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George Osborne and cheating the public purse

So George Osborne is to wage war on the “benefit cheats” who, he says, are “no different from someone who comes up and robs you in the street. It’s your money”. Taking public money is, of course, something George Osborne, heir to the family wallpaper firm worth £15million, knows something about. George’s Coalition partners’ Treasury spokesperson in the Lords, Matthew Oakeshott, estimated he ought to pay back £54,948 in capital gains tax he avoided paying on a London home he said was his primary residence while claiming the mortgage costs as a parliamentary expense as if it was his secondary residence.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards did investigate George Osborne’s claim of “additional costs allowance” for the period when he’d designated his constituency home as his main residence — before he flipped that designation to London. He found that Mr Osborne had broken the rules but that the breach was not particularly serious and did not lead to significant benefit. However, a closer examination of the report does reveal Mr Osborne’s approach to any conflict of interest between himself and the public purse.

The only reason that the breach of rules was found not to be serious was that, as it turns out, he misunderstood the rules at the time, allegedly because he was given “flawed” advice — he could have designated his London home as his main residence and claimed the mortgage costs on that property which were raised to finance the purchase of his other (constituency) home (which would have then been regarded as his secondary residence).

What is clear from Mr Osborne’s evidence to the Commissioner, however, is that:

  1. he clearly sees the designation of his primary residence for parliamentary purposes as a matter of convenience rather than one of fact;
  2. he claims his designation was based upon the advice of the fees office staff, advice that was not and could not be corroborated by the Commissioner, in spite of the fact that their alleged advice would have to have been based on his convenient claim that  he and his family “were dividing our time equally between London and Cheshire”;
  3. he sees no contradiction between claiming his Cheshire residence as his main residence for parliamentary purposes and claiming his London residence as his main residence for capital gains tax purposes;
  4. he claims fees office staff told him that “that capital gains tax designation was irrelevant as far as the parliamentary authorities were concerned” as if this was sufficient consideration of presenting contradictory claims to different keepers of the public purse..

Crucially, he does not claim that HM Revenue staff told him that the designation for parliamentary purposes was irrelevant as far as the tax authorities were concerned. Nor was the Parliamentary Commissioner asked to investigate any contradiction between these two positions — that is, of course, beyond his remit.

As the Telegraph said at the time of Mr Osborne’s referral:

The Tory leader has clamped down heavily on backbench Tory MPs who have abused the expenses system, but he has yet to censure a senior member of his inner circle.”

What Mr Osborne has said is the only explanation for what he has done that could possibly square the circle between his expanses claim and his stance on capital gains tax. If  it is all true (which cannot be corroborated), the Commissioner’s findings are correct. It’s still not enough, though, to demonstrate that Mr Osborne’s rates defence of the public purse as equally important to his personal interests unless he also sought the impartial advice of  Revenue staff about his capital gains liability. I think we’d have heard if he had.

One Comment

  1. richard wilkinson says:

    tory scumbag like most tories

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