Laws on the ropes?

David is… Mr Integrity. Integrity is the thing that drives him. I believe that he may have been caught, in a way, in the imprecise nature of the word ‘partnership’. The word is used in the House of Commons regulations… I think in good faith he concluded that it did not apply to him.
(Lord Ashdown, David Laws’ predecessor as Yeovil MP)

I have some personal sympathy for David Laws. What a month it has been. He was still campaigning for re-election at the beginning of the month. He didn’t expect then to help negotiate the first coalition government for 65 years. He didn’t expect to become Chief Secretary to the Treasury. He didn’t expect some of his closest friends and family to learn he was gay.

Now the Daily Telegraph suggests he broke parliamentary rules by claiming second home expenses to rent a room from his partner, James Lundie. Mr Laws’ defence is that Mr Lundie was not a ‘partner’ under the expenses rules.

He did not want his relationship revealed. He and Mr Lundie “are intensely private people. We made the decision to keep our relationship private and believed that was our right. Clearly that cannot now remain the case.”

How frustrating these revelations must be for him. But as the expenses saga unfolded last year, surely every MP must have considered how their own circumstances might have appeared under close scrutiny. It was clear they would be judged by their adherence to the spirit, not just the letter, of the rules.

Mr Laws says he will pay back £40,000 and refer himself to the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner.  Surely it would have been prudent to refer himself last year? Surely that must have occurred to him last year? It may not have prevented the Telegraph uncovering the story, but it might have taken some of the steam out of it.

Now David Cameron and Nick Clegg have a rather awkward situation to deal with. In theory it is a matter for the Prime Minister to decide Mr Laws’ fate. But perhaps he will delegate the problem to his deputy. David Laws is a Lib Dem; he is Mr Clegg’s problem.

If he goes, would he have to be replaced by a Lib Dem? Or could he be replaced from either coalition party? It is an important question for the coalition. I suspect that resignations such as this (if it occurs) may often need to be followed by a minor reshuffle.

The pressure on Mr Laws will be all the greater for his ministerial responsibility. As Chief Secretary to the Treasury it is his job to wield the axe on public spending. His expenses claims may detract from his moral authority in one of the most crucial jobs in government.

Update: David Laws has resigned from the Cabinet. He is replaced by the Scottish Secretary Danny Alexander, perceived as a more awkward fit than Mr Laws. As the Times describes it: “Coalition wobbles in bid to keep its balance.”

Expenses – the new system

There is a new system for MPs’ expenses. Like many of us, I took some interest in the expenses scandal when it first broke and suggested some of my own ideas for how the new rules should look. I also recognised how I might have fallen foul of the rules at the time.

The changes are sensible and worthwhile. See here how the new rules stack up against the old ones.

It’s good to see the maximum accomodation allowance cut from £2,000 per month to £1,450. I suggested £1,200 would be enough for a decent one bedroom flat in central London, but the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) is more generous.

MPs won’t be able to use their allowance to pay for mortgage interest, so it excludes property investment from taxpayer-funded expenses. It wasn’t among my suggestions, but it’s an appropriate response to the public outrage.

In November, Sir Christopher Kelly’s recommendations included a ban on MPs employing relatives. Derek Conway was the primary abuser of this tradition, but I didn’t agree with a ban. An MP’s work is so demanding, in terms of both time and geography, it seems reasonable that spouses (spice?) should be allowed to work alongside them. Eve Burt is one MP’s wife who felt this very strongly, campaigning vigorously to keep her job! IPSA has wisely conceded that MPs may continue to employ one family member.

It is good to see that MPs must now submit receipts for all claims. As I argued last year, MPs should only be reimbursed for expenses actually incurred. if they consider it too onerous to supply a receipt for any claim, then it’s probably too small to bother reclaiming.

My Confession

I have a confession. Once upon a time, I underpaid my service charge for almost two years. I don’t remember the precise details, but I think I was paying about £27 per month when I should have been paying £100 per month. This lasted about 20 months.

I had been paying what I was asked to pay and I didn’t know I was doing anything wrong. Sound familiar?

When my landlord informed me that I needed to start paying my latest bill, along with arrears of £1,500, I was very angry. Why? Because they had my direct debit instruction and I expected them to take care of my payments.

I shouldn’t have left the matter entirely to my landlord, no more than many MPs should have left the decisions on their expenses entirely to the fees office.

For me there are some awkward questions to answer:

  • Q. Did I know how much my service charge was?
    A. Yes, I knew it was about £1,200.
  • Q. Did I know how much I was paying my landlord?
    A. Yes, I knew it was about £27 per month.
  • Q. (in the style of Jeremy Paxman) Did it never occur to me that I was systematically paying less than a third of what I owed?
    A. No, it didn’t. Honestly, Mr Paxman, it really never occurred to me until almost two years had passed.

I was mighty angry when I realised I’d been allowed to fall so far behind. Not with myself. I was angry with the landlord. My error should have been spotted earlier. Or, as I still maintain, they should have adjusted my direct debit to match their bill.

I was a little angry with myself, but only just.

I expect a lot of MPs are feeling a similar frustration. Some of them were knowingly milking the system for all it was worth, but others were taking only what they believed they were honestly entitled to. They did not expect the fees office to pay more than this.

The fees office has tended to govern expenses by the letter of the rules. There are some cases where claims have been refused for breaching the spirit of the rules, but they are few and far between.

Personally, I believe I would ruthlessly obey the letter of the rules. Any failure on this would be a genuine oversight. But what right do I have to judge MPs for their adherence or otherwise to the spirit of the rules? The tone of my article on The Thieves of Westminster clearly does.

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?
(Luke 6v41)

So what is my ‘plank’? Under the expenses system, I would no doubt have been tempted by certain financial scenarios.

I have some sympathy for Francis Maude’s indulgence. After a series of expenses negotiations, he eventually bought a second second home in London because he could not claim any allowance on either his first second home nearby (which he owned outright), or his main home in Horsham (which he still had a mortgage on).

He has been criticised for this behaviour and, along with other members of the Shadow Cabinet, ordered by David Cameron to stop claiming expenses on the mortgage interest.  In the current climate, that is probably the right decision, but I fear that in Mr Maude’s position, I too may have done the same.

This week I’ve been wondering about the case for an immediate election. I hadn’t imagined it would be something Mr Brown would favour, but perhaps the call to do so would become impossible to ignore. However, I have changed my mind. I do not believe an election in the near future would be a good idea.

The public do need to have their say on every apple in the Commons, rotten or otherwise. But the dust needs to settle, and perhaps the MPs deserve a real opportunity to explain themselves to their electorates.

Some MPs do deserve to be turfed out, but not all of them, or even most of them. The trouble is, there is now a widespread perception that “they’re all at it”. I don’t believe that’s true. I do think that these revelations have been valuable, but we need to allow some time to pass before we pass judgement on the defendants. We need to understand more clearly who deserves our wrath and who doesn’t.

So, as I recently suggested, the election is still almost a year away. I believe we need the time between now and then to grasp some perspective on what we’ve learned.

The Thieves of Westminster

Sometimes my wife and I read chunks of the newspaper out to each other as we find interesting titbits. Yesterday I bought the Sunday Telegraph and marvelled at the number of pages devoted to the expenses of our elected representatives. And that was after the Telegraph had devoted Friday and Saturday to the issue too. It’s back in the paper yet again today! It’s all on this link if you want to read all about it.

As I read through the allegations, I found myself reading out almost every other paragraph to Vanessa, such was my fascination with the moral dungeon some MPs have stooped into.

I don’t object to MPs receiving a decent salary, but I think some of them fail to recognise that £64,766 is a pretty reasonable level of remuneration.

We shouldn’t ask them to work for peanuts, and indeed we don’t. Their salary is plenty enough for elected representatives working in public service. It’s not like the market would create a higher salary. Hundreds of people are eager to become an MP, for every one who makes it into office. Indeed, if MPs’ salaries were defined by supply and demand, they’d probably work for free. But in that scenario only the rich could afford to represent us and avoid penury.

It is true that many (though perhaps not all) MPs could earn more outside parliament. Indeed, some of them do earn more in their part-time jobs. But aside from their moonlighting, they have chosen a noble path and should swap their personal financial ambition for higher ideals.

£65k is only their base salary. Aside from their generous expenses, there are a range of ways MPs can earn more:

  • If their constituency is in London, they get London weighting.
  • The Prime Minister, his secretaries of state, their ministers and their parliamentary under secretaries all get a salary supplement.
  • The Leader of the Opposition, his whips, the Speaker, his deputies and Select Committee chairmen also receive a supplement.

So I really don’t buy the argument that expenses are in some way a substitute for a decent salary. The salary is fine, and as the Speaker has argued, MPs should not just “work to the rules”, but consider “the spirit of what is right”. In the meantime, it’s clear that many MPs’ application of the rules shows so little regard for the spirit of them that one wonders whether the needle in their collective moral compass has been installed back-to-front.

Under the circumstances, it would seem wise to ignore the moral compass and just get the rules right. Michael Martin is finding himself isolated from voters and even most MPs in his witch-hunt of the leaker, but he accepts that “serious change” is needed. The Committee for Standards in Public Life is working on this, but it won’t be bounced into rushing the process. As the chairman says, the “issues are not simple”. What kind of issues are they? What should they be considering? Here are a few thoughts:

  • Expenses should be accurate, not generous.
  • Money should be paid to reimburse expenses actually incurred in the course of an MP’s work.
  • No individual needs to spend £400 per month for groceries in their ‘second’ home. What are they eating? Perhaps caviar omelettes for breakfast and organic truffles spiced with saffron for dinner. This needs considerable revision!
  • An MP could rent a decent one-bedroom flat in central London for £1,200 per month. If something grander is desired, so be it, but £1,200 towards rent, mortgage interest or hotel rooms is plenty, in London or elsewhere.
  • Repairs and maintenance are a personal matter which the Commons authorities should not interfere with. But if an MP needs to extend their mortgage to pay for repairs, the authorities could cover the interest payments provided they do not exceed £1,200pm.
  • An MP should be asked to designate their ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ homes at the beginning of a parliamentary term. Any desire to change this should be considered by an independent panel. The request and decision should be a matter of public record.
  • A fixed grant at the begining of an MP’s tenure could be paid to cover special expenses, such as furniture. This could be equal to a month’s salary (£5,397). It would be taxable, but any actual expenses the MP incurs would be tax deductable with HMRC. NB: MPs already receive a 3-month severance payment when they retire (or are turfed out) as an MP.
  • What MPs tell the Commons authorities about their living arrangements should be consistent with what they tell HMRC. It should also be consistent with reality!
  • All expenses should be receipted. If an MP considers it too onerous to supply a receipt for any claim, then it’s probably too small to bother reclaiming.

The information revealed in recent days is – in my view – a credit to the Telegraph. It wasn’t cheap, perhaps £100k, but it was probably a bargain given how much the paper has milked it. But the other cost lies within the risk of libel action, which must be considerable. Was it wrong to publish? I think not, given the widespread concern about so many MPs. Some of them have difficult questions to answer, and the truth will hurt them. But others have innocent reasons linked to their curious expenses.

Corrupt to the core?
Corrupt to the core?

I don’t doubt for a moment the Prime Minister’s probity in connection with the £6k cleaning bill paid to his brother. But many voters will judge him harshly for it. If he is innocent, then the taxpayers’ frustration is unfair. But the situation is perhaps more unfair on his brother Andrew, whose family has borne the brunt of sniping comments from acquaintances. Andrew’s wife Clare has written about her frustration over the whole issue.

There have been awkward questions for the Shadow Education Secretary Michael Gove who’s been accused of ‘flipping’ his second home. Mr Gove has given a robust defence to the most serious charges, but shows welcome contrition on some minor points.

I believe Mr Brown and Mr Gove are among many whose expenses may not look good, but who are (generally) above board. They will be annoyed about how their expenses have been portrayed, but I believe it will be good for them. At this stage, the situation is so severe, the public mistrust so widespread, that it is time for every MP to face the charges and mount their defence. One by one, they ought to take that opportunity to clear their name. The BBC has outlined the key charges and responses currently in the public domain. Check it out and judge for yourself. In my view, some MPs will need to mount a better defence than claim they acted “within the rules”.

The whole affair enhances the appeal of an early election. The Prime Minister’s authority is already weak. It would be a disaster if all remaining authority in the House of Commons is also allowed to drip away. That is what appears to be happening now. If there is to be no general election in the near future, I would like to see a swathe of resignations and by-elections. I doubt it will happen, but something must be done to stop the rot.