Exclusive: Lord Paul responds to official report recommending his suspension

“I am disappointed that I seem to have been treated more harshly than others.”

For journalists, the parliamentary expenses scandal is the gift that never stops giving. Yesterday's Sunday papers – chief among them the Sunday Times and the Sunday Telegraph – led with claims that three peers face suspension from the House of Lords over their expenses claims: Baroness Uddin, Lord Bhatia and Lord Paul.

The report of the House of Lords committee for privileges and conduct to which the Sunday papers referred to has been published today, and it does indeed recommend suspending the three aforementioned peers from "service of the House".

In reference to Lord Paul, the well-known businessman, deputy Lords speaker and Labour Party donor, the committee says:

27. We do not feel justified in finding, on the balance of probabilities, that Lord Paul acted dishonestly or in bad faith. However, his actions were utterly unreasonable, and demonstrated gross irresponsibility and negligence. They therefore render him liable to sanction by the House.

28. In mitigation, Lord Paul has apologised and repaid the money wrongly claimed.

29. We recommend that Lord Paul be suspended from the service of the House for four months, starting on the date on which any suspension motion is agreed by the House.

In the past few minutes, I have been speaking to Lord Paul to get his response to the committee's conclusions. He said:

I welcome the publication of the report from the House of Lords committee for privileges and conduct. First and foremost, my honesty and integrity have been upheld. I have never tried to claim anything which I did not believe I was honestly entitled to claim at the time. I am pleased that the committee for privileges and conduct has come to the same conclusion and has found that my actions throughout the investigation have been transparent and consistent and that the claims were honestly made and not in bad faith.

It is worth remembering that I requested the Clerk of the Parliaments, Michael Pownall, to conduct an investigation into my expenses on 12 October 2009 – the day after the Sunday Times first published its allegations against me. I also voluntarily and immediately repaid the full amounts in question, about £40,000, which I had claimed from January 2005 to June 2006. In fact, I voluntarily repaid a greater sum than the House could have required me to pay, both in respect of night subsistence and in respect of mileage allowance. There is no question about the propriety of any other claim made by me during the 14-year period that I have been a member of the House of Lords. It should also be remembered that, back in March, the Metropolitan Police decided there was no case for me to answer.

But does he deny that he registered an Oxfordshire flat as his main home, despite never spending a single night there, while claiming money in overnight expenses for a London property?

I do not dispute the basic facts. I made claims which, with the benefit of hindsight, I should not have made. I may have been negligent, as the committee has said, and the commitee has accepted my apology. Before this matter was raised by a Sunday newspaper late last year, however, there was no definition in the House of Lords of residence and a large number of peers therefore fell into error when interpreting the meaning of residence in the rules. There was no guidance on the meaning of "main residence" until March 2010, and it was finally clarified in July 2010 – that is, ten months after the allegations first appeared in the press. During the time period in question, 2005/2006, there was no definition of "main residence", nor was there even guidance.

I do not believe that either the subcommittee or the full committee can in effect apply the perspectives and standards of 2010 to actions and rules operating in 2005. I believe that the provisions which applied then on the designation of principal residence were wholly unclear. I believe that the fact that they have been either amplified or modified since then, and finally dispensed with by the House, strongly underlines my position. Given the lack of clarity in the rules which applied at that point, I do not believe that my own conduct in any way merits the decisions which the subcommittee and now the full committee have reached.

He has a point. And guess what? The new rules on allowances, agreed by the Lords authorities earlier this year, and backed by the coalition government and the Labour Party, might make things worse.

As the Sunday Telegraph's Patrick Hennessy noted yesterday:

The new regime will allow all peers to claim a lump payment of £300 a day for "clocking in" at parliament. Critics have claimed it could be open to abuse as it offers no safeguards against peers "signing in and sloping off". Under the new scheme, which is based on proposals made by the Senior Salaries Review Body last November, no receipts, or proof of a second home or hotel stay, will be required to claim the payment.

This is madness. Have officials in the House of Lords lost their minds?

And on what grounds have they gone after Paul, Uddin and Bhatia and ignored or excused the false/inaccurate/dodgy claims of dozens of other peers uncovered in the press? From the Sunday Times, in May 2009:

– Baroness Thornton, a government minister, claimed up to £22,000 a year in expenses by saying that her mother's home in Yorkshire was her main home.

– Lord Ryder, a former acting chairman of the BBC, claimed more than £100,000 by saying that a converted stable on his parents' country estate was his main home.

Then there is Lord Clarke, the Labour peer and former chairman of the party, who admitted that he "fiddled" his expenses to make up for not being paid a salary and claimed for overnight stays in London when, in fact, he drove home. His punishment? From the privileges committee report in March:

Accordingly, having taken into account his repayment of £9,190 to the House, and his full co-operation with the investigation, we recommend that Lord Clarke make a personal statement of apology to the House, before the end of the present session of parliament, to apologise without reservation for his misuse of the scheme.

So Clarke got off with just an apology. Isn't that odd? What about Lord Colywn, the Tory peer who claimed £170,000 by designating a Cotswolds property as his main home? Here is the bizarre verdict of Michael Pownall, the Clerk of the Parliaments (from February):

He has assured me in writing that his claims are an accurate record . . . he has also assured me that he lives predominantly in Gloucestershire when the House is not sitting . . . Given Lord Colwyn's assurances, I consider that his designation meets a test of main residence under the current scheme and accordingly do not uphold the complaint against him.

Great. Fantastic. That's OK, then. He "assured" the Clerk – and got off without a punishment. The whole process seems totally arbitrary and random. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Lord Paul agrees:

I am disappointed that I seem to have been treated more harshly than others. Some of those peers accused of making incorrect claims were dealt with by the Clerk of the Parliaments, some by the privileges committee. Some have been subject to an inquiry, some have not; some have apologised, some have not; some have voluntarily repaid the sums incorrectly claimed, some have been asked to repay those sums; now, for the first time, three peers have been suspended while others have escaped suspension.

Despite the hurt that this has caused me, I accept the committee's decision in the best traditions of parliamentary democracy.

On a side note, some have suggested to me that part of the reason Paul has been the subject of such a severe sanction is that the five-member subcommittee on Lords interests, which investigated the three peers and recommended suspension, included Derry Irvine, the ardent Blairite. Paul is a prominent Brownite; in his own words, he has been a "steadfast friend and supporter of Gordon Brown whom I believe was a great prime minister".

A source present at Lord Paul's testimony to the House of Lords subcommittee in June tells me that Irvine's face blackened when Paul suggested he was being targeted by that committee because of his links to the former prime minister.

As Blair's Lord Chancellor, Irvine is (in)famous for having spent £650,000 of public funds on redecorating and refurbishing his official apartment in the House of Lords, including £59,000 on wallpaper. He refused to apologise for his acts at the time and described the spending as a "noble cause". That he now sits in judgement on the expenses claims of his fellow peers is, ahem, ironic.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?