More than ten years on from the 2009 expenses scandal, Andrew Walker and Emma Crewe have published a book that seeks to offer fresh insight into the origins and legacy of the crisis. David Natzler, a former Clerk of the Commons, offers his own take on the book, and the crisis it seeks to shed light on.
Over a decade has passed since the Westminster expenses scandal of 2009. It is widely regarded as one of the factors, together with the banking crisis and the absence of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, which led to popular contempt for the political class, the growth of UKIP, and thus the outcome of the 2016 referendum. There have been useful books and articles on the scandal’s effect as well as accounts by the journalists involved, and last year there were several TV and radio programmes looking back to what seemed at the time to be a momentous series of events.
Now there is a book by Emma Crewe and Andrew Walker, An Extraordinary Scandal: the Westminster Expenses Crisis and Why it Still Matters, published late in 2019 by Haus. Andrew Walker was the senior Commons official responsible for the administration of the expenses regime; Emma Crewe is an academic anthropologist who has specialised recently in looking at parliamentary culture. I should declare an interest as it was at my suggestion that Andrew approached Emma with the prospect of working together on this project.
The basic story is familiar. A disc (or discs) containing at least a million documents was bought by the Daily Telegraph, who through May and June 2009 published daily exposés of the claims made by MPs. The information was on the discs in preparation for the major clerical task of responding to a court ruling under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 requiring the publication by the House of Commons of much more detailed information than hitherto on payments made to members under the expenses scheme. The Act’s final incarnation included within its statutory ambit both ‘the House of Commons’ and ‘the House of Lords’, although neither appeared in the bill as first drafted. Jack Straw, the minister in charge of the bill, added them to the list of public authorities in Schedule 1 to the Act, and is said to have regretted it ever since. Individual MPs and peers were not then – and are not now – regarded as public authorities. But the House authorities were subject to the Act, and since they administered the expenses system and held the information on MPs’ claims, it became disclosable.
The Act did not come into force until 2005, giving anybody that would be affected five years to prepare. One obligation was to prepare ‘schemes of publication’, which would list what information would be published proactively. The House of Commons made similar preparations to other public authorities: they appointed specialist staff to oversee the effort and discussed what they would proactively publish. The House of Commons eventually decided in late 2004 to publish details of MPs’ expenses broken down into several headings, for each of the previous three years, and to then issue quarterly updates. Crewe and Walker recount the vain attempt to prevent the press from creating ‘league tables’ of MPs by publishing only a locked pdf, which the press had little difficulty in cracking. Various MPs were appalled and angry at being ‘exposed’ as the UK’s or Lancashire’s most expensive MP. One external PR adviser had to resign when it emerged that he had been secretly encouraging one party to make more of a meal of the other party’s record.
Could it ever have ended there, with a regular termly feeding frenzy as the figures came out, comparable to the long-standing stories when select committees published their annual expenditures on travel? The House authorities hoped that it would. From my recollection, the main concerns in 2004 and 2005 concerned the rather sparse publication of select committee travel and international delegation expenditure data, and on weaknesses in the underlying structures. It was reasonably assumed, as Crewe and Walker suggest, that MPs elected or re-elected in the 2005 general election would be conscious of the new climate of openness and would put their own house in order, encouraged by their party authorities.
However between 2005 and 2009 the whole thing unravelled under the burden of FOI requests for details of the expenses claimed by individual MPs, and for a more detailed breakdown of each category of expenditure. Crewe and Walker set out this slow car crash very clearly, which took place at the same time as unavailing and increasingly pointless attempts to address the systemic weaknesses in the expenses regime, which it was becoming apparent would be exposed by publication of details of expenditures.
It was eventually a judgment of the Information Tribunal in 2008, upheld on appeal later that year, which obliged the authorities to prepare to release a mass of information on both payments to individual MPs and the actual claims they had submitted. The decision was taken to publish a suitably redacted version of around one million documents, and a commercial secure printing company was contracted to produce an unredacted scanned version. That was in essence stolen and sold by an intermediary to the Daily Telegraph. After some weeks of intense work by a team of journalists – recounted in heroic style in the 2011 book No Expenses Spared by Winnett and Rayner – the paper spent May and June 2009 revealing the results: a daily diet which fascinated and appalled in equal measure.
The revelations resulted in six MPs being convicted of criminal offences as a result of the investigation. The attempt of some of them to claim that parliamentary privilege protected them from prosecution was dismissed by the UK Supreme Court in R v Chaytor, which helpfully provided a clear judicial statement on the extent of parliamentary privilege.
There were two other positive outcomes. Firstly, the Brown government introduced and procured the passage of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009. This established IPSA, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, which has for better or worse taken away responsibility for MPs’ expenses and salary away from the House itself. For example, the rules on employment by MPs of members of their family are now decided not by the House, but by IPSA.
Secondly, Gordon Brown initiated the creation of the Reform of the House of Commons Committee: what became known as the ‘Wright Committee’. In November 2009 it produced a far-reaching report, much of which was implemented with bipartisan support over the course of the next year. For a detailed analysis, read Unit Director Meg Russell’s insightful article on the Wright Committee reforms.
Given the consensus that the scandal continues to have a major impact on public confidence in the House of Commons, it is important to understand how it all came about and to think through what could have been done to avert it. Crewe and Walker set out a commendably clear narrative, but do not really offer a view on why it happened and who is to be held responsible.
Plainly the disc containing the details of the expenses claims would not have been available if it had not been stolen. The then Clerk, Malcolm Jack, who was technically responsible for this massive data loss, invited the police to investigate. The police declined, despite the fact that the principal intermediaries in this theft were known. The disc was produced because of the Information Tribunal judgment, which went beyond the findings of the Information Commissioner. If the Tribunal had merely upheld the Commissioner’s findings, there would have been a much fuller publication than has previously occurred, but many of the details of bath plugs, duck houses and moats would have remained secret.
The underlying issue is why the expenses regime had taken on the shape it had and why so many MPs used it in a way which suggested to the public that they had their ‘snouts in the trough’. Nearly all the attention focused on the Additional Costs Allowance (ACA), and not on, for example, the allowance for local offices and support staff. While the absurd 42% increase in the ACA voted for in 2001 in defiance of then Leader of the House Robin Cook, is noted by Crewe and Walker, the principal scandal was seen to be not the total sums claimed, but the way many MPs gamed the system, notably by ‘flipping’ designation of a property as a second home from one place to another, thereby maximising the expenditure that could be claimed.
We can also ask at this distance how ‘bad’ was the behaviour exposed in 2009? In retrospect, it is not the sums of money involved, nor even the rare case of basic fraud – which the Fees Office systems had not picked up– which shocks, but the prevailing culture of claiming the maximum amount as a form of entitlement.
This is a short book and cannot contain everything a critical reader seeks. I would have liked reminding of the actual cases which led to criminal convictions, which in retrospect do not seem a lot worse than earlier cases merely punished internally by the House. I find the book least convincing on governance. Indeed, the account of the outcome of the 2014 Straw Committee is simply wrong. There were indeed too many bodies involved, each trying to change the regime far too late in the day, and the accounts of the chaotic involvement of some very senior politicians bears careful reading. But it is not clear to me what difference it would have made if, for example, the changes introduced following the Straw Committee had been in place earlier. There were failures in governance and process at every level.
Although this happened quite some time ago, there is value in exploring these specific events in detail, and until Crewe and Walker’s book, this had not happened. There is still more to be said on the 2009 expenses scandal, but this book is an important brick in the wall.
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About the author
Sir David Natzler is a former Clerk of the House of Commons. To watch a video of his valedictory event at the Unit in 2019, see here. A summary of the event also appears on this blog.
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