Maria Miller apologises for handling of expenses inquiry
- 3 April 2014
- From the section UK Politics
Culture Secretary Maria Miller has apologised to MPs for her attitude towards an inquiry into her expenses.
The Commons Committee on Standards ordered her to repay £5,800 to cover over-claiming of mortgage expenses after she failed to cut her claims as interest rates fell.
It cleared her of making false expenses claims, but said her submission of "incomplete" evidence to the inquiry had breached the MPs' code of conduct.
The MP said the matter was now over.
She said she "fully" accepted the committee's conclusions and apologised "unreservedly" to the House of Commons.
In its report, the committee suggested the Conservative MP had tried to argue her case before the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards in a "legalistic" way.
She should "apologise by personal statement on the floor of the House for her attitude to the Commissioner's inquiries", it concluded.
"If the Commissioner had been able swiftly to establish the facts relating to Mrs Miller's mortgages, and had been able to gather the documentation which would have allowed her (and has allowed us) to judge the relationship between the changes in bank base rate and the interest charged to Mrs Miller, this might have been a relatively minor matter," the committee said.
Instead, it said, the investigation had been mired in "delay and difficulty", arising from "incomplete documentation and fragmentary information".
"Mrs Miller has to carry significant responsibility for that."
"Officials would press her for information and the information that was provided appears to have been the minimum necessary," it explained.
The investigation was prompted by a formal complaint in December 2012 from Labour MP John Mann.
This followed reports she had allowed her parents to live in a property on which she claimed £90,718 in second home allowances between 2005 and 2009.
The committee rejected the charge that she or her parents had benefited financially from the arrangements.
"There can be no criticism of [Mrs Miller] in relation to her personal, caring responsibilities and her desire to combine these with the role of an elected representative," it said.
But Mr Mann, MP for Bassetlaw, urged the prime minister to sack Mrs Miler.
"Frankly if you obstruct, deliberately and calculatedly, a parliamentary inquiry by the independent commissioner into your behaviour and have to apologise to Parliament for so doing, how can you possibly remain in the cabinet, running the country?" he said.
In her personal statement, Mrs Miller told the Commons: "The report resulted from an allegation made by the member for Bassetlaw. The committee has dismissed his allegation.
"The committee has recommended that I apologise to the House for my attitude to the commissioner's inquiries, and I of course unreservedly apologise.
"I fully accept the recommendations of the committee and thank them for bringing this matter to an end."
Earlier, Prime Minister David Cameron said: "Maria Miller is doing an excellent job as culture secretary and will continue to do that.
"If we look at this report, yes of course these issues do matter - but she was cleared of the original allegation made against her.
"An over-payment was found which she is going to pay back. She'll make a full apology, and I think people should leave it at that."
The role of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards was to investigate the claims, and set out a view on whether any rules had been broken.
The Standards Committee's job was then to adjudicate on the commissioner's findings.
The commissioner examined first whether Mrs Miller had correctly designated the house she rented in her constituency of Basingstoke as her main home for the purposes of expenses claims when she owned a house in London, where her parents lived.
Mrs Miller said the Basingstoke home was the centre of her family life and where she spent most nights.
Although the committee agreed with the commissioner that Mrs Miller should "properly" have designated the London house as her main home, the "matter was finely balanced" and her choice had been "reasonable".
"Accordingly we make no criticism of Mrs Miller for her error," the committee said.
The commissioner also investigated whether Mrs Miller or her family had received an "immediate financial benefit" from the arrangement.
The five-bedroom London property had been a "house of bedsits" when she purchased it with her husband for £237,500 in 1996 with a 90% loan-to-value mortgage, Mrs Miller told the commissioner.
After "substantial" renovations to "every part of the house", the Millers had remortgaged the property up to a maximum borrowing limit of £575,000.
Mrs Miller said she spent the majority of her time in Basingstoke, but tended to spend Monday to Wednesday nights at her London home when the Commons was sitting.
The committee ruled that she should have made a formal arrangement to reduce her mortgage claims to ensure that her parents, who lived with her, were not benefiting from a public subsidy.
Mrs Miller maintained that the mortgage expenses she had claimed did not cover the full cost of her interest payments every year from her election in 2005 until 2008-09, when rates fell. Commons officials had advised her this was a suitable arrangement at the time, she said.
The committee criticised the lack of a formal arrangement, but accepted that the total cost of mortgage payments were indeed higher than the claims and therefore concluded that "her parents' living costs were not being met by the taxpayer".
But for the following financial year, when interest rates fell, "Mrs Miller considers that she over-claimed on her mortgage by £5,800", the committee reported. "We have examined the figures carefully and accept that that is a reasonable assessment."
Finally, it scrutinised the extent to which Mrs Miller had acted in accordance with the expenses regime at the time. Claims for MPs' mortgage interest payments have since been scrapped.
It was "reasonable" for Mrs Miller to base her mortgage expenses claims on the level of debt she had accrued by the time of her election - not on the original purchase price of the property, the committee said.
Speaking on BBC One's Question Time, former Labour cabinet minister Peter Hain said: "I think she's been treated leniently compared with the way others have been treated."
But Conservative MP Kwasi Kwarteng said: "We have a rule of law in Britain and if you break the law there's a judicial process. No one is suggesting that Maria has broken the law."
And Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable said: "There was a proper process. Had she been involved in anything dishonest, of course she would have had to go."