Two entirely separate pieces of parliamentary business this week have highlighted how the Tories feel about those who fiddle benefits, as opposed to how they view the matter of fiddled expenses. One concerns the pathetic tale of greed by Maria Miller and the other relates to overpaid or fraudulently claimed benefits.
The Culture Secretary, Maria Miller was forced to apologise in the Commons late this week, spurred on by the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, and the chief whip, Sir George Young, in a frantic attempt to dampen down the crescendo of indignation from Parliamentarians and public alike, who were affronted by Miller’s story of how she had somehow ‘found herself’ in this situation, the fact that MPs had ‘marked their own homework’ in adjudicating to what extent Miller should be punished, including the actual amount of expenses that she should repay, and the way that senior Tories had dealt with the matter subsequently.
IN 2005, when first elected as an MP, Maria Miller began claiming the cost of mortgage interest on a house in Wimbledon, which she owned – but sold in February of this year – but which her parents had lived in for twenty years or more. In the years up to 2009 Miller had claimed £90, 718 in expenses for repayment of mortgage interest on this ‘second home’, whilst maintaining that her rented home in her constituency in Basingstoke was her main home. That was blown out of the water in 2012 when the Daily Telegraph reported that her parents had lived in the property for decades and that this contravened the rules on Parliamentary expenses.
The conclusion of a report by the parliamentary commissioner for standards, Kathryn Hudson, was that Miller had overclaimed by £44,000. The cross-party parliamentary standards committee, which has responsibility for adjudicating on the report (from where the phrase ‘marking their own homework’ stems) decided Miller should only repay £5,800, little more than a tenth of her overclaim. This was exactly the sum that Miller always maintained had been over-claimed.
The bombshell was really dropped on Friday, when the Telegraph‘s former editor, Tony Gallagher, linked her mis-claimed expenses with a threat made by senior Downing Street advisors, which caused the sky to fall in on the cosy story that had cocooned Miller. He claimed the aide to David Cameron, Craig Oliver, and one of Miller’s special advisers tried to threaten the paper, suggesting it would be unhelpful to push ahead with publication at a time when Miller was dealing with issues of press regulation. Oliver and the adviser deny issuing any such threats. As a result, Miller’s ministerial position is hanging by a thread, largely with the backing of the Prime Minister, David Cameron.
… but …
In the same week, Ministers have been working on a proposal to crackdown on fraudulent claims and overpayments of benefits. The measures will include:
Pensioners who fail to make an accurate declaration of earnings from private pension schemes will be targeted.
Higher fines imposed for benefit fraud.
Overpayments will be rigorously reclaimed through debt collection agencies
In an article in the Daily Telegraph, Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, said the reforms “strike a fair deal between claimants and the taxpayer, help more people into work and help us build a strong society. If you’d listened to the scaremongers, you’d be forgiven for thinking we were ripping up the welfare state and telling people to fend for themselves. In fact what we are doing is returning the welfare state to what it was meant to be – a safety net, not a way of life.”
The department will also launch a publicity campaign to help determine if claimants details are correct and they are not accidentally receiving too much money. The Daily Telegraph reported how the Government spent £166billion on benefits and state pensions to more than 20 million people last year but ‘lost’ £3.5billion to fraud and payments made in error.
What is interesting here is that the rightful fervour to reclaim overpayments or those claimed fraudelently are not matched with the same zeal where dodgy Parliamentary expenses are concerned. Short of appointing Neil Hamilton as a new ‘Independent Commissioner for Parliamentary Standards’, the Tories could not have made a more sorry mess of the whole saga. The coming days – not weeks – will determine whether Miller’s tale is enough to save her skin, but the likelihood is that the threat to the press with its chilling reference to press freedom, will likely spell the end of Maria Miller’s career in Parliament.