LibLink: Mark Pack – Why do we demand such high standards of politicians?

Over at The Independent, Lib Dem Voice Co-Editor Mark Pack takes a look at the Telegraph’s pursuit of David Laws and Danny Alexander.

On David, Mark notes:

… for me, the dividing line between reprimand and resignation in matters of personal financial affairs should be whether or not you have personally gained from a breach of the rules. … in this ironic situation where a politician gets into trouble for claiming less money than he could have done, I regret that he has decided to resign.

And on Danny, he writes:

It’s an odd form of morality to criticise someone for paying no tax when there’s no tax to pay. It’s like criticising someone for exploiting loopholes by putting money into a pension. You get a tax break if you do that, but it’s not dodging tax – it’s just how the system is designed to work.

Mark’s conclusion – that the Telegraph’s paparazzo-style journalism will backfire on politics generally:

There are two dangers than come with this inconsistent “you’re a politician so what you’ve done must be wrong even if it’s better than how I behave” mindset. One is that it makes politicians blank out the media and claim what they can anyway – because if you’re going to be criticised regardless, why bother listening to the critics?

The second is that it puts good people off politics. Why put yourself and your family up for such treatment when there are so many other fulfilling careers? … In the end, we all lose if such people are put off – because the complexities and opportunities of government are so great that we need the very best in Parliament.

You can read Mark’s article in full here.

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22 Comments

  • Roger Shade 1st Jun '10 - 11:53am

    Surely the whole purpose of the Torygraph’s campaign is to undermine democracy. The proprietors of the paper attempted the same thing on a smaller scale on Sark, expecting their placemen to be elected, they were unsuccessful. It doesn’t however seem to have disuaded from trying again in Britain. They purchased the CD Roms for a very moderate price considering the mileage they have provided. I hope they fail in their efforts to destroy the coalition and allow an extreme right wing government to take its place.

  • Isn’t part of the problem that we as Liberal Democrats made so much of MP’s conduct? We, or should I say Nick Clegg, tried to take the highest possible ground on this issue. It was inevitable that if any MP, even looked as if they were being hypocritical, that individual would be hounded. One doesn’t have to suppose conspiracies among the right-wing press to understand this.

  • David Allen 1st Jun '10 - 12:27pm

    Articles like Mark’s damage our party. The are damaging because they are so clearly self-serving. The public can all see that we are being hypocritical, even if some of us are distressingly blind to it.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 1st Jun '10 - 12:57pm

    Oh the irony of this is a joy to behold. For many years we have seen the LibDems pack of feral barrack room lawyers launched on any perceived transgressors of the rules, while their leadership floated around on the moral high ground dispensing their sermons to anyone who might listen. One commenter even referred to the “shredding” of Kitty Ussher in Burnley over her CGT. But now the boot is on the other foot and a few LibDems are under scrutiny how you squeal about the unfairness of it all, and how the press is a conspiracy and needs to be tamed etc. Perhaps, a few realise that the LibDems should receive a dose of their own medicine so that they can appreciate just how nasty it was.

    Anyway, once we have got through the necessary Schadenfreude period, I do agree with Mark’s general point that we should not be expecting perfection from our politicians when it isn’t demanded elsewhere. Anyone in the corporate world will now that examples of greed and abuse are just as easy to find as they are at Westminster. That said there is a general expectation that while we don’t expect our elected representatives to be perfect, we would at least expect them to be towards the top end of the scale. I also think that Mark is placing too much emphasis on compliance with the rules. Most people understand that rules cannot be written to deal with every eventuality, and that in some cases rule bending/breaking can be justified or excused in the interest of a greater good (I suspect many people would see David Laws in such a category – which is why I think he could have stayed). This is not the same as saying people can ignore the rules or pick and chose those with which they wish to comply. On the other hand, there needs to be some understanding that the public does have a perception as to what is appropriate/moral behaviour over and above what is often set out in detailed laws – and politicians need to (constantly) ask themselves how their behaviour would be judged by ordinary people. I very much doubt that ordinary people on the street would see the claiming of interest and a new boiler on a property in the two years prior to its disposal for a healthy tax free capital gain as acceptable – even though it is all legal and in compliance with the rules.

    In the corporate world – there are mechanisms such as non executive directors, audit committees which allow (somewhat imperfectly) for management to take soundings as to whether behaviours are appropriate or otherwise. Rather than trying to set up rules and policing mechanisms for everything, perhaps now is the time to start thinking about something similar for MPs.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 1st Jun '10 - 2:30pm

    Mark

    You just don’t get it – both Kitty Usher and Danny Alexander (and lots of others) both acted entirely within the law with regard to CGT and the parlimentary rules regarding expenses and they both profited from CGT gains on their properties which were in part funded by the expenses they received. Just because DA’s tax planning may have been easier to do is not the point that concerns most members of the public. Of course it is alright to shred Kitty because she is not a LibDem?

  • David Allen 1st Jun '10 - 5:04pm

    Mark,

    You personally may have occasionally defended some non Lib Dems. However, you are part of a wave of Lib Dem propaganda in favour of Laws, who clearly made a mistake. (As well as Alexander, who I’m inclined to believe didn’t do anything outside either the letter or even the spirit of the law, so OK, if that’s what you believe, it is perfectly reasonable to come out all guns blazing in his defence).

    Others from other parties also made mistakes, a few of them also pretty non-culpable in reality, and I don’t recall a wave of Lib Dem propaganda defending them. Rather, we just had a wave of holier-than-thou propaganda.

    Take the example of Ian Gibson, whose resignation caused the Norwich byelection. He let his daughter make a capital gain out of a taxpayer-funded property – yes, a mistake. He pointed out to his Labour accusers that if he’d sold the place himself and donated the proceeds to his daughter, he’d have been in the clear. Labour slung him out anyway. Did the Lib Dems come out with a storm of defensive protest in that case?

    Anyway, if none of that convinces you – doesn’t it occur to you that if you protest too much, you might be losing us votes rather than winning them? Perhaps we should take advice from Denis Healey on what to do about holes?

  • David Allen 1st Jun '10 - 5:22pm

    Stephen,

    I do feel compassion for Laws. It’s Pack I have less understanding for!

    But it’s complicated. Suppose Laws’ partner had been female, a divorcee perhaps, a relationship he wanted to keep private. Would he have been given the slightest sympathy, had he argued that this justified him in making a false expenses claim?

  • Matthew Huntbach 2nd Jun '10 - 12:28am

    David Laws claimed £40,000 in expenses that was actually going to someone who was his regular sexual partner. A person on average income would have to work for two years to get that amount of money after tax. A person who claimed housing benefit for “rent” that was actually paid to a regular sexual partner would be treated very harshly. Ordinary people know how harshly these rules are applied – how can anyone decent in politics stand by and say that sort of treatment should not be applied also to MPs? Why is it OK for rich people and politicians to fiddle the system like that, but not poor people? THAT is the response we are going to get on the streets if we attempt any defence of Mr Laws on the grounds he meant no wrong or didn’t profit from it. Is £40,000 such a trivial amount it hardly counts? Oh, come on. That just makes things worse, it just makes Mr Laws look like some out-of-touch millionaire who doesn’t realise how much £40,000 is to ordinary people – what they would have to work TWO YEARS OF THEIR LIVES to earn.

    We are told it is a tragedy because Mr Laws had his dream job and lost it. Well – a great many people will lose their jobs in the cuts Mr Laws was going to have to make and his successor will now have to make. How many people know what it is like to be unemployed now after a career working in public sector administration? There are NO jobs going because all vacancies are being filled internally, either because of cuts now or in anticipation of cuts in the future. Mr Laws still has his partner after this. How much family breakdown will there be as jobs are lost, people thrown out of work in the prime of their career and NO jobs available? What pressure it places on personal bonds if – unlike Mr Laws – you are not a millionaire, so a few months without salary will lead to repossession and homelessness?

    I have written many times about the hypocrisy of the war on politicians waged by the likes of the Daily Telegraph, because I know full well the amounts they take from the public purse, though huge to an ordinary person, are tiny compared to the amounts taken by bankers and City bosses and the likes with very little scrutiny – and we all DO pay for it as they have things tied up so we have no choice but to use their services. So, yes, I wish there was a balance on these things and our bosses in the private sector were also pilloried for the amount of money they fiddle out of us. However, “they all do it, so it’s OK for Mr Laws to do it” won’t work, especially if Mr Laws had stayed in his job which was all about making cuts and so throwing people out of work.

    Mr Laws did the decent thing and resigned quickly. He recognised his position better than many of those who jumped to his defence. Unfortunately, it does call to mind whether he is really up to the job – it was a stupid error of judgement not to have quietly dropped this expenses claim when he and his landlord became “an item”. Would anyone really have noticed? Would people really have said “millionaire Mr Laws isn’t screwing the state for every bit of expenses he could claim, so that must mean he is …”? Well I won’t be crude and continue with the punch line which involves a repetition of the gerund. But if he could get this wrong, what else could he get wrong?

    The funny thing is I heard about this news item when it first came out, and got annoyed with Mr Laws for having done this in the first place and just noted “oh, I don’t recall knowing he was gay, but I guess I just missed it”. It was only when I came later to read discussion of this issue here in blog-world that I found out this revelation of his expenses fiddle was also his “outing”. I’m sorry for him it should have been done in that way, but my initial reaction was just as it is above – this was a very bad thing he had done – on the basis that I didn’t know his homosexuality wasn’t public knowledge. So I had the advantage of seeing and thinking about this without being distracted by that issue. Sorry, but therefore if we are truly non-discriminating on sexuality, whoever Mr Laws’ partner is doesn’t matter, it isn’t the issue – the issue is simply claiming rent expenses which go to the partner.

    This whole sorry thing about MPs’ expenses really has to go. How stupid that they should all be submitting chits for this or that, and some officials should be checking them and agreeing them, and we have all these rows about whether they are justified or not. Just pay them all a housing allowance dependent only on how far their constituency is from London. Let’s say highest of rent for one-bed flat within 30 mins travel to Westminster or 3-bed house in their constiuency if it is more than 30 mins travel from Westminster. Cut all that bureaucracy dealing which expenses claims. Which I suppose means throwing those civil servants who deal with them out of their jobs, how cruel … Or redeploying them into whatever similar civil service jobs become vacant, sounds less cruel, unless you are an out-of-work civil servant (maybe an ex civil servant mum wanting to get back into work …) thereby denied a chance at those jobs.

  • “Why do we demand such high standards of politicians?”

    Because it is much easier to take a load of anger out on politicians than it is to think straight about what they actually did, and what the impact of it was on balance.

  • Ruth Bright 2nd Jun '10 - 9:02am

    I think it is very important that Mark has asked the general question about why anyone of any party would put their partner/family through the forensic level of scrutiny likely in a top political post. Where will it end if it carries on like this?

    Does a health minister have to declare whether his kids have had the MMR jab? Is a welfare minister suspect because she claims child benefit she is entitled to but doesn’t actually need? Is it OK to ask an MP who wants the abortion limit down to 20 weeks whether she has ever had a termination?

  • Matthew Huntbach 2nd Jun '10 - 1:56pm

    Ruth Bright

    I think it is very important that Mark has asked the general question about why anyone of any party would put their partner/family through the forensic level of scrutiny likely in a top political post. Where will it end if it carries on like this?

    Sorry Ruth, it does not seem to me to be at all like that.

    David Laws did something which

    1) Would have resulted in prosecution for fraud had someone done it claiming similar rent payment as Housing Benefit.

    2) We would have made a huge fuss about had it been someone from another party had doe it and we were fighting that person in a by-election.

    I’m sorry but “I claimed £40,000 of public funds I was not entitled to because it was a way of hiding being gay” does not wash. Are we seriously to suppose anyone would have gone through Mr Laws’ or any other MPs’ expenses claims and gone “a-hah – there’s something fishy here” if s/he WASN’T claiming for something? I rather suspect there were umpteen other ways in which Mr Laws’ sexuality might eventually have become public knowledge more likely than this.

    Mr Laws did the right thing in resigning promptly. I’m afraid I do put this down to “very rich man – did not realise that what to him was probably a tiny amount of money is a HUGE amount to ordinary people”, so fraudulently making this claim just did not seem that big thing to him. Everyone else in the party who’s been trying to defend him in a way he hasn’t tried himself is behaving in a ridiculous fashion which is just causing more damage to our party, because to the passer-by it looks like “Political people trying to justify snouts-in-the-trough again”.

  • Matthew Huntbach wrote:

    “David Laws did something which

    1) Would have resulted in prosecution for fraud had someone done it claiming similar rent payment as Housing Benefit.”

    Balderdash and codswallop. You are conflating two entirely separate regimes – the Housing Benefit Rules and the Parliamentary Expenses Rules. Wholly different sets of rules from wholly different sources apply to each of these.

    Whether or not David Laws breached the rules of Parliamentary expenses hinges on how we construe the word “partner” within the meaning of those rules. It seems to me that there is an ambiguity, and it is a well established rule of construction that where a breach of a statute or a rule can lead to some kind of penalty, that ambiguity is interpreted in the defendant’s favour. David Laws is entitled to have the ambiguity surrounding the meaning of “partner” for the purposes of the Expenses Rules interpreted in his favour. Or are you saying that due process and legal principle should be chucked out of the window at the behest of a media-led lynch mob?

    You are welcome to call for reform of Housing Benefit Rules, but that it a wholly separate issue.

    Matthew, are you not at least puzzled by the fact that you are on the same side in this argument as the “Daily Torygraph” and the “Daily Mail” – publications hardly noted for their passionate advocacy on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged?

  • “sorry but “I claimed £40,000 of public funds I was not entitled to because it was a way of hiding being gay” does not wash.”

    No it does not wash, but then that is not what David Laws said.

  • Matthew, I generally agree with you about most things, but the £40,000 David Laws claimed over five years is actually less than the housing benefit paid to my daughter’s landlord over the same period. Sure, £40,000 in itself is a lot of money to the man or woman in the street, but in the context of housing it’s the going rate.

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Jun '10 - 10:53am

    Sesenco

    Balderdash and codswallop. You are conflating two entirely separate regimes – the Housing Benefit Rules and the Parliamentary Expenses Rules. Wholly different sets of rules from wholly different sources apply to each of these

    Yes, they may do, I am simply noting how this is likely to appear to the sort of person who get Housing Benefit rather than Parliamentary expenses. I am sorry, but the more you and others wriggle on this, the more you appear to be piggies with your snouts in the trough. Or, at least, people who being associated with a political party hope to become such piggies so jump to the defence of a successful piggy. If anything, the response from most people to what you write above would be “Yes, quite right, wholly different sets of rules, with the politicians setting themselves much more beneficial rules than those they ask the rest of the population to live by”.

    Now, it may be very unfair, you may be able to bring this and that little bit from the rule-book to say it isn’t really like that. The ordinary person won’t care, s/he isn’t going to read the details.

    You ask whether I am “puzzled by the fact” that I am on “the same side in this argument as the ‘Daily Torygraph’ and the ‘Daily Mail'”. No, given that at the same time I am firing off commentary wherever I can at the sickening way these papers defend tax on money made by the idle rich being less than tax paid on the same amount by someone who worked their guts out to get it as wages, I know where I stand on the ‘Daily Torygraph’ and the ‘Daily Mail’.

    Now, tonyhill notes “the £40,000 David Laws claimed over five years is actually less than the housing benefit paid to my daughter’s landlord over the same period”. Indeed, and yet the ‘Daily Torygraph’ and the ‘Daily Mail’ still think it is an outrage that his daughter’s landlord should have to pay tax on whatever huge amount he makes in capital gains when he sells that property at the same rate someone who sweated in hard labour to get that amount would pay. I think it is an outrage that there are not riots the streets at this level of injustice. The stupid, stupid left in this country can get all worked up about Gaza and the like, but cannot get any sort of campaign going on this issue which makes it so obvious how this country is run in the favour of the rich. If we had a decent left in this country, there would be piles of Telegraphs and Mails burning in the streets with angry crowds saying “Here you go, this is what we think of your saying we should pay tax on our hard-earned money but those who do nothing to make their money except exploit others should not”. What an insult that not only do these people benefit from forcing house prices up so that others are forced to rent, from tax-payer subsidy which guarantees these high rents, they have the Telegraph and Mail on their side defending them paying low tax on the capital gains they also make.

    Once we used to sing “Make them pay their taxes on the land just like the rest”, and I long for the day when that true radical spirit re-enters our party and we are not afraid to stand up for the poor against the rich.

    I am sorry for the personal tragedy of Mr Laws, but that tragedy could easily have been averted by cancelling one line in his expenses claim. As I have said elsewhere, who really would have noticed that? Sesenco, I am not saying that “due process and legal principle should be chucked out of the window at the behest of a media-led lynch mob” because this is not a legal case. There are plenty of things which are perfectly legal yet immoral, and a decent legal system recognises the difference. I would, of course, defend Mr Laws’ right to argue he has done nothing which deserves the punishment of the law. I also defend Mr Laws’ prompt acceptance that he had acted in a way that brings embarrassment to his party and therefore resigning. It was the honourable thing to do, and if we’d all shut up and accept it, I’ll be happy to see Mr Laws back in a suitable post in due time.

  • Matthew Hunbach wrote:

    “I am sorry, but the more you and others wriggle on this, the more you appear to be piggies with your snouts in the trough. Or, at least, people who being associated with a political party hope to become such piggies so jump to the defence of a successful piggy.”

    Your imputations are laughable. I am not travelling on any gravy trains at present, and am unlikely to do so in the very near future. Moreover, I seek no public office nor any favours from Liberal Democrat politicians (when I did hold public office I ended up substantially out-of-pocket).

    If I were to be as silly are you are being in this thread, I could equally well accuse you of being motivated by jealousy of David Laws’s money. (As a university lecturer on around £80,000 pa, that is unlikely to be the case.)

    Your argument from the inevitability of public opinion falling in one particular direction does not convince. This is like saying it is pointless fighting racism, because most people hate blacks and won’t change their attitudes, however hard we try. The people are being manipulated, as are you, as are the Labour trolls on this site, by North American oligarchs who want to micro-manage the affirs of this country in their own interests. That is why the “Daily Torygraph” has targeted two Liberal Democrat MPs with spurious allegations of wrongdoing that appeal to base popular instincts, namely envy and homophobia.

    Take off the blinkers, Matthew.

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