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MPs turn to Black Blob to preserve their dignity

Not an archaic official - just modern censorship

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Comment When the House of Commons finally published details of MP expenses online, the public may have been left wondering how much more money has been wasted on a fruitless effort to censor the details held in individual claims.

The reason that it has taken so long to publish these is the number of documents involved – over a million printed documents and receipts, according to the parliament website – and the fact that Commons officials have spent the last few months applying large black blobs to anything that might be considered remotely sensitive.

They have removed the addresses to which claims relate on grounds of privacy and security, as well as some very personal information such as mortgage and bank account numbers. Further details, such as travel patterns and suppliers of services to home addresses are also meant to have been withheld for security reasons.

The result is a series of documents that in some places are more black blob than anything else.

Critics have argued that the motive for this editing process is a self-interested cover-up: for example, by hiding home addresses, it is not possible to spot the "flipping" of main and second residences for tax purposes – as the Telegraph has revealed over the last few weeks.

More fundamentally, the end result may just be a nit-picking waste of time, demonstrating a quaintly British obsession with the letter of the law, and missing the obvious bigger issues.

For starters, it does not matter how many times some official has black blobbed an MP’s address if they forget to blob even one instance of it.

This appears to be the case in respect of John Hayes, MP for South Holland & The Deepings. Officials have carefully removed all details of his second home address both from claim forms and from the supporting correspondence - apart from the single instance where the address of a flat in Westminster is clearly visible.

That - and the fact that his mortgage was with the Cheltenham and Gloucester.

Start and end dates for Vera Baird MP’s credit cards are left on one form. Shahid Malik takes his printing to Impress Printers (although we are not allowed to know the invoice numbers under which he was billed). Another MP uses Skyrite Ltd. An assistant called Charlotte takes in print deliveries for Harriet Harman. So it goes on.

Everywhere, there is an almost religious expunging of partner details – presumably under the data protection principle that to do so would breach that individual’s privacy. So in places it looks as though someone has taken the time and effort to blob out nothing more involving than the words "and Mrs". Although one anonymous blobber appears to have overlooked the need to remove the name of the person with whom Tony Baldry MP jointly pays Council Tax.

So much blobbing, so little point.

Why are invoice numbers and order references so secret? What is so special about Andy Burnham’s bed that work in his flat could only be described as "re-building {blob} beds" and "building {long blob} bed".

Meanwhile, far larger questions remain – such as why some Members have claimed the entirety of a phone bill that appears to be logged in joint names. This is a practice not uncommon for small businesses: a home phone may be used for business purposes – but when that happens, individuals are supposed to apportion use between business and personal use: not claim the whole amount.

Access to the expenses online has been slow at the end of this week, with some parliamentary officials claiming that it has taken them longer than usual to access parts of the parliamentary website. It is likely that this simply reflects the high level of public interest in what has been one of the main national news stories for the last three weeks.

The publication shows that not only has a great deal of time and effort has been expended on holding back detail that the public now feels it has a right to know – but the job hasn’t even been done well.

After all that has already passed, they may not care: they are unlikely to be impressed. ®

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