By Calvin Palmer
Britain’s newspapers this week have been awash with stories about the expenses claimed by Members of Parliament, public money that has been spent on refurbishing property, clearing a moat, plasma TV sets, buying porn, repairs to tennis courts and swimming pools.
While the rest of the country suffers the pain of the global financial crisis and economic recession, Britain’s self-serving politicians simply carried on with business as usual.
They are the archetypal masters of “Do as I say, don’t do as I do”.
These outrageous claims were initially exposed by The Daily Telegraph newspaper. But the expenses claims only became public knowledge thanks to an American who battled for five years against Britain’s penchant for secrecy.
Heather Brooke, a 38-year-old Pennsylvania-born reporter, began to target Parliament after moving to the United Kingdom in 1997 to study literature.
She was appalled to find a society cloaked in secrecy and a public that seemed apathetic toward abuses of power.
“I think there’s a culture of deference here, where the public believe that people who are in power — the great and the good — still know what’s best for everyone,” Brooke said. “I come from an American tradition, that you should always be skeptical of government and have a right to know what’s been done with your money.”
Brooke was raised in Seattle by parents who had emigrated from Liverpool.
She worked previously as a reporter at the Spartanburg Herald-Journal, in South Carolina, and the Spokesman-Review, in Spokane, Washington — where as an intern she was sent to the state legislature to rifle through lawmakers’ expenses. She did not come away with a story but it left her certain about the importance of accountability.
Brooke said: “The reason was not that state lawmakers were better people, but that they knew that their expenses were a public record and anyone could look at them.”
Brooke wrote a book ,Your Right To Know, to educate the British public on how to use freedom of information laws — legislation being newly introduced to the United Kingdom.
In 2004, she lodged a request for details of MPs’ expenses. Her claim was met with derision by authorities at the House of Commons. A year later a second attempt was blocked.
She eventually appealed to Britain’s information ombudsman who in 2008 ordered that MPs’ receipts be released.
The MPs closed ranks and the Speaker of the House of Commons Michael Martin tried to block publication of the data by appealing to the High Court.
Brooke pressed on with the legal battle and saw the irony of taxpayers’ money being used to keep information from the taxpayer.
Last May, the High Court ruled against Martin and ordered the release of two million receipts submitted by MPs.
Authorities had planned to release the details in July — but The Daily Telegraph obtained copies last week and disclosed the details that Brooke had fought to expose.
Brooke said she has no regrets that The Daily Telegraph, which refuses to say how it obtained the records, beat her to publishing the details. Instead, she is taking pride in her role in exposing British hypocrisy.
“Britain trades on a mythical reputation about the health of its democracy,” she said.
[Based on a report by newsday.com.]