Saturday, May 14, 2011

If David Laws were Labour or Tory or SNP

.......believe me, I would be saying exactly the same as I am now. If you don't believe me, I am pretty soft hearted and my reaction to Gordon Brown's wee faux pas with Gillian Duffy was to want to give him a cup of tea and a cuddle. I do try to be fair to people and try to look at things from their perspective before casting judgement. I'm sure I don't always succeed, but I try.

I think the 7 day suspension meted out to David Laws for breaches of the rules on expenses is incredibly harsh. Especially when the Standards Commissioner quite clearly accepted that he had not been motivated by greed but to keep his relationship with his partner private. Bearing in mind that he hadn't told his family that he was gay for fear of their reaction, I can understand the dilemma he faced when the Commons rules were changed to forbid MPs paying rent to a partner.

You might be reading this thinking "What? It's fine being gay these days. Nobody bothers." I'd like to think that, but the simple truth is that people in your life can reject you simply for being gay. Read Andrew's account of what happened to him after he posted a very sweet picture of him kissing his husband after their wedding last Friday if you don't believe me.

The Standards Commissioner's report, at great length, actually tells us little more than we knew last year. All the breaches of the rules were found to be because of David's desire to keep his private life private. He was always going to have been found to have broken rules.  Because he did. Nobody's arguing about that. But were those rules fair. Sara Bedford pointed out when this first came out that those most likely to have a problem with these rules were those in same sex relationships.

So, what does the report tell us in its 280 pages?  It tells us that it accepts that David's motives were not avaricious. Importantly it tells us that had he kept to the rules, he could have claimed £30,000 more. And yet still he was punished by the Commons' Standards and Privileges Committee. Labour's Jacqui Smith wasn't suspended when she claimed her second home was the constituency home where her husband and children lived and her main home was a bedroom in her sister's.

I just wonder how many times David Laws is going to be punished for what I see as understandable breaches of the rules. He lost his Cabinet position, and, sadly, today's judgement makes it unlikely that he'll be back there any time soon. He's paid back the £56,000 he claimed during the period in question. Let's be clear, he could have claimed £86,000 perfectly legitimately. The effect of that is that we as taxpayers have effectively now had several years' service from him where he has subsidised his own expenses. Imagine if you had to work away from home for years and pay all your accommodation costs yourself? And now he suffers what is pretty much the ultimate shame in the Commons - being barred from the premises. Doesn't sound like much to  those of us outside the bubble, but it is extremely rare for an MP to have this sort of punishment.

David Laws himself has humbly accepted the decision and his punishment. Just before 1pm today, he made a personal statement of apology to the House of Commons which you can watch here. If you want to read it, it's printed below:

I thank you, Mr Speaker, for giving me this early opportunity to respond to the Standards and Privileges Committee report on my expenses. I am also grateful to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and his staff for their thorough and professional handling of this inquiry following my self-referral. The inquiry has found that I broke a number of important rules. I take complete and personal responsibility for the mistakes I made, and apologise without reservation to the House and my constituents.
The commissioner found that there was a conflict between my personal interest in privacy and the public interest in openness and accountability. He concluded that I should have immediately resolved that conflict in the public interest, and I agree with that judgment. I have made it clear since this matter first became public that my motivation was solely to protect my privacy, and not to benefit in any way from the expenses system, and I am pleased that the commissioner has clearly supported my view about my motivation and that he has stated that there is no evidence that I made my claims with the intention of benefiting myself or those close to me. The commissioner has also concluded that if I had kept to the rules, including by correctly designating my main home, my total expense claims would have been considerably higher than they were. This is not, as the commissioner made clear, an adequate justification for breaking the rules, but it demonstrates that there was no adverse consequence for the taxpayer.
This last year has been a difficult one for me, and I am grateful for all the support I have received, particularly from my constituents in Yeovil, who have been extremely generous in their understanding, tolerance and encouragement. Each of us should be our own sternest critic. Everyone in this place wants to see the reputation of the House restored after the past few disastrous years. If by my actions I have contributed to further undermining the House’s reputation, I can only apologise without reservation.
I am particularly annoyed that David hasn't been shown the treatment you would expect from a Commons Committee with a quasi-judicial role. Although it met on Tuesday, the findings weren't to be published until today. However, the press has been full of reasonably lurid headlines for the past 2 days. As Mark Pack pointed out on Lib Dem Voice the other day, somebody must have leaked it to the press and that must have been one of the 11 members of the Committee.

It's not, by the way, the Commissioner who has decided what David Laws' punishment should be. It is, in fact, the Committee which is made up of 5 Conservative, 4 Labour and 1 Liberal Democrat MP. Normally if a judge is passing sentence, there's all sort of stuff about precedent. What has happened to similar offenders?It's worth pointing out that none of others investigated by the Committee, although they did personally gain from rule breaches, received such harsh punishments. And Jacqui Smith was a Cabinet Minister as well. I will leave you to make your own conclusions about the motivation of the Committee. Was the chance of a Liberal Democrat scalp just too good to resist? Is David Laws paying the price for the running we made on the expenses scandal and that none of our lot were in on the flipping homes sort of thing?

David Laws has been punished disproportionately harshly for an error of judgement which ended in him claiming a lot less than he was entitled. I am livid about what has been done to this good man.

If I ran a company, and I'd come across this sort of a thing from a trusted, talented employee, I'd show them understanding. 

And, if David Laws had been from any other party, I would be saying exactly the same thing.


martijn said...

Good post, thanks for writing it. I agree it is unfair that Laws is treated so harshly and, like you, I would have felt that same had he been a member of any other party.

However, I wonder if the fact that the members of the committee are all MPs themselves (regardless of the party they represent) plays a significant role? After all, after the expenses scandal, they don't want to be seen as being soft on their fellow MPs.

youngdegsy said...

Caron, I find it hard to agree. A seven-day suspension is hardly harsh punishment given the eighteen-month plus sentences handed down recently to the phantom mortgage claimants, Morley, Chaytor and Devine. Laws's problem is that his claims involved a deliberate deception. Whether for innocent motives or not, a desire to keep one's sexuality secret can be respected for itself, but it cannot justify a misuse of public money. I know that he could have claimed more legitimately, but he did not. He knew the rules and he knew that he was breaking them. I always felt the push to have Laws reinstated as a Minister had an air of unseemly haste about it, and that view has not changed.

martijn said...

Good post, thanks for writing it. I agree it is unfair that Laws is treated so harshly and, like you, I would have felt that same had he been a member of any other party.

However, I wonder if the fact that the members of the committee are all MPs themselves (regardless of the party they represent) plays a significant role? After all, after the expenses scandal, they don't want to be seen as being soft on their fellow MPs.

(Reposted comment - I posted this on the original post that was eaten by Blogger.)


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