Freesteel Blog » The unbearable redaction of MPs expenses

The unbearable redaction of MPs expenses

Thursday, June 18th, 2009 at 9:47 am Written by:

ellmanredactions

Predictably, the information MPs are willing to release is somewhat less politically damaging than what was leaked to the Telegraph.

Politicians have a flair for passing laws that tread the fine line between what they believe are defensible yet entirely fraudulent reasons, that happen to have desirable side-effects. (See their attempts to hide their expenses on the excuse of protecting the privacy of members of public.)

So what’s the official reason for hiding the information?

Setting aside the post-hoc excuses right-thinking members of the public can come up with, based on the mistaken assumption that there was a good legitimate security reason behind it in the first place, let’s check the Parliamentary record.

Here’s the paranoid Julian Lewis gleefully announcing the legislation on 3 July 2008:

A few days ago, after the Leader of the House gave us the good news that she would table a motion to enable the privacy and security of our home addresses to be maintained, an honourable Labour Member approached me and said in all seriousness, “Julian, what do you think about the prospect of establishing a trade union for Members of Parliament?” I think that he had me in mind for the role of shop steward — not quite the climactic outcome that I had in mind after six long years as a shadow Defence Minister. However, he had rather a good point because, as Mr. Jones revealed in a previous debate, no security information was apparently considered by the House authorities or put before the court before the crazy decision was made to release our home addresses en masse in easily accessible form for the benefit of any troublemaker or terrorist at home or abroad.

As Simon Hughes pointed out, once every four or five years we have to reveal our constituency address in the process of getting elected. But the fact that we have to do that with some of our addresses, some of the time, is no reason whatever for our having to do it with all our addresses, all the time, in an easily accessible form. Of course, if someone who is targeting a particular MP and means to track him or her down in order to do him or her harm puts in enough effort, it will be possible to do so. However, that does not cater for a situation in which someone with a grudge, someone with an obsession, a follower of a political cause or a self-taught follower of al-Qaeda, at home or abroad — who will not even have heard of most of the Members of this House — goes on the internet, conveniently finds 646 addresses and sends 646 packages containing something explosive, horrible or, at the very least, abusive to 646 unprotected mail boxes. The proposal is absolutely insane.

Later that month they passed the Statutory Instrument to conceal the addresses of MPs, Lords and Welsh Assembly Members from the expenses disclosures. In the 17 July 2008 debate, Julian Lewis concluded:

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman had many important things to do at the time, but if he had attended some of the earlier debates, he would have heard me address those points in detail. It is not fair to the House for me to go over them again now. Let me put it in a nutshell. First, anyone who wishes to disclose a home address and put it in the phone book can do so—it is a matter for him or her. However, if the decision had been implemented, 646 private home addresses would be made available to anybody—including any troublemaker at home or abroad—who wished to send something through the post to 646 unprotected mail boxes. If there is any sense in our having the expensive and complex screening arrangements at the House of Commons to ensure that nothing horrible, explosive or contaminated is sent through the post en masse to Members of Parliament, who are probably being targeted not individually but as a body, it is obvious madness to reveal the 646 home addresses. I could make many other points, but I shall leave it at that and refer the hon. Gentleman to my previous speeches on the subject.

My right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Ancram typically put his finger on the heart of the problem when he referred to data that are published at election time. We have to include a home address on specific documents every time we stand for election. I have already said in an intervention that, just because we have to reveal some addresses occasionally, it should not be regarded as an excuse for revealing them all, en masse, all the time in a way that makes them accessible at home or abroad at the touch of a button. Nevertheless, that bogus argument—that the cat is already out of the bag—led the judges and the appeal tribunal wrongly to conclude that there was no point in refusing the request for addresses en masse.

It is important to close that loophole and I would welcome a response from Government Front Benchers on that. I believe that the idea that people had to publish a private home address—even if it has not found its way on to the internet—at election time predated the time when one could put the name of one’s party on the ballot paper. The requirement is archaic and an unnecessary infringement of individuals’ rights. If people want to stand for public office, I do not understand why they must disclose their home address. The Information Commissioner has a wise ruling, which is that, in almost all circumstances, he would at most recommend disclosure of only the first three digits or letters of the person’s postcode. The Government should take the opportunity—I am not sure whether the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 is the relevant vehicle—to close the loophole, because it was seized upon. Without that, we would not have to go to such lengths.

I want to consider anonymous registration. In the past, it was possible to give a nom de plume if one felt that one was at risk and wished to be on the electoral register under another name. The rule has changed and someone who wishes to be on the electoral register anonymously must have the signature of a police chief constable, that of a director of the Security Service or that of a director of social services. We need to reconsider that to make it clear to chief constables that, when a Member of Parliament wants to be on that list, that is all that is necessary for anonymous registration.

I will conclude, much to the satisfaction of my Whip, who has been making noises offstage. I hope that anybody present today who believes that I am wrong will divide the House. I do not think that it will happen, but I hope that it will because The Sunday Telegraph, whose reporter was responsible for this mess in the first place, found plenty of space to attack me and suggest that my party opposed what I was doing. However, it found no space other than for two sentences of a letter that I wrote in reply to try to explain that the House had already resolved to take action, without a vote. I wish that there could be a vote so that even the idiot scribblers on The Sunday Telegraph could understand that our action has nothing to do with expenses and everything to do with security.

I can’t find this Sunday Telegraph article, unfortunately. It probably said something like: If they don’t tell anything about their addresses, then they’ll be able to hide their impropriety relating to their expenses and flipping — as they eventually did so.

I just can’t believe they couldn’t come up with a better excuse in the time available. This is simply rubbish. It wouldn’t be good enough in a crappy James Bond novel. In short, it’s bulk mail-shots of something nasty from wanna-be Al-Qaida members that are the problem, because you can’t stop stalkers. Isn’t it handy that the IRA didn’t think of this trick in the 1980s? Also, you do know that addresses of all company directors are available over the internet from companies house? For the record PDF scans are not a convenient form.

Julian Lewis was allowed to close the loophole whereby MPs had to disclose one of their addresses on the ballot sheet at the election in a vote on 2 March 2009

* In Rule 6 (Nomination of candidates), the candidate’s home address shall no longer appear on the nomination paper, but instead on a separate sheet of paper that may also contain a statement that it should not be made public.
* In Rule 11 (Right to attend nomination), the returning officer is no longer allowed to let anyone, except the other candidates, their election agent or their proposers, to see the page containing the home address.
* In Rule 14 (Publication of statement of persons nominated), those candidates who have declared their addresses shall not be made public will only be listed with the constituency in which their home address is located.
* New Rule 53A (Destruction of home address forms): the returning officer shall destroy each candidate’s home address form three weeks after the election

This doesn’t apply to other elected offices. But MPs are special. They’re allowed to lie, cheat and get away with it, because they make the broken rules and can never be found wrong.

Oh, and if you’re thinking of trying to wind Julian Lewis up by publishing one of his addresses on the internet, it’s already been done. He went berzerk for a whole adjournment debate:

After that outrageous episode, I realised that I was dealing with an extremely unscrupulous individual. Some of the publicity surrounding Terry Scriven resulted in my being contacted by people who had previously suffered at his hands. Three were from the military police, but I cannot report what they said in language permissible in this Chamber. It boiled down to the fact that Terry Scriven’s conduct had shown him to be a devious and two-faced bully who operates in the dark and never owns up to what he has done. My experience has confirmed that assessment in every respect.He blatantly refuses to answer any questions put to him about his own conduct, his sole response being to accuse me of trying to “intimidate” him by posing such questions.

Sure. What’s the problem? As you noted, your stalker had already circumvented the procedure that you proposed, so this case does not argue for the laws you’ve put in place, which — but for the Telegraph leak — would have prevented us from proving that many ministers and MPs are corruptible cheats who cannot be trusted at their word.

I don’t have time to document the other worlds of paranoia Julian Lewis lives in, with regards to nuclear weapons (perhaps the Kremlin would have been safe had they not published the GPS coordinates of Moscow on the map), but here’s an earlier blog post about his defence of the international man of mercenary Simon Mann.

3 Comments

  • 1. Harry Metcalfe replies at 18th June 2009, 11:18 am :

    Fyi, the Political Parties and Elections Bill (currently being debated) would remove the requirement to reveal MPs’ home addresses during elections, too — meh.

  • 2. Julian Todd replies at 18th June 2009, 2:22 pm :

    Yes, it’s in one of those links above to http://www.publicwhip.org.uk/division.php?date=2009-03-02&number=45, which I also had to research in its entirety and write up myself.

    Why do I have to do ALL my frigging homework! Don’t these professional reporters and Parliamentary interns have any time to do useful stuff like this?

  • 3. Freesteel&hellip replies at 23rd April 2010, 9:37 am :

    […] to the FOI legislation) by a vote among MPs, and the job was done. I have blogged about this here, here and […]

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