Maria Miller row: Aide's newspaper call defended
- 5 April 2014
- From the section UK
A Tory MP has defended a government adviser after claims she invoked future press regulation to suppress a newspaper's coverage of Culture Secretary Maria Miller's expenses.
The Daily Telegraph has released a recording in which the adviser mentions the Leveson Inquiry while being asked by a journalist about Mrs Miller.
But MP Therese Coffey said Mrs Miller's elderly parents had been "doorstepped".
She said the adviser, Joanna Hindley, was suggesting that was inappropriate.
The release of the Telegraph's recording, which dates from December 2012, is the latest development in a row over expenses claims by Mrs Miller going back several years:
- Last week, Mrs Miller was told to repay £5,800 in mortgage interest claims and had to apologise to Parliament for failing to co-operate with a parliamentary inquiry
- Parliamentary commissioner Kathryn Hudson had found Mrs Miller over-claimed by £45,000 for expenses towards mortgage interest payments and council tax on a house which she shared with her parents
- But the House of Commons Committee on Standards decided she only needed to pay back £5,800 to cover over-claiming of mortgage expenses, resulting from her failure to cut her claims when interest rates fell
- The discrepancy springs from the difference between the size of Mrs Miller's mortgage, which was £525,000 when she entered the Commons in 2005, and the £237,500 purchase price of the five-bedroom property
- The commissioner believed she should only have been able to claim expenses for interest payments on the original 1996 mortgage of £215,000. The committee, made up of MPs and lay members and which has the final say, disagreed
In the Telegraph's recording, adviser Miss Hindley answers a query from a Telegraph reporter.
Miss Hindley points out that another reporter from the paper had "doorstepped" Mrs Miller's father, who had just come out of hospital, at the MP's south London property.
She goes on to say Mrs Miller had been "having quite a lot of editors' meetings around Leveson at the moment", before adding: "So I am just going to flag up that connection for you to think about."
In its leader column, the Daily Telegraph says that referring to Mrs Miller's involvement in deciding press legislation in order to convince it to back away from getting "straight answers" was "an indictment of the influence that press regulation by statute could have over free speech".
It adds: "If our MPs cannot hold an honest conversation about regulation of their own expenditure, how can we expect them to hold an honest conversation about the maintenance of the free press."
Labour's shadow leader of the House of Commons Angela Eagle said the Telegraph recording and emails from Maria Miller to the commissioner during the investigation raised "serious questions" for Mrs Miller and the prime minister.
"They urgently need to make clear what they knew about these calls and what action they took about them. There is also the important question of whether there has been a breach of the code of conduct for special advisers or the ministerial code," she said.
But Ms Coffey, who sat on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee between 2010 and 2012, told BBC Two's Newsnight that she had heard the recording and believed the special adviser had been trying to protect Mrs Miller's elderly parents from press intrusion.
She said: "I heard an adviser to the culture secretary suggesting that it's inappropriate to be doorstepping elderly parents of somebody who has just come out of hospital."
David Cameron's official spokesman, Craig Oliver, has also denied claims he had "threatened" the former editor of the Telegraph over the Leveson Inquiry in relation to the story.
The paper reported in December 2012 that Mrs Miller had claimed £90,000 in expenses towards the mortgage on the south London property where her parents lived, while designating her main home as a rented property in her constituency of Basingstoke.
Freedom of information campaigner Heather Brooke said the Telegraph reporter who had visited the house had been carrying out "a public interest piece of reporting".
Ms Brooke said that the journalist had no choice but to visit the property to establish the facts of who was living there and that it was "disingenuous to use this argument of privacy".
Emails released by the standards committee showed how Mrs Miller tried to persuade Ms Hudson that her investigation into her expenses was "unreasonable" and suggested she may go over the watchdog's head to ask MPs to intervene.
In one email, Mrs Miller said: "It may be that I shall need to refer this to the supervisory jurisdiction of the standards committee but I hope this can be avoided."
In another, she said: "As should by now be obvious, a decision to uphold the complaint would be irrational, perverse and ... unreasonable - that is to say would be a decision that no reasonable decision maker could properly reach."
Another said: "In light of the evidence that is before you ... to continue to regard this spurious complaint as a serious matter would give it credence it does not deserve and undermine the inquiry process in comparison to issues that really are serious matters."
The BBC's political reporter Alan Soady said the camps in the row were developing, with some people suspecting there had been "some bullying going on" in reaction to scrutiny of Mrs Miller's expenses.
But our correspondent also said plenty of Conservative MPs and others wondered if the ongoing row was the result of newspapers with a "vendetta" getting their own back for Mrs Miller's role in press regulation after the Leveson Inquiry into press conduct.
She currently has Prime Minister David Cameron's backing - on Friday he told reporters to "leave it there" with questions on Ms Miller, who has accepted committee findings into her expenses claims and apologised.
But with various strands of the story ongoing, her position could depend on how long it lasted, our reporter added.
Former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Sir Alistair Graham, told the BBC that Mrs Miller's failure to co-operate fully with the commissioner's inquiry was "shocking".
He suggested it would also be shocking to the public that the standards committee had reduced the amount Mrs Miller must repay.