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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The need for transparency on expenses

The Western Mail is absolutely right today in saying that the £14,000 a year supplement to Labour MP, Don Touhig's salary to chair a committee looking into future changes to MPs' expenses is not the main issue.

They say it is time for a consensual change to bring MPs' salaries and expenses into the twenty first century. They want to see more transparency and accountability as well a better sense of proportion in terms of what MPs can claim. That is something the Welsh Assembly is leading on and we can expect further changes to our expenses regime later this year.

The way that the House of Commons handles issues of transparency with regards expenses is absolutely appalling. Requests for information are obstructed and even when one establishes through the Information Commissioner's Office that one is entitled to information they use every possible avenue to refuse to provide it.

It took me two years to get details of spending on circulars and reports by my local MPs for the financial year 2005-06. When I received it I immediately wrote back asking for the same information for 2006-07 and 2007-08. That letter was sent on 7 May 2008.

I was told on 6 June 2008 that the House of Commons had taken the decision to publish this information as part of a wider scheme before the end of 2008 and that therefore my request was invalid. In fact they said that the information was exempt from disclosure on the basis of section 22 of the Freedom of Information Act and that this was in the public interest. Suspecting deliberate obfuscation I appealed and then complained again to the Information Commissioner.

It is now the third month of 2009 and the promised publication of information has still not occurred. That was predictable and justifies my decision to appeal. The Information Commissioner has told me that he is requesting a definite publication date from the House of Commons and that if this is not forthcoming then he will issue a decision notice on the matter. By then of course I will want the figures for 2008-09.

If the House of Commons continues to force people to wade through mud to get even the smallest piece of information from them then they will deserve all the brickbats that are thrown at them.
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