After a three year battle by the redoubtable Heather Brooke of Your Right to Know and a number of other investigative journalists, the Commons authorities have found themselves backed into a bit of a corner over MPs' second home expenses. Sadly it seems the Commission doesn't know when to quit - a characteristic some would say is shared by its Chairman, Michael Martin.
Having teased the media for weeks with leaks and whispers that they were going to surrender the fight after the Information Commissioner's most recent judgement, they are now going to appeal the case in the High Court. M'learned friends will undoubtedly be jumping with joy at the thought of that double whammy - a client who has no realistic sense of when to let matters drop and a bottomless, taxpayer-funded chequebook.
The way the Commons Commission has handled this is deplorable. By refusing to publish the information on expenses in the first place they have totally misjudged the public mood and failed to realise that we have a right to know how our money is being spent. This attitude that people asking for transparency are insolent upstarts who are just trying to cause trouble is insulting to the public. It's our Parliament, they are our MPs and it's our money - why shouldn't we be told how it's being spent?
In PR terms, they have also proved about as savvy as Heather Mills. Opposing openness is never going to go down well with the media in any case, but the policy of brinkmanship is simply annoying and deliberately inconvenient to anyone covering the story. Having dragged out appeal after appeal for three years, sources at the Commission have seemingly told the press numerous different things, announcing that the expenses details will be published, then retracting the prediction, then promising an appeal, then telling people publication would be going ahead, then backtracking and so on ad nauseam. Some of the chops and changes can be seen in the recent updates to Sam Coates' Red Box blog at the Times.
Now, as if the money spent on second homes and furnishings from John Lewis wasn't enough, they have hired new lawyers and are going to the High Court, all of which will be paid for by the taxpayer. They genuinely don't seem to register how bad all this makes them look or how angry ordinary taxpayers are about this. For a House full of people who were keen to tell us over ID cards that "if you've got nothing to hide you've got nothing to fear", this desperate scramble to keep expenses claims secret makes them look guilty as hell.
Until the details are published, the majority of the public will continue to assume that most MPs are on the make. Those innocent MPs who feel hard done by in terms of public opinion should be advocating transparency as loudly as possible.
Two MPs whose information is amongst that being fought over in this legal battle are Gordon Brown and David Cameron, both of whom have apparently said they are happy for their information to be published. In that case, why not do it themselves? Ben Wallace is one MP who has published in detail his expenses claims (including £123.22 for an iris scanner, which is weird), and has shown it is easy to do, painless and popular.
Gordon and Dave can't have it both ways - courting public opinion by saying you don't mind publishing but sitting back in comfortable secrecy while the Commission continue to hire lawyers willy nilly is not good enough. If they don't mind transparency, they should publish the details themselves - now and in full.