A Timely Reform by Ian Ridley

Blog & web site of Ian Ridley

David Laws – a lack of common sense from a clever man

The Coalition is slowly, torturously, pulling me in two directions.

There is the simple elation of seeing Liberal Democrats at the Dispatch Box on the Government side (it would have been a coup simply to have access to Opposition side a few months ago).

There is the promise of swathes of Liberal Democrat policy being implemented – Reform of the Lords, 10K income tax threshold, Capital Gains Tax increases and the referendum on voting reform. And the promise of Lib Dems being at the heart of Government in the coming years to shape further policy.

On the other side, there is the sight of Education Secretary Michael Gove spouting nonsense about discipline, tie-wearing and academies. Tory backbenchers are beginning to stir themselves to oppose reform and the Capital Gains tax rises.

And of course the biggest question of all: Will it actually happen or will the Coalition fall apart?

David Laws’ statement in the Commons on Wednesday encapsulated this.

From a Parliamentary perspective it was very impressive. A new Minister, he looked assured and in control of his brief. Challenges from several Labour stalwarts including Alastair Darling and the Beast of Bolsover himself (now ironically reduced to sitting on the benches occupied by the Lib Dem Front Bench in opposition) were swatted aside.

Yet he was advocating earlier cuts than Lib Dems had originally evisioned. His argument is that it is worse than we thought, but not for the first time since May 7th I thought, “I hope they know what they are doing”.

And now the news tonight that David Laws claimed rent on his partner’s spare room amounting to tens of thousands of pounds over several years. Plus there are questions about the level of utility bill expenses claimed.

There is a private/ public conflict to this. David Laws wanted to keep the relationship private. He would only be falling foul of the rules if he had rented a room from his partner. But declaring the fact would end his privacy.

Also David Laws did not view the relationship in that context. According to The Telegraph David Laws said, “Although we were living together we did not treat each other as spouses. For example we do not share bank accounts and indeed have separate social lives. However, I now accept that this was open to interpretation and will immediately pay back the costs of the rent and other housing costs I claimed from the time the rules changed until August 2009.”

Hindsight is wonderful thing but what could David Laws have done to avoid this? Perhaps he could have said that the person in question was a friend.  Should MPs claim expenses for renting out a room from a friend? Possibly but in the febrile climate of the expenses scandal, few people could have then blamed David Laws for erring on the side of caution and paying the money back.

During and after the expenses scandal some MPs have eventually got the message that resolving the issue is both about application of the rules and public perception. This relationship always had a chance of becoming public eventually. It would have been better to have found some way to repay the rent without compromising personal privacy before it did.

David Laws is not alone amongst Lib Dem MPs in failing to apply common sense to expenses. I have no personal axe to grind with him. He looks a very capable and thoughtful MP and should be, and has been, an asset to the party. I think it is just my frustration that yet another Lib Dem MP has fallen foul of expenses – and this one had a chance to declare his error many months ago.

I hope David Laws survives this revelation but he is in for a bumpy ride over the next few days.

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