If ANYTHING is to be salvaged from the shredded integrity of the House of Commons over MPs’ expenses, the Culture Secretary Maria Miller now has to go.
Not only have her actions – and her minimal apology – rekindled public anger over MPs’ expenses, but she has also brought the entire system of the regulation of MPs’ expenses by MPs themselves into total disrepute.
For the moment, she continues to hold on to her office and enjoy the support of Prime Minister David Cameron. But over the weekend, the Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith voiced his concerns about expenses rows “eating away at the credibility of parliament”, while former Conservative Party chairman Lord Tebbit called on her to resign.
The conduct of Maria Miller cannot be put down to a moment of absent-mindedness or administrative oversight. She claimed that a large London property occupied by her parents was her second home and on this basis claimed taxpayer support of £90,718 in paying the interest. Her claim resulted in her receiving more money than that to which she was entitled and she subsequently cleared a profit of more than £1 million when the property was sold.
The parliamentary Commissioner for Standards ruled she should repay £45,800. But the Commons Committee on Standards, which has the final say, cut this to just £5,800. Journalists who questioned her conduct were reminded that the Culture Secretary had oversight on the Leveson Inquiry findings on press regulation.
Her apology to the Commons last week made matters worse, lasting as it did just 32 seconds and without any evident contrition or apology to taxpayers.
Now it is revealed that Mrs Miller sent bullying e-mails to the commissioner in an attempt to have the charges against her dropped. She also hired a lawyer to respond to requests for information and refused to hand over documents to justify her claims. Sir Alistair Graham, the former chairman of the Committee on Standards, has described her actions as “shocking”.
The Prime Minister now finds himself in an impossible position. So, it might be said, is a Conservative-led coalition seeking to clamp down on bogus welfare claimants. What authority does the government now claim in this area given that a Cabinet minister can be let off so lightly? Public anger over the affair is at boiling point.
Three steps are required. First, Mrs Miller should be encouraged to consider the damage she has inflicted on the public, the Commons and the government, and resign. Second, a review should be ordered of the decision to reduce her repayment. And third, the policing of MPs’ expenses should be taken out of their hands and placed with an independent body in which the public might have some trust. If the present arrangement was unsatisfactory before, Mrs Miller has reduced it to farce.
Divisions over vote must be curable
With every week comes fresh evidence of the growing intensity of the independence referendum battle. On top of vociferous criticism of the chief executive of
Barrhead Travel after he had written to staff advising them to vote No to independence, and the haranguing of business leaders at a Scottish Parliament committee meeting last week, comes news that a Scottish Labour MP is now receiving police advice after he received anonymous threats by e-mail from rogue supporters of Scottish independence, telling the MP to “watch your back”.
No matter that the e-mails may not have been meant to be taken literally, that no physical threat has taken place and that there is nothing whatever to link the anonymous threats to the official Yes campaign – the need for an MP to resort to police protection speaks to a climate of apprehension and fear which should have no part in the independence referendum campaign.
It is inevitable that this issue should excite strong emotions and passionate arguments from both sides, but there are still some five months to go, and campaigners on both sides should be careful not to create such an atmosphere of division and schism as to make it difficult for Scots to reunite to make the best of the future, whichever way the vote goes on 18 September.
The news over the weekend that senior figures within the SNP are preparing strategies to heal divisions caused by the debate is to be welcomed. To that end, campaigners should make a point in the coming weeks to speak and act responsibly. Scotland’s future would be blighted if bitter language and threats were to lead to an antipathy for years ahead.