In Partial Defence of Maria Miller

John Rentoul

mm 209x300 In Partial Defence of Maria MillerAre the rest of us mome raths entitled to feel outgrabed? asks Malcolm Redfellow, about my article in partial defence of Maria Miller in The Independent on Sunday today. He points out that I am in the uffish minority holding out against the slithy toves of even the Tory press in vorpal killing mode.

I know that I have a moral defect, in that I am capable of seeing things from the point of view of people in authority, and that I regard most politicians as good people who work hard, motivated by an inseparable mixture of self-promotion and public service.

So I think Miller probably made an honest mistake in failing to adjust her claims when her mortgage payments went down, which she compounded by her truculence when she was investigated by Kathryn Hudson, the Parliamentary Commissioner. In a sane world, a contrite apology, a repayment and an additional fine (for obstruction and to acknowledge that the error in her favour was discovered only as the result of journalists’ enquiries) would have been sufficient. In the actual world, she will survive, but at some cost to her reputation and that of the Government and MPs generally.

But just to clear up some of the many misunderstood points in her defence:

The Commissioner said she had overclaimed £45,000 but this was reduced by the committee of MPs to £5,800. This implies that her Conservative colleagues generously wrote off most of her overclaim: this is not so. After the Commissioner estimated that she had claimed £45,000 too much, Miller finally found documents showing that her actual mortgage payments were higher, and so the amount overclaimed was lower. In the end the Commissioner and Kevin Barron, the Labour chair of the Standards Committee, were both happy with the £5,800 estimate.

Miller made a £1.2m profit out of her taxpayer-subsidised house. So she may have done, as did many others. It wasn’t against the rules. That was one of the reasons why the expenses system before the previous expenses system was changed.

A benefit claimant would have gone to jail for that amount. The general principle for tax, tax credits and benefits is that, if you make an honest mistake, you pay the money back.

Miller’s special adviser, Jo Hindley, threatened a Telegraph journalist trying to investigate her expenses. The transcript of the conversation is here. Holly Watt does not sound remotely intimidated, and nor should she. I admire the way she shot back: “You can’t possibly know that until you’ve knocked on someone’s door.” Hindley’s reference to Leveson was unwise, although she was probably referring to the question of harassment rather than to Miller’s influence on the press regulation regime. It wasn’t harassment, but I can see why Miller and her properly committed special adviser might think it was. Anyone who thinks that conversation constituted an improper threat is an extremely delicate flower.

Maria Miller threatened the Commissioner with legal action and a reference to the Standards Committee. Ditto. Miller defended herself vigorously as she was entitled to do, although she went too far in obstructing the inquiry. She thought the Commissioner was extending her inquiry beyond the original complaint. This is undoubtedly true. The original complaint, that Miller was not entitled to claim for the house because her parents lived in it, was rejected. But the Commissioner thought that the amount claimed merited examination too. She was right. Miller was entitled to resist, to consider taking legal advice, and to complain to the Committee to which the Commissioner reports. It is insulting to suggest that Hudson might be cowed by this.

You can complain about the rules as they were when Miller claimed the money, although that is pretty pointless as they have changed twice since. You can complain about the rules now, which are almost as bad, but irrelevant to the Miller case. You can say that £5,800 is a lot to “overlook” and that she should resign or be sacked for overlooking it, or for obstructing the inquiry.

But I don’t think you can say she has been let off lightly by MPs policing themselves or that she or her adviser have “threatened” people.

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  • reformist lickspittle

    I would substitute “hope” for “think” there :)

  • Jimble

    I hope you don’t think this is a slight, but you’re increasingly sounding like a lawyer and not a journalist. Do you believe:

    1. Maria Miller’s London home, bought before she entered Parliament and in which her family lived, was her primary residence?

    2. Even if one was to accept that London was her secondary home, then it should have been for her sole use and not housed her parents?

  • realfish

    And you sound like you are making it up as you go along.
    You haven’t read the report have you?

  • Jimble

    Er, yes I have read the report and all the supporting materials round the case since it first broke – have you?

    If so, then I invite you to explain how any and all of the points I’ve raised above are incorrect. That should be easy for someone like yourself, so confident that I’m making stuff up as I go along…

    If that’s too hard, then perhaps let’s limit you to answering why all MPs so far have said that Miller’s been found innocent, but have failed to say that’s by the Parliamentary committee stuffed full of MPs and not by the Commissioner.

    Or, perhaps you’d just like to address points 125 & 126 of the report you hastily accused me of not reading. Miller is believed to have incorrectly designated London as her secondary home.

    Sorry if I sound angry; it’s because I am. I’m angry that we have such a lowly political class. I’m angry that we have people such as yourself willing to give them a pass and excuse their behaviour. And mostly, I’m angry that we have such a weak electorate unwilling to engage in the democratic process that others in this country and around the world have laid down their lives for.

  • douglas redmayne

    Rentoul should consider the incentives effect of condoning Millers behaviour: politicians need to be as scrupulous as they can be and any gaming of the system, even if within (flawed) rules is a sign of poor character which must be punished to discourage others. This is why it is no bad thing that the press is acting like a so called lynch mob.

    Rentoul is only defending Miller to protect his own position of trust with politicians he relies upon for his reporting and commentary. In that sense he is part of the rotten and corrupt system which he unsurprisingly defends.

  • Hoot_Gibson

    So you believe she forgot honestly to readjust her mortgage claims?
    Funny when the expense scandal broke she immediately (emphasis on the immediate) stopped claiming for her mortgage on her Wimbledon home.
    Sorry Mr Rentoul your argument bears no weight.

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