Much ado about very little at the Sunday Telegraph

According to the Sunday Telegraph, the Information Commissioner has issued a new ruling in relation to the publication of information relating to MPs’ expenses claims:

The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa), which oversees expenses payments, has been told it must disclose the receipts handed in by MPs to back up their claims.

The ruling by the Information Commissioner is a victory for The Sunday Telegraph, after Ipsa refused to release three receipts we had asked to see.

Graham Smith investigated its refusal and found that the authority had breached the Freedom of Information Act. He gave officials five weeks to hand over the documents or face prosecution for contempt of court.

Ipsa said it was studying the ruling. It must decide whether to appeal. If it concedes defeat and releases the receipts, it will set a precedent for the documents to be viewable by the public.

Quite right too.

It’s not unreasonable for Ipsa to limit the amount of information it provides on MPs expenses claims, as standard. As long as there’s enough information placed into the public domain to allow for adequate public scrutiny then its perfectly reasonable for Ipsa to try save itself a bit of cash by not going to the trouble and expense of publishing the actual receipts unless it receives a specific request for this information under FOI.

As long as the press, and public of course, are able to obtain this information if they feel that there may be something in there that merits further examination then the system should work just fine. In fact I’d taken that argument even further and suggest that the publication system introduced, along with Ipsa, in the wake of the 2009 expenses scandal publishes far too much raw information, as standard, at the expense of providing information that is genuinely useful. Parliament could easily achieve a much better balance between costs and transparency and accountability by requiring MPs and Peers to publish a standardised annual report and audited accounts, giving sufficient information to enable the public to relate the money that parliamentarians receive from the taxpayer to the actual work that they, and the constituency and parliamentary office undertake on the public’s behalf.

Quite frankly, I don’t much care whether on not MPs have been buying their office supplies from Osborne’s or Staples, only that the money they spend on office supplies is actually being spent on those items and put to an appropriate use. Where MPs spend their expenses is, to a large extent, irrelevant – how they spend the money, what on and whether their constituents see any benefit from that expenditure is what actually matters.

I appreciate that, for the time being, this is a deeply unfashionable if not heretical position to adopt. It’s certainly one that’s unlikely to gain much traction while the media continues to view the published information about MPs expenses claims as a rich vein of cheap content that can be readily mined for largely speculative copy with very little effort or need for genuine investigative skills on the part of journalists. That said, the clamour for ever more raw information is unlikely to die down while some MPs insist on trying to work their expenses system to their personal advantage by [possibly/allegedly] letting their London homes to each other, in order to bypass the new regulation that prevent them submitting claim for mortgage payments or, indeed, by claiming for hotel bills in the capital while simultaneously owning and letting out  another property in London and claiming the rental costs for a second London property on expenses – and all while representing a constituency that lies only an hour to and hour and half’s commute from Westminster.

The irony in all this is that the specific FOI request on which the Information Commissioner has ruled in the Sunday Telegraph’s favour amounts to, to put it mildly, a whole bunch of nothing:

The receipts in the case are for £652.13 paid by John Bercow, the Speaker, to Buttermountain Ltd, for managing his website for a three-month period; £145.70 paid by George Osborne, the Chancellor, for 750 sheets of headed A4 notepaper; and £63.61 paid by Alan Keen, the late Labour MP, for what was described in Ipsa’s original summary as “stationery/banner”, but which turned out to be a Canon toner cartridge supplied by Banner Business Services Ltd. All the purchases were made in 2010 after that year’s general election.

We can discard Alan Keen’s mislabelled Canon toner cartridge straight away. $63.61 for a toner cartridge works out at around £53-55 plus VAT, depending on the VAT rate when it was purchased, all of which seems reasonable given that cost of the cartridge will depend on everything from the printer model and page yield to the number purchased and whether or not the supplier wants payment up front or by invoice on 30 day terms. And even if Keen had purchased an actual banner, there is nothing in the invoice to suggest that this would amount to an impermissible expense as such a banner could do nothing more than advertise the location of Keen’s constituency office to his constituents.

£145.70 for Gideon’s headed notepaper seems a bit pricey given the quantity of paper involved, but that its unlikely that he’s forked out that amount of money for a bunch of bog standard 80-100gsm letterheads. He’d just become Chancellor of the Exchequer so one would fully expect to see him laying out for the kind of stationary that reflects the status and seniority of his position and timing of the purchase suggests that it may well have been a first run, adding set-up and origination costs to the price.

That leaves us with Bercow’s website at cost to the taxpayer of £652.13 per quarter, which works out at just over £2,600 for the year, providing that the invoice doesn’t include any one-off costs.

At first site that seems rather steep, particularly when further examination of Bercow’s site reveals that it’s not only powered by Drupal but also uses a bog standard Drupal template, Marinelli.

Sticking purely with information from/about Bercow’s site to start with, a reverse IP check on Bercow’s domain leads back to a shared webserver containing a further 311 websites, including the sites of a number of other Tory MPs, and a fairly generic mix of voluntary organisations, sports clubs and small businesses. As for the server’s IP address, this resolves back to Coreix, a company that provides dedicated server hosting packages, including server management, on flexible monthly contracts with prices ranging from £60-£350 per month.

So, what we appear to have our hands here is a small, independent, web-hosting, design and consultancy business that could easily be a one-man (or woman) band but, at the very least, is highly unlikely to have more than 2-5 employees. If it turns out this is the businesses only server, as seems likely, then what we’d expect to see when we dig in the company’s financials is a modest turnover, low fixed overheads and either a reasonable profit or small profit and the bulk of the company’s income being laid out on salaries and, sure enough, that exactly what a background check on the company, Buttermountain limited, turns up.

From September 2004 to April 2010, we’ve got two directors – Andrea Grant and Heather Mole – and a Company Secretary, Jonathan Mole. Andrea Grant and Jonathan Mole are both designated as web designers, while Health Mole is listed as the company’s finance director. From April 2010. Andrea Grant appears to have left the company and Jonathan and Heather Mole (probably husband and wife) have switched places with Jonathan becoming the sole director and Heather the company secretary. Based on its last set of published accounts, the business had a net book value of around £5,500 and much the same amount as cash-at-hand. For the last three years for which we have actual figures (2006/7 to 2008/9) company turnover ranged from £65,000 to £92,000 with overheads of £4.500 to £6,500 a year giving a very tidy profit which, one would assume, was disbursed to the directors given that its book value remained more or less stable over this period at between £13.000 and £17,000.

So, in all, it’s a tidy if somewhat unspectacular little business venture, one of several such business set up by people with links to the Conservative Party that derives at least part of it’s income by supplying MPs with websites that are paid for out of parliamentary expenses – sorry, did I forget to mention that Jonathan Mole was also a Tory Councillor for the Berkhamsted Castle ward of Dacorum Borough Council between (at least) 2007 and 2011.

Currently, Buttermountain provides websites to 30 Tory MP’s – well, 29 plus Bercow who’s technically an independent since becoming Speaker of the House – including a few old lags and a fair sprinkling of MPs from the 2010 new intake; and if Mole is charging all these MPs the same quarterly rate as Bercow and the figure in the invoice doesn’t include any extras, than that works out at just over £79,000 a year into the company from the taxpayer via MPs. It was 30 Tory MPs ( plus Bercow) until quite recently but that was before Louise Mensch resigned from the House to spend more time in New York with her husband, family and – it’s been suggested – a contract with the Fox Network and all of Buttermountain’s MP websites appear to follow the same basic pattern as Bercow’s using the same software (Drupal) and the same base template.

This is all, of course, perfectly legal and above board and if £2,600 a year for a website on a shared server that runs on open source software and a free template seems rather pricey then one has to consider that what MPs are really paying for here is the convenience of not having to fanny about trying to find themselves a bag carrier or intern who knows their way around the innards of Drupal or WordPress.

Still, its nice work if you’ve got the contacts to get into.

As previously mentioned, Jonathan Mole stepped down as Tory councillor at the 2011 local elections to move on to pastures new which, in this case, means a new online venture as a retailer of handmade silk ties, bow ties and pocket squares under the name Henry Mole & Sons Ltd. Even if you’re not in the market for a silk tie – woven and handmade in England don’tcha know – the website is well worth a look as a piece of extremely clever, beautifully crafted but utterly disingenuous marketing. If you take the site purely at face value then you could easily be forgiven for assuming that Henry Mole and Sons is an old-school specialist Gentlemens’ Outfitter with a history that stretches back to at least 18th/19th century when, in reality, the company was only registered by Jonathan Mole – who’s definitely not a Henry – on 18 March 2011.

That, of course, is exactly what Jonathan Mole is hoping for, particularly in the US export market where a bit of faux Georgiana/Victoriana never did anyone any harm and the company’s ‘Our Story’ section, with its quaint little tale of a Northamptonshire wool stapler cum London merchant who also happens to have been a cousin of an ancestor of George Washington, the First President of the United States of America, really is a beautiful piece of marketing shtick, not least for their being at least some truth behind the story.

George Washington did, indeed, have an ancestor named Robert who was born around 1544 and inherited Sulgrave Manor and a 1250 acre estate spanning three counties, including Northamptonshire, from his father in 1584 and, yes, he was a farmer and wool trader. The Sulgrave Manor website even includes a reference to Robert Washington’s cousin, George Mole:

The energy with which Robert continued to develop his business is shown by his treatment of the adjoining parish of Stuchbury where he ran his flocks in partnership, as his father had been before him, with his two cousins, Robert Pargiter and George Mole. The three partners were taken to court in 1606 and accused of not providing a priest for the parish and of pulling down “not only the parsonage house . . . and all or the most part of the said town and parish houses of Stuttesbury aforesaid, but also the parish church itself,” and using the lands “for pasture for kine and sheep, to the great depopulation of the commonwealth and country thereabout.”

The wool trade was big business at the time and Washington was just one of many landowners who sought to increase their profits by driving people off the land in order to replace them with altogether more profitable and less troublesome flocks of sheep.

George Mole may very well have gone on to become a well-healed London Merchant in the 22 years between being taken to court for failing to maintain the local parish, in 1606, and his death in 1628 – and if he did then records to that effect will likely be held somewhere in the City of London – but then he may not, and as the internet is silent on the details of his life save for this one reference at Sulgrave Manor, no one in the United States will be any the wiser without making the effort to visit the City to search for the relevant records. By the same token, Jonathan Mole may well be a distant descendent of George Mole, or may have a better claim to being related to Adrian Mole – without spending days researching the Mole family line no one, other than Jonathan, can no for sure.

All we can be confident of here is any connection between Jonathan Mole’s 18 month-old silk tie business and George Mole the Northamptonshire wool trader cum London merchant is, at best, extremely tenuous.

Somewhere in all there is an element of bullshit but, for once, I don’t think it matters.

Marketing is built on bullshit and what Jonathan Mole has concocted here is a very clever piece of top quality, export-grade, bullshit, the kind of creative bullshit that deserves to be successful. With this new venture, Mole is moving into the fashion business and what is that industry about if not selling people a bunch of illusions in an effort to get them to open up their wallets? As his long his goods live up their factual description – woven and hand made in England – and the quality is up to scratch then it doesn’t really matter whether the story of Henry Mole and Sons’ connection to an ancestor of George Washington is 100% real or a complete work of fiction.

Two things occur to me from all this.

One is simply that, although it’s pulled a useful enough ruling out of the Information Commissioner, the Telegraph’s fishing expedition has, on this occasion, turned out to be a complete waste of time. The Daily Mirror could, perhaps, have made something of the profligacy of George’s Osborne’s $145 pack of letterheads but nothing that wouldn’t have proved to have been chip paper by the following day but that’s not an angle that would, I think, sit well with Telegraph’s key demographic.

The other is that Grant ‘Michael Green’ Shapps could easily learn a thing or two from Jonathan Mole when it comes to running a successful online business, especially, on the marketing side where Mole’s beautifully crafted sales pitch for his silk tie business is in a different league to Shapps’ ‘get rich quick’ schemes.

It’s enough to make you question whether or not the Tories have got the wrong guy in Parliament.

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  • 1985Tom

    I’m surprised they went for the “stationery/banner” thing again – I remember that coming up in the original expenses thing with people briefly being outraged before being informed Banner were the main stationery supplier to MPs.

  • Starship Fighter

    I work for a very provincial printer in Yorkshire and I have to say that, even for us, the price which Gidders paid for 750 A4 single colour letterheads on a decent quality woven paper is pretty reasonable, so I would expect it to be very reasonable for London prices, and if that receipt includes VAT he got himself a deal!