7 April 2014

The British Culture Secretary and Minister for Women and Equality appears to have lost the confidence of her colleagues. Trouble has been brewing over the last 15 months following a media report that she claimed the parliamentary mortgage relief allowance on a London property where her parents lived. She claimed it was her secondary residence which entitled her to an allowance, and that a rented house in her constitutency was her main home.

Matters appear to have been compounded by unhelpful responses to the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner who investigated the expense claim. Mrs Miller threatened to make a formal complaint about the commissioner, refused to provide documents to justify her claims and employed a lawyer to try to limit the scope of the investigation against her.

The Commons Standards Committee, made up of 10 MPs and three lay members, agreed with the commissioner that the London home should have been designated as her main home, but that it was reasonable under old guidance to regard it as her second home. Although the commissioner recommended a repayment of £45,000, the committee felt Mrs Miller should only pay back £5,800 as a “minor over-claim” on the £90,000 mortgage allowance she received – even so Mrs Miller “…tried to persuade them that she should only pay £4,000.”

A former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life described this uncooperative response as pretty shocking; “the degree of lack of cooperation or the attempt to divert the commissioner from addressing the issues concerned seems fairly exceptional. I think particularly for a senior Cabinet minister, who you expect to show a leadership role in cooperating with whatever expenses system is around, it is pretty shocking… I think the public will be very shocked that the committee did overturn one of the key recommendations about how much should be repaid, when there is a real possibility that the minister made a capital gain with the help of public funds.”

Mrs Miller made an unreserved apology to the Commons last week.

A Cabinet colleague indicated that the Minister should quit but said her career had been saved by the committee’s decision to largely ignore the commissioner’s findings. “What Maria Miller has done is serious but she has been cleared by the body set up to investigate her…The fault is with the system.”

He commented that “.…she has clearly behaved in a way that is incompatible with what she should be doing as a Cabinet minister. The decision to keep her on undermines the Prime Minister because he has talked about a new kind of politics.”  The Telegraph reports that none of the 50 Conservative Party backbench MPs asked about this matter were willing to support her.

The acceptance by the committee that the mortgage relief claim was only a minor overcharge, seems to rationalise opportunism. There was no entitlement to the allowance. This seems different in kind from the claims by some New Zealand MPs that were brought to public attention by the media in December 2013. That related to the omission from MP disclosure requirements of arrangements by which MPs establish superannuation schemes that own the Wellington house where they stay when on Parliamentary business and for which they receive an accommodation allowance.