British Labour Politician
Kitty Ussher is currently the Member of Parliament for Burnley, having been elected at the General Election of 2005, although she has recently announced that she will be standing down from the House of Commons at the next General Election. In the two years between the June of 2007 and 2009 she was a member of Gordon Brown's Labour government, until she was rather unexpectedly obliged to resign on the 17th June 2009.
Early life and career
She was born Katharine Anne Ussher on the 18th March 1971 at Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, the daughter of a doctor named Patrick Ussher and his wife Susan, a headmistress and sister of the Conservative MP Peter Bottomley. Young Kitty spent part of her childhood in Ireland, but was educated at St Paul's Girls' School and Balliol College, Oxford, where she read Philosophy, Politics and Economics. After graduating in 1993 she worked as secretary to the Labour MP Paul Boateng until 1994, after which she spent the next three years working as a researcher for a succession of Labour MPs, being Martin O'Neill, Kim Howells and Adam Ingram.
In 1997 she began working as an economist at the Economist Intelligence Unit and also took up part-time course at Birkbeck College, London. Now armed with an MSc in Economics, in 1998 she moved to Centre for European Reform where she remained until 1999, when she joined the Britain in Europe Campaign as their chief economist. It was whilst she was at the Centre for European Reform that she wrote The Spectre of Tax Harmonisation 2000) 1 before being 'headhunted' by the Government in 2001 and offered the position of special adviser to Patricia Hewitt at Department of Trade and Industry. She remained as a government special adviser until 2004 during which time she "wrote the government's first manufacturing strategy". 2
Kitty Ussher was a member of the London Borough of Lambeth Council between 1998 and 2002 and subsequently listed her achievements as "getting a decision to close a local library overturned" and "getting a football pitch built". However she had clearly set her sights on entering the national political arena and in 2003 she began looking around for a parliamentary seat. She soon identified Burnley as a likely target, where the veteran incumbent Peter Pike was standing down at the next election. Ussher began spending every weekend in Burnley where she deliberately sought out the less active members of the constituency party in order to canvass their support, and was subsequently to claim that "I saw ten members a weekend, every weekend, for a year" and that she "had spies everywhere". As a result of these efforts she therefore managed to overcome the disadvantages of being both an outsider and a southerner, and came out ahead of all the other ten hopefuls who had put their name forward on an all-women shortlist to secure the nomination.
With Burnley being a relatively secure Labour seat, Kitty was duly returned at the General Election of 2005, although her majority was noticeably less comfortable than her predecessor's. Once in the Commons she served on the Public Accounts Committee, and later became Parliamentary Private Secretary to Margaret Hodge, then the Minister of State at the Department of Trade and Industry, on the 20th November 2006. A few months later on the 29th June 2007 she took her first step onto the front bench, when Gordon Brown found room for her in his first Government and appointed her as Economic Secretary to the Treasury in succession to Ed Balls. Otherwise known as the Minister for the City, her position requited her to deliver a speech ten days after her appointment in which she took the opportunity to describe it as her "dream job". 3
At the Treasury Ms Ussher worked on the Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Act 2009, and the Savings Gateway Act 2009 and appeared to make a good impression; one journalist described her as one of the "brighter denizens of the lower depths of the Brown administration". Consequently in Gordon Brown's first re-launch reshuffle of the 5th October 2008, she was promoted to the position of Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), where her boss was James Purnell.
It was during her time at the DWP that her name first hit the headlines during what briefly became known as the Social Fund Saga. This minor political squall arose when the Mail on Sunday obtained an advance copy of a consultation document issued by the DWP that appeared to be putting forward the suggestion that interest should be charged on Social Fund loans. This proposal attracted widespread criticism, and even the Conservatives regarded the notion as "astonishing and outrageous" and accused the Government of "behaving like loan sharks". Shortly before Christmas 2008 she was therefore obliged to announce that the Government was "absolutely not proposing to charge interest on social fund loans", and explained that the whole thing was a misunderstanding. 4
Clearly, she must have dealt with this minor crisis in a satisfactory manner, as with Gordon Brown's next relaunch reshuffle completed amidst some of the worst election results the Labour Party had ever experienced, she was promoted to the position of Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury.
The Fall of the House of Ussher
During the course of 2009 the British media became increasingly interested in the matter of the expenses paid to Members of Parliament. Ms Ussher was one of the first to attract attention, as in March 2009 one Darren Reynolds, a Liberal Democrat councillor on Burnley Council, complained that she had misused her parliamentary communications allowance for party political purposes. However, although the complaint was investigated by John Lyon, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, he subsequently concluded that there was no basis to the complaint. However, the issue of MPs' expenses become more serious at beginning of May 2009 when the Daily Telegraph obtained the detailed records of all expenses paid to MPs over the past four years and began publishing a series of exclusives. Naturally, as a member of the Government Kitty was one of the first to be brought under the Telegraph's spotlight.
On the 9th May 2009 the Daily Telegraph therefore reported that within a year of being elected she had written a "two-page note" to the Commons Fees Office which detailed no less than twelve separate "essential repairs" she hoped to claim for in respect of her London home. Apparently the bathroom did not "function", the plumbing was "strange", the electrics were "odd", there was a "damp patch in the kitchen", some of the window frames were "rotten" and "draughty", and to cap it all, the house had Artex ceilings which needed to be "plastered over and repainted". All told, the work cost in excess of £20,000, which Ussher realised would take her over the annual limit and so she asked the Commons Fees Office to "Pay as much as you can".
As Ms Ussher explained matters, the house had been "relatively cheap to purchase" and therefore required "quite a lot of work". This was all very well, but she'd purchased the house five years previously, and had been living there ever since, leading many to speculate how she could possibly have spent so long in a home that bore every sign of being unfit for human habitation. She was nevertheless "confident" that her claims were "legitimate". Her confidence seemed well-placed, as she survived the ordeal by party activist at a meeting held at the community centre in Daneshouse, Burnley on the 12th June, and must presumably have passed the 'expenses audit' that Gordon Brown now insisted that all his ministers were subject to, as on the 9th June she was promoted to the post of Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury.
All seemed well in the house of Ussher. Until that it is she was contacted by the Daily Telegraph once more on the 17th June 2009 regarding her housing arrangements.
The story went as follows. When first elected in 2005 she told the Commons Fees Office that her main home was in Burnley, and therefore claimed the cost of running her London property as her second home. Or at least that was the case until April 2009 when she announced that her main home would be in London as the family would be relocating to the capital. (A decision that attracted some criticism back home in Burnley.) However it was a different matter as far as HMRC were concerned, as she had always designated her London property as her main home for tax purposes. Except that is, for one brief period at the beginning of 2007 when, on the advice of her accountant, she redesignated her flat in Burnley as her 'principal residence' for tax purposes. As a result, when she sold that property in March 2007 for the sum of £62,000, she paid not one penny in Capital Gains Tax on the profit of £40,000 plus, and thus saved herself as much as £16,800 in tax. This would be an example of what ordinary mortals would call sensible 'tax planning', but would be regarded as blatant and unforgivable 'tax avoidance' by many within the Labour Party. Indeed since her actions placed her in an almost identical position as her fellow Labour MP Hazel Blears, whose conduct had already been declared to be "completely unacceptable" by Prime Minister Brown, it was not surprising that Ms Ussher did not even wait for the story to hit the front page, and promptly resigned from Government.
Promoted on the 9th June, Kitty Ussher was obliged to resign on the 17th June, before either she (or indeed anyone else) had got around to updating her website to reflect her new exalted position at HM Treasury. She also announced that she would be standing down from Parliament at the next election for "family reasons", and claimed that she had made this decision "some time ago" because the "hours of parliament simply don't work with kids". Although oddly enough, there was not one hint of this change of heart in her weekly column, Kitty Ussher's Westminster Week, that regularly appeared in the Burnely Express.
Kitty Ussher married an accountant named Peter Colley in September 1999. Together they have two children, a daughter Elizabeth Susan born in June 2005 and a son George Patrick who arrived in January 2007, both of whom were born at Burnley General Hospital. Ms Ussher likes to spend her time "hill walking" and "supporting Burnley Football Club" where she is a season ticket holder, although one imagines she will not be renewing her ticket when the new season kicks off.
1 The Spectre of Tax Harmonisation can be read online at www.cer.org.uk/pdf/p165_tax_harmonisation.pdf
2Which presumably meant that prior to her arrival in 2001 the Labour Government had no manufacturing strategy.
3 It is worth reading the text of this address if only to contrast the approach taken by Gordon Brown's government to the City of London and financial regulation before the Global Banking Crisis, to that adopted afterwards.
4 Generally speaking Social Fund loans are loans advanced by the DWP to benefit claimants in order to enable them to purchase essential items such as furniture or household appliances.
- ‘USSHER, Kitty’, Who's Who 2009, A & C Black, 2008; online edn, Oxford University Press, Dec 2008 [http://www.ukwhoswho.com/view/article/oupww/whoswho/U45665
- Kitty Ussher at http://www.theyworkforyou.com/mp/kitty_ussher/burnley
- Kitty Ussher at http://www.parliamentaryyearbook.co.uk/mp-member/ussher-kitty.html
- Who is Kitty? at http://www.kittyussher.com/
- Speech by the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, Kitty Ussher MP, at London First's 'Building the Capital's Capital' event, Merrill Lynch, London 09 July 2007
- Martin Waller, She fought for the euro; now one of Brown’s stars will be the City’s champion, The Times, July 9, 2007
- Martin Waller: City Diary - Minister on the move, The Times, October 7, 2008
- Andrew Woodcock, Government deny social fund interest claims, The Independent, 21 December 2008
- Chris Hopper, Burnley MP under investigation after expense complaint, Lancashire Telegraph, 10th March 2009
- Chris Hopper, Expenses on agenda as Burnley MP to meet with grassroot supporters, 1st June 2009
- Kitty Ussher - the woman behind the headlines, Burnley Express, 18 June 2009
- MPs' expenses: minister Kitty Ussher used allowances for £20,000 house make-over, Daily Telegraph, 09 May 2009
- Martin Beckford and Nigel Bunyan, Kitty Ussher's main home was in constituency for one month to save tax, Daily Telegraph,
18 Jun 2009