Has the press done to Miller what police did to Mitchell?

It is not that long ago that the press were pointing to Andrew Mitchell MP and asking: “If the police can do that to a government minister, what chance the rest of us.” I now find myself asking whether we shouldn’t just substitute “press” for “police” and “Maria Miller” for “Andrew Mitchell”.

As someone who has written supportively about the Leveson proposals and recently given advice to an emerging Leveson-compliant regulator, I haven’t been all that impressed with Maria Miller’s line on press regulation. Last year, she told Andrew Marr the Leveson arrangements could be “redundant”. Soon after, the Prime Minister corrected her.

The press use different techniques from the police. But they usually get their man – or woman

But there seems to be a huge gap between what has recently been written about Mrs Miller and her expense claims and what might constitute fair comment or accurate reporting. Part of the problem lies with the MPs who passed judgment on Mrs Miller. Their report runs to over 25 pages with a further 90 pages of appendices but, crucially, no executive summary. As a result, misunderstandings and misrepresentations abound which, dare I say it, the press have actively chosen to exacerbate.

MPs overruled the findings of the Parliamentary Commissioner

It is said that a “secretive committee of MPs” overruled the findings of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Since the Committee in question published their decision and their reasons in the aforementioned report, it is difficult to see how the description “secretive” can be justified.

The Commissioner’s role is to investigate complaints when they are made. It would go against all known standards of natural justice if the Commissioner were to act as investigator, prosecutor, judge and jury. In our system of justice, an accused person can expect to be tried by a jury of their peers. And that is what Parliament does.

There is a case to be made that MPs take the phrase “jury of their peers” a little too far. As any profession knows, it doesn’t look good to the outside world if complaints and disciplinary matters are looked at only from within the closed club of practitioners. It is increasingly common for independent lay members to sit on assessment panels, often forming a majority of the panel and/or taking the chair.

The House of Commons process is somewhat archaic. But that is hardly the fault of the Culture Secretary.

MPs reduced the amount Mrs Miller was required to repay by 85%

MPs are permitted to re-claim the interest they pay when mortgaging a second home for parliamentary duties. The Commissioner found that Mrs Miller had over-claimed on her allowable mortgage interest by some £44,000. It is said that the Standards Committee reduced the repayment to £5,800. In fact, they reduced it to zero. This was because the MPs found the Commissioner to have been quite wrong in her findings. The £5,800 was a quite separate matter (discussed below).

Many people take out a second mortgage on their home in order to finance expenses which may be quite unrelated to their property. Plainly, if MPs raise finance in that way, the mortgage interest should not become a reclaimable expense. The Commissioner held that Mrs Miller had broken the rules on this. But the facts were rather different. Mrs Miller bought the house in question, with a mortgage, before she became an MP. Subsequently, she took out a further mortgage to re-modernise the property, again before she was an MP.

Once she was elected to a constituency outside London, she became entitled to reclaim mortgage interest on the London property (or on the other property but not, of course, on both). She made such a claim. The Commissioner deemed that she should claim only on the original amount of the mortgage, not the costs of bringing the home up to modern standards. The Standards Committee rejected this.

The Standards Committee decided that the rule was intended to disallow claims made against borrowings made after one becomes an MP and not to discriminate against MPs who had made financing decisions before they entered the House. So the £44,000 repayment wasn’t reduced to £5,800. It was struck out.

Mrs Miller was using public money to house her parents

In 2009, the former Labour MP and minister, Tony McNulty, was found to have claimed £60,000 of expenses on his parents’ home. It appeared to some that Maria Miller had done the same thing. This was the substance of the original complaint against Mrs Miller, lodged by Labour MP, John Mann. In reality, the two cases had very little in common, other than the fact that McNulty and Miller both have parents.

The Commissioner rejected this complaint. Her findings are that Mrs Miller’s parents went to live with Mrs Miller in 1996, almost a decade before she became an MP at the 2005 election. The Commissioner describes Mrs Miller as having “caring responsibilities” for her parents who are “financially dependent” on her. The living arrangements were quite plainly not created in order to secure public funding for her parents, nor did they have that effect once Mrs Miller became an MP.

Mrs Miller’s actual housing costs exceeded the maximum claimable and remained above the maximum when scaled down by 2/7ths to reflect the proportion relating to her parents. So she was entitled to the maximum amount regardless of whether her parents lived with her or not.

Mrs Miller was required to repay £5,800

And so to the £5,800. The Standards Committee devote just five paragraphs out of 70 to this item and they are less than fully clear. The position seems to be as follows.

In 2008/09, the fourth year for which Mrs Miller was making expense claims as an MP, interest rates fell. All other things being equal, Mrs Miller’s claim for interest reimbursement should have fallen too. But all other things were not equal.

Mrs Miller was, as mentioned above, not reclaiming all of the interest, because it exceeded the maximum reclaimable. Moreover, by this time, she had increased the mortgage on her home on two separate occasions. She was not allowed to claim for the related increases in interest and she did not do so.

So when the interest rate reductions kicked in, Mrs Miller was reclaiming rather less than the full amount of the interest that she paid. When her interest payments fell, the payments still remained above the limit. It is when the interest is scaled down to reflect the proportion of the loan which pre-dated her election and by 2/7ths to reflect the proportion relevant to her parents that the amount fell £5,800 below the maximum permitted.

Mrs Miller failed to spot this at the time. Hence the required repayment.

The 30-second apology was not good enough

At the end of the report in which they had cleared Mrs Miller of the two original allegations made against her and, in doing so, overturned the Commissioner’s major finding, the Standards Committee described Mrs  Miller’s behaviour during the process as “legalistic”. This was not meant as a compliment. They ordered her to apologise for adopting this attitude.

For a group of individuals whose primary role is to make the laws of the land, it is an odd choice of a word intended to convey criticism. But that is the word they chose.

The apology has been timed at 30 seconds and is said by many to be inadequate. The press have made much of this. The same press who ridiculed Nick Clegg for his much longer apology in 2012 over the tuition fees U-turn.

In my lifetime, I have received (and made) a fair few apologies. I doubt that many of them have exceeded 30 seconds. You can tell when an apology is heart-felt and it’s not by reference to its length.

The reality is that a forced apology is unlikely to be sincere, especially when given by an MP who has been cleared of the two quite serious allegations made against her. I have no doubt that the press would have seized on the apology no matter how it had been given. Have we not seen before how a fulsome apology is described as “forced to grovel”?

Mrs Miller threatened the press in an attempt to prevent publication

Having failed to secure the immediate resignation of Mrs Miller, the Daily Telegraph alleged that, back in 2012, her aides had threatened the newspaper in an attempt to prevent publication of the expenses story.

Mrs Miller’s office denied the allegations, saying they were pointing out to a journalist that she was harassing the MP’s elderly parents (one of whom was particularly vulnerable at the time). The transcript of the conversation supports that.

If a cabinet minister who is in regular meetings with editors on government business cannot get fair treatment from the press for herself and her parents, what chance everyone else? The press use different techniques from the police, but they usually get their man (or woman) with results that can be just as devastating.

[Update: In the original version of this blog, I mistakenly reported that Mrs Miller used the word “legalistic” in her apology. I have deleted that sentence. I have also had drawn to my attention that the Daily Telegraph’s allegations against Mrs Miller’s aides were first reported in 2012. I have removed a paragraph suggesting that they had waited until now.]

[This article was republished at Inforrm on 9 April 2014.]