Will Maria Miller be stripped of her Leveson role?

Culture Secretary's special adviser warned Telegraph reporter of her boss's involvement in press regulation.

Like her predecessor as Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, Maria Miller is under fire this morning for the actions of one of her special advisers. Today's Telegraph reveals that Joanna Hindley highlighted her boss's role in press regulation after the paper told Miller's office it was planning to run a story on her expenses.

"Maria has obviously been having quite a lot of editors’ meetings around Leveson at the moment. So I am just going to kind of flag up that connection for you to think about," Hindley told the Telegraph's reporter.

The threat was almost certainly an empty one and there is no suggestion that Hindley acted with Miller's blessing. But it does demonstrate how greater regulation of the press could make it easier (indeed, is making it easier) for politicians to intimidate troublesome hacks. The Telegraph took the unusual step of publishing the details of private conversations in view of the "widespread concern about the potential dangers of politicians being given a role in overseeing the regulation of the press".

Hindley is also said to have told the reporter to discuss the issue with "people a little higher up your organisation" before contacting the Telegraph’s head of public affairs to raise concerns about the story. Miller has been accused of abusing the expenses system by claiming £90,000 for a second home where her parents lived.

The culture department has issued a robust response, stating that "Her [Miller's] adviser noted Mrs Miller was in regular contact with the paper’s editor and would raise her concerns directly with him. However, this is a separate issue to ongoing discussions about press regulation. Mrs Miller has made the Government’s position on this clear."

But it is notable that some are already calling for Miller to be stripped of her responsibility for press regulation. Former Lib Dem MP Evan Harris, an associate director of the pro-regulation campaign group Hacked Off, has said Miller must "recuse herself" from Leveson matters. If David Cameron wants to prove his commitment to press freedom in practice as well as in theory, it is an option he may encourage Miller to take.

Maria Miller, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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The future of policing is still at risk even after George Osborne's U-Turn

The police have avoided the worst, but crime is changing and they cannot stand still. 

We will have to wait for the unofficial briefings and the ministerial memoirs to understand what role the tragic events in Paris had on the Chancellor’s decision to sustain the police budget in cash terms and increase it overall by the end of the parliament.  Higher projected tax revenues gave the Chancellor a surprising degree of fiscal flexibility, but the atrocities in Paris certainly pushed questions of policing and security to the top of the political agenda. For a police service expecting anything from a 20 to a 30 per cent cut in funding, fears reinforced by the apparent hard line the Chancellor took over the weekend, this reprieve is an almighty relief.  

So, what was announced?  The overall police budget will be protected in real terms (£900 million more in cash terms) up to 2019/20 with the following important caveats.  First, central government grant to forces will be reduced in cash terms by 2019/20, but forces will be able to bid into a new transformation fund designed to finance moves such as greater collaboration between forces.  In other words there is a cash frozen budget (given important assumptions about council tax) eaten away by inflation and therefore requiring further efficiencies and service redesign.

Second, the flat cash budget for forces assumes increases in the police element of the council tax. Here, there is an interesting new flexibility for Police and Crime Commissioners.  One interpretation is that instead of precept increases being capped at 2%, they will be capped at £12 million, although we need further detail to be certain.  This may mean that forces which currently raise relatively small cash amounts from their precept will be able to raise considerably more if Police and Crime Commissioners have the courage to put up taxes.  

With those caveats, however, this is clearly a much better deal for policing than most commentators (myself included) predicted.  There will be less pressure to reduce officer numbers. Neighbourhood policing, previously under real threat, is likely to remain an important component of the policing model in England and Wales.  This is good news.

However, the police service should not use this financial reprieve as an excuse to duck important reforms.  The reforms that the police have already planned should continue, with any savings reinvested in an improved and more effective service.

It would be a retrograde step for candidates in the 2016 PCC elections to start pledging (as I am certain many will) to ‘protect officer numbers’.  We still need to rebalance the police workforce.   We need more staff with the kind of digital skills required to tackle cybercrime.  We need more crime analysts to help deploy police resources more effectively.  Blanket commitments to maintain officer numbers will get in the way of important reforms.

The argument for inter-force collaboration and, indeed, force mergers does not go away. The new top sliced transformation fund is designed in part to facilitate collaboration, but the fact remains that a 43 force structure no longer makes sense in operational or financial terms.

The police still have to adapt to a changing world. Falling levels of traditional crime and the explosion in online crime, particularly fraud and hacking, means we need an entirely different kind of police service.  Many of the pressures the police experience from non-crime demand will not go away. Big cuts to local government funding and the wider criminal justice system mean we need to reorganise the public service frontline to deal with problems such as high reoffending rates, child safeguarding and rising levels of mental illness.

Before yesterday I thought policing faced an existential moment and I stand by that. While the service has now secured significant financial breathing space, it still needs to adapt to an increasingly complex world. 

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation