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Within these walls

The Freedom of Information Act is causing some sleepless nights at Westminster

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A ruling by Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, will have left some at Westminster sleeping uneasily. He has ordered the House of Commons to publish a breakdown of how MPs spend their second home allowance – on mortgages, rent, hotels, and even groceries, furniture and cleaners – following requests under Labour’s Freedom of Information Act.

This is exactly what many Tory and Labour MPs feared when they flocked to support David Maclean’s private member’s bill, which would have removed parliament from the scope of the FoI Act. The legislation, branded ‘this nasty bill’ by David Winnick, fell by the wayside after no peer could be found to endorse it. But even though Gordon Brown hinted that he was against the bill, Labour whips gave it their tacit support.

I must declare an interest. I am one of those whose requests for information led Mr Thomas to issue his ruling. I asked about MPs’ housing expenses back in January 2005, within days of FoI coming into effect.

I did so because I was concerned that some of the claims appeared hard to justify. (In one case I uncovered, the former Conservative MP John Wilkinson, whose constituency was in outer London, designated his ‘main home’ as a holiday flat on the Isle of Man in order to claim second home expenses on his London house.)

Is all this scrutiny unfair to MPs, who mostly work extremely hard and could probably better their £60,000-a-year salaries by moving to less demanding jobs? I don’t think so. When one MP is caught behaving badly, all of politics is brought into disrepute in the public’s eye. The solution isn’t to put up a wall of secrecy around Westminster, but precisely the opposite – to publish everything, so that no one is tempted to claim for anything they shouldn’t be claiming for.

In the Scottish Parliament, MSPs’ taxi receipts are scanned in and posted on the Parliamentary website. It doesn’t seem to have deterred candidates from standing.

The Commons may still appeal against Mr Thomas’s ruling. But as and when the expenses breakdown is finally published, expect some embarrassing details to emerge.

I suppose that forcing MPs to admit how much, or how little, they pay their cleaners qualifies me as one of Tony Blair’s ‘feral beasts’. There has been much excitement among journalists in the Lobby since the PM coined this phrase, in a speech delivered at Reuters HQ in June.

Within days, more than 400 people had signed up to a ‘feral beasts of the media’ group on Facebook, the social networking website which is taking off among Britain’s emailing classes. Paul Mason, business correspondent of BBC Newsnight, who started the group, was quickly joined by colleagues from the Sun, Sunday Telegraph, Mail on Sunday, Evening Standard and Channel 4.

In his speech, Blair contended that the ‘damaged relationship’ between the media and those in charge of public institutions saps Britain’s confidence and makes it harder to take the right decisions.

There is some truth in this. Can we imagine an Olympic logo being unveiled, for example, without a stream of criticism? Even if it wasn’t as ugly as the current one, it would have been condemned for being boring, or expensive, or a copy of Sydney’s.

Yet I believe the tone of our media reflects our national character. We don’t do earnest in this country, we do self-deprecating and cynical, and I suspect most of us wouldn’t have it any other way. Many people raised an eyebrow when Blair declared, in his resignation speech, that he had been proud to lead ‘the greatest nation on earth’. It sounded a bit American.

We’re better at criticising than praising, so the media sea in which politicians sail is naturally choppy – as David Cameron is starting to find out.

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Ben Leapman

is the assistant news editor and home affairs correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph

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