After a week of pressure and mounting headlines, Maria Miller has resigned her post as Culture Secretary. There has been some speculation that pressure mounted on her from the press because of opposition to the government’s plan to restrict the press and make them more accountable, or from traditional Conservatives because she had been the person charged with steering through the legislation on Same-sex Marriage. But I think there is a more straightforward and profound reason behind the pressure: to most ordinary voters, the whole episode looked like corruption.
This is my understanding of what had happened:
- Maria Miller claimed for total expenses for a second home, bought in Wimbledon, under the regulations that were in place up to 2010.
- She claimed mortgage interest and expenses of £90,718 over a four-year period in relation to the second home, but this was where her parents and children lived. So the Daily Telegraph reported in December 2012 that this was in breach of the ‘second home’ rules in force at the time, as well as of course now being disallowed by the new regulations. It looked very much like the kind of ‘swapping’ arrangement which had previously been criticised.
- She has also failed to reduce her claim when mortgage interest rates came down—in other words, she claimed for costs that she had not actually paid.
- The parliamentary Commissioner for standards, Kathryn Hudson, investigated, but only after a complaint by Labour MP John Mann. She cleared Miller of making a false claim, but did recommend she repaid £45,000 that she had in fact overclaimed under the rules in force at the time.
- However, the Commons Committee for Standards, comprising 10 voting MPs and three non-voting lay members, did not accept the recommendation, and required that she only repay £4,500. But they also said she should apologise because of her attitude to the Commissioner’s investigation. It was said that she had made threatening comments to the Commissioner, and a phone call has emerged where she also made threats about regulation to newspapers interested in the story.
- Her apology in the Commons was a terse 32 seconds, and her final resignation letter made no reference to any wrong-doing or compromise.
- I understand that she has made around £1 million from the increase in the value of the property—though only part of this was during the time when her mortgage payments were being funded by Parliamentary expenses.
There were two contrasting reflections on Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme this morning. Michael Gove, Education Secretary, made no acknowledgement that anything wrong had happened, and commented that she was a good and hard-working MP and minister, who had juggled work with being a mother (which raises a whole other range of issues). And her departure now leaves only three women (out of 22) in the Cabinet. But someone from the constituency party offer quite a different perspective: what had happened looked did not look moral to the ‘man on the street’ (sic).
From observing newspaper reports and discussions on Facebook, this disparity touches on the heart of the matter. To most ordinary people, the whole sequence of events seems incredible, and nothing short of institutional corruption. It seems extraordinary that someone should ‘overclaim’ by £45,000, for this overclaim to be acknowledged, but it be ruled that there was no wrongdoing, and in fact the need to repay the overclaim be then ignored by peers. If this happened in any normal workplace, it seems to most people that the offender would be sacked from his or her job at the very least, and quite possibly prosecuted. How is it that such different standards are applied in Parliament? And how is it that, after all the expenses scandals, MPs are still, in effect, regulating each other on this? I think it take about 45 minutes to get to the House of Commons from Wimbledon, and about an hour by train from Basingstoke, Miller’s constituency. So all this was about saving 15 minutes in her journey to work! The Government appears to have little understanding that, even if the rules have been followed, this looks immoral to many voters.
Here is another recent example. Vince Cable, the Secretary of State for Business, agreed the sale of the Post Office for what is generally reckoned to be £2 billion less than its proper market value. He did this on advice from seven banks, all of whom then had preferential options to buy shares as corporate investors. There was a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that these banks would not immediately sell their shares, but at least 50% of these shares were immediately sold to take the profit. One of the hedge funds that did purchase had immediately made £36 million profit; its director is one Peter Davies, who happens to have been George Osborne’s best man after getting to know him at Oxford University.
It seems to me that there is only one expression to describe this kind of thing: utterly corrupt. And these two examples continue to alienate the ‘political class’ from voters, threatening to increase the loss of confidence in political processes, and further reduce active involvement in political parties. You would think that politicians might have learning something from the experience of recent years.
But why should I be interested in this as an ordained Christian minister? Well, I am interested in politics and public life generally, and it is always very satisfying to be able to vent my own frustrations and express my opinions. But, it might be asked, shouldn’t Christian leaders be talking about Jesus more, rather than getting embroiled in political debates? I recently saw this as a criticism of Justin Welby’s Twitter feed: why the constant discussion about social issues, rather than spiritual? The church is not the religious arm of the Labour party; the kingdom of God will not come through political or social reform. So why write about this? For me, there are at least six reasons:
1. Early in my Christian life (through CYFA camps as a teenager), I was inducted into a both/and approach to issues of faith and society. To be a disciple in the modern world involves understanding that world and how the good news about Jesus engages with it. I have explored this elsewhere, drawing on some helpful observations from Jon Kuhrt.
2. Out of this, I have always felt it is vital not to divorce the social from the spiritual. What we believe about God must have an impact on what we believe about those around us and our relations with one another. This is the extended theme of, for example, the letter from James; Paul, passionately concerned to make the gospel known, was also committed to remembering the poor as an integral part of his message.
3. Throughout the Old Testament, God is interested in issue of social justice and integrity, not just personal morality. Jesus in Luke 4 proclaims his ministry as including ‘proclaiming good news to the poor’, and though this is configured in the NT in a different way, ‘justice’ continues to be a key part of what we understand as God’s ‘righteousness.’ God’s call on Christians is to continue to speak truth to power.
4. It is a vital part of Christian ministry to be concerned with what happens of most people Monday to Friday, and not just on Sunday. This includes speaking out about and encouraging a concern for integrity for Christians in their workplaces.
5. For other reasons, I have recently be spending a bit of time in Romans 1–3. It has been fascinating to be immersed in Paul’s extended reflection on the reality of the human condition. In politics, as in other contexts, we can see very clearly that power corrupts, and this testifies to the frailty of the human condition: we are corruptible. This is not simply to say that Christians are better than others, but that we share a common, fallible humanity—and because of this are all in need of God’s forgiveness, liberation and empowering.
6. Christians need to be speaking out on these issues if we are to retain apologetic credibility. It has sometimes been said that ‘The church is the only organisation which exists for the sake of these who are not members.’ I actually think this is something of a half truth—but a church which only goes on about mission can easily look like a movement that is interested only in its own agenda. The kingdom of God is actually about a radical concern for others, for their own sake, which means getting involved in these kinds of discussions.
Proclamation of truth and integrity, and proclamation of the good news of God in Jesus, need to go hand in hand.