Culture Secretary Maria Miller was today censured by the Commons Committee on Standards for overcharging the taxpayer £5,800 on her London home mortgage. She had failed to revise her claims during a period of falling interest rates in 2009. That figure is small fry in the continuing saga of the parliamentary expenses scandal. And Miller was cleared of a more serious allegation regarding the housing of her parents in a taxpayer-funded property – the kind of allegation that brought down Lib Dem treasury minister David Laws in 2010. Nonetheless, Miller’s critics may yet take a scalp.
The standards committee recommended that Miller repay her overclaim and deliver an apology on the floor of the Commons. The minister complied, but did not exactly throw herself on the mercy of the House:
Battle lines are now being drawn. Miller is said to enjoy David Cameron’s “warm support”. Labour MP John Mann, who made the original complaint against the minister in December 2012, is calling for her resignation. The leader of the opposition has not yet commented.
The Conservatives will bank on this controversy burning itself out. Miller’s terse statement to the Commons was designed to avoid media attention. But critics will play up the presence of a benefit cheat in a government that takes a hard line against scroungers. Outside Westminster, knowingly failing to report a change of circumstance to obtain housing benefit is a crime punishable by up to three months imprisonment and a £5,000 fine. Questions will also surround the scale of the culture secretary’s transgression; the parliamentary commissioner for standards, Kathryn Hudson, thinks the minister overclaimed in the region of £44,000.
Miller will find it especially difficult to deflect charges of dishonesty. The prime minister called her misdeed an “administrative error” on Sky News. Perhaps. But the standards committee damned the culture secretary for having obstructed their investigation:
As we have set out, Mrs Miller has also breached the current Code of Conduct by her attitude to this inquiry. That is more serious. The system relies on Members responding to the Commissioner’s inquiries fully and frankly, rather than trying to argue a case in a legalistic way. It should not have required our intervention to produce the material and explanations required to complete the investigation.
Cameron takes pride in having restored a measure of trust in politics after the bloodbath of 2009, when Labour ministers like Hazel Blears, Jacqui Smith and Tony McNulty were forced to resign for having fudged their expenses. David Laws was abandoned when his improprieties threatened to damage the cabinet. Unlike Laws, Miller is one of the prime minister’s tribe. But the government may lack the will to defend her if she becomes a symbol of Tory hypocrisy on the welfare issue.