Ben Summerskill: Some will say he tried to use his sexuality to explain away a controversial expenses claim

Sunday 30 May 2010 00:00 BST

David Laws said he'd been in a relationship with someone else since 2001 and he went on to pay them rent. On the face of it – and it's ultimately a matter for the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner to determine – it was a clear breach of the expenses regime and didn't seem to have anything to do with his sexual orientation.

That is why, if his reported comments were correct, it is genuinely confusing that Mr Laws said his motivation was not to reveal his sexuality and to protect his privacy and that of his partner. If he had made no claim, then none of this would be in the public domain now and no one would know about their relationship.

Many will sympathise with Mr Laws' wish to protect his privacy even though they may reflect that it's deeply sad that in 2010 he still didn't feel able to be open about his orientation with colleagues. The Lib Dems have a long track record of endorsing equality, even if this has not been well demonstrated in their parliamentary selections in winnable seats.

There are lots of gay couples who don't share bank accounts, who have only had one serious relationship, and who might have slightly separate social lives, just as heterosexual couples might. The explanations of why Mr Laws wasn't the "partner" of someone with whom he said he'd been in a "relationship" for nine years really did sound a bit odd.

There may well be a sense of regret among some people that, on the face of available evidence, which needs to be investigated fully, Mr Laws seems to have been using his sexual orientation as a bit of a smokescreen to explain away a controversial expenses claim.

We have all witnessed a number of creative approaches to expenses from MPs. As chair of the audit committee at the Equality and Human Rights Commission for three years, I saw some florid explanations of the use of taxpayers' money by senior people on the public payroll. Sometimes, you would have to pinch yourself. That's what I did when I first read the details of this case.

Most damaging to everyone who addresses issues of equality and fairness are those claims of prejudice or discrimination, or the fear of prejudice or discrimination, that don't seem to be substantiated by the facts. From what is known, it does seem to stretch credulity a little bit that this case was ever about someone's privacy or their sexual orientation rather than simply another parliamentary expenses exposé.

Perhaps surprisingly, it's the Tories who now have more openly gay MPs than all the other parties put together. On Friday they appointed their first openly gay peer, Guy Black. That contrasts starkly with the more 1970s approach to equality of the Lib Dems and Labour. Not one lesbian, just as not one black woman, has ever benefited from Labour's much-trumpeted women-only shortlists. There is still not a single openly lesbian peer.

If this case does one thing, we hope it might be to draw attention to those sorts of absences from public life.

Of course, we offer David Laws every good wish for the future.

Ben Summerskill is chief executive of Stonewall, the gay, lesbian and bisexual charity

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