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Speaker of the House of Commons
Michael Martin.

British Parliament’s Expenses Scandal Dominates Headlines, But House Speaker Refuses to Resign

May 18, 2009 10:30 AM
by Liz Colville
Daily Telegraph reports of unethical expense claims by Members of Parliament have led to a debate over the UK’s Freedom of Information Act.

Speaker of the House Michael Martin Remains—For Now

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Since May 8, British paper The Daily Telegraph has been revealing details about expense abuses by dozens of Members of Parliament. The majority of the abuses stem from the use of a second home allowance for MPs whose constituencies are outside London. Several MPs are accused of “maximising their financial gain by regularly ‘flipping’ their designated second home…This has allowed them to claim back the cost of renovating properties, which they have then sold off at a profit,” the BBC explains in a Q&A on the scandal.

Some MPs also abused an “additional costs allowance” that until last year, allowed MPs to claim without receipts “any item under £250” ($383). Although these costs are meant to be for items like “mortgage interest payments on second homes and utility bills,” they have also been used for “furniture, electrical goods like televisions, refurbishments and food,” the BBC reported.

Along with The Daily Telegraph’s Ben Leapman, journalist Heather Brooke is also being championed for her campaign work to get members of parliament to recognize that “freedom of information really does apply to them,” as the BBC wrote. The Daily Telegraph may be investigated over how it came across the information, however, as well as for some claims of “inaccuracies and distortions.”

Opinion & Analysis: MP expenses scandal turning into blame game

On the BBC program “Newsnight,” the actor and high-profile Twitter user Stephen Fry called the scandal “a journalistic made-up frenzy,” a “tedious, bourgeois obsession” and “not a big deal.”

Meanwhile, others are calling for the Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, to step down. Martin, whose role is equivalent to that of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, spoke today in the Commons defending his position and outlining reforms planned to tackle the problem. London paper The Times quoted him as saying that he was “profoundly sorry” but he did not address his resignation.

Paul Flynn, a Labour MP, told The Times, “It's like showing the red card to the referee—it hasn't happened for 300 years but I feel like it's got to happen now. We’ve got a dead Speaker walking at the moment.”

Prime Minister Gordon Brown wrote in an editorial for the U.K. paper News of the World that he is “appalled and angered” about the revelations. “Transparency to the public is the foundation of properly policing this system,” Brown wrote. “Already I have asked Parliament to ensure—and MPs have agreed—that outer London MPs cannot claim a second home allowance.”

The government’s fees office, which oversees the MPs’ claims, is also taking some heat “for failing to enforce the rules and giving bad advice,” Ben Leapman, the reporter at The Daily Telegraph who originally broke the story, reported. He added that the Information Tribunal, which heard Leapman’s appeal about the expenses case, “did indeed find that the rules were ‘not widely understood or enforced’ by the fees office.”

In a separate article, The Daily Telegraph calls the fees office “secretive,” saying that officials working in the office “are often keen to help MPs maximise their claims, rather than safeguarding taxpayers’ money.” The Daily Telegraph quoted Sir Alistair Graham, former chairman of the government’s committee on standards in public life, as saying, “It was an old boys’ club where officials took everything on trust.”

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Background: The role of the Freedom of Information Act

The U.K. Freedom of Information Act of 2000 “implements one of Labour's manifesto promises to end a culture of secrecy in government,” according to The Guardian’s detailed look at the legislation. But campaigners were dissatisfied with the act as it was proposed, saying it was a “step backwards” from the original text, a 1997 white paper called “Your Right to Know.” The Guardian adds that “there were widespread allegations that several public bodies were shredding or otherwise destroying documents before [the act] came into full effect” in 2005.

Reference: The Freedom of Information Act 2000; MP expenses claims; the Speaker of the House of Commons

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