It took five years' work to get MPs' expenses out in the open. Now I look back, I think I must have been a bit mad. I was trying to deconstruct the British democracy in its entirety for a book, Your Right To Know. But really I was trying to make sense of the way the country worked for myself, having just moved here from America. It seemed crazy, very hard to find out what public money is spent on. In America we think, "We're paying for it and we want to know where every penny is going." Here, there's a terrible apathy.
I read up on all the expenses MPs could claim for and then I said I'd like to see them. After months of digging, I was told, "You can't see the receipts." They said, "It'd be too much work." I said, "I'll come and have a look myself." They went mad, as if hell had to freeze over before such a thing could be allowed.
I fought through the courts. The more I found out, the stranger and more cranky the system seemed. The House of Commons fought all of my freedom of information requests tooth and nail.
In February 2009, the shit was really going to hit the fan. The MPs had lost the high court case and were scanning in the material; the first tranche of censoring had happened. Then they tried to pass a bill to exempt MPs from disclosure of their expenses. There was a weird cross-party agreement. But the Tories were rumbled and exposed, they pulled out and the agreement was skittled.
I was chagrined when the Telegraph bought the raw disk of scanned data and began exposing it. But if they hadn't done so we'd still be where we were. The final House of Commons version in July was totally blacked out.
I was amazed the way the toilet seats and the duck house ended up symbolising the whole scandal. I guess you have to couch serious journalism in humour and trivia here. The way they picked on personalities is unique to the British journalistic scene. In terms of the individual cases, the worst thing for me was the flipping of homes and claiming for mortgages that didn't exist. But I think the system, with its lack of accountability, promoted corruption.
I would definitely not want to be an MP. The way the system works in Westminster at the moment is that an individual MP is utterly impotent, a complete and utter slave to the party. I have more power as a writer than they have. And, no, I don't think they should be paid more. They just need to justify their expenses.
I'm going to try and shake everything up again before the May general election with my new book Silent State. It moves on from MPs to look at the courts, the police, local government and this weird situation we're in now where the state knows so much about the private citizen and the private citizen knows almost nothing about the public officials running the state. The recent privacy laws have been hijacked by public officials to protect them from public accountability.
The upshot of the whole debacle is that the Commons passed another law that exempted their addresses. The rhetoric has changed but the practice hasn't. You still cannot get the receipts of MPs' expenses. All you can get at the moment are these incredibly censured docs.
It's really up to the public to maintain their outrage and to put pressure on their MP to behave well. Because at the moment you need to buy a disk off a businessman to find out what they're up to.
UPDATE: She has a new book out, just in time for the "election"'Will strike fear into the hearts of politicians, assuming they have hearts. Anyone with a vote worth stealing should read this. You won't know whether to laugh or rise up and overthrow absolutely everything.' --Charlie Brooker
'Heather Brooke puts every other British journalist to shame. She single-handedly exposed the systemic corruption that had become an embedded part of parliament at the turn of the 20th century. In doing so she has changed British public culture and earned an essential place in our national history. She is an extraordinary figure who must be celebrated.' --Peter Oborne
'Secrecy is one of the great British diseases. It's so secret that we don't even admit we suffer from it. Heather Brooke is part of the cure - challenging the routine concealment and distortion of important information. There should be more journalists doing the same.' --Nick Davies, author of FLAT EARTH NEWS