Maybe Labour was right about Gene Hunt after all

Back near the beginning of the election campaign the parties had a bit of fun with a Gene Hunt election poster. Labour had Gene on his red Audi Quattro, warning us about a return to the ’80s. The Conservatives thought the reckless Hunt, who frequently bends and breaks the rules to get results and thumbs his nose at authority, was a rather positive model and put out their own version of the poster.

It seems Labour was nearer to the truth.

There are MPs – in all parties – who have exploited the expenses system to enrich themselves at the taxpayers’ expense. That’s wrong – no argument. Those MPs have stolen from the taxpayer (in some cases they’ve done it whilst managing the stay within the rules) and they deserve punishment.

But there are many others, again in all parties though the recent example of David Laws makes it particularly salient for Lib Dems, who may have technically broken the rules, but with no intention to defraud the taxpayer or enrich themselves.

And a lot of people hate it. How dare one of our MPs break the letter of the rules, or even stumble into a grey area.   It appears to matter not a jot that Laws claimed less money than if he’d followed the rules.

This is the jobsworth approach. It doesn’t look at outcomes. It doesn’t ask whether an MP has actually enriched themselves. It just looks at the letter of the rules.

Not in the rules? Resign! Doesn’t matter how or why the rule was broken. Doesn’t matter what harm (if any) was done. Kick ’em out. Far better to have our MPs spending all their time checking and double-checking every line of their expenses than working for the good of the country.

We might think we want Gene Hunt, but we don’t really. If the reaction to Laws, and to other MPs across the political spectrum in similar situations, are anything to go by, we really want far more anodyne characters. We don’t want to leave any room for MPs to apply common sense to their expenses, and we don’t want to give them any leeway.

Welcome to Jobsworth Britain.

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25 Comments

  • Foregone Conclusion 2nd Jun '10 - 5:26pm

    Precisely. Gene Hunt is a popular character because he offers a means of escape. If any of us behaved that like such a sexist, aggressive boor in real life, we would feel ashamed of ourselves!

    People are bound by rules and regulations throughout their life, especially when dealing with money – by central and local govt., by banks, by work, by voluntary societies we might be involved with. The public hates it, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be more forgiving – since many of these rules are imposed by Parliament itself, they feel less forgiving than they would otherwise. The typical argument against Laws is that ‘if he were claiming money off the DWP under false pretences he would be in jail!’ (Forgetting that details as to the relationship of DWP claimants aren’t available to the general public, and that Laws wouldn’t have felt the need to break the rules if that had been the case!)

  • Sir Norfolk Passmore 2nd Jun '10 - 5:59pm

    I think the truth is more that people believe that Laws wasn’t merely in technical breach but that he actually took £40K to which he wasn’t entitled (they will use the word “fraud”). So I don’t think (as you suggest) its a jobsworth argument about petty and meaningless infractions of technical rules – instead I think people simply think he nicked a great big wad of cash cash.

    In fact, not only was he certainly entitled to the money (and then some) but there is also an argument which I have put elsewhere that he wasn’t even technically in breach. But that simply hasn’t come across. Indeed, it may be his biggest mistake was repaying the money – which was in fact honourable but made him appear immensely dishonourable.

    The Telegraph probably understands the true position and have a broader agenda. But the causal observer doesn’t.

  • Andrea Gill 2nd Jun '10 - 6:22pm

    @Sir Norfolk Passmore: “I think the truth is more that people believe that Laws wasn’t merely in technical breach but that he actually took £40K to which he wasn’t entitled (they will use the word “fraud”)”

    Indeed, the “man or woman on the street” seems to have digested nothing more than the Telegraph headline and automatically assume that he did actually over-claim £40’000, they don’t grasp that this sum not only involves several years BEFORE the rules were changed, but also that that had he declared his partner officially, he would have been entitled to claim MORE.

    And that is a very sad state of affairs.

  • ‘DAVID LAWS CLAIMED £40,000 RATHER THAN THE £80,000 FOLLOWING THE RULES WOULD HAVE ALLOWED HIM TO CLAIM!’ – How dare he shamefully fail to rip off the taxpayer in the name of being private about his sexuality?

    I think the problem is that a lot of people are stupid. The DWP analogy is a fine example. It’s not even as if the analogy works. To be prosecuted for intent to defraud you have to have intent proven, and generally for intent to be proven it needs to be demonstrated that you didn’t choose a path which left you materially poorer than had you followed the rules as they are set out (forgetting for a moment the ambiguity of whether he did break the rules). We’re moving towards the American situation of a stupid population and a media-political symbiosis operating for the well-being of the better off (the people who don’t want CGT reformed) actively exploiting that fact. What kind of people do you think it is making the DWP analogies; it’s not objective journalists or tax experts or politicos at Conservative HQ; it’s the ordinary men and women on the street who will be the beneficiaries if CGT reform gets passed. And who is telling them what to think? The people who own the Telegraph. And how are they able to do this? Because the education system in this country sucks and rote learning and teaching-to-the-test (read; learning to accept what people in authority tell you) is emphasized over critical thinking.

  • OhNoNotAgain 2nd Jun '10 - 9:08pm

    I think most people have moved on now until their is a ruling to discuss. I don’t think breaking the expense claims rules (which seem to me quite clear) and being dull are the same thing. I think we do understand the argument that it was a technical breach as he could have arranged his finances differently but we don’t agree. I think we also understand the argument about privacy/secrecy and don’t agree that this could only be met by breaching the rules. So please don’t suggest the public are stupid. Furthermore the argument about the benefit claimant is a simple one. A benefit claimant may not risk loss of privacy but they face other dilemmas. Like, for example, the Norfolk woman who recently came to court for defrauding the system of £10,000. Her reason was that her so-called partner was unreliable. The judge said he sympathised with her motives but the law is the law and must be enforced. He imprisoned her as well as ordered she repay the money. I sympathise more with her – why shouldn’t the poor woman have an unreliable lover better than no lover at all. But the law is the law – and politicians are not above it. I think a lot of us are very upset that the political apologists just don’t get this simple fact. You can’t have different standards of judgement and we know this because we live every day in fear of being on the wrong side of the rules – within this we seek to live imaginative and good lives. I do think the argument has now been had.

  • Andrea Gill 2nd Jun '10 - 9:26pm

    The good thing however is that Laws’ constituency office has received overwhelming support by phone, email etc. 🙂

  • OhNoNotAgain 2nd Jun '10 - 10:48pm

    Iain,

    I agree there is room for latitude but do you think the judge was wrong to imprison the woman. If you do then wouldn’t you need to change the law on benefit fraud otherwise every woman could claim her husband was unreliable. Likewise homesexuals have campaigned for equality before the law. We now accept this and feel it should have been obvious to Mr. Laws that his landlord was no longer his landlord but his partner. The trouble with latitude is that it justice isn’t blind. And it is the common person’s experience that latitude is always expected for the political classes but not for the poor. So you want to argue he didn’t need the money and we want to say that is what makes it so much worse. We do understand – we listen to you from dawn to dusk – its you who don’t understand us and call us the ‘little people’ the ‘stupid’ people. The problem is that it is always painful when it is your family member, your political ally, your country that is caught in wrong doing. You thought he was a brilliant man but that is a dangerous basis for latitude. I felt sorry for the trouser press claimants – that was petty and it was for the job. I would have given latitude but not to Cameron who I understand claimed for sweets. It is simple there is a lot of anger with those that just don’t get it. The way the expenses issue was handled was terrible – a ghastly mixture of resentment and guilt – rather than understanding and responsibility.

  • Why are Lib Dems trying to excuse Laws. I admire him too, but he did mislead the taxpayer. We are starting to sound like apologists. Lets accept his wrongdoing, hope he is excused by the parliamentary commissioner and heartily welcome him back to the frontline.

  • Darren Reynolds 3rd Jun '10 - 12:10am

    The argument put forward by some contributors to this thread seems to me to be reducible to the following statement:

    “It is OK if a person steals money in circumstances when, had he been honest, he would have been given more than he stole.”

    So, a parallel example might be: an elderly person consults you about leaving £10,000 to you in her will, and you politely refuse. You then steal £5,000 from her on the grounds that you had been given the opportunity to receive more, honestly.

    Irrespective of the extent to which this scenario may or may not apply to David Laws, such a justification for theft seems to me to be contrary to acceptable standards of behaviour in our society.

  • The tone of your article was patronising because it implied stupid preference for the ‘jobsworthy’ approach. of mindlessly following rules and thereby stifling creative talents who are above worrying about minor technicalities of expense claims. But what I find funny is that so many MPs seem to have used most of the talents to enrich themselves rather than to be an effective opposition. It is this entitlement culture we want stopped and I am afraid Laws in this respect doesn’t look good. Had he just claimed the rent your argument might just have some credibility but he also claimed for cleaning and for maintenance (normally paid for by the landlord as the poor amongst us know). Furthermore his claims went down once he had to provide receipts and he moved house once the expenses scandal broke. At no time did he seem to seek advice or come clean – he only resigned once pushed.

    Gordon Brown (not to me) but to many was a great man and his admirers had to watch three years of abuse that related to his physical appearance, his character, criticism of his brother organising him a cleaner. Furthermore it didn’t stop even once he lost the election – they are still poking at him – why is he not at Westminster, blah, blah. He has been treated to unremitting bulling (even if a bully himself which there is some evidence of). And the Lib Dem leadership were silent or lapped it up.

  • Malcolm Todd 3rd Jun '10 - 9:32am

    Iain

    I don’t have enough knowledge of any specific cases to comment sensibly about them.

    Isn’t that the implied subtext to every comment on every blog on every site on the web? 😀

  • toryboysnevergrowup 3rd Jun '10 - 9:36am

    The corollary of this is that MPs can behave improperly even while they stay within the rules. There has to be some sort of a man on the Clapham omnibus test that MPs put themselves through when it comes to their own behaviour.

    Many LibDems will not see it – but you do have something of a reputation as nit picking barrack room lawyers.

  • OhNoNotAgain 3rd Jun '10 - 9:44am

    Ian,

    I am afraid you have just engaged in some liberal fence sitting unable to give an opinion on whether a woman who obtained the judges sympathy that she had a financially unreliable lover should have been sent to prison. It was the judge who said the law is the law and she must go to prison – when it comes to benefits claimants, that is justice. So we see your pleas for latitude as the privileged protecting their own. You didn’t personally use the term ‘stupid’ but your argument led others in the thread to do so by your suggestion that the ordinary people are ensuring a jobsworthy culture. You invited a them and us response.

  • @ Darren Reynolds “So, a parallel example might be: an elderly person consults you about leaving £10,000 to you in her will, and you politely refuse. You then steal £5,000 from her on the grounds that you had been given the opportunity to receive more, honestly.”

    Regarding this “parallel”, it seems to be missing the part where the elderly person who is offering to leave you £10,000 has set a condition on your accepting it which involves exposing a personal and private aspect of your life to an entire country. The issue that would be exposed would not only be exposed for you, but also a third party, who automatically gets exposed with you. The exposure will potentially cause great distress to your family and friends, and it could prevent you continuing to do your job. You wish to continue doing your job in order to help millions of people.

  • @OhNoNotAgain “It was the judge who said the law is the law and she must go to prison – when it comes to benefits claimants, that is justice.”

    So is your argument here that if the law is unjust to a benefits claimant, that injustice ceases to be unjust, as long as the same injustice is applied to M.P.’s?

  • Iain Roberts 3rd Jun '10 - 10:06am

    @ToryBoysNeverGrowUp – you make a good point – the Lib Dems were loudly making the point that “flipping” was wrong, even if technically against the rules. In a private company, it normally comes down to your boss’s judgement (and different bosses, and different companies, can take very different lines, of course).

    I don’t have an easy answer, beyond the general point that someone who’s not actually extracted more money than they should have but may have technically broken the rules should at most be given a warning the first time around.

    @OhNoNotAgain not sitting on the fence at all – I just don’t know anything about it, so would be daft to comment.

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Jun '10 - 10:07am

    I wrote this in another thread:

    Mr Laws had the honesty early on to recognise he did wrong and to resign from his post of chief maker of cuts. It would be better for his cause if everyone else shut up about him and let him go quietly instead of trying to defend him in a way that only makes it worse.

    and, to be honest Iain, I really think you should have observed it and Liberal Democrat Voice should have had the sense not to run yet another article on this issue.

    It is NOT a “jobsworth” case at all, it is the exact opposite. Most people can see that claiming rent as expenses and then paying that rent to someone who is your spouse or equivalent is wrong. End of story – why do we need to argue more about it? I’m sorry, but all this “if Mr Laws had organised things slightly differently, he could still have claimed that amount within the regulations” or “this little bit of the regulations I’ve discovered here means it’s ok for him to do it” or “forget what we said previously in support of gay marriage, when it comes to our man we’ll go back to the old way of saying if it isn’t two people of the opposite sex it’s just a business relationship” won’t wash. There is an intrinsic feeling he did wrong, there is a knowledge that someone claiming Housing Benefit for rent paid to a spouse-equivalent in this way would not be able to wriggle out of it, there is a knowledge that due to this someone has £40,000 passed through their bank account paid for by taxes, and there is a feeling that £40,000 is a very big sum of money. How is anyone who earns the average income – which is rather less than £40,000 – to feel when they see their tax taken to pay for this?

    The more it is argued about here, the more it will come across to the ordinary person is once again politicians with their snouts in the trough trying to excuse making themselves very rich at the taxpayers’ expense – and yes, to some £40,000 may not sound a lot, to the person on average or below income it is “very rich”. This illustrates very well why we need people from a variety of social backgrounds in government, and why it is a potential disaster that we have a cabinet stuffed full of millionaires. They may be very clever, they may be millionaires because they are very clever and so used that cleverness to make money, but being used to having such large amounts of money they forget what such amounts means to ordinary people, and that leads them into making poor judgments.

    You say, Iain, about MPs applying “common sense” to their expenses claim, but it seems to me to be straight common sense which Mr Laws ought to have applied that when it became clear he was in more than a business relationship with his landlord, he should have quietly taken out that line from his expenses claim. Who would have noticed and said anything? Mr Laws, had he been asked about it and being a shy fellow did not want to talk about the real reason, could just have answered “I decided to pay my own way on this rent, that’s just my decision”, and it would have looked good on him, what an example as he goes about making cuts, a rich man who therefore voluntarily forgoes expenses he could have claimed because he can still live comfortably without taking that money.

    It is quite right that we do not want as MPs the sort of person who thinks “but the law allows me to do this” is an adequate excuse for doing something most people would think of as wrong. We want MPs to have a sense of what is right and what is wrong beyond the letter of the law, because they are the people who write the letter of the law. Their job is to look at the law, decide where the letter of the law conflicts with an innate sense of what is right and what is wrong, and for that reason change the letter of the law.

  • OhNoNotAgain 3rd Jun '10 - 10:58am

    I am not suggesting that the woman in the case should not have gone to prison. I am suggesting that there is often little latitude for benefit claimants because there is a need to make an example and this requires applying the law – possibly her sentence may have been less harsh because of her situation but I wouldn’t know this. My concern is that it is clear Mr. Laws broke the rules – he knew his lover was his partner and he didn’t come forward when the rules changed, when expenses required receipts nor when the expenses scandal exposed. Instead he reduced his claims once he had to produce receipts and set up another place to rent. If he had gone to the standards people during the scandal then leniency is a valid argument. He has had choices all along but you want to defend his bad choices. I think I have made my argument now and it differs from yours. Personally I think you are blinded by personal, party and class loyalties to Mr. Laws rather than have an ability to look at the facts and l leave you with your belittling ‘jobsworthy’ (a despicable word for ordinary people required to follow rules created by parliamentarians) label.

  • “It is NOT a “jobsworth” case at all, it is the exact opposite. Most people can see that claiming rent as expenses and then paying that rent to someone who is your spouse or equivalent is wrong.”

    Okay, so the problem you’re having is that you don’t understand what’s happening? As I understand it he was renting property from James for two years before he started having a relationship with him. Even then he wasn’t his ‘spouse or equivalent’. Where do you get the equivalency from? Were they civil partners? No. Did they have shared finances? No. Where they ‘spouses by social repute’? Apparently not. The Green Book never bothered to specify how many times or how long you should be sleeping with your landlord before you should consider yourself partners. The 2006 rule (which I mention in passing, came into force during the period covered by the £40,000 claims) was designed to prevent the following set up:

    My wife and I own property together. I become an MP. I take my name off the mortgage and start claiming my living there on expenses (an unnecessary expense which would not otherwise exist and involves me giving taxpayer money to my wife and therefore, because our finances are shared, to myself). A set up similar to what the MP for Glasgow East had when he ‘rented’ office space in his house from himself.

    Why should James Lundie not charge rent? He did before Laws started sleeping with him. He owns the property. If Laws didn’t claim the rent Lundie could reasonably feel aggrieved that Laws didn’t put himself on the morgage like every other MP and claim twice what he was claiming. The reason the analogy to DWP or to benefit fraud doesn’t work is, as I’ve said, you cannot prove intent here because this is a man setting up his affairs in a way which minimises his claims. If he wished to defraud the taxpayer then he should have mortgaged a property himself and either had Lundie pay him or let Lundie stay for free. That would have cost the taxpayer far more than the setup he chose, be perfectly within the rules and maintained his privacy. No intent to defraud here, m’lud.

  • David Allen 3rd Jun '10 - 12:05pm

    Thank you OhNoNotAgain, for trying so hard to teach this party what should have been obvious. To sum up, “There’s one law for the rich, and a different law for the poor”.

    I never thought I would see such a sad day. When a Liberal Democrat – a Liberal Democrat! – stands up for the view that the rich deserve a different law from the poor, and that anyone who disagrees is a jobsworth.

  • I understand that unfair rules applied to the poor, while fair rules are applied to the rich is unfair. What I do not see is how applying the unfair rules for the poor also to the rich solves this. I can see it makes the situation equal. When did making everything equally unfair become a Liberal Democrat target ?

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Jun '10 - 4:32pm

    Duncan

    Even then he wasn’t his ’spouse or equivalent’. Where do you get the equivalency from?

    From what has been said here and elsewhere about the relationship between David Laws and James Lundie. They are, as the phrase goes, “an item”.

    The Green Book never bothered to specify how many times or how long you should be sleeping with your landlord before you should consider yourself partners.

    I don’t give a fig what some Green Book says. I am looking at this from the point of view of how some ordinary person sees it – particularly someone who has been caught out by Housing Benefit rules which state you cannot claim rent and pay it to someone who is an item with you, or whatever the wording is (it is actually more general than this).

    If he wished to defraud the taxpayer then he should have mortgaged a property himself and either had Lundie pay him or let Lundie stay for free. That would have cost the taxpayer far more than the setup he chose, be perfectly within the rules and maintained his privacy.

    He might have done. That does not stop the fact that to the ordinary person in the street that sounds like “blah de blah de blah, different rules apply to us than apply to you proles”.

    Housing benefit also has all sorts of perverse incentives like this. You can get done for one thing, whereas if you’d
    done something else that costs the state far more you wouldn’t get done. It isn’t accepted as an excuse “OK, technically it was wrong, but look, I could have got away with far more and it wouldn’t be wrong had I done it this other way instead”.

    The point is not that Mr Laws is a bad man, but that he has acted in a way that can be legitimately portrayed as “claiming rent, but paying it to someone who is a close relation rather than as a commercial transaction”. People know that is wrong, and are not going to listen to the details. Mr Laws should just have seen, once he was in this relationship of more than landlord-tenant with Mr Lundie, that it would look bad if he continued to claim the rent as expenses. And so just not claimed it – I’ve not heard any evidence that he needed the money that badly.

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