Saturday, May 29, 2010

Why I support David Laws

David Laws and I are about as far apart in our political thinking as it's possible to get within the Liberal Democrats. The Orange Book, for which he was one of the prime authors, makes me shudder at its very mention as an old fashioned tax and spend liberal.

However I did rather warm to him last year - I never expected to write a blog post in his praise, but when he and Annette Brooke adopted an anti smacking policy stance, they made me proud.

Today it has been reported that he claimed rent on MP's expenses which was paid to a landlord who is also his partner. Neither David's nor his partner's friends or family were aware that they were in a relationship. Liberal Democrat Voice has his full statement on the matter.

Bear in mind that David had been living with his partner for 5 years, unbeknownst to friends and family, when the House of Commons rules changed. What options did he have at that point? He could have:

a) declared the relationship, owned the property they lived in himself, and claimed the full costs of rent/mortgage or whatever, which would have been far in excess of the amount he actually did claim

b) moved out and rented a property on his own, again costing the taxpayer much more than he eventually claimed.

c)claimed nothing for the costs of running his second home which was necessary for his duties as an MP

d) continue to claim rent with his partner as landlord

I find it deeply disturbing that some people are saying that C is a realistic option. What if he wasn't independently wealthy? That would have cut him and his undoubted talents out of public life because of his sexuality, which is just not on. In any event, I don't think that an MP or their partner should have to subsidise their public duties.

Well, he could have gone with Option B, then, and rented his own property while still spending most of his time with his partner. What sort of waste would that have been? And it would have cost the public more?

Option A would have involved outing himself. Maybe that wasn't an option for his partner. I stress I have absolutely no knowledge of David Laws' or his partner's circumstances so what I'm saying is pure conjecture, but could this have led to the break up of their relationship? Would that have been fair?

I understand why he went for D, and I think that there is an argument for justifying that if you interpret the rules in a particular way. I live openly and happily with my husband and our financial and social lives are hardwired together. That clearly wasn't the case for David Laws and his partner. I'm far from convinced that he actually should pay the money back but I respect his decision to do so and to self refer to the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner.

Sara Bedford has written an absolutely brilliant article, as always saying what I think except better in which she argues that the change in the rules on partners by the House of Commons was by its nature likely to discriminate against people in same sex relationships:

Did David Laws break the letter of the law on MPs expenses? That seems to depend on how a spouse or partner is defined. Did he defraud the taxpayer? I would say not. He claimed the real costs of a second home in London, which he lived in. Did he or James make a profit on the arrangement? No. Should he repay the money? Probably not, but I understand his wish to do so and to offer himself up to the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner. But the rules do appear to discriminate against those who want to keep their private lives to themselves. And as that is far more likely to affect those who are lesbian, gay or bisexual, the rules themselves would appear to be prejudicial on the basis of sexuality.


Sara also makes the point that she thinks the revelations are more to do with Torygraph angst re Capital Gains Tax than anything else:

In the last couple of days, the Telegraph has launched a vigorous campaign to oppose the likely increase in rates of Capital Gains Tax, to align it more closely with income tax. Which party has promoted this policy? The Liberal Democrats. Who is the Liberal Democrat MP at the Treasury? David Laws. Go out and dig for dirt on Laws was the Telegraph’s rallying cry to its hacks – the addition of a little ’secret gay sex’ will have only whetted the enthusiasm of the paper and much of its readership further..


This is only a taster of a fabulous article - if you do nothing else today, read it.

I've been dismayed by the tweets which say that being gay isn't big thing these days. Within the Liberal Democrats, being lesbian, gay or bisexual certainly isn't a barrier. Although people do sacrifice a lot of time and money to the party, though, they also have lives outside it. The people in those lives may not share the same open and accepting attitude. As the mother of an 11 year old, I've been frequently dismayed by conversations with friends who say that they would find it really hard to accept if their child turned out to be gay, lesbian or bisexual. Those sorts of attitudes come from people from all sorts of backgrounds, religious and not.

Deciding whether or not to come out is an intensely personal matter. I know of a fair few people who have kept their sexuality a secret out of respect for parents or other family members. From my perspective as a parent, I would never want my daughter to have to go through that sort of agony. She will never have to choose between anything and having mine and her daddy's love and full acceptance. How hard must it be though, as a child, to overhear a parent say that they couldn't cope if their child turned out to be gay?

There is something especially hurtful about being rejected by the people who gave you life. Even if they are in the wrong and there isn't a relationship worth preserving it is utterly horrible and can cause terrible emotional scars. Imagine if you do actually love and feel loved within your family. Would you take the risk of breaking the bonds which have sustained you throughout your life? Would you be able to deal with the pain? Would you want to cause pain, however unjustified, to perhaps frail or elderly loved ones? Every single family is different and has its own dynamics. Nobody can judge another person's decision to stay quiet.

The major point about the Laws case is that he did not make the decisions he did for personal financial gain - and in fact, he could have claimed much more than he did had he been open about the relationship.

I hope that the Labour trolls and the press don't force a good man out of office. I never ever expected to be saying that I wanted David Laws anywhere near a position where he controlled public spending, but he's proved his worth in that post in the last 2 weeks. I think the country needs him to stay in that role. I think he deserves our human compassion and, hand on heart, I can say that had he been in any other party, I would give him my support. I hope that regular readers will recognise that I do try to be fair to everybody.

Update: my blogroll is full of posts in support of David Laws from Andrew, Mark and Jennie. Tory Alexander Ryland has sent a letter to the Torygraph, signed by lots of lovely people. Also Creative Tory has written in his support.

There is the inevitable Facebook group and if you want to restore your faith in human nature, have a look at the #isupportLaws thread on Twitter.

9 comments:

Sophia Pangloss said...

Caron, you can make all the fine points you wish to on the wide variety of relationships we can enjoy today, and how we square these with family members, often of different generations. Sensitivity to those we love is a grand thing I wouldn't wish to dismiss. However, when we choose to enter public life and indeed become a high-ranking member of the government, we have other choices to make.

David Laws had all those options open to him. If he had declared his relationship then he would indeed have been eligible for full housing costs, however more expensive that would have bee. It is a glorious thing in Britain that option A is open and available to all, regardless of chosen partner. If he preferred his relationship to remain a secret, then option B would also have been open to him, without prejudice.

He was aware, as we all were, of the change to HoC rules barring members from leasing from partners. That he knew this and continued to claim is the nub of this matter. Forget the usual rubbish about the Telegraph's motives, they will aye be questionable. The base facts stand.

David Laws doesn't come across as a stupid man. Surely he could see that leaving his arrangements as they stand was only ever going to lead to daft questions that only Bill Clinton should be asked.

"Did you, or did you not, have sexual relations with that man?"

It's a question many others do not have the luxury of ignoring if they wish to secure state support for their accommodation costs.

Steve said...

Caron,

What about when Laws starts cutting my tax credits and raising VAT. Then i'll think of the £40k hes taken of my money.

Not excactly fair is it?

Old Politics said...

"What if he wasn't independently wealthy?"

But he is...

Caron said...

I think there are complexities of this case which make it less clear cut than you make it sound. Essentially the rule on paying rent to partners could be viewed as discriminatory against lesbians and gay men.

If you're saying that everyone in pubic life has to be open about their sexuality then even today that will prove a deterrent and would be discrinminatory.

David Laws essentially has claimed much less than he could have done. If he had done option B, then we would have spent more and it would have been a complete waste. If he'd rented a flat and James had moved in with him, there's have been an outcry about that too - remember the fuss when people's daughters stayed with them.

I think David Laws deserves understanding and I hope he keeps his job.

Caron said...

Old Politics why should he have to subsidise his public life?

He needs to live in 2 places to be an effective MP. The costs he claimed were to enable him to do his job. End of story.

Steve, we're in tough economic times, for sure, but when you think of the £40,000 Laws claimed, that's over 4 years and is relatively small compared to many others.

Re tax credits, those who really need them will continue to get them.

Beth said...

I don't have any party affiliation, and I haven't formed an opinion on whether David Laws' violation of the expense rules is serious enough to require resignation or sacking. Ironically, as you pointed out, had he made his housing arrangements in a manner that fell strictly within the rules, he legitimately could have claimed even more taxpayer money than he did. However, since the 2006 rules change he very clearly has been in violation because he was paying rent to his partner, and the argument that "we didn't consider ourselves partners" simply does not withstand scrutiny. Yes, we lawyers have a plausible argument that the rules were ambiguous and the ambiguity should be construed in Laws' favour, but it would be foolish to think the public at large will accept that argument, particularly when -- as has been pointed out in dozens of comments on dozens of blogs already -- individuals so frequently are charged with benefits fraud based on having partners they did not want to acknowledge. In the grand scheme of the expenses scandal, Laws' transgression may seem comparatively minor, but he did break the rules. And particularly where the Liberal Democrats have campaigned on being pure as the driven snow with regard to expenses, he should not have broken the rules. That the taxpayer might have paid more if Laws had followed the rules is perverse (and may be considered as a mitigating factor in judging Laws' actions), but none of us is entitled simply to ignore rules just because they result in silly outcomes.

Quite apart from the expenses issue, it strikes me that Laws has been astonishingly naive to think he could become one of the most prominent cabinet ministers in the new government without being outed. Rightly or wrongly, if you're the sort of person who feels compelled to "keep your private life private," you cannot expect to succeed in that objective if you assume a very public, prominent and controversial role as Mr. Laws has done. That Mr. Laws' political enemies would uncover his secret and use it against him was as obvious as it is lamentable.

As to Mr. Laws' desire to conceal his sexuality, I just find it incredibly sad. I might have an easier time understanding it if he were twenty years older and not exactly my age (and FWIW, it's been two decades since I told my mother I'm gay). No matter what happens with his political career, I suspect he'll have a happier life from this day forward now that he's free from keeping such a huge secret. I hope so, anyway.

Noetic said...

One thing to remember is that he rented for 2 years before they even started their relationship, which is obviously extremely private.

I can completely understand that, with this being his only sexual relationship ever, and with this being a very private relationship, Laws may not have been entirely sure about how his relationship was "defined" and, not being openly gay, that he was extremely reluctant to stop his expenses claim when the rules were changed.

Had he stopped claiming, he would likely have been outed as a result, and since both families and Laws' close friends were unaware of his relationship, that would have been a huge step to take, and the only people who SHOULD have been in charge of making that decision were David Laws and his partner.

It is despicable that the Telegraph found it necessary to do this in this way.

Anonymous said...

Steve,

I'll think about how much more of my money he could have taken if he'd been outed sooner, and how kind the Telegraph are to finally get around to increasing my tax burden like this!

Jeff said...

Caron, it's actually a little bit embarrassing to see Lib Dems go from promising to clean up Westminster to scrabbling around for excuses to defend David Laws when he's been caught out.

Yes, it's understandable why he kept the arrangement quiet but that doesn't make it justifiable.

The man was VP of Citigroup. Are you honestly saying that be didn't understand what the rules were intending to do when it said you couldn't pay your partner's mortgage off on the public purse?

I'm sure he's a nice, genuine and highly capable guy but he's got it spectacularly wrong on the worst of issues at this current time. It won't do to sweep i£40k of I'll-gotten cash under the carpet as you're trying. David has to step away from his Vice Chancellor role, at least while the investigation is carried out.

Anything else is proof positive that parties haven't learned the lessons and the Lib Dems in particular would say anything and do anything just to cling on to power.

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