May 30, 2010

Was the Telegraph right to print the David Laws story?

Posted in Politics at 8:34 pm by David Gould

I must first declare my biases.  I am still feeling extremely sympathetic towards Mr Laws.

To feel compelled to keep your sexuality private is bad enough but then to have it plastered across the front pages of every newspaper in the country whilst damaging the coalition that you and many of your friends are so thrilled about… it’s almost unbearable to think about.

Putting that aside though, I want to look at the moral and legal implications.

The Telegraph made the accusation that Laws paid “more than £40,000 to his long-term partner”

Here is what the rule says:

PAAE must not be used to meet the costs of renting a property
from
a partner or family member (including a spouse
or civil partner);

As you can see, the rule itself makes a big hash of defining what a partner is.
Why did it not say “a spouse or civil partner or family member” or “a spouse or civil partner or partner or family member”?

It is badly drafted, like much legislation of that era.

The legal definition of spouse is still evolving, including this partial definition:

(b) was it an emotional relationship involving lifetime commitment?
(c) had the relationship been presented to the outside world?

and

“what matters most is the essential quality of the relationship, its marriage-like intimacy, stability, and social and financial inter-dependence.”

Mr Laws was clearly not in a relationship satisfying (c). It seems unlikely that the relationship satisfied (b) or the second definition either.  That would be for the Parliamentary Standards Commission to decide.

The rule is clearly designed to stop MPs and partners conspiring to claim rent where MPs would otherwise be staying in a London home rent-free.

Mr Laws has paid the money back even though he might be entitled to it.  He has resigned even though he may have respected both the letter and spirit of the law (or rules, this is not a criminal matter).

There are many other questions about this case.

1. Would Mr Laws’ partner have let him stay rent-free?

2. Did Mr Laws, to a reasonable standard, ensure that all the financial transactions were properly declared?

3.  Were The Telegraph tipped off about this ‘story’?  Was Alastair Campbell involved and was this why Mr Laws refused to appear on Question Time?

It seems to me that The Telegraph has a duty of care to respect people’s privacy, not to mention a duty of care to their reputations, careers and the governing of this country in a difficult time.

The article states:

The Daily Telegraph was not intending to disclose Mr Laws’s sexuality, but in a statement issued in response to questions from this newspaper, the minister chose to disclose this fact.

The first clause is disingenuous – how could the Telegraph accuse Mr Laws of paying more than £40,000 to his long-term partner” without leading to disclosure of his sexuality?

The Telegraph continues:

“I’ve been involved in a relationship with James Lundie since around 2001 — about two years after first moving in with him. Our relationship has been unknown to both family and friends throughout that time,” it read.
“James and I are intensely private people. We made the decision to keep our relationship private and believed that was our right. Clearly that cannot now remain the case.

In other words, Mr Laws felt harassed to make this disclosure.

Did The Telegraph take reasonable steps to check its story and prevent harassment of Mr Laws?  It seems unlikely.

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