Monday, May 31, 2010

Becoming Laws Unto Themselves

And then the inevitable happened. When the coalition was formed, as a blogosphere we all wondered how we would react when the first scandal came; lo and behold, when it did it came with a big dollop of core liberal issues attached.

Then again, I guess the response to Friday night and Saturday morning, up to and including David's resignation, was just as inevitable given the collective political response to expenses from day one. Looking back, the occasional Margaret Moran joke notwithstanding, I never blogged on the topic. Normally that might be explained by my general attitude to any sort of topicality, but in this case it stemmed from my being just utterly sick of the immaturity and hypocrisy of it all.

What we got was the very worst kind of moral equivalence. Neither the Torygraph nor any of the politicians really tried to understand what had gone on; instead, the Torygraph intimated that all the politicians were evil and the politicians acquiesced on the grounds that at least their politicians were just as evil as the other side's. Making it all about the individuals, however, doesn't do anything to address either what did happen or what should happen.

In reality, the expenses scandals were many and several. The duck houses were amusing, yes, but the sense of moral outrage at them was entirely misplaced. Fundamentally, even if the voters are the interview panel and the employers of MPs, they can't be their HR or payroll department, hence there must be a Fees Office. Clearly there was a failing there in scrutiny terms (which the FOI requests went to the heart of) but any such failing is by definition systemic and can only be solved by changing the system, which hopefully we have.

The thing that's missing from that scenario, from the point of view of a law student at any rate, is culpability. Plenty of bloggers and commenters have screamed about how David Laws is meant to have defrauded the public, but the question they must answer is simple; how? Claiming for money you never spent is fraud (see the various examples that are currently sub judice.) Flipping is fraud (as you are by definition lying to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, which tends to be a bad idea. And before you start, even the Torygraph admit that Danny Alexander did nothing illegal and nothing any member of the public could have done...)

But what is it exactly that David Laws did? Even if we ignore the fact that the rule in the Green Book is lorry-drivingly vague (and seriously, the phrase "treat each other as spouses" is the sort of thing that earns QCs serious hourly rates down on the Strand) we have to ask what that rule was there to prevent. If David had taken money for somewhere he hadn't lived (like, say, Baroness Uddin) there would be a clear fraud. If David's claimed rent had been excessive for the property, that would have been fraud. As it is, while it may generally be advisable not to be in the situation David was, it is difficult to see how it constitutes any sort of fraud.

At the same time, what it does show is how abysmally the Torygraph-led knee-jerk reaction has actually served the taxpayer's interest. Then again, the one thing the Torygraph was never smart enough to understand was what the taxpayer's interest was, or that it was two-fold; to get value for money, yes, but also to ensure the effectiveness of their MP. On the value side, it would appear that David's rent claim was positively modest. And as for effectiveness, if anyone imagines he would have been a more effective MP if forced to move out of the home he shared with his partner...

I think we can all understand and sympathise with why David chose to resign. But we should be clear as a party that he didn't have to. Instead, the last forty-eight hours taught us three things; that we have still done nothing like enough to ensure that everyone can live in our country without fear of discrimination, that we need to do far more to restore not only the integrity of representative democracy but the idea itself, and that despite managing to prevent a Tory majority we have not even started to reduce the power of unaccountable press barons whose interests are entirely hostile to those of the electorate.

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