Thursday, May 14, 2009

Yesterday I noticed that both Iain Dale and Kezia Dugdale were jumping up and down with glee because Norman Baker was reported in the Brighton Argus had been claiming rent on office space in the property he bought as his home. However, it appears he has not done so since 2004 from the article both quoted extensively from.

I embarked on a little research last night to see what the Green Book said and also to look into the background history of this story before making comment. I was still to write my conclusions on this research when I saw this morning I notice that to his credit Iain has published the following full statement from Norman.

1. I have long campaigned for transparency in MPs’ expenses and for the system to be drastically reformed to end unacceptable practices. I intend to continue to do so.

2. I therefore have no objection at all to public examination of my expenses, which for some time have been published on my own website.

3. I have pursued the actions above, not merely because they are right, but because I am confident that my own expenses claims have both met the rules and more importantly are morally justifiable.

4. I would point out that I have, along with only a minority of MPs, never used taxpayers’ money to obtain a mortgage and through that a capital gain, let alone indulged in “house flipping”. I have not used the second home allowance for the acquisition of expensive consumer durables or for property repairs, and maintenance, the costs of which have fallen on my landlord.5

. In respect of today’s article in the Brighton Argus, the facts are as follows:
(a) When I was elected in 1997, I secured a shop for rent in a mixed hereditament in Lewes High Street, with my landlady occupying the rest of the building
(b) When in 2000 she decided to sell the building, I asked the Fees Office for advice on whether or not it was in order to buy the building for our own domestic purposes, and keep the office on site. I did so because
(i) We were in any case very keen to move houses and this house met our
(ii) The nature of the property is such that it would have presented
operational problems had a new landlord or landlady been hostile
(iii) I did not want the upheaval, and indeed cost to the taxpayer, of
moving offices shortly before an expected General Election

(c) I did not commit to purchase until I had received clearance, in writing, from the Fees Office
(d) As part of the proper protection for the taxpayer, the independent and external District Valuer was called in to decide the appropriate rent to be paid. His decision was of course accepted.
(e) The rent he decided was, in fact, marginally less than I had been paying to my landlady, so an immediate saving to the taxpayer was realised (along with the savings made by not moving)
(f) Not so long after I had moved to the house, the Fees Office indicated that they had changed their minds and that they had now decided that rent could not be paid to my wife and me, despite the written assurances in clear terms I had been given.
(g) A period of, from memory, about two years followed where no rent was paid and my wife and I provided an office in our house for Parliamentary use at no charge. Given that at that time it was not difficult to rent out shops in the High Street, my wife and I therefore lost well over ten thousand pounds of income as a consequence, while the taxpayer secured an office free of charge, saving the public purse a similar amount. The taxpayer has therefore lost no money as a result of the arrangements, indeed quite the reverse. I was thousands of pounds worse off, as I could have rented the space out for an income and the public purse would have paid for me to have an office elsewhere.
(h) In March 2006, I moved my constituency office to its present address, recommencing claiming for rent.

6. This whole story was subject to a story in the Sunday Times several years ago, followed by a correction the following week...

7. Having said that, I am totally in favour of full disclosure when it comes to matters involving public money, and am happy to provide the facts.

8. If the allegation is that this is somehow an expenses fiddle it must be the only case where the MP accused is thousands of pounds out of pocket, and the taxpayer is better off, as a consequence .

Now I doubt the Brighton Argus can afford to have 25 staff working on these stories like the Telegraph but they are only working locally. However one thing this latest escalation in press witch hunting would do well to do is learn from the Washingston Post over the Watergate scandal. Yes you may have some apparently juicy peices of information thrust into your hands.


Do background checks.

Do journalism.

Make the shit stick to the fan that deserves to hit it and leave what isn't well alone. Throwing everything at something willy nilly will throw up flaws that will detract for the important message if you look at it hard enough and carefully enough.

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