Monday, 31 May 2010

The watchdog press: The Telegraph is right to expose MPs' expenses claims

A scrap has broken out at the Guardian. Ok, not a scrap, but a differing of opinion - come on, it is Bank Holiday Monday.

Guardian stablemates Roy Greenslade and Michael White are at odds when it comes to the validity of the Telegraph's exposé of (now former) Chief Secretary of the Treasury David Laws' expenses claims.

The 'cuts finder general', as he has been labelled, was revealed to have been claiming £950 a month which he was paying to his partner to rent a room at their shared home.  A total of more than £40,000.  Parliament's, albeit, convoluted expenses rules dictate that members cannot claim expenses for rent when living at a property shared with a spouse.

Mr Laws' excuse ... he didn't consider his partner of over nine years to be his spouse.  Perhaps it was a 3,285 night stand.

Anyway, Guardian associate editor Michael White says the Telegraph was wrong to out Laws' financial indiscretion:

If I have got this bit right, the sums are not large by the standards of the MPs expenses saga; £40,000 over eight years, less than what David Cameron's wisteria-clad mortgage cost the taxpayer in two. But Laws had now become the man making the cuts in public expenditure – where cuts to incomes much closer to £5,000 a year will be painful losses to a lot of people. Glib charges of hypocrisy were bound to follow.

All the same I do not think the public interest has been well served by the Telegraph exposé. Laws is a clever, serious fellow who could have opted for a life of idle self-amusement but plunged in public life where dreadful things can happen.

So I regret his going and hope the Telegraph's more thoughtful readers are as unimpressed as I am. Perhaps the newspapers really are losing the plot in their – our – battle to retain sales share.
Can we afford to chew up our governments quite this fast? No. Not only does it shrink the immediate talent pool, it shrinks the prospective one too.

A too shallow talent pool perhaps?

Back at the Guardian office, media mogul Roy Greenslade disagrees:

I cannot believe that the Daily Telegraph should be traduced for revealing that ex-Treasury chief secretary David Laws took more than £40,000 in expenses to rent rooms from his gay partner.
Journalists, of all people, should beware of blaming the messenger. It's true that I regularly criticise papers for what I perceive to be their failings and for overstepping the mark. But the Telegraph, in possession of documents that showed Laws guilty of a substantial breach of parliamentary rules and standards, was obliged to publish.

Similarly, today's Telegraph - drawing once more from its well - reveals that the new chief secretary, Danny Alexander, avoided paying capital gains tax on the sale of a house.

The Laws and Alexander cases are is a reminder to all the MPs from the last parliament - both those who have returned to the Commons and those who stood down - that the paper retains potentially explosive material.

So yes, it's a personal tragedy for David Laws ... but he broke the rules - for whatever reason.  He was contravening rules, potentially fraudulently claiming £40,000 worth of expenses claims.

The media is there to act as a watchdog for the public.  The Telegraph has done just that, in relation to its lengthy Parliamentary expenses investigations and now in relation to Mr Laws and Mr Alexander.

Instead of shooting the messenger, Parliament needs to regain public confidence and ensure that the best possible people for the job are attracted to take on public office regardless of their bank balance.

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