One of my first reporting jobs, back in 1992, was covering the Washington state legislature. I was eager to make a name for myself with an investigative scoop. My editor recommended that I dig around to find out all the travel expenses for the state senators and representatives: there were bound to be some politicians going on exotic junkets at public expense.
Yet there was no investigation to be done. The clerks of the House of Representatives and Senate cheerily handed over all the records, where every single expense was detailed, as mandated (so I learned) under state public disclosure rules. I even got the receipts, though these were handed over with less enthusiasm.
British MPs, now grumbling about having to disclose their expenses and suffer brickbats from the press, would do well to look at their United States counter-parts and count themselves lucky. Here, politicians need reveal only their annual totals under generic categories such as "staff" or "housing allowance". Because the names of staff can still be kept secret, there is no way of telling whether the money is going to relatives. Members of the US Congress have to disclose not only payments to spouses but the spouses' interests as well.
From my "investigations", I could tell whether legislators travelled first class or economy, stayed at the Sheraton or the Quality Inn, ordered lobster and steak or pasta. Most US states require political candidates not only to file detailed public disclosure forms, but also to publish their entire tax returns. Such levels of public accountability would send Westminster into collective meltdown.
Heather Brooke is the author of Your Right to Know: how to use the Freedom of Information Act and other access laws, available from Pluto Press in November