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MPs obsess about expenses, ignore data security

Addressing two issues at once proves difficult for Tory leader

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The UK parliament is now so obsessed with looking tough over expenses that it is cutting corners on data security, and increasing the risk of a breach of constituent confidentiality.

Last week, remarks by Tory grandee Sir Nicholas Winterton, MP - to the effect that he would rather not share a train compartment with the common people - sparked a storm of outrage. But could he possibly have had a point, albeit for all the wrong reasons?

The row started when, in an interview on BBC Five Live, Sir Nicholas said: "They [standard-class passengers] are a totally different type of people - they have a different outlook on life. They may be reading a book but I doubt whether they're undertaking serious work or study, reading reports or amending reports that MPs do when they travel."

He added: "If I was in standard-class, I would not do work because people would be looking over your shoulder the entire time, there would be noise, there would be distraction."

His outburst followed reports that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) was thinking of removing the privilege of travelling first class from MPs whose journey from constituency to London took less than two and a half hours.

Constituents and Labour MPs have reacted angrily to his statements, whilst David Cameron’s office has issued a statement disowning them. According to their statement: "These comments are the out-of-touch views of a soon-to-retire backbench MP. They do not in any way represent the views of David Cameron."

In fact, this idea is still only at proposal stage. A spokesman for IPSA told El Reg that although cost was a significant factor in their deliberations, they had received a number of submissions that pointed out the potential security implications of working in Standard Class, where the possibility of confidential documents being read "over the shoulder" was likely to be much greater than in First.

We could not, however, confirm whether such documents – and laptops - are more likely to be stolen, as British Transport Police do not break down their analysis of crime on trains by travel class.

We asked the Conservative Party for clarification of Mr Cameron’s remarks and, whilst they were quick to repeat the statement already issued, they appeared dismissive of the data security implications, claiming it was a "different issue".

We then went on a long and mostly fruitless journey, in an attempt to discover what advice, if any, MPs were provided in respect of working in public places.

According to the parliamentary authorities, MPs are not employees of the House of Commons – so they are not subject to guidance in the ordinary sense that employees would be.

Individual party organisations do not appear to provide guidance on this matter, whilst the Cabinet Office has yet to get back to us.

This is in sharp contrast to the Financial Services Authority (FSA). A spokesman for that body said: "We expect firms to assess the data security risks they face, including those posed by staff working remotely, and put in place appropriate policies and procedures to minimise risk and ensure staff are fully aware of them through adequate training."

On the bright side, a spokesman for the Parliamentary authorities did explain: "We offer Members a variety of information about security matters, which includes leaflets and topical updates in newsletters, on-line guidance and training, individual coaching and we hold annual events for Members on the use of IT which always includes advice from security specialists."

For all that, the question of whether MPs should be working on private constituency business in First or Standard Class – or indeed, whether they should be working in public at all – just seems to be one of those questions that no-one has given much thought to. If recent history is anything to go by, it is likely that that is how the matter will rest – until an MP loses a laptop on a train, whereupon all hell will break loose. ®

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