NORMAN BAKER'S ANTICS (3): ENDORSING A SMEAR

JULIAN LEWIS MP ON LAST WEEK’S NEWS OF THE WORLD SMEAR STORY AND NORMAN BAKER’S ROLE IN ENDORSING IT

ConservativeHome.com – 8 March 2009

Last Sunday, ConservativeHome did me an enormous service by enabling me to rebut in detail a scurrilous and inaccurate attack by the News of the World before many people had even seen it. Since then, there have been a couple of interesting developments.

The whole story hinged on claims that 'locals say [I] am HARDLY THERE' – 'THERE' being the house in my constituency where I have lived continuously since 1998 except when in my London flat. Although the newspaper was apparently obliged by its own lawyers to state 'There is no suggestion Lewis has broken any rules', it reiterated that I 'milk' my allowance by nominating my house (rather than my London flat) as my “main” home, and alleged that I “hardly visit” it. Supposedly, 'neighbours say most of the week [I am] not there'.

In my rebuttal on 1 March, all the obvious points were made about the inability of almost all MPs to be both in Westminster and in their constituency homes for more than 2 or 3 days a week when Parliament is sitting; but I have now had a chance to speak to the two sets of neighbours who kindly keep my house under observation for me when I am in London. For various reasons, they are the only neighbours who can easily tell whether or not I am around – not least because both of them work full-time from home.

One writes:

'As a long-term neighbour, I have kept an eye on the property along with another neighbour whilst Julian is in London ... I can confirm that Julian spends a substantial amount of time in his constituency home. When Parliament is sitting, he tends to arrive on Thursday or Friday ... His partner often accompanies him. When Parliament is not sitting, Julian is usually in residence as shown by his ‘family’ [my partner and her Father] spending last Christmas in the property.'

The other states:

'I was not consulted in any way as part of the research for this article and do not recognise the sentiment expressed. All the more surprising I was not consulted when you consider that I am one of your closest neighbours and, as I work from home most of the time, I would have been easily contactable had anyone made an effort to do so. Frankly, knowing how regularly both yourself and [your partner] are here each week, I have to wonder whether any neighbours were consulted at all.'

Although I asked both neighbours if they would kindly give me their observations on the NoW concoction, I neither drafted, nor requested alteration of, a single word of either contribution.

My next step will probably be an approach to the Press Complaints Commission – more wasted time and effort – with, at best, an inconspicuous retraction at the end of it months down the line.

However, there is another dimension which I am also pursuing: the outrageous behaviour of Norman Baker MP, the self-appointed Lib Dem plaster-saint and scourge of corruption. Baker, was called up by the NoW for his usual sanctimonious input and duly rounded off the ‘stitch-up’ as follows:

'Last night Lib Dem MP Norman Baker fumed: "This is all further evidence that the second homes allowance has to be tightened up so the public can have confidence MPs only claim what they need".'

I wrote to him on 3 March in the following terms about the NoW:

'Despite the sleazy and dishonest reputation of this rag, the story was given a degree of credibility by a quotation from you, strongly implying your endorsement of the newspaper’s vile attack on me. You could not possibly have known whether or not there was the slightest truth in any of the allegations when you lent your name to this attack on my character.

You have known me long enough to be well aware that my security concerns about the publication of MPs’ addresses are one-hundred percent sincere. Indeed, you agreed to sign Graham Brady’s supportive amendment to my EDM 1620 on this subject last year – something for which I expressed appreciation at the time.

So far as I can see, you made no attempt to contact me before publicly endorsing such a damaging attack, simply on the say-so of a newspaper notorious for its cavalier attitude both to people’s privacy and the truth. I regard your behaviour as unethical and dishonourable.

I might also add the term hypocritical – given that you appear to have been claiming an almost identical sum in respect of your second home as I do for mine; and (correct me if I am wrong, please) you also seem to have made further claims regarding this property from a second Parliamentary allowance, on account of having a ‘constituency office’ in your home. As for total expenses, I note that you have claimed at least £30,000 more than I have, over the last 3 years for which figures are available.'

In reply, Baker conceded, first, that he 'had not accused [me] of breaking the rules or indeed of doing anything wrong' and, when pressed, he made the following damning admission:

'I can confirm that I did not see the final [News of the World] story before it appeared and was unaware of much of its contents.'

This in turn led to the following exchange on the Floor of the House on Thursday:

'Dr. Julian Lewis: May we have a statement from the Leader of the House herself on the basic standards of ethics expected from hon. Members when they endorse scurrilous charges in the press against the personal conduct of other hon. Members? I declare a personal interest in this, because the day before the vote on secrecy of Members’ home addresses, an article appeared in the sleaziest tabloid in Britain, accusing me of hypocrisy, lying and abuse of the Parliamentary housing allowance. Those issues are for another time, but at the end of the article was a statement by an hon. Member whom I do not propose to name today, and who is not present even though I warned him that I was going to raise this issue. The article said that he "fumed: 'This is all further evidence that the second homes allowance has to be tightened up so the public can have confidence MPs only claim what they need'."

That was a clear endorsement of the charges. He has now written to me and said: "I can confirm that I did not see the final story before it appeared and was unaware of much of its contents." I believe that this is despicable behaviour, and I would like a statement from the Leader of the House to advise hon. Members at least of basic standards of decency towards other hon. Members.

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): All of us as Members of this House know that we are fair game for rumbustious political debate; we expect that, but the hon. Gentleman makes an important point about allegations of wrongdoing, dishonesty and the like. In this Chamber, there are very strict rules which govern that people have to have some evidence before they throw mud. In terms of personal accusations, Members should not make allegations against other hon. Members outside the House; that maligns the reputation of hon. Members and the House as a whole. I have a lot of sympathy for what the hon. Gentleman says.'

Norman Baker has yet to offer any sort of retraction or apology for endorsing – sight unseen – such a potentially lethal attack on a Parliamentary colleague’s character and reputation. Indeed, he seems far more anxious to explain at length, why he himself has made such heavy claims on the public purse.

I shall show him more consideration than he shows others, and set out his side of the case in his own words which, noticeably, do not challenge the facts about our relative ‘expensiveness’: in the past three years, Baker has claimed £32,124 more than my total. Whereas I am currently listed as the 476th most costly MP (that is, in the bottom third), Baker is apparently the 225th (just missing the top third of Parliamentarians). This is his explanation of his home/office claims:

'As regards my own claims, I rent a property in central London, which I personally regard as more ethical than accumulating a capital receipt thanks to the taxpayer via a mortgage. As regards my constituency office, this for some years was indeed situated in my main house for which I latterly (sic) claimed no rent, thereby effectively subsidising the taxpayer to the tune of about £10,000 a year.'

He later adds:

'I note in your blog you refer, incorrectly, to my own arrangements and do so in a manner which it seems clear is meant to imply hypocrisy ... Your blog is incorrect in that my (first) (family) home was never subject to claims under the ACA or its predecessor. My second home claims have always related to flats in London. For the record, I did in 2000 purchase the building in which my constituency office then sat and claimed rent for the use of that space for a short period. I did so having secured permission in writing from the Fees Office before purchase went ahead, and for a rent externally calculated by the District Valuer. After, I think, two or three years, I ceased claiming that rent but stayed in situ, thereby providing the taxpayer with the significant subsidy I referred to in my previous letter. In any case, my office moved out from there some three or four years ago into a different building.'

So, that’s all right then, Norman.

[For later developments, click here, and for the Press Complaints Commission's Adjudication in Julian's favour, click here.]