In Partial Defence of Maria Miller
Are 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.Tagged in: Maria Miller, mps' expenses
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