Brian Monteith: Politicians to suffer over expenses

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So another politician falls victim because of incorrect expenses claims. I am writing about Maria Miller, of course, the English Culture Secretary and Cabinet minister, who fell on her sword yesterday.

We could surmise that she was actually dragged kicking and screaming to recant her sins. Only after humiliating all around her with a terse 32-second apology did she become expendable to the government and was allowed to go – not so much with a bang as a whimper.

She may now lose her seat in next year’s general election, few will mourn the loss – but it could all have been so different. Here’s how.

Firstly she should have come clean from the start, she could have been more co-operative with the various bodies that were investigating her – it was, after all, taxpayers money that she had over-claimed on.

I am willing to believe that the problem of over-claiming was a technical oversight due to a change in interest rates – the reason that the original sum being pursued of £45,000 was reduced to £5,800 is because the complex figures kept changing. But be that as it may, £5,800 is a lot of money in any normal person’s purse or wallet. It is still a serious matter.

The minister had to show greater concern from the outset and greater contrition once her responsibility was concluded by the standard committee.

She didn’t.

But this still does not get to the heart of the matter – and that is that the technical oversight that Miller claims was the problem would not have occurred if she had not “flipped” houses. That is to say the practice where many MPs were allowed within the rules to declare as a second home what is really their first home, and then “flipping” them back again to re-designate their real second home as their second home, thus avoiding capital gains tax on any sale of the real first home. That her parents stayed there with her made it appear all the more daft and devious.

Miller sold her London residence for more than a million pounds without paying capital gains tax. So let’s get this straight, £5,800 is mere eyewash. It is this practice of “flipping” houses to gain favourable expenses and then flipping back again to be able to sell the most expensive house [usually the one in London] without tax liability that the public has found utterly conniving, callous and unforgivable. And quite right too.

So there should be no sympathy for Maria Miller, she got herself in this mess and she then made a cod of dealing with it. True, other MPs have done the same and not paid a similar penalty, but they were much more co-operative and coughed-up quickly when the original sin was discovered - they did not fight it.

Then there’s the added contention that her advisor blatantly threatened a newspaper by mentioning in an e-mail that her minister was responsible for press freedom and implying she could take a dim view of being hounded about her expenses.

If we have ever required an example of why the very legislation that Maria Miller has taken through parliament was wrong and should be struck down, it was this. The media can at times be outrageous, but it is our last hope of guarding us against politicians who like to do things behind the scenes without anyone knowing. This implied threat to a newspaper should have been a resignation issue itself.

No amount of lobbying by colleagues, no amount of defending her on television and radio should or could have kept her in her job.

For her arrogant attitude, her apparent insincerity and her bullying of the media she had to go.

But as a footnote, let me just say this sorry affair is no reason for politicians or supporters of other parties to get all partisan and smug.

Miller may be a Tory but she is not unique, the practice she was reprimanded on was practiced by members of other parties too – because it was within the rules of the time.

Nor is she a criminal, she has not been judged to have intentionally defrauded the public purse, it is accepted as an oversight.

She is not in the same league as the four Labour members of Parliament who have actually gone to jail because they invented expenses and claimed them on false invoices and receipts.

And for those thinking it’s a London thing let’s remember one of those MPs had a Scottish constituency.

And let us remember also that Holyrood has had its own woes, not least the MSP whose mileage claim was enough for him to drive round the world at least four times. He was allowed to resign due to ill-health.

And all of this in the week that the Deputy First Minister said the SNP would never use the expensive type of hotel that Jack McConnell stayed at in New York – only to find out that Alex Salmond stayed there himself in 2007!

Indeed there is a great deal about the First Minister’s expenses that we still don’t know about and apparently cannot be explained.

The rules have now changed, it should not happen again – but don’t bet your house on someone trying.