Gordon Brown shelves vote concealing MPs' expenses

The Government staged a climbdown today over plans to conceal potentially embarrassing details of MPs’ expenses.

Downing Street indicated that a motion to exempt Parliament from key parts of the Freedom of Information Act will not now be tabled tomorrow.

The U-turn sparked a blame game between the main parties, with prime minister Gordon Brown accusing the Tories of reneging on a deal to back the move.

However, that claim was flatly denied by David Cameron, who insisted he had always been clear that exempting MPs from FoI would be “wrong”.

Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions, Gordon Brown hit out at the Tories for withdrawing their support from the controversial move.

“We thought we had agreement on the Freedom of Information Act as part of this wider package,” he said.

“Recently that support that we believed we had from the main opposition party was withdrawn.

“So on this particular matter, I believe all-party support is important and we will continue to consult on that matter.”

Embarrassing disclosure

The row over generous parliamentary expenses was reignited last week when Commons leader Harriet Harman made the latest bid to sidestep disclosure.

The proposals were backdated to 2005, meaning they would have nullified rulings from the High Court and Information Tribunal that the public had a right to see receipts showing exactly how MPs were using allowances for second homes.

Instead, expenses would have been published under more categories than before – but still not fully itemised.

The plans came despite the Commons authorities already having spent some £1 million since May scanning and redacting 1.2 million receipts ready for publication.

There has been speculation that they were driven by lobbying from some Labour MPs who fear deep embarrassment if disclosure goes ahead.

Little more than an hour before Brown’s dramatic intervention during Prime Minister’s Questions, the Government seemed determined to face down the opposition parties and backbench rebels.

Downing Street briefed journalists that Labour MPs would be on a three-line whip to back the exemption tomorrow, rather than getting a free vote.

Harman insisted the Conservatives had backed the measures until “more or less yesterday”, but then “pulled the plug” and announced their MPs would be instructed to vote against.

She denied the Government was trying to “cover up” details of expenses.

“What we’ve said is receipts must be produced and they must be audited but we didn’t think it was right that there should be 1.2 million receipts, every single receipt for every ream of paper that is bought should be necessary, and then published,” she told the BBC.

The Tories angrily rejected any suggestion of “trickery” on their part.

“To exempt MPs from the FOI Act would be completely wrong. They should be treated the same as everybody else,” Mr Cameron said.

“The public demand and deserve greater transparency from their politicians and this would have been a step in the wrong direction.”

He added: “No-one will ever take lectures from politicians about responsibility unless we put our own house in order.”

Accountability

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg hailed the turnaround as a victory for accountability.

“This is a humiliating climbdown for Gordon Brown after he was forced to accept that people will not tolerate MPs continuing to act like members of a secret society,” he said.

“It is also a victory for everyone who thinks that politicians should be open and accountable to the people who pay their wages.”

The decision was also greeted with delight by freedom of information campaigners.

Heather Brooke, who lodged one of the original requests that led to the High Court ruling, said all receipts should now be published.

“This chaotic U-turn is another twist in a sordid tale. We were promised full disclosure of MPs’ expenses in October 2008,” she said.

“By their continued foot-dragging, MPs are bringing Parliament into disrepute. If they can pass a secrecy law in 24 hours then they can be open in the same amount of time. After all, they’ve had three years to prepare.”

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, welcomed the climbdown.

“We are delighted that this proposal has been shelved,” he said. “It was wrong in principle for MPs to try and conceal their expenses claims when all other public servants have to release theirs.”

But he also warned that another bid to escape disclosure could be made: “Some MPs are clearly desperate to prevent the release of past expenses claims which are likely to have exceeded what could reasonably be justified to the public.”

Peter Facey of Unlock Democracy said: “If passed, this order would have had a catastrophic impact on the reputation of Parliament.

“Fundamentally, the Government backed down because they knew they would lose even if they won the vote. This was a clear victory of people power.”

Labour MP David Winnick (Walsall North) declared himself “very pleased” with the decision.

“The Government has been wise to recognise that what was being proposed was not acceptable,” he said. “The public simply would not understand why we should be exempted from the very legislation that we passed.”

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