Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Laws breaks the Law

My good friend Lloydie has been keeping me abreast of the Con/Lib coalition's first major scandal since they took control of the British Government.

On 28th May, Chief Secretary to the Treasury David Laws, the Liberal Democrat MP for Yeovil, was 'outed' by the Daily Telegraph for claiming over £40,000 in expenses; the cost of renting out a room in the houses of his 'secret' long-term partner James Lundie. Being 'outed' for his expenses fraud inadvertently resulted in his being 'outed' as gay.

When it came to the expenses, Laws had been claiming this rent as far back as 2004, and continued doing so even after Parliamentary rules changed to ban claiming expenses for "accommodation leased from a partner."

Lloydie is an outspoken supporter of Laws - pointing out entirely reasonably that the expenses he claimed were entirely reasonable for renting accommodation in London - and in fact probably saved the taxpayer money in the long run.

Blogger Chris Morris also supports Laws, arguing the same point: "If you think he did something wrong, it cannot be because he was greedy with public funds – he clearly wasn’t – and it can only be because he chose to be secretive about his private life."

In all honesty, I'm not entirely unsympathetic to Laws predicament. As a straight Englishman living in America, you might forgive me for arguing that Britain's pretty tolerant about gay people - because in comparison to the United States, it certainly is.

However, I actually don't think it's a picnic being 'out and proud' in the UK. I've long argued that Brits have a tendency to bully and 'out' men are an ideal target for that. I have at least two gay friends who've been assaulted on nights out simply for 'looking kind of gay' (i.e. well dressed and groomed) and the prejudice openly-gay politicians face is well-documented.

So I can totally understand Law's reluctance to announce his sexuality to the world; especially coming from what I remember being a fairly conservative region of England.

That being said, sympathizing with David is very different to wholeheartedly supporting him. The fact is, he did fiddle his expenses. It's all very well arguing that what he did ultimately saved money - it undeniably did - but there's a great arrogance at work if somebody feels qualified to decide that certain rules simply don't apply to them.

The expenses ruling - that you can't rent accommodation from a partner - was put in place to prevent questionable ethics; and therefore ignoring that ruling, even if your expenses are legitimate, is ethically questionable in and of itself.

The second issue that many people are making a fuss about is Law's decision to hide his sexuality; from both the media and his constituency. I get that as an issue - deceptiveness is a trait all too common amongst politicians and now Laws has been caught out hiding something from those who voted for him, it's entirely understandable for them to wonder what else he might not be sharing.

Personally, this isn't such a big issue for me. David Laws wasn't so much hiding his sexuality as merely failing to advertise it - that's a very different state of affairs to somebody like Mark Oaten's 'outing,' in which he'd deceived not just his wife and family, but had also run for office under the banner of 'family values.' David Laws made no such claims and his 'outing' ultimately hurt nobody but himself.

Yet ultimately, David Laws made himself a public figure when he stood for election; and that negates the option to have an entirely 'private' life - especially when finances come into play.

Not wanting to advertise your sexuality is one thing; but using that as an excuse to justify your sketchy expenses claims is a different thing entirely - and not acceptable at all.

David Laws knew that his expenses claims violated the parliamentary rules - and yet he apparently felt entitled to go ahead and do it anyway. It's that deliberate, arrogant rule-breaking that is the issue here - not the impact it had on the taxpayer or his justification for doing so in the first place.

So yes - I'm personally pleased his gone from the cabinet, and will shed no tears if he stands down as an MP. With the expenses scandal still so recent, David Laws has demonstrated that he's entirely the sort of politician the fledgling Lib/Con coalition can't afford to tolerate.

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