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Heather Brooke (born 1970) is a journalist, writer, and freedom of information activist, resident in London, United Kingdom. She is best known as one of the leading figures exposing the House of Commons resistance to disclosing expenses of Members of Parliament (MPs), generating a furore that culminated in the resignation of Speaker Michael Martin.

Contents

Biography

Brooke was born in Pennsylvania in the USA to British-immigrant parents from Liverpool, and has dual citizenship in the United States of America and the United Kingdom.[1][2] She grew up in the state of Washington, where her mother worked for Boeing, and graduated from Federal Way High School, after having also spent some time being educated in the UK.[1]

American career

Brooke graduated from the University of Washington school of communications in 1993, where she also got her start in journalism at The Daily, the student newspaper. Along with covering news stories she was also a sex columnist for the paper, writing with what she called a "feminist" slant. An internship with The Spokesman-Review, working in Olympia to cover the state legislature, gave Brooke an early exposure to using public records requests to investigate the expenses of politicians, although she found little beyond taking advantage of frequent flyer miles.[1]

After graduation, Brooke worked a year at the Spokesman-Review, but it lacked the funds to keep her on longer. [1] She then became a crime reporter for the Spartanburg Herald-Journal, where she reported on murder cases and uncovered flaws in South Carolina’s forensic crime lab.

United Kingdom

Describing herself as "burnt out" from covering over 300 murders, Brooke took a break from journalism.[2] With her mother having died in a car accident in 1996, and her father having moved back to England, she no longer had family in America and decided to relocate to the United Kingdom.[1] She studied English literature at the University of Warwick,[2] then moved to East London and worked for the BBC as an assistant publicist in International Television.

With the BBC, Brooke moved from publicist to copywriter for BBC News, then to BBC Magazines as a sub-editor for children's magazines.[3] She also became a neighborhood activist, but from that experience described public officials as having a surprisingly hostile attitude compared to local governments in the US.[2]

Freedom of Information writing and activism

With the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, Brooke began work on a book explaining how to use the law, which was not scheduled to come into effect for another five years.[1] Originally titled Your Right to Know: How to Use the Freedom of Information Act and Other Access Laws, the book was reissued in October 2004 as Your Right to Know: A Citizens Guide to Freedom of Information, with a foreword by Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian newspaper. In October 2006 it was revised and published in paperback and hardcover editions that included a foreword by satirist Ian Hislop.

BBC minutes

In early 2007, Brooke won a landmark legal case that led the BBC to disclose the minutes of its Board of Governors' meeting of 28 January 2004. At that meeting, the Governors had decided to dismiss director general Greg Dyke and issue an apology to the British Government in response to the Hutton Inquiry.

Brooke, along with journalists from the Guardian newspaper, had requested the minutes shortly after the Freedom of Information Act had come into force, but the BBC resisted disclosure for nearly two years. In December 2006, the case came before the Information Tribunal, which the following month ruled that the BBC should disclose the minutes.[4]

MPs expenses

In October 2004, Brooke started to request details of MPs' expenses, via the House of Commons Freedom of Information Officer, Bob Castle. However, the information was in a bulk format, and could not be broken down to individual MPs.[5]

In January 2005, the Freedom of Information Act 2000 came into force, allowing members of the public to request disclosure of information from public bodies. She started out requesting all 646 MPs' expenses, but the Commons claimed that would be too costly.[2][6] She then asked for request for travel information (refused); then for the names and salaries of MPs' staff, blocked personally by the Speaker of the House of Commons Michael Martin.[5] She then asked for information on second homes for the details for all MPs, but this was refused.[2]

In 2006, Brooke reduced her request to 10 MPs - the leaders of the parties and a few ministers. After again being refused, in July 2006 she made an appeal to the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas. Her request was considered for a year, together with two other similar requests on MPs' expenses which had been appealed to the Commissioner in 2005, from Ben Leapman of The Sunday Telegraph, and Jonathan Ungoed-Thomas of The Sunday Times.[5] The Information Commissioner ordered the release of some information on 15 June 2007.[7] House of Commons authorities objected to this order in June 2007 and MPs had, in May 2007, voted in favour of the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill which sought to exempt MPs from the 2000 act. The amendment bill was ultimately withdrawn prior to second reading in the House of Lords because peers were unwilling to sponsor the bill.[8][9]

In February 2008, after referral to an Information Tribunal, it was ruled that Commons authorities had to release information on 14 MPs.[10] As a result, the Speaker appealed the decision on behalf of the House of Commons, challenging Brooke/Leapman/Ungoed-Thomas request's for publication of expenses for 11 serving MPs: Gordon Brown, David Cameron, John Prescott, Menzies Campbell, Margaret Beckett, George Osborne, William Hague, Mark Oaten, George Galloway, Barbara Follett and Ann Keen;[2] as well as three former MPs': Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and John Wilkinson.[2][11][12] The appeal was heard at the High Court - during which Martin threatened Brooke with bankruptcy - which ruled on 16 May 2008 in favour of releasing the information,[13][14] stating that:[5]

The House of Commons expense system has a shortfall - both in terms of transparency and accountability. We have no doubt that the public interest is at stake. We are not here dealing with idle gossip, or public curiosity about what in truth are trivialities. The expenditure of public money through the payment of MPs' salaries and allowances is a matter of direct and reasonable interest to taxpayers.

No appeal was lodged against the High Court ruling. As such, the requested details were made public on 23 May 2008.[15]

In January 2009, the Leader of the House of Commons, Harriet Harman, tabled a motion which would exempt MPs' expenses from being disclosed under a Freedom of Information request, in order to prevent any further disclosure of information.[16] Labour MPs were placed under a three line whip in order to force the motion through the Commons. However, opposition parties stated they would vote against the proposals, and large scale public opposition emerged. The proposals were ultimately dropped on 21 January 2009. The Commons authorities announced that full disclosure of all MPs’ expenses would be published on 1 July 2009,[9] after the 2009 European Elections due in early June 2009.

In May 2009, The Daily Telegraph obtained unedited details of all MPs' expenses, including address details which showed the practice of "flipping,"[17], that is, changing the registered main address for various tax and expense purposes.

Bibliography

  • Your Right to Know: A Citizens Guide to Freedom of Information (Pluto Press, 2004)
  • The Silent State: How Secrecy and Misinformation are Destroying Democracy (William Heinemann, Spring 2010)[18]

References

  1. ^ a b c d e f Eric Nalder (2009-05-21). "Former UW student shakes up British government". seattlepi.com. http://www.seattlepi.com/local/406432_reporter21.html. Retrieved 2009-05-22.  
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h "Show me the money". The Guardian. 2008-03-29. http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2008/mar/29/houseofcommons.michaelmartin?gusrc=rss&feed=worldnews. Retrieved 2009-05-15.  
  3. ^ Kate Whiting (2009-05-22). "Beating the old boys' club". The Northern Echo. http://www.thenorthernecho.co.uk/features/4389275.Beating_the_old_boys____club/. Retrieved 2009-05-22.  
  4. ^ Evans,Rob (2007-01-10). "BBC told to publish Dyke minutes". Guardian News. http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2007/jan/10/bbc.freedomofinformation. Retrieved 2009-05-24.  
  5. ^ a b c d "Unsung hero". The Guardian. 2009-05-15. http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/may/15/mps-expenses-heather-brooke-foi. Retrieved 2009-05-15.  
  6. ^ "Expenses details 'intrude' on MPs". The BBC. 2008-02-07. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7233560.stm. Retrieved 2009-05-08.  
  7. ^ Anil Dawar (2008-05-07). "Timeline: MPs' expenses". The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2008/may/07/houseofcommons1. Retrieved 2009-05-08.  
  8. ^ "Lack of Lords sponsor wrecks plan to exempt MPs from FoI Act". The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2007/jun/14/uk.pressandpublishing. Retrieved 2009-05-13.  
  9. ^ a b "Expenses: How MPs’ expenses became a hot topic". The Daily Telegraph. 2009-05-08. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/mps-expenses/5294350/Expenses-How-MPs-expenses-became-a-hot-topic.html. Retrieved 2009-05-08.  
  10. ^ "'Lax' MP expenses rules condemned". The BBC. 2008-02-26. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7265744.stm. Retrieved 2009-05-08.  
  11. ^ Daniel Bentley (2008-03-25). "Expenses disclosure battle headed for High Court". The Independent. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/mps-disclosure-battle-headed-for-high-court-800321.html. Retrieved 2009-05-08.  
  12. ^ "Bid to block MP expenses details". The BBC. 2008-03-25. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7312012.stm. Retrieved 2009-05-08.  
  13. ^ BBC news
  14. ^ "Corporate Officer of the House of Commons v Information Commissioner". Bailii. http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2008/1084.html. Retrieved 2009-05-15.  
  15. ^ Robert Verkaik (2008-05-23). "Freedom Of Information: MPs reach end of road in battle over secret expenses". The Independent. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/freedom-of-information-mps-reach-end-of-road-in-battle-over-secret-expenses-832819.html. Retrieved 2009-05-08.  
  16. ^ "FoI campaigners condemn MPs' bid to hide expenses". Press Gazette. 2009-01-15. http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=1&storycode=42836. Retrieved 2009-05-13.  
  17. ^ Brooke, Heather (2009-05-15). "Public interest or public curiosity?". BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/8051577.stm. Retrieved 2009-05-15.  
  18. ^ http://www.thebookseller.com/news/90474-heinemann-signs-expenses-campaigner-brooke.html

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