It is shocking that Cameron, who has repeatedly said in the past that he is cleaning up on MPs’ expenses, now says he is giving “very warm support” to Maria Miller, the disgraced secretary of state for culture, media and sport. Miller, a haughty Tory lady of the grande dame variety, became an MP in 2005 and designated a house in Wimbledon as her second home (and thus eligible under parliamentary expenses) on the grounds that she spent most of her time in a rented house in her constituency (Basingstoke). She then made claims for 4 years on the Wimbledon home, but stopped claiming when the expenses scandal broke in 2009. The Commons committee on standards in their report just published found that she had over-claimed on her mortgage. The standards commissioner, Kathryn Hudson, recommended that Miller be made to pay back more than £44,000. The Commons committee on standards, for reasons not disclosed, did not support Hudson’s recommendation. Instead they merely criticised Miller for frustrating the investigation for over a year by declining to give direct answers to questions about her claims for taxpayers’ money. They ordered her to repay just £5,800. Then to cap it all, her ‘apology’ to the House of Commons yesterday which was minimalist (30 seconds), did not even mention the money she had been ordered to repay, and from her manner clearly lacked sincerity.
One has to ask why the Commons standards committee took such a lenient view. Kathryn Hudson had made the case that Miller claimed for mortgage interest against a mortgage significantly larger than one required to purchase her property. She also further increased her mortgage without the Commons authorities knowing this or agreeing to it. And Hudson also added that she should not have designated her London home as her second home. Miller also, with typical arrogance, also challenged Hudson’s right to seek details about her mortgage.
So why did the Commons standards committee not back their own commissioner’s report? On 13 December 2012 the Commons committee on standards and privileges was replaced by a committee on standards and a separate committee of privileges. The same MPs are members of both committees, but the committee on Standards has 3 additional lay members. The members of this committee are: Kevin Barron (chair, Labour), Paul Beresford (Tory), Robert Buckland (Tory), Christopher Chope (Tory), Tom Clarke (Labour), Geoffrey Cox (Tory), Sharon Darcy (lay), Nick Harvey (LibDem), Peter Jinman (lay), Walter Rader (lay), Helen Wheeler (Tory), and Alan Whitehead (Labour). Thus there are 5 Tory members, 3 Labour, 1 LibDem, and 3 lay members. It would be interesting to know how they divided in their opinions.
This is not the first time that questions have been asked about the judgements of this committee. The former Labour MP Denis McShane was prosecuted for wrongly claiming £12,000 (which he repaid) while the LibDem MP David Laws falsely claimed £40,000 which, as was said at the time, “went straight into the pocket of his partner”. Yet whereas was forced to resign his seat and faces imprisonment, Laws is now back in government. McShane was the subject of a damning report by the Commons standards and privileges committee (referred to by Private Eye as ‘the double standards committee’) and it seems clear that the Crown Prosecution Service, having previously told McShane that he would face no further action, changed its mind solely on the basis of the standards and privileges committee report.
Some searching questions are in order about this committee: how it is chosen, what influences are brought to bear on it, on what grounds it disowns its own commissioner’s reports, and how it appears to reach such inconsistent judgements.