May 18, 2009

"Transparency will damage democracy."

Who said transparency stops at water's edge? While receiving little notice in America, a scandal has erupted in Britain over the misuse of expense accounts by members of Parliament.

Heather Brooke, the journalist who was instrumental in getting the expense receipts out into the open, has written all about it.

Brooke was writing a book on how to use the Freedom of Information Act when she made a call to the House of Commons to learn more about their expense accounts. When she finally received the expense reports, they did not show any real level of detail and were grouped into very broad categories.

Well, the expenses duly came out. But they were bulk figures in various categories: travel, staff, second homes etc. I wanted the detail. That's where you find the truth. But the Commons would not consider letting the public see this. In fact, they would not even discuss how the system of expenses operated. I thought this was strange and it made me suspicious. After all, if the system worked well, why wouldn't they feel confident about explaining it to me?

She began asking for more specific details on how the money was being spent and ran into roadblocks every way she turned. She turned to information commissioner Richard Thomas who "refused to agree to the publication of receipts but thought the allowance could be broken down into more specific categories."

Brooke, the House of Commons, and two other journalists appealed his ruling. Brooke's case eventually caught the attention of lawyer Hugh Tomlinson who offered to represent her pro bono. Tomlinson's questioning of House of Commons Fees Officer Andrew Walker drew some eminently quotable lines:

"MPs should be allowed to carry on their duties free from interference ..."

"Public confidence is not the overriding concern per se ..."

"Transparency will damage democracy."

"What you are doing is preparing a peephole into the private lives of a member, which will either distract them or lead them into additional questions which they feel they have to defend themselves."

The court agreed with Brooke. But Walker appealed to the high court, against the judgement of his lawyers. Eventually, the case was decided in favor of Brooke and transparency.

Finally, the House of Commons said it would release all of the requested information by October 2008. October rolls around and nothing. Brooke then learns that December is the new publication deadline. December rolls around and, again, nothing. Brooke is then told that July 2009 would be the publication date because technical details need to be hammered out first.

Well, it didn't take until July for the expense reports to be let out into the open. A CD containing the raw data was sent to the Daily Telegraph and the stories appeared soon after that.

And now MPs are feeling morose. Tough! They've had plenty of opportunities to do the right thing by parliament and by the people. At every juncture they behaved in the worst possible way. They refused legitimate requests, they wasted public money going to the high court, they delayed publication, they tried to exempt themselves from their own law, they succeeded in passing a law to keep secret their addresses from their constituents so as to hide the house flipping scandal ...

Kudos to Ms. Brooke for keeping the pressure on the House of Commons to release this information. Despite attempts to foil her at nearly every stage of her investigation she kept demanding more accountability. And that persistence led to more transparency for the citizens of Britain.

(Thanks open...)