Lib Dem MP expenses – where next

Two days ago, like m’colleague Alix, I was nervously braced, fully expecting that at least one Lib Dem MP would be exposed by the Telegraph as a major expenses-sponging freeloader. The downside of the party having grown to 63 MPs was, surely, that one of them would have made a catastrophic error of judgement, one so serious it would result in their being publicly shamed.

The party as a whole, and in particular Nick Clegg as leader, would then have the painful task of working out how they should be disciplined (withdrawal of the whip, compulsory reselection?), almost certainly gifting Labour and the Tories – whose joint and stubborn refusal to reform MPs’ expenses has triggered the situation – a victory at the next election. It was a depressing prospect.

The reality is, it seems, more than a little different. Yes, there have been serious embarrassments – both our most recent leadership candidates making small claims incorrectly; Ming’s interior design bills, albeit on a small rented flat; Lembit Opik’s £40 Council Tax court summons, etc. It’s frustrating for us as a party that – because these mistakes have been mixed-in with the week’s genuine Labour and Tory scandals – we all look equally tainted.

If yesterday’s revelations – a trouser-press and some cushions – are the worst the Telegraph can throw at us (my fingers are still crossed), though, then we are quite justified in pointing out that in stark contrast to the Lib Dems the alleged abuses of the expenses system by a number of Labour and Tory MPs border on, or actually are, major fraud.

Moreover, Lib Dems have consistently and for some while pressed for reform on this issue. For example, last July, when the Commons voted on whether to introduce “a robust system of scrutiny for parliamentary allowances”, no Lib Dem opposed the reforms (35 were present to vote in favour) – but a combination of 146 Labour and 21 Tory MPs voted it down. And the previous year, May 2007, again it was Labour and Tory MPs who ganged up to vote to exempt MPs from the Freedom of Information laws which have exposed the expenses shenanigans, with all Lib Dem MPs present voting for full transparency.

It seems to me, then, that Lib Dems can, should and must campaign vigorously in the next weeks and months to highlight the Labour and Tory parties’ past misbehaviour – it is their MPs’ exorbitant claims (‘flipping’ and moat-cleaning and the like), and their refusal to reform the system, which have brought us to this un-pretty state of affairs.

There remains one fly in the ointment – the £41,678 allowance claims made by the party’s chief executive, Lord (Chris) Rennard, relating to his flat in Eastbourne, though his main London residence is in Stockwell. Since the News of the World carried the allegation, covered here on LDV, there has yet to be any real media follow-up. Yet.

For his part, Chris has issued the following statement published in the Liverpool Daily Post:

The basis of all my claims has been specifically approved by the House of Lords authorities. All peers’ claims, and the rules governing them, have been on the internet for some years. Peers are not paid any salary or pension for their work. But you are allowed to claim an allowance for a London property whilst maintaining a home outside London as in my case. I think that there should be a new system for paying peers through transparent taxable allowances. Otherwise the Lords will be completely dominated by the rich and the retired who are able to live in London.”

As was pointed out in the original LDV comments thread, the Lords rules state:

4.4.2 A Member whose main residence is outside Greater London and who maintains a residence in London for the purpose of attending sittings of the House may claim this allowance towards the cost of maintaining such a residence.”

This all hinges, then, on the classification of a ‘main residence’, and whether Chris’s main residence is in fact in Eastbourne. I don’t personally know Chris’s domestic arrangements – though I’d always assumed it was in Stockwell, not least thanks to the parties he hosts there, as pictured here and here. But the issue needs to be resolved soon, for everyone’s sakes.

Lib Dem MPs have emerged largely unscathed from this week’s Telegraph allegations – mistakes made, yes, but no hanging offence. To mount an effective campaign against Labour and the Tories, however, we must be able to demonstrate more than that we are less worse than they: we must, from the very top, prove that we have the principled leadership to reform our broken system of democracy.

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42 Comments

  • Simon Courtenage 14th May '09 - 4:25pm

    I don’t think it’s enough to show we were less on the take than the other parties. We also need to show that we are totally committed to ending this scandal.

    In my view, Parliament must commit to total transparency of its and its members accounts. You can’t really give a 3rd party power over Parliament to force it to do something – that would be constitutionally unsound, in my view. Instead, Parliament itself must pass laws to openly publish all details of accounts and its expenses rules every year so that voters can decide. The rules themselves have to be simple, understandable and pass the “man on the clapham ommnibus” test of reasonableness.

  • At one time, Lord Archer hosted “champagne and shepherd’s pie” parties at a flat in Alembic House (just across the River from the PoW), while his principal place of residence was in Granchester. Whether or not Lord Archer spent more time in Lambeth or in Cambridgeshire, I know not. What is certain is that Lady Archer rarely ever visited Alembic House (she would have bumped into Jeffrey’s mistress had she done so).

    The story illustrates the fact that peers do maintain pads in London for Parliamentary (and other) business, while considering somewhere out in the country their main home.

  • This doesn’t look good for Nick or the party. Elliot Morley was suspended within 24 hours of his revelations coming to light. This presumably because he could not give Gordon Brown and the Labour Party a satisfactory account of his conduct. Similarly Andrew MacKay of the Conservatives (was) resigned quite quickly .

    Either Chris Rennard can give a satisfactory account of his conduct in which case for god’s sake give it, how long does it take to say ‘I live in Eastbourne with my wife most of the year and commute regularly’. Certainly not four days.

    Or he cannot, in which case suspend him pending a full inquiry.

    It simply beggars belief that having gone into this expenses saga as the party that plays with a straight bat, and having made tough noises about tough choices, when it actually comes to a dealing with a real issue…

    And Sesenco, I really hope you’re not suggesting that the only reason there has been no statement is that there are even more revelations on Lord Rennard to come, pertaining to his personal morality. That may be what Guido Fawkes implied on Sunday, but so far nothing has been published, and it would hardly be a good reason to not suspend someone.

  • I am horrified by the appalling lack of activity on the part of the Lib Dems – talk about a squandered opportunity! The next election is practically being gifted to you and yet, to go on the Lib Dem website, you’d hardly know that expenses were even in the news this week. A shocking waste of political capital, and it just goes to show that all the criticisms of the party as ineffective and without direction are completely and utterly true.

    p.s. I hope you have the b*lls to print this

  • No, Neil Berry, I was having a dig at Jeffrey Archer and your party (the one led by William Hague who said of Archer: “I am convinced this is a man of probity and integrity”); and I was also doing what I said in my post: ie, illustrating how peers can have a working residence in town and a main residence out of town.

    You, presumably, ARE publishing false innuendoes about Lord Rennard’s private life. Yes? At least that’s what I read into your comment. Perhaps you will give us your real name and an address where proceedings can be served.

    Lord Rennard has already published a perfectly adequate explanation. Perhaps the “Screws” will produce the Eastbourne resident they allege described Lord Rennard’s property there as a “holiday flat”. If they don’t, then we can reasonably assume that they made it up, can we not? You can be sure that if the “Screws” really thought their story was true they’d have been through Lord Rennard’s dustbins several times over.

  • Alix Mortimer 14th May '09 - 5:15pm

    @brett

    Don’t worry – this is an unofficial site. Say what you like about the official one here 😉

  • David Heigham 14th May '09 - 6:03pm

    Chris Rennard’s expenses are a yellow herring. The Lord’s expenses system somewhat like the daily allowance proposed by Gordon Brown and shot down by Nick Clegg. It is gravely faulty – e.g., there have been stories of new peers being surprised when told by the Lords offices that they are not resident in London – but it has been public for years. See: http://www.parliament.uk/about_lords/holallowances/hol_expenses04.cfm . There are no new revelations. In particular, Chris Rennard has clearly not been one of the high claimants. His 17,000 pounds in 2007/08 are set in context by more than a hundred claims over 20,000.

    The unmistakable fact (to date) is that our LibDem MPs are coming across as much cleaner than Labour or Tories; and Nick Clegg is getting public credit for his stand on this issue – see Politics Home tracker poll of Leaders’ ratings. The opportunity for the LibDems on this issue, an issue where people are angry enough to to feel shaken out of old, unthinking allegiances, is clear.

    There is no way nor need to present ourselves as spotless. We are not; and we are not expected to be. But we can and should present ourselves as we are: decent and demanding decent standards. Just now, that is something to be insisted on with force, with passion, with shame for the state of Parliament but with no shame whatever for the state of our party.

  • “In particular, Chris Rennard has clearly not been one of the high claimants. His 17,000 pounds in 2007/08 are set in context by more than a hundred claims over 20,000.”

    The maximum amount claimable for overnight subsistence is based on the number of days attendance at the House. Rennard claimed 80% of the maximum he could have claimed based on the number of days he attended. If others claimed much more, their attendance must have been correspondingly higher.

    The issue is not the amount he claimed, but whether he was eligible to claim for overnight subsistence at all. He would have been eligible only if his main residence were outside Greater London. The News of the World claims it was not, and this is backed up by other circumstantial evidence – such as that he is on the electoral register in London, but not apparently in Eastbourne.

    And four days on, as far as I have seen, Rennard has not disputed the accuracy of the NotW report.

  • When at University I maintained (rented) a dwelling where I spent most of my time, despite it not being my main residence.

    Quitely clearly the Lib Dems have not been milking the system for as much as possible, unlike some in the other parties

  • Martin Land 14th May '09 - 7:49pm

    Any attempts to oust his lordship for this reason are probably inappropriate.

  • The problem with saying somtheing like “We bought designer cushions, the Torys had their mote cleaned” is that we’d still be mentioning the cushions ie. were flaging our selves as a lesser evil rather than as somthing positive (or at least not an evil), and this may be espesialy counter productive if people don’t know about our expenses.

    I dare say we can still milk this but we’ve got to think hard about how we say it.

    I dare say local parties trying to oust a tory or labour mp with dodgy expense claims my wish to (and almost certainly will) put their expenses on their propaganda.

  • We need to tout our record on expences as well, not just in westminster but, crucialy, in europe; our european manifesto says the following on these issues:

    “Liberal Democrat MEPs have been at the forefront of the campaign to reform the European Parliament. It was our MEPs who blew the whistle on the lack of openness and malpractice. Many of the reforms we have argued for will come into effect in July 2009. Liberal Democrats expect the highest standards of public service and honesty from all our representatives. That is why all Liberal Democrat MEPs and candidates have signed a binding Code of Conduct on the use of their parliamentary allowances. This includes making public the names of all staff, including family members, and strict adherence to the letter and spirit of the European Parliament rules. We expect all other MEPs to do the same. We will continue to work to reform MEPs expenses, ensure transparency and end the abuses that have undermined public confidence.”

    We realy need to get this message across to voters, we mustn’t let the expences vote go to the greens or ukip.

  • Paul Walter:

    As long as Lib Dems such as yourself are gullible enough to believe them, Tory trolls will continue using this site (and others) to peddle lies and smears about our MPs and peers. Don’t encourage them.

    FACT: The “News of the Screws” is unable to prove that Lord Rennard’s principal residence is in Vauxhall. If it could, it would have done so. All the “Screws” has is supposition and unattributable gossip.

    David Heigham:

    Your use of the word “yellow” is very appropriate here. That is the colour of the Murdoch press.

  • Paul Walter:

    You misunderstand.

    News International has published an allegation that Lord Rennard has acquired public money by dishonesty. The burden is therefore on News International to prove, on a balance of probabilities, that its allegation is correct. Lord Rennard has confirmed in a statement that he has done nothing wrong. That is more than he is required to do.

  • “Sir” Mingus Campbell and “Lord” Rennard are not the kind of people I want to see in government or leading my political party. “Lords” and “Sirs” are establishment figures, beneficiaries of the rotten system we are now seeing exposed, and they should be swept away.

  • “The burden is therefore on News International to prove, on a balance of probabilities….”

    As you well know, politics doesn’t work like the Courts though.

    In politics, if an allegation or impropriety is made against you then the burden of proof falls on the victim.

    It may not be fair but it’s undoubtedly the case.

    (Actually even in law that doesn’t hold. Were Chris to be dismissed over this – and I’m not for one minute suggesting he should – it wouldn’t be necessary to show that he had committed the offence just a honest and reasonable belief that he had)

  • Bernie

    We’d better not mention the 3rd Viscount Thurso or the 3rd Baronet Crowmallie then 🙂

  • Hwyel Morgan:

    If Lord Rennard issues proceedings against News International, the burden will be on News International to prove that their allegation is at least substantially true.

    I am not aware that Lord Rennard’s employer has asked for a public statement. Maybe you know more than I do.

    Now here’s the rub. Rupert Murdoch couldn’t care less if he loses a few libel actions (or has to agree to out-of-court settlements). He can afford it. Whatever the outcome, Murdoch wins. Whatever the measure of damages might be, a victim of media defamation has his/her reputation permanently tarnished.

    Lord Rennard is the Liberal Democrat our opponents fear most. That, quite obviously, is the reason for the smear. I have to say that I find the reluctance of fellow Lib Dems to rally to his defence inexplicable. And the ease with which certain Lib Dems are manipulated by Tory trolls is terrifying.

  • Sesenco

    Again you describe what the News of the World wrote as a “smear”. On another thread you have described it as a “libel”. And yet you don’t actually know what the truth of the matter is, do you?

    The point is that even if everything the News of the World printed is ignored, there are very strong indications that Rennard normally lives in London. He works full-time in London, he has a large house in London, on at least 80% of the days he attends the House of Lords he claims to reside in London, he is on the electoral register in London (and not in Eastbourne) and so on.

    Has it not occurred to you that the reason people within the party are reluctant to spring to Rennard’s defence is that many of them – like Stephen Tall – had always assumed that he lived in London? And that if he can’t be bothered to defend himself, they are unwilling to stick their necks out for him?

  • Mr Berry, I see you have changed your name to “Agent Orange” (the stuff your idols in the US military used to poison Vietnamese crops). How about “Napalm2” or “Anonymous3” for your next post?

    (1) Who are all these “witnesses”? Can you name them, please? Are they all curtain-twitchers who spend every mminute of the day and night watching Lord Rennard’s front door? I haven’t a clue when my neighbours come and go.

    (2) Newspapers frequently do publish libels, if they think they can get away with it (I know of stories myself that papers didn’t bother to check – even one I supplied myself that happened to be correct!). Remember, Rupert Murdoch is a multi-billionaire. He doesn’t give a stuff about the cost. Lord Rennard is a major impediment to the Tories gaining an absolute majority next year. How much is it worth to elites in North America (and the UK) to nobble him?

    (4) Lord Rennard has a perfectly valid reason for keeping out of Eastbourne politics. Eastbourne is a target seat, so Lord Rennard has an obvious conflict of interest and duty.

    (3) Again, you impose silence on Lord Rennard. The man has made a statement.

    PUT UP, OR SHUT UP.

  • Paul Walter:

    If the case against Lord Rennard were substantial, I would not be defending him. But it is actually a lot weaker than it appears at first sight.

    (1) The dodgy source (a newspaper with a long and dishonorable record of inaccurate reporting).

    (2) The reliance on supposition (Lord Rennard must have been living in X location to do Y and Z).

    (3) The use of unattributable gossip and speculation (are holiday flats that much of a novelty in Eastbourne)?

  • Sesenco

    Are you seriously trying to tell us that if Chris Rennard appeared on the electoral register at his main residence, it would constitute a “conflict of interest” because Eastbourne is a target seat?

    I’ve never read such nonsense in my life!

  • Mock indignation doesn’t play very well outside the headmaster’s study, Mr Berry.

    Paul Walters:

    The answer to your q

  • Sorry, Paul, I got prematurely posted!

    The answer to your question is “none that I can see”. But I’m not looking at this from the vantage point of Lord Rennard or his legal advisers, who are much better acquainted with the facts and doubtless have more experience of dealing with this kind of thing.

  • Sesenco

    If you really think that someone is posting under more than one user id, you should contact the site-owners rather than disrupting the discussion by making endless groundless accusations here.

    But please answer my question.

    Are you seriously suggesting that Chris Rennard appeared on the electoral register at his main residence, that would constitute a “conflict of interest”, because Eastbourne is a target seat?

  • Mr Berry, does Conservative Central Office pay you to spend all day writing this drivel? Don’t you have a job to do?

    If you really do consider (and I don’t think you do for one moment) that it is quite in order for someone to make funding recommendations about someone they themselves have helped select, then you really are clueless. Those who recall Dr David Owen and his channelling of money to favourites will know what I am talking about.

    Rather odd, isn’t it, that Lord Rennard has given up the opportunity to vote in a target seat? Did it not occur to you that there might be a reason?

    Oh, just as a matter of interest, what is your real name, Mr Berry?

  • “Sesenco”

    Well, clearly I can’t make you explain what you wrote, any more than I can stop you spouting this childish drivel about my being “Mr Berry”. (One would hope that if a moderator were reading this, they might do something about it.)

    But can you really be ignorant of the fact that peers can’t vote in parliamentary elections? The mind boggles!

  • I think we have all heard the expression “mud sticks”

    In this time of expenses exposure it is vital that the party gives detailed explainations for ANY LD representative of either house who has allegations made against them .

    Example ; Menzies Campbell refused to take the 2.33% pay rise . He has had a modest flat as a 2nd home for a number of years .
    The party should have made a statement of how LITTLE he has claimed over the years .

    If the party does that in each case we could GAIN votes from the situation .

    One hour spent working out a statement for a press conference would possibly be as effective as 100 hours electioneering .

  • Mr Berry, you have obviously forgotten that the current rules are likely to be changed in the very near future. A few years ago, no peers could vote in local or Euro elections, but all can now. And hereditary peers can vote in any election. (Lord Runcie caused a stir by voting in the 1983 General Election, but I don’t suppose you are well enough informed to be aware of that.)

    Oh, and you’ve just shot to pieces (if you were but bright enough to notice) your own assertion that the fact that Lord Rennard is not on the register in Eastbourne is evidence of his guilt.

    Rather hypocritical, Mr Berry, to demand that I be censored, while you continue to libel Lord Rennard with impunity.

    Oh, and you’ve still to tell us what your real name is.

    Once again, who are the “witnesses” that the “News of the Screws” has alleged to have found? What are their names, and how do they justify their claims? This is the kind of stuff we need to know if this story is to be anything other than a cheap smear. But you are preternaturally unwilling to tell us.

  • Grow up, Napalm 2. That something may or not have been disputed by X or Y doesn’t mean it is true. Readers should not be deceived by this dishonest sophistry from a Tory troll.

  • Sesenco

    I suspect “Agent Orange” is right, and your hysterical outbursts are best ignored.

    Anyway, I think it’s clear enough from Ros Scott’s statement that this isn’t just going to be swept under the carpet:
    “Federal Executive meets on Monday, and this whole question is of course on our agenda. Vince Cable, as Deputy Leader, and David Shutt, as our Chief Whip in the Lords, will be there, and I predict a ‘full and frank’ exchange of views.”
    http://baronessrosscott.blogspot.com/2009/05/expensegate-what-party-does-next.html

  • Mr Berry, I have forgotten that golden rule: “never feed the trolls – it only encourages them”.

    You have a very nasty habit of making unwarranted assumtpions, Mr Berry. Nothing in what Ros Scott writes indicates to me that the meeting is going to be devoted to the allegations made about Lord Rennard by a sleazy tabloid newspaper. The words “this whole question” suggests to me the general rather than the particular.

  • Well, obsessives aside, I think most people will be able to draw their own conclusions from the fact that Ros Scott singles out for comment the presence of the chief whip in the Lords.

  • Whoever enjoined us not to feed trolls was right. Deprive them of attention, and they soon depart.

    BTW, nothing at all in this debate about (1) lobbyists giving MPs free dinners, and (2) free trips.

    The first is an abominable practice and those who make a living from it are not a lot better morally than Rupert Murdoch’s journalists.

    The second has probably escaped our attentions because the trips tend not to be funded by the state. Do the trips really add to the MP’s expertise? And are they a disguised form of lobbying? Those are the kind of questions we need to ask.

    Didn’t the late Bernie Grant come top of the free trip league? If he was milking lobbyists and giving them nothing in return, then I suppose his jet-setting was harmless.

  • I find it incredible the degree to which politicians cannot smell the coffee. Despite the words, the expressions of regret show their thin veneer on occasions. This morning one was claiming on the radio that the current problem had arisen because MP’s salaries have not been increased. I find it incredible that an employer’s failure to award a pay rise could be used to justify or give anyone a license to steal from their employer? What planet are MP’s on?

    MP’s are well paid and it should be a full time job for them before considering increasing salaries.

    I find it incredible that there is discussion about a need for a review of the current system and procedures in order that a new one can be put in place for their expenses and allowances. They make the law for the rest of us, why don’t they follow it? What’s wrong with the system the rest of us have to comply with? It’s called the tax law as enforced by the HMRC and policed by employers, with sever penalties if breached imposed on employers and employees by the HMRC.

    Many of us have to have second homes for work. MP’s are not a unique group. They are worthy of no exceptionalism. In part because it is unhealthy for people voting on tax rates that apply to the rest of us to be themselves exempt in some kind of golden tax haven by the Thames.

    The current arrangements have been exposed as a license for criminality and tax evasion. We must all be equal before the law. It is regrettable that recent events have demonstrated how this is no longer the case. Such equality before the law should not be allowed to become history.

    Our system of government is profoundly inadequate in representing the wishes of the people and delivering genuine democracy. I hope this watershed will now be used to make some overdue changes.

    Firstly, the sovereignty of parliament should be removed and invested in the people of Britain as in other democracies. This hangover from Cromwell has outlived its usefulness, as the threat of tyranny now emanates from Parliament as much as from any monarch.

    A written Constitution and Bill of Rights and Duties drafted by the people for the people should then follow imbedding a far greater amount of direct democracy and considerably better checks and balances. The web would be a great way to engage a broad spectrum of people in this, like a 21st Century virtual congress over the next few years. No laws could then be passed that infringed the Constitution or Bill of Rights and Duties. All changes requiring the direct consent of the electorate. This would ensure that some of our very old rights removed by slight of hand in recent years could be painlessly reversed (without bloodshed which was how they were won) and preserved with permanent protection.

    The House of Lords must be abolished and replaced with a Congress which should be the UK Parliament and 100% directly elected, with many MPs of the three nation’s parliament’s standing for a dual representative role.

    The House of Commons becoming the English Parliament and English MP numbers reduced by 33%.

    National parliaments sit Monday through Wednesday for example and the UK Congress dealing with business on Thursday and Friday for example.

    All candidates for election in any constituency must first win a competitive party primary with all registered party members in that constituency voting.

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