Dustergate: five unanswered questions for Mark Harper

Immigration minister quit over illegal cleaning lady but didn't mention he had been claiming expenses


THE sudden resignation of immigration minister Mark Harper, announced on Saturday after he admitted to having employed an illegal immigrant from Colombia as his cleaning lady, came and went so fast that it inevitably left questions unanswered.

Not the least of which are – will Harper face legal action for apparently failing to check her papers properly, as required under the Immigration Bill he was in charge of? And, how did he get away with paying his cleaning lady so badly?

Harper insisted on Saturday that he had not broken the law but that he was resigning on principle because he had to be held to a higher standard than the rest of us when it came to immigration matters. Given that he was in charge of the hugely controversial 'Go Home' vans – later abandoned – as well as the Immigration Bill, he had a point.

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What he did not say – and what emerged only yesterday – was that he had been been paying Isabella Acevedo £30 for four hours of cleaning and ironing and claiming for £22 of that on his parliamentary expenses.

Thanks to the Daily Telegraph – the paper that broke the Commons expenses scandal back in 2009 – we now know that since he first took Acevedo on in April 2007, Harper has claimed for a total of more than £2,000 in cleaning expenses.

Question: As The Times reports today, Home Office lawyers have apparently decided that Harper should not be prosecuted because of his argument that Acevedo was self-employed, absolving him of the obligation to check her right to work in Britain. Yet Harper said in his resignation letter to David Cameron that he had seen his cleaner’s passport and papers (which it now seems may have been forged). However, since giving them a gander back in 2007, he had "lost his copies". So why, if he didn't need to see her papers, did he ask to do so? Some lawyers believe Harper could still be prosecuted.

Question: How did Isabella Acevedo come to be recommended to Harper – and is it possible other politicians could be dragged into what the Sunday tabloids have dubbed 'Dustergate'? Acevedo is said to have cleaned many apartments in the Westminster Square complex near Waterloo Station where Harper had his London residence – a block were other MPs are known to have flats.

Question: By resigning speedily and "honourably" – as Cameron put it – Harper, who is MP for Forest of Dean, is reckoned by Westminster watchers to have improved his chances of returning to government once the dust has settled. But what happens to Isabella Acevedo? According to the concierge at Westminster Square, she's no longer cleaning any flats there. But the Home Office won't say whether she's been arrested.

Question: £30 for four hours equates to £7.50 an hour. How could Harper get away with paying so little? Few cleaning ladies working for private clients in central London are paid less than £8 an hour, while £10 or more is the norm. £7.50 does not meet the UK living wage of £7.65 – let alone the London Living Wage of £8.80 as laid down by Harper's fellow Conservative, Boris Johnson.

Question: Harper paid Acevedo £30 for four hours of cleaning and ironing – so why did he claim for only £22 on expenses? (He was so religious about this that, according to the Telegraph, when the Commons Fees Office once accidentally reimbursed him the full £30, he insisted on paying back £8.) What was it she ironed – his socks? - or cleaned – his silver spoons? - that he felt he could not ask the taxpayer to fork out for?

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