UK police asked to investigate minister’s expenses

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LONDON (AFP) – The British minister in charge of a new press regulation system faced the possibility of a police fraud investigation Friday in the latest expenses scandal to hit lawmakers.

Culture minister Maria Miller was censured by parliament on Thursday for overclaiming on her mortgage, and British newspapers roundly condemned her for a perfunctory apology.

On Friday opposition Labour lawmaker Thomas Docherty wrote to Scotland Yard urging the police force to look into the minister’s accommodation claims between 2005 and 2009.

“I believe this matter warrants further investigation and I believe the Metropolitan Police are the appropriate body to carry out such an investigation,” he wrote.

There was no immediate reaction from the police.

On Thursday, Miller was ordered by the standards committee of the House of Commons, the lower chamber of parliament, to pay back £5,800 ($9,600, 7,000 euros) in expenses related to her mortgage and apologise for providing only the “minimum necessary” information to an inquiry into her claims.

Prime Minister David Cameron has supported the minister, a member of his Conservative party, saying she had repaid the money and made an apology in parliament “so I think we should leave it there”.

But Miller was roundly condemned in Friday’s newspapers for her “perfunctory” 31-second statement to lawmakers, which one commentator described as a “non-apology apology” that was “totally void”.

Revelations about the expenses claimed by members of parliament caused a major scandal in 2009 and resulted in five members of the Commons and two members of the upper House of Lords going to jail for fraud.

Miller’s defiance has also put her in the sights of newspapers opposed to a new system of self-regulation of the press, which as culture minister, she is trying to introduce.

Most national newspapers remain staunchly opposed to the plans, introduced in the wake of the 2011 phone-hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid.

The government has insisted editors cannot be seen “marking their own homework” — but several commentators accused lawmakers of doing just that in Miller’s case.

In a highly unusual step, Miller’s fellow MPs on the Commons standards committee overruled an earlier ruling by the independent standards commissioner that she should repay £45,000, opting instead for the much lower figure of £5,800.

“MPs conspired to save Miller,” thundered the Daily Telegraph, which first broke the expenses story.

Former Telegraph editor Tony Gallagher also accused aides to Cameron’s media chief Craig Oliver of having pressured the paper to drop the Miller story in 2012, by referencing her work on press regulation.

Following a major public inquiry into the British press in the wake of the News of the World scandal, a cross-party plan for press regulation was agreed in October, proposing new rules and fines for errant editors.

Newspapers argue that the government’s plan to underpin the system with legislation would allow politicians to interfere with the freedom of the press.

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