Openness is inherently political, because it dares to assert that we little people have a right to see what the powerful would hide. There's no clearer proof of that point than the MPs' expenses scandal last year. You might think that was a battle where openness prevailed; sadly you would be wrong, as a recent press release from the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) reveals.
Admittedly, it begins promisingly:
IPSA has today announced that the first proactive and routine release of details about MPs' expense claims paid under the new, independent regime will be issued on 2 December.
IPSA's dedicated publication website – which will be www.parliamentary-standards.org.uk – will go live at 10am on 2 December, and will include details of 22,000 claims made by 576 MPs.
For each claim, IPSA will publish proactively the MP's name, constituency, the budget the claim is made from (such as General Administrative Expenditure), and the type of expense (such as travel) and a description of the claim. For travel claims, IPSA will publish the start point and destination for each journey and the class of travel.
Sounds pretty fab, no? Well, no, actually, because of the following detail:
IPSA will not be publishing receipts proactively -the cost of preparing tens of thousands of receipts for publication would be more than £1 million a year and would not provide value for taxpayers' money.
That is, true openness – being able to see exactly what our money was spent on by examining scans of the actual receipts – is being denied to us. And to save what? One million pounds – probably the same as is spent on paperclips or some such trivial item.
This is an absolutely insane decision, and I urge you to write to the Chairman of IPSA, Sir Ian Kennedy, asking him to think again. The relevant email address is [email protected] As usual, I've appended below my billet-doux.
Dear Sir Ian,
MPs' Expenses Receipts
As you know, the credibility of Parliament was severely damaged last year by the revelations about unjustified expenses claimed by many of its members. Even worse was the fierce rear-guard action to prevent the facts coming to light. It is therefore vital that every step be taken to regain the public's confidence in our political system.
Against that background, I was shocked to hear that you do not intend to provide full transparency in this matter:
"IPSA will not be publishing receipts proactively -the cost of preparing tens of thousands of receipts for publication would be more than £1 million a year and would not provide value for taxpayers' money."
For the sake of £1 million you jeopardise the entire transparency project. Many people, already deeply cynical as a result of last year's shabby revelations, have extremely low opinions of their representatives. If after everything you decide not to publish scans of the actual receipts this will inevitably be perceived as sweeping things under the carpet yet again, and a slap in the face of the electorate. As a result, IPSA itself will be viewed merely as cynical window-dressing.
I urge you to reconsider this particular decision: after all, is 2p per person per year really too high a price to pay to help rebuild trust in British democracy?