Maria Miller in 2012. Photo: Getty
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Should Maria Miller resign over her expenses?

Culture secretary makes 32-second apology to Commons.

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.

 

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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