stubborn foot-dragging and feudal attitude to constituents' right to know, we wouldn't have had such fun the past week.

We are not here dealing with idle gossip... the expenditure of public money is a matter of direct and reasonable interest to taxpayers
High Court ruling

But let's not forget this is not just about chandeliers and helipads. The High Court judges themselves said this in their ruling: "We have no doubt that the public interest is at stake. We are not here dealing with idle gossip, or public curiosity about what in truth are trivialities.

"The expenditure of public money through the payment of MPs' salaries and allowances is a matter of direct and reasonable interest to taxpayers. They are obliged to pay their taxes at whatever level and on whatever basis the legislature may decide, in part at least to fund the legislative process."

Dear prudence

Those who try and draw the argument down to its trivial elements ignore the fact that the greatest outrage is reserved for the house flipping scandals, and the claims for mortgages that were paid off, or for second homes that didn't exist.

Vote Labour sign in window
Voters' minds are being focused

The point is that if public servants can't spend their expenses with prudence, how can we have faith they will spend billions of our taxes wisely on larger projects?

We can't. And evidence would suggest that is the case. One need only look at the numerous catastrophic multi-million pound IT failures so see what happens when you present people with a huge bag of free money and very little accountability.

Rather than the end of democracy as we know it, I predict a resurgence of political engagement. This story has done more to engage the public in politics than any screwy government initiative. From the hundreds of e-mails I've received, people are far from disheartened. Instead they profess a sudden resurgence of hope. Something I imagine many Americans felt when Barack Obama was coming into the home straight of the US election.

This could be the chance to revolutionise British politics, to create a new form of parliament that is entirely open to the people. This is the beginning of real democracy.

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