Friday, 10 October 2014

Parliament of Posers? Cost of MPs' chairs and vanity portraits.Portcullis House. Freedom of Information Act and the Hazell Report .

Portcullis House, Westminster
MPs in Portcullis House sit on RBM Noor ergonomically-shaped black chairs.
MPs have had 300 new chairs in Portcullis House since last November, which caused the usual storm of protests in the media. The cost of the chairs and MPs' portraits came to light after a Freedom of Information Act (FOI) request by the Evening Standard this February 

The chairs cost £109.85 each, amounting to almost £33,000. Taxpayers' Alliance chief executive Jonathan Isaby said: "It seems that the parliamentary authorities have expensive tastes, whether that is when purchasing chairs or commissioning portraits, and taxpayers are the ones footing the bill.

According to a House of Commons spokeswoman : " The chairs in Portcullis House needed to be replaced as they were no longer fit for normal use, with regular faults being reported. The new chairs were selected through a competitive tender and offered the highest value for money and quality. A discount was applied as the old chairs were recycled."

It seems as though the issue of the Noor chairs was all a storm in a teacup. They were rather a bargain as similar less attractive upholstered chairs from Ikea cost £100 as well as the tedious task of assembling them from flatpacks.

Bernhard upholstered chairs from Ikea  £100

The media were on much surer ground when debating the cost of MPs portraits during the hard and recent times of austerity. The FOI request revealed that MPs had splurged around £250,000 on commissioning such 'vanity projects'  The Mail Online gleefully labelled MPs a Parliament of Posers. The most expensive portrait was that of John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, which cost £22,000, plus an extra £15,000 for a frame and coat of arms. 

John Bercow by Brendan Kelly, 2011. 
Bercow is seen addressing MPs in the House of Commons

MPs are not pretty people, generally speaking, and artists had a field day, depicting their warts and all.  The Portrait Collection in Portcullis House is open to the public and the chairs can also be seen.

David Blunkett by Lorna Wadsworth in 2003, 
during his time as Home Secretary during the Labour Government. 

A topless? Diane Abbott by Stuart Pearson Wright in 2004 cost £11,750
Diane Abbott is the Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington

Tory former chancellor Kenneth Clarke,  by James Lloyd in  2007, 
The portrait cost £8,000, and shows him looking even more dishevelled than usual.
 it is a pity his famous brown suede shoes were not depicted.

 The Rt. Hon. Tony Benn,  1925-2014, by Andrew Tift in 1998 only cost £2000.
It is a curiously lifeless portrait of a vigorous Labour campaigner

Portcullis House atrium

Portcullis House was opened in 2001 to provide offices for MPs and their staff owing to the limited space in the Palace of Westminster.  MPs were given reclining chairs for their offices at that time costing £440.  The building was designed by Michael Hopkins and Partners to complement the Palace of Westminster and is unusual inside,  resembling the interior of a boat. 

Portcullis House ground floor. The photo shows the original chairs.
The main courtyard has metallic sails overhead

The Freedom of Information Act  became law in 2005. It made government more open and accessible, enabling anyone to request information from public bodies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.and have that information given to them, subject to certain exemptions, such as 'vexatious' requests.  

The FOI has been a godsend to the media and others. Facts have come out and continue to emerge that would formerly have remained a secret. The Daily Telegraph famously obtained their sensational information about outrageous claims by MPs for mortgages, duck houses, moats, rocking chairs, gold taps, gluttony  etc.,  thanks to a leak concerning three freedom of information requests concerning certain MPs' expenses. 

Wikipedia has listed facts that have emerged from the Freedom of Information Act  :
  • The Government agreed to a £1.5 million bailout of one of the most troubled schools in its flagship academies programme ten days before the 2005 general election.
  • Ministers and MPs claimed thousands of pounds on taxis as part of £5.9 million in expenses for travel.
  • Foreign diplomats – who have diplomatic immunity – were accused of rapes, sexual assaults, child abuse and murders while working in Britain.
  • Seventy-four police officers serving with the Metropolitan Police have criminal records.
  • A clandestine British torture programme existed in post-war Germany, “reminiscent of the concentration camps”.
  • The UK supported the Israeli nuclear weapons program, by selling Israel 20 tonnes of heavy water in 1958.
  • The NHS has made available Implanon implants to girls from the age of 13 in an attempt to cut teenage pregnancies.
There is now a much greater openness regarding information from public bodies thanks to the Freedom of Information Act but there is still a large backlog owing to delays citing national security, commercial confidentiality and other excuses. The BBC is notoriously reluctant to give out data regarding FOI requests about the payment of their staff and celebrities working for them, citing they are under rules of exemption. 

The Impact of the Freedom of Information Act  – Hazell, R, Worthy, B and Glover, M.  Does Freedom of Information Work? is well worth reading: a short extract is included.

The Overall Impact of FOI
  •  FOI has met its core objectives at central and local level. Government is more transparent in terms of the information it releases and how it works. FOI has also encouraged pro-active disclosure of a range of information, from salaries to road maintenance. 
  •  FOI has also made public bodies more accountable. FOI works well with other mechanisms (such as the media, MPs or NGOs) as a tool to put together information for campaigns. 
  •  FOI has not improved the quality of decision-making. FOI has not increased public understanding of decision-making at central government and has little impact on public participation except via ‘proxies’ either centrally or locally.
  •  At local level FOI has increased public understanding of decision-making at a low level, though it is mostly used to get information rather than learn about the decision-making process.
  •  A chilling effect can be seen in a few politically sensitive cases but is not happening systematically.
  •  Superficially FOI does not appear to have increased trust in central government but the data is sparse and points in different directions. However, the effect is very variable for local government. At local level use of FOI is diverse and trust in local government is more heavily influenced by performance and ‘community visibility’ than openness.