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Europe

House Speaker to step down over parliamentary perks scandal

Video by Luke SHRAGO , Cédric MOLLE LAURENCON

Text by Clea CAULCUTT

Latest update : 2009-05-21

The Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, said on Tuesday that he will be standing down on June 21 over allegations that British MPs exploited the parliamentary allowance system to fund their wealthy lifestyles.

In an almost unprecedented move, the Speaker of the House of Commons announced his resignation following a cascade of scandals over the expenses of members of parliament which he failed to address.

"In order that unity can be maintained, I have decided that I will relinquish the office of Speaker on Sunday, June 21," Michael Martin told parliament on Tuesday.

 

Martin is the first speaker to be ousted since 1695 – a move analysts compare to impeaching a US president.

Over the last two weeks the British political establishment has been rocked by allegations that MPs exploited the system of parliamentary allowances and filed claims for anything from manure and bathplugs to luxury home furbishing. Home Minister Jacqui Smith caused an earlier scandal in March by claiming for two adult videos watched by her husband.

On Monday, Martin, MP for Glasgow North East and Speaker of the House since 2000, faced repeated calls for his resignation and a total of 23 MPs from all the main political parties signed a motion of no confidence. Martin admitted he was "profoundly sorry" for the expenses scandal wracking Britain's parliament, but rebuffed debate on the motion.
 
“Martin and several other high-ranking officials fought to stop the scandal from emerging, spending £100,000 (114,000 euros) to £200,000 (230,000 euros) on state-paid lawyer fees to oppose the publication of expenses details,” Anne-Elizabeth Moutet, a journalist and UK politics specialist, told FRANCE 24. Martin was in charge of overseeing the parliament’s fees office.
 
The details of MP expenses were slowly revealed by the UK daily The Telegraph over the last fortnight and have involved MPs from the Conservative and Labour parties. According to the Telegraph, one MP claimed over £1,000,000 (1,137,026 euros) for a top designer hired to redesign his flat, while others were caught switching homes to be able to file claims on several homes.
 
The parliamentary perks scandal
 
According to Moutet, a scandal had been brewing for many years, ever since British MPs were asked to file detailed expenses. “Some had become used to supplementing their income with expenses and just looked for any odd receipt to justify their spendings," says Moutet . The total claimed by 646 MPs in 2007-08 was just under £93 million (105 million euros), says UK daily The Times.
 
Before Martin, the scandal had already claimed a couple of victims. On Friday, Justice Minister Shahid Malik stepped down pending the result of an investigation into allegations he paid below-market rent for a house. Andrew MacKay, an aide to Conservative leader David Cameron, also resigned.
 
Shifting political tectonic plates
 
While the scandal has tarnished the reputation of both Labour and the Conservatives, the Labour party is less popular than ever over the scandal. A poll for the Daily Telegraph this week showed support for the Conservatives had fallen six points to 39 percent in the past month, with Labour down four at 23 percent.
 
David Cameron has called for early elections following the revelations. Prime Minister Gordon Brown rejected that call Tuesday, saying that it was the system itself that needed to be overhauled. "The problem is parliament. The solution to this is to clean up the system," he said.
 
Political leaders are keenly aware that all parties are rapidly losing support, and fear a backlash of voters may register their unhappiness with the major parties by voting for fringe parties in local and European elections on June 4.
 
Support for the smaller parties, such as the anti-European Union UK Independence Party and the far-right British National Party, rose by nine points compared with the previous month.

Date created : 2009-05-19

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