British premier David Cameron rejects call to fire minister in expenses row

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 April, 2014, 1:24am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 April, 2014, 1:24am

British Prime Minister David Cameron rejected a call to sack one of his ministers yesterday after a report criticised her for hindering an inquiry into her expenses claims and asked her to pay back £5,800 (HK$74,800).

The British parliament's committee on standards said Culture Secretary Maria Miller's attitude towards an inquiry into her housing expenses had breached the code of conduct for members of parliament and recommended she apologise, which she did, briefly, before other lawmakers.

The matter is awkward for Cameron, up for re-election next year, since the opposition Labour Party has criticised him for having just four women, including Miller, in his cabinet of 22.

Regularly accused by his critics of running a government of white, privately educated men, he is under pressure to at least maintain if not increase the number of woman ministers.

John Mann, a Labour lawmaker who made the original complaint against Miller, called on Cameron to sack her.

"Maria Miller has been found to have acted in a way that is completely unacceptable for a minister," he said, and her apology, which lasted 30 seconds, showed a lack of respect for parliament, the committee and the public.

"Given David Cameron's strong statements on 'cleaning up expenses' in the past, he will be accused of hypocrisy if he does not sack Maria Miller today."

Cameron said he thought Miller was doing an "excellent job". He added: "It (the report) actually cleared her of the original allegation made against her.

"It did find an overpayment ... and it is important Maria repays that money and that is exactly what she is going to do. I think people should leave it at that."

A spokesman for Cameron rejected suggestions that Miller's position was more secure because she was a woman.

Miller told parliament : "The committee has recommended I apologise to the house for my attitude to the commissioner's inquiries and I, of course, unreservedly apologise," she said.

The committee also recommended Miller repay money she had claimed to cover mortgage interest payments. It said it accepted the money had been claimed inadvertently due to a sudden drop in interest rates.

It also rejected an allegation that she had used parliamentary allowances to cover her parents' living costs. But it strongly criticised her lack of co-operation.

"Mrs Miller's exchanges with the commissioner repeatedly show a failure to provide information asked for, or to respond adequately to the commissioner's questions," it said.