British Minister Resigns Over Personal Expenses

British Minister Resigns Over Personal Expenses
# 30 May 2010 02:45 (UTC +04:00)
The minister, David Laws, a 44-year-old lawyer and former investment banker, had won widespread praise for his authoritative handling of his portfolio as chief secretary to the treasury, which made him one of the most prominent members of Prime Minister David Cameron’s three-week-old government.
The circumstances of his resignation were linked to the parliamentary expenses scandal that rocked the political establishment in Britain last year, and contributed to a huge upheaval in which more than a third of the House of Commons members running in the May 6 general election were replaced.
On Friday, The Daily Telegraph, the newspaper that broke the expenses scandal last year, ran a front-page exposé accusing Mr. Laws of claiming nearly $60,000 in rent he paid to his long-term partner as an official expense. On Friday, he admitted the figure was correct, apologized and promised to pay all of the money back.
He insisted that he had not meant to profit from the arrangement, but rather was caught in a confusion over parliamentary rules on expenses. More embarrassingly, he said, he was trying to keep secret that he was gay.
In his resignation letter to Mr. Cameron, Mr. Laws said that while “the last 24 hours have been very difficult and distressing for me,” he had concluded that the government needed “a chief secretary who is not distracted by personal troubles. I hardly need to say how much I regret having to leave such vital work, which I feel all my life has prepared me for.”
Like most of the other members of Parliament whose expenses became an issue, his problem arose from questions about his claims for the “second home” accommodation — in his case, a “second bedroom” in his partner’s London house — that British lawmakers are entitled to claim because of their need to commute between their parliamentary constituencies and the House of Commons in London.
His claims for his London housing dated back to 2001. But Parliament’s rules changed in 2006, outlawing claims for reimbursement for second-home expenses in cases where the owner of the house was a relative or a partner.
In a statement on Friday, Mr. Laws said that he had concluded that he was not covered by the change of rules, since the 2006 rules defined a partner as “one of a couple who although not married to each other or civil partners are living together and treat each other as spouses.”
Mr. Laws said that although his partner, James Lundie, who The Daily Telegraph said worked for a lobbying firm in London, were living together, “we did not treat each other as spouses.” He added, “For example, we do not share bank accounts, and indeed have separate lives.”
Nonetheless, he said, “I now accept that this was open to interpretation,” and he pledged to “immediately pay back the costs of the rent and other housing costs I claimed from time to time” until he found new housing, separate from Mr. Lundie, in August 2009.
Mr. Cameron, accepting the resignation, immediately replaced Mr. Laws at the treasury with another Liberal Democrat, Danny Alexander. The move underscored the importance Mr. Cameron attaches to having the Liberal Democrats, a left-of-center party that campaigned against immediate cuts in government outlays, prominently involved in the budget-cutting that has been his government’s early hallmark.
Mr. Laws, a leader of the Liberal Democrats’ free enterprise wing, was seen as a central figure in bridging the party’s philosophical and political divides with the Conservatives.
Mr. Cameron, in his reply to Mr. Laws, held open the possibility that he would return to government after an inquiry by the parliamentary standards commissioner. “I hope that, in time, you will be able to serve again, as I think it is absolutely clear that you have a huge amount to offer our country,” he said.