Saturday, 14 May 2011

The personal is political - and David Laws should be an advocate

Can someone tell me how using the public purse to pay your partner rent is in any way justifiable?

Of course it isn't. Parliamentary rules have stated that payments to relations and partners have been prohibited since 2006. But Liberal Democrat MP David Laws got away with it until shortly after the Coalition government was formed last summer.

Privacy is once against a topic of heated debate, whether it's super-injunctions, secret recording or sado-masochistic sex orgies. And, while I have some sympathy with David Laws for his desire to keep his personal life separate from the giant magnifying glass of the media, I wouldn't be true to the strapline of my own blog if I didn't preach that 'the personal is political'. The saying is actually an old feminist mantra, but it cuts through public life whether we like it or not, and I would argue that those who go into politics supposedly to encourage a more equal and just society should live out those values.

Laws says that one of the reasons he didn't declare that he was paying rent to his partner James Lundie, was that he didn't want to disclose his homosexuality. While I'm not in favour of outing people against their will, an individual who goes into elective politics should have felt able to do so without feeling that they would somehow be treated unfairly by the expenses system for having a same-sex partner. Frankly, it's a bit cheap to expect privacy when you're fleecing the public purse to the tune of £40,000 for the weekday convenience of a smart central London property when your supposed 'main' home is in Yeovil, 135 miles away in rural Somerset.

Worse still, Laws ain't short of a few bob, with an estimated wealth of between £1-2 million thanks to a lucrative City career.

The Parliamentary Standards Commissioner has seen sense and has responded robustly to Laws' actions with a full report condemning his breaking of six rules related to the claiming of expenses. And Laws has rightly apologised for his actions, and in fairness has paid back £16,000 more than he needed to. With a seven-day ban from Parliament also imposed on him, he's paid the price in more ways than one.

I hope I'm the last person to criticise an MP for wanting to keep what's personal, private, but I'm no apologist for someone who sits in public office to expect the (admittedly flawed) systems around him to cater to his whims of financial convenience, just because he happens to be gay. It does no favours for the cause of equality. The last thing we want is the sort of Parliament where MPs feel they have to sneak under the radar of the expenses regime, hiding their sexual preferences as if they were some sort of dirty secret under the pretence of a “landlord-tenant relationship”, as James O'Brian put it on the BBC's Question Time. Parliament is in enough of a 1950s timewarp as it is.

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