Maria Miller grinds slowly

Which member of the Privy Council is best qualified to be Chancellor of the Exchequer? It is not, obviously, George Osborne, who famously doesn’t even have O-grade maths and who is driving the UK into double-dip recession because he has no notion about economics beyond “tax cuts for the rich=GOOD”.

Oddly enough in a Tory Cabinet, it’s actually a comprehensive-school kid from Wales. Maria Miller, Minister for Women and Equalities

Maria Lewis went to Brynteg Comprehensive School/Ysgol Gyfun Brynteg in Bridgend and took a BSc in Economics at the LSE. (When she married Iain Miller in 1990 she took his surname and has stood for election as Maria Miller ever since.) She isn’t a crony of Cameron from the Bullingdon Club (they don’t let girls in), she didn’t go to Oxbridge, she wasn’t privately educated, and she didn’t marry into the web of privilege: she will never be one of the Secret Seven. I imagine as a member of the Conservative Party since she was 19 she’s got used to that kind of thing.

Maria Miller has been MP for Basingstoke since 2005. As she was born in 1964 she’ll be aware that to David Cameron (born 1966), she has a useful life only to 2018, even if the Tories scrape a win in 2015: Caroline Spelman was sacked in the reshuffle for being too old at 54.

Until her MP expenses were publicised, Maria Miller rented a house in Old Basing (I lived in Basingstoke for a year, and most of it is a modern dormitory town where you can commute to London Waterloo in an hour. Old Basing has some beautiful houses) and claimed her house in Wimbledon as her “second home” so that the taxpayer could pay her expenses – including garden work and carpet repair. (She stopped doing this when she was found out and her constituents objected.)

[9th April 2014: After a days-long grinding row over Maria Miller claiming expenses for the house in Wimbledon - in which her parents were living, and then her selling it for over a million, and then the MP-run standards committee deciding she only had to pay back £5,800 instead of the £45000 originally decided against her, Maria Miller has resigned from the Cabinet. She is still MP for Basingstoke, at least until May 2015: though it has been a safe Tory seat since before women had the vote.]

Before the 2012 reshuffle, Miller was with Iain Duncan Smith at the Department for Work and Pensions: Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State and Minister for Disabled People.

After the reshuffle, she replaced Jeremy Hunt as Minister for Culture, and replaced Theresa May as Minister for Women and Equalities.

As Minister for Disabled People, she presided over the closing down of half the Remploy factories in the UK, and indeed her last act before leaving the DWP seems to have been to have the sacked Remploy staff pay Emergency Tax on their pay in lieu of notice – which claws back 50% of their last paypacket to the Treasury.

As Minister for Women and Equalities, she is one of the kind of people who believe that women suffer less trauma if, when they need a late-term abortion, they are either forced to travel to another country where one can be legally obtained or forced through a failing pregnancy against their will. It’s the kind of cow theory of breeding women; the Maria Millers believe the pregnant woman isn’t fit to decide for herself what option will cause her least trauma: the government should make that decision on her behalf. (As Robin Marty asks, Since when is “Protecting Women” from making “Bad” decisions feminist?)

In 2008, Maria Miller voted to reduce the legal limit for abortions to 20 weeks. Cathy Newman asked her about this in the Daily Telegraph:

To give her credit, she is clearly a woman who knows her own mind. Would she, I asked, vote that way again? “Absolutely.” I must admit I was slightly taken aback by her candour. “You have got to look at these matters in a very common sense way,” she expanded. “I looked at it from the really important stance of the impact on women and children.”

From the perspective of a woman living in Ireland who could not obtain an abortion at 22 weeks:

So the consultant arrived and scanned me again. The diagnosis was anencephaly – a condition in which the neural tube fails to close in early pregnancy, and which was (those devastating three words) incompatible with life. He took us to a small room, most notable for the box of tissues on a small side table. He told us that in this jurisdiction, all that they could do was to continue to care for us through the remainder of the pregnancy. Our disbelief must have shown through the tears, but the phrase that stuck with us in the aftermath was “in this jurisdiction.”

From the Telegraph interview:

This, in truth, is the Nadine Dorries school of thought – the belief that the pro-choicers who want to keep the limit at 24 weeks are, as Ms Dorries put it to me, ignoring “the number of women who are traumatised and vulnerable during the abortion process”. Ms Dorries says a 20 week cut-off makes her “more of a feminist”, standing up for women.

And Ms Miller – who describes herself as “a very modern feminist” – clearly agrees, saying she’s “driven by that very practical impact that late term abortion has on women…What we are trying to do here is not to put obstacles in people’s way but to reflect the way medical science has moved on.”

So, because “medical science has moved on”, Miller knows it is less traumatic for a woman to have to travel to a hospital outside the UK to terminate after 20 weeks, and as Minister for Women she would say so to this woman who had to do that:

I can’t speak highly enough of the care we received. They gave us as long as we wanted with our son and were in no rush to get us out. However, the time eventually came when we had to leave him behind. That was the worst part – that we couldn’t bring him back with us and arrange our own funeral or ceremony or whatever we wanted to do. The hospital kindly arranged for a cremation, but we could not be informed exactly when, so it took place without us being there. Joshua’s ashes were sent back to us by courier.

As for the children for whom the Minister for Women has such concern, presumably Maria Miller is thinking of the raped children whose pregnancy is discovered late when she feels that “in a common sense way” it is better for those children to be forced to have babies too young and against their will. This would make her “a very modern feminist” of the Rick Santorum and Jim Wells sort. But it’s entirely possible that a Minister who thought it appropriate to “help” disabled people by closing Remploy factories also thinks it’s appropriate to “help” women by closing down a legal right to make medical decisions. But we don’t know for sure because Cathy Newman didn’t ask.

Certainly Miller has never expressed any concern for families like those of Rose Fernandez, where two disabled adults being cared for as part of the family mean that the main carer cannot work and the family receives more benefits that Tories like families in need to get: Osbornomics and Cameron-style “compassion” and Iain Duncan Smith’s “welfare reform” always mean cuts in spending on the poorest and most vulnerable. Such people never are of concern to Tory governments.

As Minister for Disabled People, Miller announced the abolition of DLA on 6th December 2010, claiming that “the rising caseload and expenditure” of DLA was “unsustainable” and that:

The new benefit will apparently be easier to understand. There will be no automatic entitlement. And accepting advice from an independent healthcare professional will be “an important part” of the new system…

By “independent healthcare professional”, of course, she was referring to the ATOS doctors and nurses, to the system by which a young man who can only communicate by blinking has to prove himself not able to work at a “capability assessment” run by ATOS.

In January this year, speaking on the Today programme, Maria Miller claimed that £600m was being “overpaid” to people who didn’t need it and hadn’t been reassessed:

I have to take issue with the way this is being put forward as an argument. There is very clear evidence that there is some £600m every year going out in over payments. This isn’t about fraud – people who are claiming the benefit trying to defraud taxpayers – what it is is a benefit which is 20 years old which never had inbuilt reassessment, where 70% of people are receiving it for life and as a result their condition changes. We have very clear evidence that there is a need for reassessment to be built into the system.

So a Paralympian with one leg, who says DLA helped him become an athlete after the amputation, was told that he was now no longer disabled enough to get benefits. Apparently his “condition had changed”, though there is no report that he has succeeded in regrowing his missing leg.

According to a strong defence of the DWP policies by Leo McKinstry in the Express in early September, if Wayne Fisher (GB wheelchair basketball team 1996) got disability living allowance after losing his job, this would, says McKinstry, trap him “in a culture of victimhood”. If he got the mobility component of DLA and was able to apply for a Motability car, this would “limit his ambitions” and “reinforce a downward spiral of benefits dependency”.

In another amputee case, George Mullen lost one leg in an accident when he was 18, but continued to work for over 35 years full-time. When he was retired on health grounds (problems included “chronic infections and abscesses at the amputation site, to developed arthritis in his neck, shoulders, back, and the knee and foot of his remaining leg”) and with dangerously high blood pressure caused by stress, Mullen

applied for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) as a last resort.

After recently attending a work capability assessment, Mr Mullen was shocked to discover his money was being stopped.

Because “medical science has moved on”… Former ATOS nurse Joyce Drummond said that though each claimant was supposed to have a 44 minute assessment session, she was expected to get through 10 claimants a day and her supervisor told her she was “too nice”:

“I never found out how the decisions went but when I was doing the interview, I knew what the outcome would be.

“Atos went by the philosophy that if you had a finger and could push a button, then you could work. Ridiculous.”

[In September], a Panorama documentary revealed that each week between January and August last year, 32 people died who the Government had declared could be helped back into work.

Appeals against decisions are costing the Government £50million a year.

Atos have a £206million contract from the Department for Work and Pensions.

ATOS Healthcare says:

“The process and criteria for all assessments are set by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and approved by our democratically elected Parliament.

“Our focus is to ensure that our team of fully qualified doctors and nurses carry out thousands of accurate assessments every month, in full accordance with the detailed guidelines set by the DWP.”

Incidentally, Cathy Newman appears by what she herself said about her abortion in that article, to be the kind of prolifer who believes that while it was good for her to make the decision for herself, other women are not able to do that and ought to have the government get to decide what constitutes trauma for them:

Difficult as my decision was, if the law changes, women in similar situations might not have the choice I did. On the other hand, I do appreciate the Miller/Dorries argument that the trauma of a late abortion, or terminating a potentially viable pregnancy may leave women with emotional scars which never fully heal.

But she may simply have been constrained by the Telegraph’s prolife policies to express her real feelings: it’s unlikely that a paper which ran a sting operation on health clinics would allow its journalists to openly express a prochoice point of view.

But it is curious the steady correlation between politicians who believe women should not get to decide for themselves whether to have a severely disabled child, and their belief in policies which cut away most thoroughly all supports for disabled people, and their families and carers.

And in that light, whatever either David Cameron’s or Nick Clegg’s ambitions for the reshuffle, perhaps moving Maria Miller from Minister for Cuts for Disabled People to Minister for Cuts in Women’s Rights is really most emblematic of the whole game of deckchairs on the Titanic.

[April 2014: In 2013, Maria Miller shepherded the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act successfully through Parliament. A minority of Conservative MPs voted for it. She would also have been responsible for implementing the Leveson reforms. Supporters such as Iain Duncan Smith - who was cleared of deliberately cheating on his expenses in 2003, who argued this on the Marr show on Sunday 6th April that the only reason Tony Gallagher at the Telegraph had taken against Miller was that he was "enraged" by same-sex marriage and by press reform.

An unnamed "senior Conservative figure" told the Guardian:

"All the press – in the widest possible sense – have an interest in, at the very least, neutralising Maria Miller and possibly seeing her removed. There is a great deal of moral outrage at it. But it means that this provides yet another difficulty for the government."

There's no doubt that a Tory minster who stood up for LGBT human rights is not popular with her own party: nor that any politician supporting reform of the corruption in the British press would be unpopular with the papers who prefer the status quo. But the problem is: Maria Miller really did overclaim her expenses.

But there is a growing agreement across the spectrum at Westminster that the sight of an MP over-claiming on mortgage interest payments – and then delivering a peremptory 32-second Commons apology for seeking to threaten an independent watchdog – will inflict untold damage on the political class as a whole.

Peter Hain, the former Labour leader of the House of Commons who believes that the time has now come for independent outsiders to police the conduct of MPs, told the Guardian: "All that trust that parliament has been trying to restore since 2009 completely goes out of the window with this."

Other ministers may not be under the same investigative onslaught in the right-wing press as Maria Miller - Michael Gove and Mark Hoban and Alistair Darling come to mind - but that doesn't make Maria Miller innocent of what she is accused. Still, we may consider the motivations of the press for going after Miller rather Hoban, Gove, and Darling...]

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