MPs' expenses should remain secret “for democracy”, says Commons Fees Office chief

Journalists should not be told exactly what MPs claim on expenses in case it affects their ability to do their job and damages British democracy, the Information Tribunal heard yesterday.

Andrew Walker, head of the House of Commons Fees Office, said that such scrutiny into MPs’ lives, such as finding out how much MPs spend on phone bills, improvements on their second homes and hotel bills, would ‘discourage able people from entering politics”.

He said: ‘If MPs spend all their time having to defend why they had changed this avocado suite to a white one when it was only ten years old…they are not spending time working for their constituents.

‘My view is that it has gone far enough and is intrusion into members’ private lives.”

Walker was giving evidence in a landmark case brought by journalist Heather Brooke to decide whether all 646 MPs will have to submit an itemised list of their expense claims, which they claim from the Additional Cost Allowance (ACA). Reporters Jonathan Ungoed-Thomas of The Sunday Times and Ben Leapman of The Sunday Telegraph, are also fighting the case.

The case dates back to 2004, when Brooke submitted an FOI request for the expense details of 15 MPs including Tony Blair and David Cameron.

Eleanor Grey, representing the House of Commons Commission, asked the tribunal to reject the notion that something like itemised housing cost bills was ‘public information”.

She said: ‘In having a parliamentary system where members are required to spend time in their constituency and in Westminster, they should be allowed to stay in both places.

‘The fact that he or she has paid to set up and maintain their home to do their job is not relevant.”

Representing the journalists, Hugh Tomlinson QC of Matrix Chambers said: ‘To say that these figures represent an intrusion into private lives is fanciful.

‘It is perfectly possible for MPs to claim a full allowance without submitting any supporting documents.”

In 2006-7 £87m was given to MPs from the ACA, a maximum of £22,110 each, and 227 checks were made on members’ expenses by the National Audit Office. MPs do not have to provide documentation on everything they claim – only claims over £250 need receipts and MPs can claim £400 a week on food without documentation.

The tribunal concludes today.

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