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Described by Sky News as a “Rising Star of the Tory Party,” Maria Miller, was the surprise choice as the new Culture Secretary in yesterday’s Cabinet reshuffle. Ms Miller has no record or known interest in Heritage, Culture or Sport. However, what might have influenced the Prime Minister David Cameron to make the appointment, far more than any knowledge of her new portfolio, is the fact that she successfully delivered the extremely controversial cuts to disability benefit while a junior minister at the Department of Work and Pensions [DWP] and in doing so overcame a very vocal and effective lobby with a great deal of public sympathy.
The Heritage sector will also be concerned both by Ms Miller’s apparent links to the controversial Conservative Peer, Lord Lingfield, chair of the Maritime Heritage Foundation, whose contract to allow the American treasure hunting company Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. to salvage HMS Victory 1744 will be one of the first issues to cross her desk and also by the fact, that a leading donor to her constituency party in Basingstoke is Mr Nigel McNair-Scott of multi million pound property company Helical Bar.
Born in Wolverhampton in 1964 and raised in South Wales, Ms Miller replaces Jeremy Hunt who, against many expectations, far from paying the ultimate political price for his role in the BSkyB take-over which led to his being called the “Minister for Murdoch” and the humiliating resignation of his Special Advisor, Adam Smith, has actually been promoted to become Health Secretary.
Having gained a degree in Economics from the London School of Economics, Ms Miller began a business career which echoed that of Prime Minister David Cameron, in that she worked in advertising and public relations. In Maria Miller’s case with Grey, oil company Texaco and as a Board Director of the PR company Rowland, owned at the time by Saatchi and Saatchi.
On becoming MP for Basingstoke at the 2005 General Election she was rapidly given shadow ministerial responsibility. Her Shadow Ministerial Posts included Children Schools and Family [including the Child Support Agency], Universities and Skills and Education. She also sat on the Trade and Industry Select Committee.
After the May 2010 General Election Maria Miller was appointed Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Work and Pensions. In that post she oversaw the proposed closure of a number of Remploy factories which offer sheltered employment to disabled people and the highly controversial changes to benefits for disabled people which led to both a loss of income and stricter rules on medical testing and availability for employment for many disabled people. The political argument over these changes led to thousands of people with disabilities demonstrating in Westminster in May 2011 and the booing of Chancellor George Osborne at the Paralympic Games in London just this week.
Indeed, disabled people are unlikely to be too upset that Maria Miller is leaving the DWP. In February this year she caused further controversy and anger by saying that there was “no shortage of jobs”, and unemployment among people with disabilities was down to a lack of “appetite” for the kind of jobs which were available.
Politically Maria Miller is best regarded as being to the right of the centre of the Conservative Party. She is moderately anti -European and voted for replacing Trident and increasing Tuition Fees, but she also voted against Gay adoption rights, clauses in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill which would allow Lesbian couples to seek IVF Treatment and against the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill. Ironic given that her new portfolio also includes responsibility for Equality…
With this curriculum vitae Maria Miller apparently fulfills David Cameron’s principle aim for this re-shuffle. That is promoting people who are Cameroon loyalists acceptable to the majority of right leaning Conservative back bench MP’s, while not frightening the Liberal Democrat Coalition partners too much. Liberal Democrat Culture spokesperson Don Foster did not even know enough about her to be frightened telling the Guardian “From what I’ve heard, she is somebody who will work well as a coalition partner, and has the ability to think outside the box.”
As important seems to be the promise that new cabinet members like Ms Miller, can both follow and, most importantly, communicate the party line on the Economy, even if it is unpopular. This is because, short of a major Keynesian U-Turn by Chancellor George Osborne, with some 80% of the Conservative dominated Coalition cuts still to bite and with the UK economy still tanking; it is likely that all Ministers will be spending most of the next three years explaining the cuts which have already been made and why, in the opinion of Mr Osborne and Mr Cameron, still more cuts are required.
As the Department of Culture, Media and Sport [DCMS] is usually regarded as a department for those on the way up, or on the way down, if Ms Miller proves herself in her new post she may well find also herself being moved on relatively quickly in the Conservative hierarchy. Especially as PM Cameron faces criticism over the number of women sacked in this re-shuffle, such as the former Secretary of State at the Department of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs [DEFRA], Caroline Spelman who has paid the price for the Forest’s sell off debacle.
However long it lasts, for the Heritage Sector it is likely that Maria Miller’s time at the DCMS will be defined by her attitude to a number of highly controversial issues. Alongside having to deal with the on-going fallout from the disproportionate cuts to Heritage and the Arts budgets which were overseen by Jeremy Hunt and the decimation of cultural and heritage services at local museums and libraries, the Heritage Sector will certainly be concerned that the new Secretary of State is believed to be linked to Lord Lingfield of the controversial Maritime Heritage Foundation and HMS Victory 1744 salvage project.
This connection comes through her involvement with Conservative education policy while a shadow minister and through the Conservative Education Society. Amongst other events, Ms Miller attended a conference for the Heads of Outstanding Schools organised by Lord Lingfield at the Atlee Suite of the House of Commons on 1 March 2010.
The decision as to whether to allow the Maritime Heritage Foundation and its contractor, the American treasure hunting salvage company Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. to stage the commercial recovery material from the wreck of HMS Victory which sank in 1744, is currently with Ministers, including with the DCMS which is the lead Government department for Heritage and Heritage Policy.
Ministers are under huge pressure to refuse permission for the Foundation to undertake the recovery as, aside from the many outstanding questions over the MHF’s competence and the precise way the MHF was gifted the wreck by the Ministry of Defence, a commercial recovery of archaeological material is contrary to the often stated UK Policy for historic shipwrecks under the 2001 Annex of the UNESCO Convention for the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.
Also of concern will be the fact that Ms Miller has the kind of connections with political donors which have caused problems of perception for previous cabinet appointments. According to the register of members interests Maria Miller has received almost £38,000 in donations from Mr Nigel McNair-Scott of property company Helical Bar [http://www.helical.co.uk/hb/company/overview/].
Mr McNair-Scott has also served as chair of Ms Miller’s local party. While a second company also linked to the McNair-Scott family, the Maritime Orient and Neareast Agency Ltd, has also donated over £15,000 to Ms Miller. These facts that will be of interest as the Cabinet once again considers relaxing the planning laws which it alleges are slowing an economic recovery by restricting development, particularly in the Green Belt where, coincidentally, a number of Helical Bar’s announced projects are situated.
Of course that may be precisely the point. It is being reported that at least half a dozen of the promoted MP’s owe a political debt to Chancellor Osborne and the Chancellor is determined to loosen planning rules. Most significantly Nick Boles, a former senior advisor to David Cameron famously called for chaos in planning. “I mean, bluntly, there comes a question in life “Do you believe planning works? That clever people sitting in a room can plan how people’s communities should develop, or do you believe it can’t work?” I believe it can’t work, David Cameron believes it can’t, Nick Clegg believes it can’t. Chaotic therefore in our vocabulary is a good thing.” Today Mr Boles became Minister of State for De-centralisation and Planning at the Department of Communities Local Government and the Regions, succeeding Greg Clark.
Ultimately Maria Millers lack of experience in the cultural and heritage sector is something which may be seen as both a positive and a negative by the many Culture, Sports and Heritage Groups who will move quickly to attempt to forge a working relationship with the new Minister. Many will hope that this lack of experience in the field will leave her open to constructive dialogue and that she will come to her new brief with openness and a willingness to listen and learn. Others will fear that she is in post simply to handle the fallout from the Leveson Inquiry, pick up the baton on Hunt’s “Digital Britain” and deliver the “Cuts” agenda for everyone else. In other words act as a Jeremy Hunt Mark 2- hopefully without the embarrassing text messages.
However, while she exhibits no previous known interest in the Arts, Maria Miller does have a background in acting in controversial productions. She appeared speaking as a “disgruntled Labour voter” in a Conservative Party Political Broadcast made in the run up to the local elections in the year 2000. The broadcast was widely attacked as misleading the public by pretending Party supporters, including paid House of Commons Researcher Paul Morgan, were genuine members of the public.
At the time Ms Miller was about to become Prospective Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for Wolverhampton North East and, as she has been a member of the Conservative Party since her 18th Birthday, it is unlikely she was ever a “disgruntled Labour voter.” However, at the time the Party Political Broadcast was made she was a Board Director at Public Relations company Rowland. She told PR Week that her appearance was a “favour to an old friend.”