Laws is guilty of poor judgement, not avarice

It is astonishing that David Laws has been suspended: other MPs motivated by financial gain escaped

I first met David Laws aged 28. He had been working in the City on a top salary and had given it all up to work for the Liberal Democrats for £14,000 per year as an economics researcher. He was a total joy to work with: fantastically bright, horribly challenging and fanatically shy. He was always a loyal friend and colleague. He left the City because, in the end, making money wasn't fulfilling enough; he hungered for a political career and he wanted to make a difference.

Nothing much has changed, except that now – because of a tragic error of judgement, for which he apologised a year ago, will apologise again in the House today and has already paid back £56,000 – he has been suspended.

The detail of the report is complex and requires understanding. It lacks the simplicity that trial by media often needs. But two fundamental principles remain true. As the British parliamentary commissioner for standards, John Lyon, says: "I have no reason to doubt that Mr Laws's primary motivation was to keep secret the sexuality that he had hidden."

Elsewhere, Matthew Parris in the Times today (£) writes: "I have no doubt that Mr Lyon will have concluded that it was a craving for privacy, not greed, that drove David Laws. I have no doubt because that is the truth."

However descriptions such as "venal", "moneygrubbing" and "greedy" were already being bandied about as killer facts in this showcase trial, even before the report was published. But again, as Commissioner Lyon says in the report: "I have no evidence that Mr. Laws made his claims with the intention of benefiting himself or his partner in conscious breach of the rules."

So it is astonishing, when so many of the other politicians were given a slap on the wrist when their motivation was more money, that David Laws will be suspended for a week, even though there is a clear conclusion that benefiting himself financially was never the plan. The tragic irony is that, had he walked into the relevant Commons Office and explained to some anonymous clerk to the House, having never told a friend or family member, that he was gay and living with someone, the advice to him would have resulted in him claiming more money, not less.

The report says: "I believe that it is right to recognise that Mr Laws's ACA claims were below the maxima provided by the allowance . . . and I recognise his evidence that, had he claimed for his Somerset property, and had he wished to do so, he could have claimed considerably more."

If he had allocated his constituency home as his second home he would have still been in the cabinet, having claimed £30,000 more.

The whole situation has been further compounded by him downloading the wrong form from the internet. Laws downloaded a "lodging agreement", which covers bedsits with no rights regarding eviction, rather than an "assured shorthold tenancy", leading to a different assessment of rent levels. Yet even the committee says: "We agree that in reality Mr Laws's living arrangements were more advantageous than the bare terms of the agreement."

As Laws had already made his millions, why didn't he just not claim if he wanted privacy that badly? Under the rules, to have claimed nothing at all would have also raised questions. It comes back to the issue of privacy. He worked for the party for £14,000 for three years, £25,000 for one year and then as a candidate fighting a constituency for no salary at all for two years. Of course he did not start life in parliament on a high financial base. This career path hardly describes someone who is in it for the money.

His error was poor judgement, but not avarice. This man was born to serve the public. Now that this year-long report has concluded, let's allow him to get on with it.

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.