Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Let's get this David Laws issue right

David Laws is a highly intelligent and articulate man who has enjoyed great success in business and is now a Member of Parliament. For seventeen days last year he was a member of the Cabinet - appointed to the Privy Council and entitled to be known as "Right Honourable". In the fortnight between his appointment and his resignation he made a good impression on a lot of people, me included. The message he put forward was restricted to his ministerial duties at the Treasury and was as clear a statement as you could have of the necessary consequences of the previous government having spent far too much money that it didn't have. Then it was disclosed that he had claimed £40,000-odd in expenses to which he was not entitled and he left office (but did not resign from the Privy Council).

The essential circumstances of this wrongful receipt of money are important. Mr Law was a secret homosexual and shared a home with a gentleman friend. Beause he did not wish to disclose his proclivity to his family or to the world in general he pretended that he was renting a room in his friend's home and claimed that rent as expenses. The reality was that he was living with the man rather than renting a room from him. No doubt he made a financial contribution to the running of their joint household and, had matters been declared openly, at least some of that could have been reclaimed as expenses. I have read suggestions that he could have claimed more than he actually claimed and am happy to accept that as true.

Two matters that frequently crop up in discussions about Mr Laws must be discarded immediately because they are not relevant to the crucial point.

First, that he is independently wealthy as a result of his previous work did not disqualify him from claiming legitimate expenses. A system existed for compensating Members of Parliament for constituencies outside London for costs they incurred by reason of having to run two homes rather than one. We can quibble about the details of the scheme but there was a scheme and an MP who incurred additional living costs was entitled to claim at least some of them. Mr Laws could afford not to claim anything but it would be absurd to argue that his private wealth should exclude him from having additional costs reimbursed - that would amount to requiring him to make a substantial additional contribution of tax.

Secondly, that he could have claimed the same sums or more had he arranged matters differently is neither here nor there. He did not arrange matters differently, he arranged them as he arranged them for reasons of his own. A footballer who hacks an opponent's ankle to prevent him making a pass cannot avoid a yellow card by claiming that he could have used a lawful shoulder charge instead. What matters is what happened not what might have happened had you not chosen to do what you actually did.

The crucial point is very very simple. He told deliberate lies in order to expropriate money. Had he been paying rent to his friend he would not have been entitled to reclaim that rent because of the nature of their relationship (namely that they co-habited in a single household regardless of bedroom preferences). It seems unlikely to me that he did pay rent, but anything is possible. If we assume he did pay rent he was not entitled to reimbursement and he knew it. He lied about the nature of the relationship in order to get the money. It is blatant fraud. If, as I suspect is more likely, he contributed financially to the household and those contributions are not properly defined as rent, he lied about the nature of the payments he made in order to be repaid out of public funds. That is also blatant fraud.

It is a matter of the simplest and most basic test of honesty. Spinning a policy so fast that a politician appears to be saying something factually inaccurate will be defined as lying by his political opponents when it is possible (sometimes only by being incredibly generous) to describe it as ambitious advocacy. Some might consider it dishonest or even fraudulent to act in this way but there is room for debate on the issue. There is no room for debate when it comes to making deliberate false statements in order to claim money you could not obtain if you told the truth.

Some might suggest that Mr Laws should have special dispensation because he was merely trying to keep his private life private. That just doesn't wash with me. He told deliberate lies in order to get money from the public purse. Whatever the circumstances and however strong the mitigation might be, the underlying dishonesty remains and that dishonesty is what is relevant first last and all the time in this tale.

Now suggestions are being made that Mr Laws might return to the cabinet. I am not concerned about the "signal" this sends to anyone, because that looks at it from the wrong angle. I am concerned that someone who thought it appropriate to lie in order to obtain money he could not have obtained by telling the truth should be in Parliament at all let alone in the uppermost layer of government. No matter how able he might be and no matter how strongly he wanted to keep his sexuality secret, his chosen method of protecting himself was to act in a way wholly inconsistent with the responsibilities of ministerial office.

It was not so long ago that dishonesty caused resignation as a matter of course, not just resignation from ministerial office but from Parliament, and banishment to the history books as a former politician with no hope of recovery. Ability was irrelevant because the right to represent others and to hold power over others required probity. The country might lose the services of someone with much to offer but that was of no consequence when the politician in question had failed to conduct himself in a way Parliament and the law requires the little people to behave. You can call it a betrayal of trust if you want, I believe it is something more general and, perhaps, more fundamental. If you are to have power over others you can only justify your position if you live by the standards the law requires of those under your power.

Mr Laws chose to act dishonestly and in doing so he forfeited any right to have power over others. He should not still be in Parliament, for him to return to the cabinet would cast a serious blow against the fragile legitimacy of the current coalition government.


4 comments:

Mark Wadsworth said...

Agreed.

gyg3s said...

It was wrong, very wrong, not to prosecute him. The public interest test seems to have changed into some sort of class test: if you're an articulate, intelligent, middle class person, you don't get prosecuted in this country. If you're some working class thicko, the CPS sink their teeth in.

David Morris said...

Spot on conclusion.

What is it about the Westminster Village that makes its inhabitants believe they can behave they way they do when sucking from the public teat?

Its obvious they feel nothing but contempt for "the little pipple" outside their cosy club.

Kind regards

Barnacle Bill said...

"No ifs, no buts ..."
Mr. Laws has shown himself to be a dishonest man not worthy of the position of trust he presently holds.