Not so long ago, the UK was rocked by a political scandal, which revealed that tax-payers were footing the bill for everything from dog food to mortgages, all in the name of ‘MPs’ expenses’. While it may not feel like much time has elapsed since the shocking revelation, according to the House of Commons it has been long enough, as all expenses records from 2010 have been destroyed. The eradication of the records also signifies the removal of any possibility of further prosecution for MPs who abused their expenses before 2010. The move has, quite rightly, caused outrage and caused many people to question the protocol surrounding the handling of MPs’ expenses.
Detractors of the controversy have been quick to point out that the destruction of these records complies with the regulations set by the House of Common’s ARDP (authorised records disposal practice) and so technically there has been no wrongdoing. However, it is worth pointing out that the time limit established for maintaining MPs’ records was set within the House of Commons itself and remained unchallenged even after the discovery of the affair by the Telegraph in 2009. The retention period for records is currently held at three years; this in itself seems an unreasonably short amount of time when compared with other government regulations surrounding record-keeping. For example, company accounts must be maintained for six years – twice as long as MPs’ expenses records. The destruction of these documents has quite rightly placed the entire system under scrutiny.
Furthermore, the government has overlooked the fact that many of these records are potentially incriminating. By destroying them, the House of Commons has essentially issued a free pass to the MPs lucky enough to have escaped the gaze of the various committees established in the wake of the scandal. Clearly this does not send out a very desirable message to the public, who for the vast majority, already finds themselves disillusioned with the decorum of their MPs. In our technologically enlightened age, there is little reason to delete these records when they can so easily be stored on a computer, a fact which will undoubtedly lead many people to suspect foul play.
Even aside from the judicial repercussions, the records of this period are very obviously of public interest. Many historians have pointed out that their elimination from the system has removed the prospect of their being analysed by future generations. While the government understandably want to sweep the whole affair under the carpet, the fact remains that the MPs expenses scandal remains a pivotal moment in political history which sparked a reorganisation of MPs expenses. The fact that copies of these records are only accessible by The Telegraph is frankly outrageous.
Ultimately, the government’s motives here are clear, but they are naïve to think that shrouding this flagrant disregard for public interest in ‘protocol’ will dispel criticism, if anything, it only places further emphasis on their questionable behaviour throughout this affair. There is a long way to come before the public regain trust in their representatives and the destruction of these records is only going to delay this.