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David Laws and Double Standards

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After two years in the political wilderness, Liberal Democrat MP for Yeovil, David Laws, is back in the heart of government. Or very close to its heart at least: while he won't be sitting in the cabinet, reports say that he is nonetheless to be given a "more strategic role" alongside his new duties as an education minister (which will see him work closely with Conservative MP Michael Gove), as well as a "roving brief" advising deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, with an office in the Cabinet Office.

Tuesday's reshuffle thus marks the return to grace of the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury who, in May 2010, was forced to resign from his post only days into the job after his parliamentary expenses claims became the subject of close scrutiny, and then scandal. What had Laws done, and what are we to make of his return?

In response to the first of these questions, the simplest answer is that he claimed money from the taxpayer that he was not entitled to - over £40,000 of it. More precisely, the main issue (though there were additional question marks over other aspects of his expense claims) was that from 2001 Mr Laws had been dishonestly claiming back rent on accommodation leased from his long-term partner, James Lundy - an arrangement that was in clear breach of the 2006 Green Book rule change, which stated that all rent being paid to a partner could not be claimed for.

Unwilling to reveal his sexuality and wishing to maintain his privacy, Mr Laws identified Mr Lundy only as his landlord, and not - as rules demanded - as his partner. According to the official report published by the Committee on Standards and Privileges:

"Mr Laws' conduct was not above reproach because he submitted to the Fees Office from 2001 lodging agreements which gave a false impression of his relationship with his landlord and of their shared use of the landlord's successive London properties. I come to this conclusion on the basis of the standard expected of Members at the time and not any subsequent raising of the bar. Even in 2001, it would not, in my judgment, have been acceptable to seek to make claims supported by misleading documentation. The result was that the Fees Office had no opportunity to challenge or advise Mr Laws about the particular nature of his claims in the light of his circumstances. Mr Laws' wish to maintain his personal privacy cannot, in my view, justify - although it may explain - such conduct."

The 280-page report thus concluded that: "Whatever his motives and subsequent behaviour" - which was to publicly apologise and pay back £56,592 (a sum more than was required of him by the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner) - Mr Laws was nonetheless "guilty of a series of serious breaches of the rules, over a considerable time."

Unlike the expenses scandals of other MPs, it was hardly the case that David Laws sought to financially benefit himself or his partner in conscious breach of the rules. But - as the commissioner makes quite clear - the sums of money involved were nonetheless substantial. And in the cold light of day - however understandable or explicable his motives were - what Laws did was to claim money that he was knowingly not entitled to: if protecting his privacy was his paramount concern, he simply shouldn't have made any claims against his accommodation allowance.

According to David Cameron, "No one is beyond the reach of the law." And yet the law is so unevenly applied. "MPs shouldn't be treated differently," he continued. And yet - apart from only the most token few - they are. The double standards at play surrounding benefit and expense claims are extraordinary: while Trudy Webster is jailed for two months after dishonestly receiving almost £18,000 in benefits, former Labour Minister Barbara Follett faced no charges whatsoever for her bill of wrongful claims - the largest of any single MP - that, totalled over £42,000 in 2010.

His motives may have differed, but the experience of David Laws is only another example of such double circumstances: despite reclaiming over £40,000 of expenses that - as a minster of finance at the time - he knew perfectly well he was not entitled to, the new education minister and roving adviser on Coalition policy across Government has enjoyed a remarkably swift official return to the corridors of power (unofficially, of course, he perhaps never entirely left).

To be clear, then, I am not arguing that Mr Laws should have received jail time (If anything, I am inclined to say that Ms Webster shouldn't have). What I am highlighting, though, is the decidedly uneven treatment of those benefits and expenses cheats that our government has vowed to clamp down on - an unevenness that we simply shouldn't be tolerating.

In answering the second of my questions, then (what are we to make of Mr Laws' return?), I have two comments. The first is that, as an exceptional politician with one of the brightest minds in Westminster, Laws' return means that the Coalition has regained one of the most valuable assets that it started out with in 2010.

But what it also means is that the government still fails to see any contradiction between the way that it treats a particularly favoured MP who is found guilty of claiming money to which they aren't entitled (be it David Laws, Liam Fox, or one of many others you could choose from), and the punishment that Joe Bloggs would receive if he were to indulge in the same foolish dishonesty.

Until such a time as this contradiction is truly realised, I suspect that the electorate's faith in the fairness of the system, as well as in the principles of those who govern us, will continue to languish.