Maria Miller fights back over expenses row

Labour MP who exposed Culture Secretary questions the validity of committee that reduced the amount she must repay

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Indy Politics

A fierce row over MPs’ ability to police themselves is set to reach the floor of the House of Commons in the wake of the Maria Miller expenses scandal.

John Mann, the Labour MP who sparked an investigation into the Culture Secretary’s mortgage expenses with a formal complaint in 2012, is furious that a cross-party committee has drastically reduced the amount she has to repay. Ms Miller was ordered to pay back more than £40,000 by the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Kathryn Hudson, but the Committee on Standards concluded she owed only £5,800 after failing to reduce claims for mortgage repayments when interest rates fell. 

Pressure for action over Ms Miller increased yesterday when the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, said that David Cameron must make a decision on the Culture Secretary’s future. He said:  “I think Maria Miller has explained herself. All the other issues to do with her position, the behaviour of her office, alleged or not, is entirely a matter for the Prime Minister.”

Mr Mann said there is “no precedent anywhere else in society” that would allow for MPs to overturn a penalty against one of their own, and he will demand parliamentary time to debate whether the committee should be scrapped. 

He added: “There have to be questions over how a committee on standards can go on. There needs to be a debate over the powers of that committee and self-regulation of MPs – and that debate needs to take place in Parliament.”

The issue of Miller’s expenses has mushroomed into a row between two professions resisting their right to self-regulate being curtailed. Ms Miller is held responsible by many journalists for the Government’s post-Leveson plan for newspapers, while she – and many MPs – has been resistant to the authority of the commissioner.

A former cabinet minister added: “The difficulty is that MPs have taken a different position from the commissioner and that has made the whole thing far more toxic and controversial.”

Committee members insist that they have acted properly and pointed out that they have been tough on other colleagues. Geoffrey Cox, a Tory MP who sits on the committee, accused Mr Mann of being “constitutionally illiterate”, as the decision to suspend or expel an MP should not be in the gift of one unelected commissioner. He argued that Mr Mann was “bandwagoning”.

He added: “This is just about the most astonishingly absurd claim I have heard made in years. There is simply no basis from the Maria Miller case to consider whether or not the committee is working satisfactorily.”

Last night, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s Twitter feed was hacked, with tweets sent out mocking Ms Miller. The unknown hacker, whose messages were swiftly deleted, said the public should decide her fate. Yesterday, Sir Alistair Graham, the former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said Ms Miller’s attempt to frustrate the commissioner’s inquiry was “pretty shocking”.

Ms Miller allowed her parents to live in a south London property for which she claimed more than £90,000 in second-home allowances from 2005 to 2009. Rules state that second homes should be exclusively for the use of MPs.

The committee rejected arguments that Ms Miller’s parents had financially benefited from the arrangement: “There can be no criticism of [Ms Miller] in relation to her personal, caring responsibilities and her desire to combine these with the role of an elected representative.”

Although the committee disagreed with the commissioner’s findings over how much she owed, it did censure Ms Miller over her lack of co-operation with the inquiry.

Emails to the commissioner released on Friday show that Ms Miller warned Ms Hudson that she was unhappy over the way the investigation was being handled: “It may be that I shall need to refer this to the supervisory jurisdiction of the Standards Committee, but I hope this can be avoided,” Ms Miller wrote.

A recording of a telephone conversation between the Culture Secretary’s adviser and a journalist emerged this weekend, apparently suggesting pressure had been applied to downplay the story. The adviser warned the reporter that she should not have approached Ms Miller’s elderly father, and alluded to Ms Miller’s work on the Leveson inquiry. “I am just going to flag up that connection for you to think about,” Ms Miller’s adviser added. A senior MP argued that the adviser “was wrong to make that link by innuendo and it’s difficult to see Miller disentangling herself”.

Ms Miller expressed regret to the Commons for her “incomplete” evidence, and apologised, but briefly. A committee source said: “You should keep the apology short, as the more you go on the more it sounds like self-pity and you don’t mean it. But 32 seconds is too short.”