Last week, the UK Labour MP for Salford and Cabinet minister Hazel Blears was one of several MPs featured in the continuing Telegraph story about MPs' expenses. Blears 'crime' as it initially appeared was that she altered her designated second homes and claimed for three homes in a year at taxpayers expense.
Her response on 8 May was to trot out the oft repeated line of her Parliamentary colleagues in recent days. Her spokesman said:
In order to do her job as MP for Salford, she has to have accommodation in London to be near the House of Commons during the week. This accommodation includes a bed with a mattress, blankets and pillows, and a television.
She was doorstopped and offered much the same response, but mainly ignoring the reporters questions.
A day later it emerged that she had sold a flat in London in 2004, making a profit of £45,000. She told Inland Revenue that this was her primary residence (despite telling the House Of Commons fees office that it was her second home). By doing so she was not liable to pay Capital Gains Tax on the sale but was able to claim hundreds of pounds in expenses.
Blears responded, again through a spokesman:
Hazel has complied with the rules of the House authorities and the Inland Revenue. No liability for CGT arose on the sale of her flat in Kennington.
This inferred a 'not guilty' plea - and that there was nothing wrong with disclosing differing information to avoid paying tax and receive funds from other people's tax.
On 11 May, she continued to face bad press. She wasn't the only one - a string of MPs from all parties were facing similar questions. Blears stood her ground but curiously added:
I understand how strongly the public feel about it and they hate all of this and that means we have got to get it sorted out as quickly as possible.
This was in response to calls for her to be removed from the Cabinet. But what was she so keen to sort out? The Commons Fees Office or Inland Revenue?
She then released a more detailed statement on her website and did the rounds of tv interviews brandishing a cheque for £13,332 for the Inland Revenue - the amount she would have been liable for in CGT for the sale of the London property (and a previously sold flat in the city), had they been declared as second homes to the IR.
When I became a minister in 2001, the Fees Office of the House of Commons insisted that all ministers had to designate their London home as their main residence so I was forced to switch and list Salford as my second home. This upset me. Salford comes first and foremost for me, I was born and grew up here and it’s where my heart is. So I fought this decision by the Fees Office. In 2004, they finally gave in and I was able to switch back to listing my Salford address as my main home and the flat in Kennington in London as a second home.
Salford is where her heart is, but not if it affects her wallet:
When selling that Kennington flat, and also one in Shad Thames before I became a minister, I checked the rules for the Inland Revenue in terms of designating a property as your main home. I followed those rules as they meant there was not any liability for capital gains tax....
..I know how angry the public currently are at what they feel are MPs abusing the allowances system. For me, the most important thing in the world is to be able to stand up for the people of Salford, especially those who might not otherwise have a voice. I have therefore been deeply upset at the accusations that I put my personal gain ahead of their interests. ........I decided it is not enough to simply comply with the rules and be within the law. What matters is what people think and feel about the issue. I have therefore written a cheque to the Inland Revenue.....
What people think? If her concern is about public perception that MPs' expenses have been milked for all they are worth if not abused, why hasn't she repaid these? Why the tax that she is not liable for?
I know people will still be angry, and the bottom line is that all MPs have a job to do to rebuild trust between the people and Parliament which will take time, and that is why I want to take these first steps to rebuild trust with the people of Salford.
Where in her statement does she explain what is wrong? Saying that people are angry is one thing but she doesn't address what they are angry about. She offers no apology (because she has done nothing 'wrong'), asserts that she acted within the rules, and criticises the Commons Fees Office.
Yet she is giving money to Inland Revenue.
Is there a planned debate about reforming the tax rules on capital gains tax? Is she proposing to meet with the Chancellor? No sign of that. Does she believe her actions were morally if not legally wrong?
If so, she should apologise (if not resign) rather than wave a cheque for the tv cameras.
If not, and as she infers it is that she believes others view her actions this way, why not robustly defend herself and not pay the money at all?
Her actions can only lead to suspicion that it is an attempt to hold on to her position in the Cabinet and to increase her chances of re-election as an MP.
Gestures to 'rebuild trust' only serve to enhance the perception of a 'them and us' culture, that politicians are a breed apart. Ironically this is precisely the perception that Miss Blears thinks she is addressing with her chequebook.