Mr Harry Cohen - Standards and Privileges Committee Contents


Harry Cohen



Introduction

1.  In March 2009, a national newspaper reported that over a five-year period the Member for Leyton and Wanstead, Harry Cohen, had claimed more than £100,000 against the Additional Costs Allowance (ACA) for his designated second home in his constituency, having identified as his main home a house in Colchester, Essex.[1] A complaint was made by Mr Michael Barnbrook, based on the newspaper story but also pointing out entries by Mr Cohen in the Register of Members' Financial Interests to the effect that he owned and in one year received rental income from a property in Colchester.[2]

2.  The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards carried out an investigation into this complaint and has sent us a memorandum, reporting his findings.[3] In the usual way, we provided a copy of this memorandum to Mr Cohen, who has submitted his own evidence.[4] Both the Commissioner's memorandum and Mr Cohen's written evidence are appended to this Report.

The Commissioner's findings

3.  The Commissioner has set out his basic findings of fact, as follows:

Mr Cohen has a property in Colchester which he purchased jointly with his wife in 1998. Mr Cohen has consistently designated this property as his main home throughout the period of this inquiry, covering the financial years 2002-03 to 2008-09 inclusive. Mr Cohen has made claims against parliamentary allowances for his second or additional home, which has been a succession of properties in his constituency. Mr Cohen has never made any claim against parliamentary allowances in respect of his Colchester home. During the period Mr and Mrs Cohen also owned two seaside caravans and a beach hut. He has never made any claim against the allowances in respect of these.[5]

Mr Cohen claimed the maximum amount of Additional Costs Allowance in respect of his constituency home in each year of this period.[6]

4.  The Commissioner's memorandum sets out the series of debilitating health-related incidents that befell Mrs Cohen at frequent intervals from 2003, including a stroke in March 2004.[7] Mr and Mrs Cohen felt that they had to spend more time at their constituency home from 2003, in order that Mr Cohen could care for his wife while continuing to carry out his Parliamentary duties and to make it easier for Mrs Cohen to receive necessary medical treatment at a specialist hospital in North London.

5.  Before June 2003, Members were given no guidance on the designation of their main home for allowance purposes. From June 2003 until 2009, the guidance stated that the identification of a main home would normally be a matter of fact. Where a Member had more than one home, the main home was normally where a Member spent most nights. The Commissioner notes—as Mr Cohen has pointed out and as this Committee has previously accepted—that the term "normally" implies that there may be exceptions.[8] Mr Cohen suggested to the Commissioner that his wife's medical condition and his own need to combine caring for her with his work as a busy Member of Parliament created just such an exception.[9]

6.  In 2002-03, Mr Cohen spent more nights at his Colchester house than at his constituency property and, although there was no overnight test at the time, the Commissioner accepts that this helps to substantiate Mr Cohen's designation of the house in Colchester as his main home.[10] Towards the end of 2003-04, by when the effects of Mrs Cohen's series of poor health episodes had become particularly severe, the property had been let, but it appears there was no expectation that this was to turn into a long-term arrangement. The Commissioner has concluded that,

in all the circumstances … it was acceptable for Mr Cohen not to change the identification of his main home in 2003-04 and to keep it as his house in Colchester.[11]

7.  Unfortunately, Mrs Cohen's health did not fully recover and the Cohens therefore continued to live mostly in the constituency, letting the Colchester house for periods but always hoping to return there. From early 2004 until August 2008, Mr Cohen periodically let the Colchester house on 6-month leases. The property was let for all of 2005-06 and for the majority of 2004-05 and 2007-08. It was let for parts of 2003-04, 2006-07 and 2008-09.[12] Mr Cohen told the Commissioner that the net receipts from this arrangement were £2,837 over the period 2004 to 2008.[13]

8.  In 2001, Mr Cohen registered the fact that he owned, and had received rental income from the Colchester property. He did not subsequently declare any further income, as he should have done. It was Mr Cohen himself who drew this omission to the Commissioner's attention; non-registration did not form part of the original complaint.[14] The Commissioner concludes:

Mr Cohen was in breach of the rules in relation to the registration of Members' financial interests in not registering his Colchester house and the fact that he received substantial rental income from it in each year from 2004 to 2008 inclusive.[15]

Mr Cohen has apologised for this breach and has now made an appropriate entry in the Register of Members' Financial Interests.[16]

9.  According to the best estimate that it has been possible for Mr Cohen to make in the absence of proper records, in 2002-03 he spent 55% of nights in his designated main home—in Colchester—and in 2003-04 he spent 45% of nights there. In 2005-06, Mr Cohen did not stay in his designated main home at all. In other years, he spent well below half of nights there.[17] For long periods, Mr Cohen did not even have the option of using the house in Colchester, because it was occupied by tenants. The Commissioner has considered whether, in the light of this, it was within the rules for the Colchester property to have been identified as a home (whether as a main home or as a second home) for the purposes of Mr Cohen's claims against Additional Costs Allowance.[18] He concludes:

Mr Cohen was in breach of the rules of the House in identifying for allowance purposes his house in Colchester as one of his two homes from April 2004 to August 2008 because his use of the property was constrained by regular and substantial periods when it was let to others.[19]

10.  The Commissioner points out that Mr Cohen could have continued to own the property and to let it. What Mr Cohen should not have done was to do both those things and also to identify the property as a home for the purposes of claiming ACA. As the Commissioner notes, Mr Cohen could have lived in his constituency and claimed the London Supplement, while letting the Colchester house.[20]

11.  Allowing for the possibility that the Committee might not agree with this conclusion, the Commissioner has also considered whether, if Mr Cohen did legitimately have two homes for the purposes of claiming ACA, his designation of the Colchester property as his main home was correct. The Commissioner rightly gives considerable weight to the evidence concerning Mrs Cohen's poor health.

I understand Mr Cohen's case. I appreciate that, with the onslaught of his wife's ill health, that was a time of turbulence and uncertainty. I have a great deal of sympathy for the misfortune which Mrs Cohen has clearly suffered and for the great stress this must have caused both to her and to Mr Cohen. But in the light of Mrs Cohen's health problems since 2000, and the stroke she suffered in March 2004, Mr Cohen should have reviewed his position. Mr Cohen has accepted that he failed to carry out a thorough examination of his circumstances when it became clear that his wife's health was "unreliable". The unreliable state of her health should have been sadly clear to him in the spring of 2004. Had he thoroughly reviewed the situation then, he would have realised that he was not planning to spend any substantial amount of time in Colchester (as evidenced by his renting the flat out in 2004 for a six month let). Mr Cohen has also fairly pointed out the risk of a recurrence which is associated with a stroke. The simple fact was that, by April 2004, their home in the constituency in London had to all intents and purposes become their main home.[21]

12.  The Commissioner has considered Mr Cohen's evidence that his circumstances were not normal but were exceptional.

By April 2004 it should have been clear to Mr Cohen that his wife was not well enough for them to continue to use the Colchester property as their main home. His circumstances were by then not exceptional: they were the circumstances which would continue to govern their lives for at least the next four and a half years.

He continues:

In my judgement, and on a reasonable interpretation of all the evidence, from April 2004 onwards, Mr Cohen's constituency home was his main home. His Colchester home was not.[22]

13.  The Commissioner doubts whether Mr Cohen was sufficiently clear about his arrangements in his dealings with the Department of Resources for them to be in a position to give considered advice.[23] He points out that in any event, Members must be personally responsible for their actions under the rules. He concludes:

Mr Cohen was in breach of the rules of the House from April 2004 to August 2008 in identifying his property in Colchester as his main home and so making claims against the Additional Costs Allowance for his home in his constituency.[24]

Mr Cohen's arrangements for his properties over this period of four and a half years represented, in the Commissioner's judgment, a "particularly serious breach of the rules."[25]

Mr Cohen's evidence

14.  Mr Cohen has sent us written evidence, in which he restates some of the points he made to the Commissioner.[26] We summarise these, as follows:

  • Mr Cohen has always regarded the house on Colchester as his main home
  • Mr Cohen's circumstances were not 'normal', and it is unfair to apply to his case the rule that a Member's main home will normally be where he spends most nights
  • Members are permitted to let their main homes temporarily in some circumstances; to apply this just to those with large homes "smacks of class discrimination"
  • During the four and a half years when the Colchester house was let for periods there were also periods when it was not let and was used by the Cohens
  • Mrs Cohen's episodes of ill health were unpredictable and it was not clear by April 2004 that she could not rely on good health, although in retrospect Mr Cohen regrets not reassessing the position at the time
  • Claiming London Supplement instead of ACA "would not have saved the tax payer a penny" because Mr Cohen could also have claimed various expenses
  • The rules are being applied retrospectively
  • A "far more robust system" of support should have been available to Members, to help them interpret and abide by the rules

Mr Cohen writes that he hopes that the Committee will understand his position and will not uphold the complaint. He states that he will, nonetheless, "concur with whatever decision is made."

Conclusions

15.  We agree with the Commissioner that Mr Cohen should have continued to register the rental income from his Colchester house, following the initial registration in 2001. There is no point of difference between the Commissioner and Mr Cohen on this point. We are pleased that Mr Cohen has now complied with the registration requirements.

16.  We also agree with the Commissioner that, from April 2004 to August 2008, Mr Cohen's house in Colchester could not be regarded as his home for the purposes of claiming Parliamentary allowances. For most of this time, he was not living there and the house was let, so for long periods it was not even accessible to him. The Commissioner and the Department of Resources are right, in our judgment, to take the view that a property which for long periods is wholly inaccessible to the Member cannot be a designated home for the purposes of claiming Additional Costs Allowance. Mr Cohen is wrong, in our view, to argue that letting a home for extended temporary periods is in accordance with the rules. We also point out that, if only part of a property is let, the remainder may be occupied by the owner. This could apply to a two-bedroom house as well as to a country estate. We do not believe that this "smacks of class discrimination."

17.  It follows that Mr Cohen's constituency home was his main home—and for long periods his only home—throughout the four and a half years when he was making little use of the house in Colchester. In our view, Mr Cohen would have been well advised to claim London Supplement during the period when the house was let. We entirely accept that he and Mrs Cohen were continually hoping to move back to Colchester, but as the Commissioner has pointed out it really should have been clear to Mr Cohen that this was not going to happen in the short term. The fact that the house was let and re-let on a six-month lease suggests that Mr Cohen understood this.

18.  Mr Cohen has argued that, had he claimed London Supplement instead of ACA, this "would not have saved the taxpayer a penny," because he could also have claimed other expenses or allowances; and he suggests that his constituents would have received a poorer service.[27] We have seen no convincing evidence to support these contentions. Neither do we accept that the rules are being reinterpreted retrospectively. Mr Cohen might have gained a clearer understanding of the rules if he had provided the House authorities with fuller information about his arrangements.

19.  We calculate that during the period when his Colchester house was let between April 2004 and August 2008, Mr Cohen claimed and received more than £70,000 from his Additional Costs Allowance. Over the same period, as a Member for an outer London constituency with only one home, Mr Cohen could instead have claimed about £9,000 in London Supplement. Taking the latter sum from the former, we conclude that Mr Cohen received over £60,000 from Parliamentary allowances to which he was not entitled.

20.  Like the Commissioner, we have considerable sympathy with Mr and Mrs Cohen for the difficulties they have faced in recent years. We believe we understand their strong attachment to the house to which they plan to retire. We certainly understand the pressures on Mr Cohen, not only as a Member dealing with the heavy workload created by a busy constituency but also as one who has had to cope with considerable stress and demands on his time caused by the ill health of his partner. The House will wish to bear Mr Cohen's personal situation very much in mind when it considers our Report.

Recommendation

21.  In our Second Report of the current Session, we responded to the recommendation of the Committee on Standards in Public Life that the House should be prepared to withhold resettlement grant from Members who commit serious breaches of the rules. We stated that we would regard a recommendation to withhold resettlement grant as an option available to us in cases where it appears to us to be the right sanction to apply in the light of the breach that has occurred.[28] We consider this to be such a case. Mr Cohen's breach was particularly serious and it involved a large sum of public money. Withholding of the resettlement grant is a severe sanction, which will effectively recover from Mr Cohen a similarly large sum of public money. We understand that the resettlement grant payable to a Member with Mr Cohen's length of service is the maximum, which is about £65,000. Mr Cohen has announced that he is standing down at the next General Election, so implementation of the sanction will not be unduly delayed.

22.  We recommend that for committing a particularly serious breach of the rules on claiming Parliamentary allowances Mr Cohen be required to apologise by means of a personal statement on the floor of the House. We further recommend that the full amount of resettlement grant which would be payable to Mr Cohen when he leaves the House be withheld.



1   Appendix 1, WE1 Back

2   Appendix 1, WE2 Back

3   Appendix 1 Back

4   Appendix 2 Back

5   Appendix 1, paragraph 123 Back

6   Appendix 1, paragraph 124 Back

7   Appendix 1, paragraph 128 Back

8   Appendix 1, paragraph 154 Back

9   Appendix 1, paragraphs 37, 72, 73, 110, 133 et al Back

10   Appendix 1, paragraph 155 Back

11   Appendix 1, paragraph 156 Back

12   Appendix 1, paragraph 127 Back

13   Appendix 1, paragraph 17 and WE9 Back

14   Appendix 1, paragraph 129 Back

15   Appendix 1, paragraph 141 Back

16   Appendix 1, paragraph 140 Back

17   Appendix 1, paragraph 126 Back

18   Appendix 1, paragraph 144 Back

19   Appendix 1, paragraph 152 Back

20   Appendix 1, paragraphs 151 and 161 Back

21   Appendix 1, paragraph 159 Back

22   Appendix 1, paragraph 160 Back

23   Appendix 1, paragraph 162 Back

24   Appendix 1, paragraph 163 Back

25   Appendix 1, paragraph 166 Back

26   Appendix 2 Back

27   Appendix 1, WE40 Back

28   Second Report, HC67, Implementing the Twelfth Report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, paragraph 18 Back


 
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