Miller expenses scandal should trigger disciplinary reform for MPs, says former watchdog chairman


  By Sean Martin
The revelations that the latest MP caught up in an expenses scandal, culture secretary Maria Miller, tried to frustrate the inquiry into her claims are “pretty shocking” and should lead to disciplinary reform for MPs, according to the ex-chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.
Sir Alistair Graham headed up the committee, an advisory body set up in 1994 to examine the financial and commercial conduct of public office holders and political parties, between 2003 and 2007.

His comments come after correspondence showed that the culture secretary threatened to refer Kathryn Hudson, the parliamentary standards commissioner, to a House of Commons committee for acting “unfair and contrary to all standards of due process and legality” in an attempt to limit the investigation into her expenses.

On Thursday, the final arbiter on the matter, the standards committee, informed Miller she would need to repay £5,800 – a sizeable reduction from the £45,000 Hudson had recommended previously.  Graham called for disciplinary reform and cited the examples of systems used for lawyers, doctors and dentists as illustrations of how it could be done better for MPs.

He said: “The degree of lack of cooperation or the attempt to divert the commissioner from addressing the issues concerned seems fairly exceptional. I think the public will be very shocked that the committee did overturn one of the key recommendations about how much should be repaid, when there is a real possibility that the minister made a capital gain with the help of public funds.”

It is the latest revelation in a saga dating back to December 2012, when the Daily Telegraph reported that Miller, 50, had claimed more than £90,000 in second home allowance between 2005 and 2009 for a house in which her parents lived.  Miller’s office responded to the reports by insisting that her parents were living as dependents and the arrangements, which had been audited twice, were approved by the parliamentary fees office.  Nevertheless, Labour MP John Mann submitted a complaint to the standards commissioner, then John Lyon, and an inquiry into Miller’s expenses was launched.

Commenting at the time, Graham said the Conservative MP’s position would be “untenable” should she be found guilty by the inquiry.  On Thursday, Miller apologised by personal statement following a request by the standards committee – comprised of five Conservative MPs, four Labour MPs and one Liberal Democrat MP – which asked that she “apologise by personal statement on the floor of the House for her attitude to the commissioner’s inquiries”.

Her short apology was welcomed by Prime Minister David Cameron, who insisted that the matter should now be closed.  However, the manner in which Miller delivered her statement has come in for criticism from opposition MPs.  A member of the shadow cabinet, Chi Onwurah, called the 32-second response “contemptuous” while Labour backbencher Thomas Docherty said he had contacted Metropolitan Police asking them to investigate further.

“There is a difference between what the committee saw and what the commissioner saw,” Docherty added. “If one of my constituents had claimed £6,000 of taxpayers’ money and then tried to claim it was an oversight, the book would be thrown at my constituent.”

MEANWHILE, the body in charge of parliamentary expenses has said MPs can no longer be trusted to police their own affairs.  Sir Ian Kennedy called for the Commons to “give away powers in regulating itself” adding that “MPs marking their own homework always ends in scandal”.

“We have made great progress in cleaning up the problems of the past,” the chairman of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa), told The Sunday Times. “To avoid further damage to parliament in the future, it should have the confidence to give away powers in regulating itself and see that independent regulation is the best, most transparent way forward.”