Harry Cohen |
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.
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. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards
carried out an investigation into this complaint and has sent
us a memorandum, reporting his findings.
In the usual way, we provided a copy of this memorandum to Mr
Cohen, who has submitted his own evidence.
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.
Mr Cohen claimed the maximum amount of Additional
Costs Allowance in respect of his constituency home in each year
of this period.
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. 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 notesas Mr Cohen has
pointed out and as this Committee has previously acceptedthat
the term "normally" implies that there may be exceptions.
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.
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.
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.
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. Mr Cohen
told the Commissioner that the net receipts from this arrangement
were £2,837 over the period 2004 to 2008.
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.
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.
Mr Cohen has apologised for this breach and has now
made an appropriate entry in the Register of Members' Financial
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 homein
Colchesterand 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.
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. 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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
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 homeand for long periods his only homethroughout
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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Appendix 1, paragraph 123 Back
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Appendix 1, paragraphs 37, 72, 73, 110, 133 et al Back
Appendix 1, paragraph 155 Back
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Appendix 1, paragraph 127 Back
Appendix 1, paragraph 17 and WE9 Back
Appendix 1, paragraph 129 Back
Appendix 1, paragraph 141 Back
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Appendix 1, paragraphs 151 and 161 Back
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Appendix 2 Back
Appendix 1, WE40 Back
Second Report, HC67, Implementing the Twelfth Report from the
Committee on Standards in Public Life, paragraph 18 Back