David Laws has made the right decision. Much has been made of his sexuality, with Lembit Opik arguing Laws has been the victim of a witch-hunt. Not so. Given the appalling conduct of some of our MPs and the catastrophic loss of trust between elected and electorate, it is simply impossible for an expenses system, now subject to intense and critical scrutiny, to allow for anything other than openness and transparency. After all, Nick Clegg has said his party is different; part of a new politics, no less.
Laws, himself, has attacked attempts to restrict or prevent full disclosure of expenses, describing proposed amendments to Freedom of Information (which would have restricted disclosure) as ‘sad and shocking’. He damns himself with these words on his website:
“The attempt to ban the public from knowing the details of how taxpayers’ money is being spent will rightfully anger the very people who have to foot the bill.”
This was written in 2007 – one year after a rule change in 2006 which disallowed payments to ‘partners’. This should – with hindsight – have been a signal: he would either have to explain the arrangement with his partner (at that point or in the future) or re-arrange his financial affairs so no public money was not attached to his relationship. The former option would of course have meant his sexuality becoming public, but this would have been much more manageable than the media storm he has experienced for the last 24 hours.
But he did have a choice; paying his way, out of his own pocket. This would have kept his sexuality his own business and, let’s face it, he could afford it. It is – of course – a tragedy that he felt he could not be open about his sexuality and I can only begin to imagine the difficulties he must have faced with this. But it is untenable for an open and transparent expenses system (as Laws wanted) to make exemptions, or allowances, for secret relationships.
His claim that they were not a ‘partnership’ for the purposes of expense claims, as they had separate bank accounts, is a weak one. Living with someone in a loving relationship (for nearly ten years), re-arranging your financial arrangements to help each other out (he re-mortgaged his home to help his partner by a house) – how does that not constitute a partnership? It appears he tried to sustain this arrangement on a technicality – a loophole. That was always going to be contentious.
Indeed, in his statement he accepts that his arrangements were open to interpretation. Given the public mood regarding expenses, he should have anticipated a negative interpretation and acted accordingly. What a strange decision it was to think that this would never, ever become a news story. I am sure he regrets this now. His statements says as much.
A final, political point: David Laws was on the right of his party. He was part of the Orange Book brigade that believed in a small state, low taxes and – bingo! – let freedom reign. His work to implement this had just begun. In just a few days of Lib-Con Government he had helped to establish the direction of travel. In the education field this means: a significant opening up the state education to the private sector; a halt to building new schools; and job losses in organisations working to make better use of ICT in schools (Becta) and on curriculum development (QCDA). I’m sure, in his mind, this was just the beginning.
I have some sympathies for the man, but his politics will not be missed.