Page last updated at 17:43 GMT, Thursday, 22 January 2009

Q&A: MPs' expenses 'secrecy' row

MPs were due to vote to change Freedom of Information rules to effectively exempt details of their expenses, such as receipts, being made available to the public. Gordon Brown decided to scrap the vote but MPs were still asked to approve far-reaching reforms to their system of expenses.

What happened on Thursday?

MPs were to vote on a plan which would exempt MPs' expenses details from the scope of the Freedom of Information Act (FOI Act) but that was shelved. It would have meant any FOI requests for MPs' claims made since 2005 could be turned down. As it is, the government confirmed that all expenses details dating back to 2004 would be published once they have been processed by the Commons authorities. MPs also backed reforms to make their expenses system more open and robust, allowing the National Audit Office to carry out independent spot checks and nearly doubling the categories of spending for which information is available.

Where did the parties stand on it?

Conservative and Lib Dem MPs welcomed the reforms but said future policy towards expenses, particularly the release of all itemised receipts, was still not clear. Some are worried that ministers could still try and block full disclosure. Commons leader Harriet Harman said the position may change in the future and Parliament must consider whether it was "sensible" to carry on releasing such extensive information each year at considerable cost.

What happens now?

Harriet Harman says she will seek further discussions on how to proceed with other parties given the lack of cross-party agreement on the issue.

Don't we already know what MPs claim?

The overall amount claimed by each MP is published by the Commons authorities every year. In the past it has been broken down into nine categories - such as overall claims for second homes allowances, office running costs and travel. This will now increase to 26 - offering more details, for example about the amount spent on telephones and utilities bills and repairs.

What would be the problem with that?

Campaigners say this does not go far enough. They are also annoyed that, having been ordered to make available all details of every claim, including receipts, by the High Court - MPs were going to vote to effectively overturn that order. They say MPs should not be able to exempt themselves from a law applying to every other public body. They also point out that the Scottish Parliament makes full details of MSPs' claims, including receipts, available via the internet. Many MPs also opposed the attempt to exempt expenses from FOI.

What are the arguments over publishing receipts?

Officials have complained that the process of producing them is too costly. Publishing receipts from 2004 to 2008 will cost about 2m. Harriet Harman said it would create "a blizzard of information at great expense". Campaigners say the second homes allowance, known as the additional costs allowance (ACA) is most open to abuse and having to produce receipts publicly would keep claims in check. They also say a wider breakdown does not show up some of the more controversial claims - such as MPs buying expensive plasma screen TVs on expenses.

Why has all this come about?

Last year two events brought the issue of MPs' expenses under the spotlight. Tory MP Derek Conway was reprimanded and suspended for paying his son Freddie more than 40,000 as a researcher, while a full time student in Newcastle. A standards inquiry said there was "no record" of work Freddie had done. The second was a long-running Freedom of Information case in which campaigners pressed for details of claims by 14 MPs - including receipts - under their second homes allowances. This case revealed to public view the John Lewis list and fact that MPs could claim over 20,000 a year on items such as TVs, fridges and things like new kitchens. The Commons lost the battle when the High Court ruled those MPs' details, and receipts should be published. The 14 MPs' expenses claims were published and it had been expected that all MPs' claims, with receipts, would be released in a similar way.

Why did the courts back full disclosure?

In its ruling in 2008 the Information Tribunal said: "The ACA system is so deeply flawed, the shortfall in accountability so substantial, and the necessity of full disclosure so convincingly established, that only the most pressing privacy needs should in our view be permitted to prevail." The Commons appealed to the High Court, but it also supported detailed disclosure, saying public confidence in the Commons was at stake. It said there was an "absence of a coherent system for the exercise of control over ... the arrangements which govern the ACA." Even when claims were made in accordance with the rules, there were questions about "whether the rules are appropriate in contemporary society".

What does the government say?

Harriet Harman said publishing expenses details annually under 26 headings - such as telephone bills/repairs/mortgage interest payments - would give the public "more information than they ever had before" but would be done in a way that was "proportionate and affordable" and done at "a reasonable cost". She said it would show there is a "clear and reasonable set of rules" which governs allowances.

Didn't MPs already make some changes?

Yes. Any MPs employing family members now have to declare them and the amount MPs' can claim without producing a receipt to the Commons authorities has been reduced from 250 to 25. But recommendations by a five-month "root and branch" review by a committee of MPs, on external auditing and changing the second homes allowance were rejected by MPs in a Commons vote. However the amount claimed for furnishings would been restricted to 10% of the second homes allowance - about 2,000 a year - and the National Audit Office would be involved in auditing expenses claims, under proposed changes to the expenses rule book.

So why was there a need for a new vote?

There was still the outstanding issue of receipts. Commons authorities had said all receipts from all MPs' claims would be published in October 2008. But that deadline was put back when officials said the process of scanning in 1.3 million documents, and editing out details like bank accounts and telephone numbers ready for publication - a process known as redaction - was proving more complex than expected. The statutory order would have meant the details would not have to be published.

Why do some MPs oppose further disclosure?

MPs have already voted down one aspect of the High Court ruling - that addresses should be published as part of the claims. They argued there were serious security concerns, and used a statutory order then to exempt their addresses from the FOI Act. They also rejected a Commons committee's proposal to submit receipts for every claim - arguing it would be "excessively burdensome" instead they have to support all claims over 25. There is also the argument over cost. And there is the question of intrusion into an MP's private life and a fear journalists will trawl through claims looking to embarrass them. The Guardian quoted one unnamed MP as saying "MPs' expenses should not be an entertainment show for the public".

Who is against the move to exempt MPs' expenses from FOI?

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats and various campaign groups like Unlock Democracy. People from 20 groups signed a letter to the Guardian urging MPs to oppose the move - including Maurice Frankel, of the Campaign for Freedom of Information and Neil O'Brien of think tank Policy Exchange. MPs criticising the order include Lib Dem Norman Baker, Labour's David Winnick and the Conservative MP Douglas Carswell.

Is this an end to the issue?

No. The government may have backed down over FOI and pledged further consultation but the issue is far from done and dusted. Ministers must decide what their future policy on FOI requests will be. The chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Sir Christopher Kelly, could still launch his own inquiry into pay and expenses. Ms Harman will appear before his committee in February.

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