MP expenses: 'Drip, drip of information was unavoidable' - Press Gazette

MP expenses: 'Drip, drip of information was unavoidable'

The Telegraph has provided further insight into how a 45-strong editorial team mounted an ‘unprecendented’ investigation into MPs’ expenses.

Publishing a 68-page supplement at the weekend called “The Expenses Files”, the Telegraph revealed how its team set about analysing more than a million pages of information about MPs’ expenses.

The Telegraph continues to maintain a silence over how it obtained the data, although it is now widely believed that the paper paid for a computer disc.

According to The Telegraph, publication of MPs’ data is only now past the half way mark and it has said that it intends ultimately to post the details of MPs’ expenses claims online to provide “a valuable resource for anyone voting at the next election”.

The Telegraph said the expenses team “has at its core a dedicated group of reporters who are located in a secure room within the newspaper’s head office”.

They were named in Saturday’s supplement as: Robert Winnett, Gordon Rayner, Holly Watt, Rosa Prince, Christopher Hope, Martin Beckford, Caroline Gammell, Jon Swaine and Nick Allen.

The paper said: “Working with experienced news executives, their role is to scrutinise and analyse the expenses data.

“Each of the 646 MPs has a file for each of the past four years which means there are several hundred pages of data for each member.

“It takes at least two hours to read the file before a reporter is in a position to embark on his or her inquiries.

“While a cursory analysis of the actual expenses claims may reveal potential problems – claims for moats, duck houses, luxury electronics and the flipping of designated second homes – this is only the first stage of the process.

“A range of other checks of public records and publicly-available mortgage and company details then has to be undertaken.

“Some of this information is held in archives and can take several days to retrieve.

“This helps to establish whether so-called phantom mortgage claims have been made and whether an MP was actually living at a property – or if someone else was benefiting from the taxpayer-funded home.

“All this information has to be cross-checked against the original expenses claims.

“It can take several days before the reporter is in a position to contact the Member of Parliament to offer them the opportunity to explain the details.”

While some have dismissed the Telegraph expenses scoop as a simply case of ‘chequebook journalism’ the paper has said that the work involved in piecing together the story of each MP’s claims has been “painstaking and time-consuming”.

It said: “Often, those with the most questionable claims are the ones who have provided the least straightforward information to the Fees Office.”

The Telegraph has revealed that a detailed letter containing the information about each MP’s expenses has been sent to each member concerned and that they have been given “several hours to respond” after which “their answers are considered in detail and duly reflected in the article on their claims”.

The Telegraph said: “Only when we are confident that the expenses claims are fully understood – and that the MP concerned has had an opportunity to offer an explanation for any claim – is the information published.”

In response to suggest that the “drip, drip” of information has caused unnecessary worry to MPs, the Telegraph said: “The Telegraph and its team of reporters, editors, production journalists, designers, picture executives, lawyers and multimedia specialists are acutely aware of the significance of the information and the paramount need for accuracy and speed.

“The information is being published as diligently as possible given the extensive investigative efforts that have to go into each MP. In total, more than 200 MPs have had their expenses detailed: about a third have had questionable claims.

“As many readers have pointed out, it would be unfair on those MPs whose claims have been disclosed if their colleagues’ expenses were not now given the same scrutiny. “

“We have also reopened inquiries into MPs who have already been scrutinised, should further questionable practices come to light.

“Like our readers, this newspaper has no doubts: it is in the public interest for us to continue investigating until the wide-scale nature of the scandal is fully exposed.”