Cameron Penny is a financial services lobbyist.
What an awful inconvenience for our elected Members of Parliament the Maria Miller affair has been. No doubt they were convinced that the spectre of revolution that permeated the air in the aftermath of the MPs’ expenses scandal had long receded. Maria Miller’s behaviour has given new life to what many had assumed were long-gone concerns. The simple fact of the matter is that the Commissioner found that the Secretary of State claimed far more than she was due. The Commissioner’s findings were crystal clear and scathing. Kathryn Hudson wrote that “Mrs Miller has developed her own rationale for her position despite clear guidance to the contrary”. Quite. Not only did the Secretary of State over-claim in respect of the £50,000 extension to her mortgage but this was on a mortgage whose size had been inflated substantially by the time she entered Parliament.
The rules were clear; MPs were only to claim interest on the mortgage interest associated with first obtaining their property. Ergo the taxpayer was only to be expected to pay the burden of Maria Miller’s original mortgage interest and not the costs associated with the subsequent increase of that debt facility. The final result is that the Secretary of State obtained an extra £45,000 from the taxpayer – as made clear by the Commissioner.
This only deals with one half of this story. The second half is more worrying; how 10 of her Parliamentary colleagues concluded that the Commissioner had erred in her findings and that the actual repayment should stand at £5,800 and a slap on the wrist. How had MPs from across the House; Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat all come to this conclusion? A reversal of the Commissioner’s findings that we can only assume was supported by the three lay members of the Standards Committee.
How indeed? We can only ponder because no voting record is publicly available and the minutes of the Committee’s meetings are, to put it mildly, basic. The public should know who voted which way. We should be told which members of the Standards Committee supported this almost complete reversal of the Commissioner’s findings. Those people should be named and they should be shamed at the ballot box come next May regardless of party affiliation. In my own small way I will be writing to each of those MPs and the lay members to politely ask them whether they were part of the majority that supported the move to refute the Commissioner’s findings about the size of the excess claims.
This is important and the change to a more transparent way of Select Committees reporting is important. Voting records and detailed minutes should be publicly available. It is entirely depressing that this development has occurred in the same week that Ed Miliband spoke out to remind us of the failures of the Lobbying Act. Then as now, I and many colleagues across the lobbying industry argued for greater transparency. We supported, indeed still do, a universal register of lobbyists backed by statute. This is because transparency protects and supports accountability. It also roots out corruption. Knowing who lobbies and for whom is healthy for our democracy. If you are lobbying for someone that you’d rather people didn’t know about then you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.
Similarly, if you’re overturning impartial, expert findings against one of your colleagues and you don’t want the public to know why, or who backed you, then you shouldn’t have been doing that either.