David Laws, the chief secretary to the Treasury, last night apologised and agreed to repay more than £40,000 claimed in MPs’ expenses, in the first sleaze allegations to hit the new coalition government.
Mr Laws referred himself to the parliamentary standards commissioner after it emerged that he had claimed tens of thousands of pounds to rent rooms from his male partner. Parliamentary rules have since 2006 banned MPs from “leasing accommodation from a partner”.
Mr Laws’ claims for housing costs related to his partner did not emerge in last year’s official inquiry, as the chief secretary’s personal relationship with his landlord was not in the public domain.
Mr Laws said last night that “at no point” had he considered himself to be breaking parliamentary rules, but admitted this may have been “open to interpretation”.
“I regret this situation deeply, accept that I should not have claimed my expenses in this way and apologise fully,” Mr Laws said in a statement. He stressed that he would immediately pay back the money that the Telegraph said was claimed between 2006 and 2009.
The allegations mark a serious setback for the new government, which has pledged to clean up politics in response to the expenses scandals that overshadowed the previous parliament. Any question mark over Mr Laws’ financial probity would be particularly damaging, given his role in charge of spending cuts to tackle the deficit.
In a press release on expenses issued in March 2009, Mr Laws said: “The system needs to be made much more open and transparent so that it cannot be abused.”
Sir Alistair Graham, former chairman of the committee on standards in public life, said that it was “staggering” that the information had only just come to light now. “I’m genuinely shocked that somebody who is now chief secretary to the Treasury is faced with disclosure of this nature where he clearly hasn’t told the full truth to the people dealing with expenses in the House of Commons,” he told the BBC.
David Cameron’s response last night was terse and lacking in overt support for his Liberal Democrat cabinet colleague. In a brief statement, Downing Street said the “the prime minister has been made aware of this situation and he agrees with David Laws’ decision to self-refer to the parliamentary standards commissioner”.
Mr Laws’ main residence is in his Yeovil constituency. He claimed on expenses for renting a room in flats in Kennington, south London, which were owned by James Lundie, his partner, who also lived at the properties, the Telegraph reported.
The Lib Dem MP told the Telegraph said he had been trying to keep his relationship with his male partner “private”, saying “my motivation throughout has not been to maximise profit but to simply protect our privacy and my wish not to reveal my sexuality”.
A ruling by John Lyon, the parliamentary standards commissioner, on whether Mr Laws broke any rules is likely to take some weeks. But Mr Cameron will fear that the damage to his new government, as well as the standing of its second most senior Treasury minister, will be immediate.