Maria Miller aide condemns media 'witch-hunt'

Mary Macleod: "We can't just let the media do whatever they want"

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Culture Secretary Maria Miller's parliamentary aide has criticised coverage of the row over her boss's expenses claims as "wrong".

Conservative MP Mary Macleod said there was a "witch-hunt" because some newspapers were angry about Mrs Miller's reforms to press regulation.

But Labour MP Chris Bryant said there was "no point" criticising journalists.

The culture secretary was forced to apologise to MPs for her handling of an inquiry into her expenses.

Start Quote

[David Cameron] has got serious questions to answer about Maria Miller's failure to co-operate with the initial inquiry”

End Quote Ed Miliband Labour leader

The independent parliamentary commissioner for standards, whose job it was to investigate Mrs Miller's expenses, found that she had overclaimed by £45,000.

Although the Commons Standards Committee, which is the ultimate arbiter, disagreed and decided that she had overclaimed by £5,800, it also criticised her "attitude" to the inquiry, accusing her of supplying the commissioner with "incomplete documentation and fragmentary information".

Mrs Miller was cleared of funding a home for her parents at taxpayers' expense, the central charge against her.

Ms Macleod, who is Mrs Miller's parliamentary private secretary, told the BBC: "I do think this is a witch-hunt by the media who are angry about [the Leveson inquiry on press standards] and equal marriage, and they're taking it out on Maria."

Rally round

She could not see why the papers ran the story day after day when allegations had been dismissed, she said.

"We can't just let the media do whatever they want and hound someone where allegations have been dismissed. That's wrong in my book," she added.

Ms Macleod said these were her opinions and Mrs Miller had not mentioned Lord Justice Leveson's proposals to overhaul press regulation to her in the context of the recent coverage of her expenses.

She also confirmed she had sent Conservative colleagues a text message urging them to rally round,

Maria Miller attends cabinet Maria Miller attended cabinet on Tuesday morning

But Labour's Chris Bryant said "there was no point in railing against it (the media) on this particular issue".

"The truth is that the parliamentary system of self-regulation and semi-self-regulation has been on trial in the court of public opinion for a considerable period, and for most of our constituents it has been found wanting."

Labour leader Ed Miliband said Mrs Miller and David Cameron had "some very serious questions to answer".

Ed Miliband: ''We have seen Maria Miller treat Parliament with contempt''

Mr Miliband, who has stopped short of calling for Mrs Miller's resignation, said a rethink on how expenses complaints are investigated was long overdue.

"He [Mr Cameron] has got serious questions to answer about Maria Miller's failure to co-operate with the initial inquiry," he told party activists in Birmingham.

"He's got serious questions to answer about her failure to provide more than a perfunctory apology to the House of Commons.

"I think the ball is in his court. He's got to answer those questions about her status in the government."

'Distracting'

And in an "urgent question" in the House of Commons, Labour MP John Mann - whose formal complaint originally prompted the investigation into Mrs Miller's expenses in December 2012 - said there was "virtual unanimity" among the public that MPs should not regulate their own expenses conduct.

The Labour MP who chairs the standards committee, Kevin Barron, said it had already decided to look at its own procedures and would decide how to go about it in the coming weeks.

Start Quote

There are much more important things than the career prospects of one individual”

End Quote Robert Syms Conservative MP

Conservative MP Robert Syms said the row over Mrs Miller's expenses was "distracting" from the Conservatives' local election campaign and "nobody is bigger than the overall message of the party".

Mr Syms told BBC Radio Solent he had had lots of emails from people who feel "very frustrated" about the "saga".

"As practical politicians we've got to convey our arguments. When these things come along they detract from it. There are much more important things than the career prospects of one individual," he said.

Conservative colleague Zac Goldsmith said he was "surprised" that Mrs Miller had not stood down.

BBC political correspondent Chris Mason said many Conservative MPs were irritated by the tone and brevity of Mrs Miller's apology and, most of all, a distraction weeks before the local and European Parliament elections.

Mr Cameron has said he is open to the idea of further reform of the way MPs' expenses and conduct are monitored but he has continued to defend Mrs Miller.

'Completely irrational'

A Downing Street source said it was for the prime minister to choose his cabinet,

Others who back Mrs Miller believe her roles in overseeing proposals for same-sex marriage have made her a target for newspapers and some fellow MPs.

But the campaign group Conservative Grassroots said Mr Cameron's support for Mrs Miller was "completely irrational".

A poll it commissioned found that 74% of voters and 69% of Tory supporters thought the prime minister should have sacked Mrs Miller.

The row over the culture secretary's expenses dates back to December 2012, when the Telegraph reported she had claimed £90,718 in expenses towards mortgage payments on a house in Wimbledon, south-west London, that the MP shared with her parents.

The standards committee comprises five Conservative MPs, four Labour MPs, one Lib Dem MP as well as three members of the public - who are not allowed to vote.

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