Lib Dem MP expenses – where next

by Stephen Tall on May 14, 2009

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.