Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Martin Quits as Speaker in Widening U.K. Scandal

Michael Martin resigned as speaker of the House of Commons in Britain’s widening parliamentary expenses scandal, the first time the legislature’s presiding officer was ousted since 1695.

Martin, 64, said he will step down on June 21, allowing the Parliament controlled by Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Labour Party to select a replacement the next day. His spokeswoman said he also will quit as a lawmaker at the same time.

“It is the right decision,” Norman Baker, a member of Parliament for the opposition Liberal Democrats, said in an interview. “It would have been better if it had been earlier, but it is essential for the reputation of Parliament.”

A Labour lawmaker from Glasgow, Martin defended the system that allowed his colleagues to claim expenses for maintaining second homes, which led to payoffs for items ranging from a drain plug to the clearance of country estate’s moat. More than 100 lawmakers from all parties in the 646-seat house are facing questions about whether their expenses were appropriate.

Brown stepped up his effort to insulate the Labour government from the scandal, saying the ruling party will prevent any lawmaker who broke the rules from running in the next election, which must be held by the middle of 2010.

Brown’s Comment

“No member of Parliament will stand for the Labour Party if he has defied the rules,” Brown told journalists before Martin’s announcement. “We have now started a process starting today to examine expenses of every MP going back four years. We are proposing major changes in the way the whole system operates.”

Martin, elected to Parliament in 1979, took up his post in 2000 after his predecessor Betty Boothroyd retired. A teetotaler, he represented a district in the Scottish industrial town of Glasgow and disposed of centuries-old traditions including the traditional wig and tights worn by speakers.

He was responsible for overseeing the office distributing cash to cover expense claims. When the Daily Telegraph started publishing details of that system on May 8, he called in police to identify the source of leaked information instead of working to prevent abuses.

Westminster Bubble

“It is remarkable that the speaker has been dragged into political controversy when he is supposed to be neutral,” said Philip Norton, professor of politics at the University of Hull and a member of the House of Lords. “There are some in the Westminster bubble, of which the speaker is one, who don’t grasp the force of feeling outside the House of Commons.”

To date, Labour has suspended two of its lawmakers and the Conservative opposition an aide to party leader David Cameron following reports about the abuses. Lawmakers from all parties, led by Brown and Cameron, have apologized for the system and said they are working to clamp down on expenses.

Shahid Malik stepped aside as a justice minister last week pending an investigation into his living arrangements. Conservative Douglas Hogg repaid funds he took to clear a moat at his country house. Liberal Democrat Menzies Campbell is repaying the costs of an interior designer.

The speaker is a lawmaker elected by his peers to chair debates in the lower chamber of Parliament. Traditionally, speakers are voted into office after a general election and remain until they retire, generally alternating between the two biggest political parties.

John Trevor, the last speaker forced out of office, was accused of bribery. Martin, who yesterday brushed calls to quit during an 18-minute exchange in the House of Commons, today read a four-sentence statement to lawmakers.

Martin’s Statement

“Since I came to this house 30 years ago, I have always felt that the house is at its best when it is united,” Martin said. “In order that unity can be maintained I have decided that I will relinquish the office of speaker on Sunday, June 21. This will allow the house to proceed to elect a new speaker on Monday, June 22. That is all I have to say on the matter.”

Martin has also faced rebukes from lawmakers after allowing police to search the office of opposition lawmaker Damian Green last year over claims of an alleged government leak. They expressed concern the search infringed on their independence to challenge the government. Green was not charged by the police.

“When I entered Parliament I was profoundly revolted by how supine and spineless it was -- it needs change and that begins with a new speaker,” said Douglas Carswell, a Conservative lawmaker who submitted a motion of no-confidence in Martin yesterday. Parliament needs to change from “a nineteenth century system to a system that works for Youtube or Google.”

No Confidence

At least 23 lawmakers from all parties signed their names to a motion expressing no confidence in Martin. Brown’s government was considering whether to allow parliamentary time for a debate on the speaker.

Lawmakers, who lined up to shake Martin’s hand as he left the chamber, now are focusing on how to revamp the expenses system. Brown, Martin and Cameron are due to meet at 4 p.m. in London today. Brown will hold a press conference at 5:30 p.m.

“It’s very important that nobody sees the speaker as a scapegoat to all that’s gone wrong,” Labour lawmaker Kate Hoey told Sky News. “We need quick changes to the whole system.”