Since I’ve known Denis MacShane, off and on, for the more than 40 years since we were university contemporaries, I can’t feel other than real sadness about the personal disaster in which he engulfed himself.
Indeed, that long connection is the main reason for a misjudgement of my own concerning the Rotherham MP, though one unrelated to the expenses claims excoriated in yesterday's Standards and Privileges Committee Report. From October 2010 to last month I was his landlord.
He was a model tenant and a particularly accommodating one since he was always more than ready to let me stay in the spare room of my two bedroom flat when I returned on occasional trips from Jerusalem where I had been based as a correspondent since March 2004. A friend had rented the flat for the earlier three years I had been abroad and when he approached me to take over the rental I agreed.
On one level I had few regrets. He had had his share of personal tragedy—not least the death of his daughter Clare in a skydiving accident. He had much more recently broken up with his long term partner. I agreed to the arrangement shortly before the opening of the police investigation—the subject matter of which I knew very little having been abroad during the relevant years— but overcame my sudden doubts by taking the traditional view that a man was innocent till proved guilty—and indeed was as relieved as all his friends were when it was closed in July.
The £1450 a month (the same as for my previous tenant) rental agreement was fully approved by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, created in 2009 to make a “clean break” after Westminster was finally galvanised by the MPs' expenses scandal, and which I knew was reimbursing him for the rent. Nor was there any secret about the fact that for at least part of the period he was also renting out his London home—it is a published fact in the Declaration of MPs' Interests.
But in the aftermath of public outrage over MPs' expenses I knew that it was impossible to defend the arrangement— however legal— by which MPs could not claim expenses for mortgage interest but could claim for renting a property while letting out their own. And to the extent that I was abetting such an arrangement I was open to justified criticism as well.
Back in July, unaware that the Parliamentary Commissioner had decided to resume the investigation after the police decision not to proceed, I warned him that I would be returning in the autumn and needed the flat back.
MacShane was very far from alone among MPs in entering such an arrangement, of course. Nor was he involved in one of the cosy deals which the system allows MPs to make by renting their homes to each other. But the recent publicity over such cases makes it all the likelier that the rules will be changed. And if the rules are changed that will be –rightly—welcomed by the public.
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