Brown backs down on expenses secrecy

FOI FTW

The government will not seek to change the Freedom of Information Act to exempt MPs from disclosing their expenses, Gordon Brown said today, signalling an abrupt U-turn.

In a surprise announcement at Prime Minister's questions, Brown said a deal the government made with the Tories to ensure the secrecy amendment had cross-party backing had collapsed.

"Recently that support that we believed we had from the main opposition party was withdrawn," Brown said. "So on this particular matter, I believe all-party support is important and we will continue to consult on that matter."

Thursday's planned vote on the amendment, which would have made MPs the only public servants specifically exempt in law from disclosing expenses, will now not go ahead.

Digital democracy charity mySociety.org claimed a victory today for transparency after its online lobbying campaign saw 4,000 letters sent to MPs by ordinary voters urging them to oppose the new law.

On his blog, mySociety.org director Tom Steinberg credited the power of the internet. "This is new, and it reflects the fact that the Internet generation expects information to be made available, and they expect to be able to make up their own minds, not be spoon fed the views of others," he wrote. "This campaign was always about more than receipts, it was about changing the direction of travel, away from secrecy and towards openness."

MPs' failure to keep their expenses secret was seemingly as much about politicking as people power, however.

Having previously supported the amendment, David Cameron told his party to oppose it today. In danger of being left to push an unpopular law through alone, Brown and Labour were effectively forced to drop it too. The Liberal Democrat leadership opposed secrecy throughout, though did not plan to whip members to a party line.

The government introduced the amendment after Commons authorities lost a long-running legal battle against journalists and were ordered to release more than a million receipts going back three years. In 2006-7 MPs claimed a total of £87.6m from the public purse on top of their salaries. ®

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