Maria Miller is all over the news today. For those that don’t have their ears firmly pressed to the ground, Maria Miller is the former Culture Secretary who has, today, resigned from her post in light of recent events in respect of her expenses claimed prior to the changes to the rules governing MPs expenses in 2010 (the claims were made when she was a new MP between 2005 to 2009). As well as having to pay money back, she was asked to apologise publicly in the house, and many thought that her short apology was rather forced. After a week of discussion and exaggerated disgust, she has finally fallen on her sword claiming that the debacle was distracting the country from all the good things that the Government is doing (insert own sarcastic tone here if desired).
This debate has got out of hand and gone off at a rather different tangent from where it started. It’s become a debate about expenses. She wasn’t asked to apologise about expenses; she was asked to apologise about her conduct in being obstructive towards the investigations.
I’ve been left with a very odd taste in my mouth following the news coverage today. Maria Miller has, it seems, been a victim of rather vicious hounding and harassment and – it seems to me – myths, lies and rumours about the circumstances of her case which leave me uncomfortable despite my feelings about the shortcomings of the expenses system that have been discussed in light of Ms Miller’s apology. It boils down to a few points:
1. Most importantly, given where the debate has gone, she was cleared of making false expenses. The overpayments were made because she did not reduce the claims as interest rates fell on her mortgage. The Standards Committee found her conduct obstructive in investigating the claims, but rejected claims that she’d benefited from overpayments. It was this obstructiveness that was the problem, not the making of false claims.
2. As discussed above, the claims date from the original expenses crisis, and to all intents and purposes is part of that debate, and not a new one. The possibility of making claims on that scale are much reduced these days, and new MPs – those elected in 2010 – are likely to be much more aware of the damaging consequences of making such claims anyway. And hopefully the others have learnt…
3. Maria Miller was working on two very important pieces of legislation; gay marriage and press regulation. The former has now passed into law; the latter is ongoing and, whilst the bill has support politically, it does not have support amongst the press. It seems to me that this places her in a position that is unlikely to be popular with the press; others might conclude it could make her a likely victim of unfavourable press stories; that the press might gleefully jump on a story that involved someone closely involved in seeking to more tightly regulate the press. Surely not?
4. She was asked to pay back around £5,000. Many people have asked the question as to why she shouldn’t pay back ‘the full £45,000’ that she was found to have falsely claimed. The answer to this is that she seemingly produced late evidence to prove that the remainder was a legitimate claim under the rules and that she did, in fact, pay back everything that was overpaid.
I’m no apologist for MPs expenses but, on the whole I do admire MPs and our political system. I am thankful I do not live in, say, Italy, Russia or Ukraine. It seems to me that MPs should be entering the profession with a desire to do something for the public good primarily at a local level, but contributing to the betterment of the country as a whole. I believe that most politicians have this desire. They are relatively well paid in carrying out this duty, and in my experience of dealing with MPs I have always left with the impression that the work is long and difficult and brings many compromises. I also believe that MPs should be compensated for the expense involved in travelling to London from distant constituencies and for stays away from their family home in alternative accommodation. I don’t think this should be extended beyond the sort of cost that a commuter living in Brighton might pay – without subsidy – to work in London over the course of a 30 year career, for instance, so I recognise that it’s a difficult balance to make. Funding mortgages is especially difficult when the purchase of a house has, historically, been very profitable and is especially so in London. There are no doubt issues with expenses, and very complex arguments and counter arguments to be had. The general public is right to demand transparency and a more palatable system.
But none of this seems to resolve the fact that I think Maria Miller’s initial obstructiveness to what should have been a much more straightforward matter has drawn out a process which has, in the last week, spiralled madly out of control and concluded with her resignation. Utter madness. I hope we’re all much happier.