Opinion: A refreshing exercise in transparency

A couple of years ago I made a complaint about my MP, Richard Benyon. I feel a shiver of guilt even writing the word “complaint” now. I suppose I am very English about complaints. I don’t like making a fuss. I have bumped into Richard off and on since 1992 and always found him to be “a nice enough cove”, as P.G. Wodehouse might put it. Making a “complaint” about such a harmless fellow just didn’t seem British. But occasionally I feel I must put pen to paper, as I did in this case.

What I thought were political comments appeared in a “Westminster Diary” on the MP’s website, which said it was funded by the Parliamentary Communications Allowance. This was apparently against the rules. I brought this to the attention of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

A few months later I received a letter from the Commissioner (who seems to play a very straight bat in these matters, by the way) saying that Richard had promptly apologized and corrected the error. So that was an end to the matter.

However, about a week ago I received, out of the blue, a letter from the Commissioner saying that all the correspondence about the complaint was about to be published. And published it has been. It can be read in full here.

All the rest of the correspondence from all the other complaints made to the Commissioner from the last three years have been published here.

So now what was previously essentially a private matter has been published and will remain, for posterity, on the Parliamentary website. I can see all the inner workings of Parliament regarding my complaint. My letter and its many appendices are there for all to see. It all seems very Swedish. (It even includes some of my handwriting!) Also there are all the letters to and from the Commissioner and Richard Benyon, and letters to and from the Commissioner and the Director of Operations at something called the Department of Resources. The Director, Members Liaison also got involved and replied saying, amongst other things:

It is clear that the articles referred to in the complaint and contained in Mr Benyon’s Westminster Diary fall outside the rules governing the Communications Allowance in that they discuss matters which are clearly party political, even if on occasion in a light hearted manner.

It may seem a small thing but reading those words mean a lot to me. It made all the research and photo-copying entailed in writing to the Commissioner worth it. It means that I was justified in complaining and wasn’t getting wound up about nothing. As well as that personal aspect, the publication of the Commissioners’ correspondence is a small but significant step forward for transparency.

I should note that Richard Benyon’s website is now funded completely from his private funds. I think that is a very wise move. The Communications Allowance is riddled with rules and, quite frankly, it is probably easier to do what Richard has done and fund the whole thing privately.

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5 Comments

  • The Communications Allowance is no more.

  • Newbury reader 13th Dec '10 - 4:48pm

    Mr Benyon writes those columns for that august publication, the Newbury & Thatcham Chronicle, then puts them online. I guess that’s the “other purposes” for which he prepares the columns, mentioned on page one of the linked-to correspondence.

    An interesting take on the matter, thanks Paul.

  • Thanks, Paul – a link I would probably not have visted otherwise, and it is indeed good to know that it is there.

    Do you think, though, that this will put people off complaining about their MPs, because they don’t want their names published? I can think of situations where such worries would be justified, IMHO. Surely, there should be a way round full publication if the person who complains asks for it? What worries me is that you were apparently not even notified in advance of publication.

    Any thoughts?

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