First Westminster, now the BBC. The burgeoning desire for public spending transparency shifted its focus to another big beast of state funding this week, and the revelations have courted outrage, albeit not as vehement as that directed at our politicians. Again, the claims vary from the grand to the frivolous – from swanky Vegas hotels to 19p in mileage. In fairness to the BBC, these details were released in full, and itemised in detail. Contrast this with the MPs expenses: even though the Telegraph have full details of claims made and received, it was still seen as reasonable to frantically attack the forms with black ink. Of course, this type of action simply implies that there is something to hide. The BBC’s claims for top executives – however infuriating – are out in public, open to attack and defence.
We at the TPA find many of the claims made to be totally unnecessary, and the BBC could go further and disclose even more information on other senior managers and the supposed ‘talent’ that they seem so keen to wrap in cotton wool. It is our money; let us see how it is spent. But under the pressure of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests and the current zeitgeist, the BBC decided that – for these executives at least – clarity was the preferable option. Let us hope that this is indicative of the direction we are heading in.
The lust for transparency has underlined the importance of the FOI Act. It is this single piece of legislation that has helped the public to see how their money spent: notwithstanding healthy portions of determination and tenacity in the face of refusals from public bodies to provide the facts. The Information Commissioner’s Office – the guardians of the FOI Act – should be given extra funding (shock, horror) to ease the burden of the work imposed upon them, and to help clear backlogs of referred cases. These disputes can often take more than a year, and this is not acceptable.
One hopes that the momentum gathered continues on. If two of the big dominoes can be knocked down, then other public bodies must follow. Full transparency, and consequently accountability, has to be seen across the entire scope of the public sector. Other big bodies such as NHS Trusts and Police forces should now let the light in, as should Councils, the innumerable quangos and any other body the taxpayer funds.
Resident in all this is the notion that public money deserves public scrutiny. One of the key recommendations to come from Whitehall following the MPs’ expenses scandal was to introduce an ‘independent’ body to regulate parliamentary standards. We say this emphatically - establishing a quango will not solve the problem. There are more than 60 million excellent regulators around the UK: all they need are the details.