UNSUNG HERO

May 21, 2009 – 12:51 pm

The only reason we know anything about all those claims for light bulbs and moat cleaning in the British Parliament is that campaigning journalist Heather Brooke has spent the last five years fighting tooth and nail for MPs to come clean about their expenses.

When I first telephoned the House of Commons about expenses, back in 2004, I was working on a book called Your Right to Know, a citizen’s guide to using the Freedom of Information Act (just as the law was coming into force). It was my attempt to get back into serious reporting after taking a break to study literature and write for kids’ magazines.

When I made that call, I didn’t intend to bring a plague on all politicians’ houses. But I was interested in our opaque parliamentary expenses system, having learned about the highly transparent system of political expenses in Washington state; when I was there in 1992 as a student reporter I’d been able to access my local politicians’ receipts in a matter of days.

Little did I realise that this simple request to the Commons would end up becoming a five-year investigation, and take me to the high court and back. That first day, it took some time to navigate the parliamentary switchboard and find someone who knew what I was talking about when I asked about freedom of information. (Surprising, when you consider the law had actually been passed in 2000 and the five-year preparation time was the longest for any country - ever.) Eventually, I found someone who dealt with FOI but when I explained that I was after a breakdown of MPs’ expenses I was met with baffled silence. A while later I was told that the expenses would be published in October 2004.

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?

Note: Visit The Guardian site for the article.

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