Sir Alan Beith lays out case for becoming Commons Speaker

A NORTH East MP last night emerged as a leading candidate to clean up Westminster.

Sir Alan Beith

A NORTH East MP last night emerged as a leading candidate to clean up Westminster.

Berwick MP Sir Alan Beith put himself in contention to become Commons Speaker after Michael Martin quit over the Westminster expenses crisis.

The respected Liberal Democrat said it was a "crucial" time for Parliament and was ready to lead reform, declaring to voters: "This is your Parliament, we have got to make it work for you."

And MPs across the political divide said he would be a "good choice" having become a senior political figure after three decades in Parliament.

But he could face competition from ex-Lib Dem leader Sir Ming Campbell and Tory MPs while Sunderland South's Chris Mullin has been suggested as an interim Speaker before the General Election.

"This is a crucial time for the House of Commons and if I have enough support across the parties, I am willing to take on the task of leading reform as Speaker, but this is a matter for the House to decide," said Sir Alan, who stood for the job in 2000.

The Berwick MP went on: "I care about Parliament and democracy.

“I don't like to see it dragged down and I think it matters to live in a democracy and for people to have confidence in their Parliament.

"And I think the Speaker has got to address the public as well as Parliament to try and restore confidence."

He described as "sad" Mr Martin's departure, but stressed a new approach and style was needed.

"The Speaker has got to be someone who leads Parliament to changing things that aren't right rather than simply defending things that have gone on for a long time," he said.

Sir Alan demanded the allowance system be handed to an independent body while promising MPs more control over Parliament to better hold Government to account. Sir Alan spoke of "frustrating" votes when changes he wanted were rejected, but that the public had made clear change was needed.

"That will give the new Speaker a degree of authority in enabling the House to make those kind of changes," he said.

Sir Alan wants to bring "good things" about Parliament back to the force, such as MPs defeating controversial Government proposals for Gurkhas settlement rights.

And he has been seen as above reproach and gained considerable Parliamentary experience since being elected in 1973.

He has served as the Lib Dem deputy leader and chief whip of the Liberal party, on influential Commons committees and regularly contributes to debates on the role of Parliament. Sir Alan is also a privy counsellor.

Denis Murphy, Labour MP for Wansbeck, said he was a "thoroughly" decent man.

"Alan Beith would make a good Speaker, but it is far too early for me to decide who I support. There are very, very many candidates who would make a good Speaker from all political parties," he said.

Peter Atkinson, Tory MP for Hexham, said: "He would be a serious candidate for it. He is well respected. Whether a Liberal would get that kind of support, I don't know."

Blaydon's Labour MP Dave Anderson said: "If it is an open contest, I would go for [Tory MP] John Bercow, but Alan would do a decent job.

"He has got a lot of respect and people think he is a genuine Liberal. I think Alan would be a good choice."

Sir Alan would also make a good Speaker, according to former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy.

Michael Martin stands down as Commons Speaker

MICHAEL Martin became the first Commons Speaker forced out of office for more than 300 years yesterday as the expenses scandal claimed its biggest scalp yet.

In a brief but dramatic statement, Mr Martin announced he would be standing down next month to preserve "unity" after a near-mutiny by MPs from all parties.

The move was part of a coordinated bid to take the heat out of the controversy which has engulfed Westminster over the past fortnight.

Within hours, Gordon Brown was pledging to end the parliamentary "gentlemen’s club" by bringing in external regulators to oversee pay and allowances. The Prime Minister also raised fresh doubts over the future of Communities Secretary Hazel Blears by branding her avoidance of £13,000 in capital gains tax "totally unacceptable". But he dismissed calls for an immediate general election so voters could punish wrongdoers, insisting it would not help because all parties had been tainted.

Mr Martin stood up in the House at 2.30pm to deliver a resignation statement which lasted little more than 30 seconds. "Since I came to this House 30 years ago, I have always felt that the House is at its best when it is united," he 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 this matter."

A by-election is expected to be held in Mr Martin’s Glasgow North East constituency next month, and Labour will be braced for a tough fight to hold the traditionally safe seat.

By custom, Mr Martin would then be given a peerage but his spokeswoman could not confirm whether he would move to the House of Lords. Mr Martin will walk away with the ultra gold-plated pension given to all former Speakers, equivalent to £39,000 a year index-linked, on top of his generous MP’s pension.

However, he will miss out on an allowance of up to £65,000 that is handed to members who depart or are defeated at a general election.

After holding talks – chaired by Mr Martin – with other party leaders about reforming parliament this afternoon, the Prime Minister told a press conference: "Westminster cannot operate like some gentlemen’s club where the members make up the rules and operate them among themselves. If MPs continue to set their own codes and rules, however objectively they try to do so, the public will always question the transparency and the standards that they rightly demand."

Mr Brown said the Government would make legislative time available for the devolution of powers on remuneration in the Commons and Lords to an outside body. "These are big changes, they change centuries of history for Parliament, but to move from self-regulation to statutory independent regulation is in my view the only way forward now," he went on.

Mr Brown insisted no one found to have "broken the rules" in their expenses arrangements would be allowed to stand as a Labour parliamentary candidate.

Asked about the case of Luton South MP Margaret Moran, who has been backed by her constituency party despite repaying £22,500 claimed for dry rot treatment to her husband’s home in Southampton, Mr Brown said: "What happened was totally unacceptable."

He was also pressed about Ms Blears – who has retrospectively repaid £13,000 in capital gains tax on a public-funded flat – and branded her behaviour "totally unacceptable". But he went on: "Hazel Blears has paid the money back. She had done so on the advice of me and other people. But she has not broken the law, she has not broken the rules."

Mr Brown urged MPs to get out into their constituencies during next week’s Whitsun recess and "hold themselves to account" at town hall meetings and public events. But he rejected demands – reiterated by Tory leader David Cameron last night – for a general election to draw a line under the scandal.

Mr Cameron said the Speaker had done the "right thing" because he had "lost the confidence of the House".

But he went on: "What we need is not just a new speaker, we need a new parliament, we need people to have the chance in a general election to pass judgment on their politicians."

In his second Commons statement of the day, Mr Martin announced a "robust’’ set of new restrictions on MPs expenses agreed at the meeting of party leaders to take immediate effect.

They included a ban on claiming the second home allowance for furniture, household goods, gardening and cleaning, and a £1,250-a-month cap on mortgage interest payments. The practice of switching the designation of main and second homes – known as "flipping" – will also be banned. Details of expenses claims will be published on the internet by the Commons authorities every three months.

The Committee on Standards and Privileges later announced that it had authorised parliamentary standards commissioner John Lyon to hold inquiries into Labour MPs David Chaytor and Eliot Morley – who both claimed expenses against mortgages which had already been paid off.

However, the probes will not be launched until after Scotland Yard has decided whether to open a criminal investigation. Scotland’s SNP First Minister last night repeated his call for a general election. Alex Salmond told Channel 4 news Mr Martin was "a thoroughly decent man" who had erred last year by not insisting on transparency.

Reaction

MPs are "fooling themselves" if they think the resignation of Speaker Michael Martin will restore public trust in parliament, the Electoral Reform Society said last night.

After Mr Martin announced he will quit, the society’s chief executive, Ken Ritchie, warned: "Politicians on both sides of the House are fooling themselves if they think this act alone will right the boat and restore public confidence in our political process.

"One burnt offering cannot change the culture at Westminster. The politicians, who seem so set on human sacrifice, have steered clear of the more difficult course – and that is genuine and deep reform of the Commons.

"The country has been appalled by the behaviour of our Honourable Members. And it is the people who must play a part in the solution.

"The expenses crisis has awakened voters to the need for radical change – that can only come by changing the rules of politics.

"We want to see a referendum on the voting system at the next general election so we can let the people decide the playing field for politics."

Pressure group Unlock Democracy’s Peter Facey, said: "The Speaker had lost the confidence of the House of Commons and the wider public. His resignation was therefore necessary, but it is nowhere near sufficient to rebuild public trust in Parliament.

"Replacing one MP in a funny costume with another does not address the fundamental flaws in our democracy that this scandal has exposed."

Lord Soley, a former Parliamentary Labour Party chairman, said the crisis could prove the spark for radical reform of parliament.

He said: "Methods of setting the pay and expenses of both Lords and Commons is a first priority of reform, but it must not be the last stage. A reforming Speaker in the Commons at this stage of Parliament’s history offers very real possibilities for the reform of both Houses."

Clelland's future to be discussed

LOCAL party chiefs will discuss the future of Tyneside MP David Clelland in the “near future” after he was caught up in the expenses scandal.

The Tyne Bridge MP has rejected any suggestion of wrong doing after buying his partner’s share of their London flat after its value rose “substantially” with a taxpayer-backed mortgage.

But there is speculation some activists might want to deselect him from being Labour’s candidate for the new Gateshead seat in the General Election.

Denise Robson, secretary of the Gateshead Labour party, said “some people” might be thinking about deselection – although that was “jumping the gun”.

She said the group had not discussed the revelations, but added: “I think the likelihood of this is that we do in the near future. But there is much more to David Clelland than this particular issue of financial management and the view we take would be taken across the board.”

On Mr Clelland’s future, constituency party chairman Ian Mearns said: “I really think we have to see how public opinion goes over a number of weeks. And then we have to sit down when it is a little calmer and see if anything needs to be done on that issue.”

He added that the conclusions of Labour’s National Executive Committee about the expenses crisis could throw up “other issues or may not”.

Mr Mearns said nobody had suggested deselection to him up to now, adding: “I think we need to take a much more measured approach to all of this. There is some dust to settle.” Mr Clelland had saved a large amount of money rather than paying an “exorbitant” rent, said Mr Mearns. He added: “I also agree with David that just because he is an MP, it doesn’t mean his wife has to subsidise his living in London to be a Parliamentarian.”

Voters were now looking for reasonable allowances for MPs to do their job but not profit from the system, said Mr Mearns. On his website, Mr Clelland said: “Despite the impression given, I have committed no crime and had my then partner, Brenda, and I split up in 2004, and she had gone off to Australia, buying her out of her half of our London flat would have been uncontroversial.

“Now, after 23 years as an MP our reputation has been tarnished even though I acted in good faith and on the advice of the necessary authorities. I want to be very clear – we have made no money out of this. The second mortgage I took out to buy the sole ownership of the flat I stay in London still has to be paid off by me – not the taxpayer.” He said the couple were “devastated” at the impact of being caught in the expenses row and damage to their reputation as a “hard-working” couple for Tyneside and the region. And while he voluntarily opened up his claims, some MPs had “abused” the system and they were upset to lumped in with those who bought garden sheds, home cinema systems and multiple televisions.

Mr Clelland also asked why his wife should subsidise his London flat and whether David Cameron’s did, saying the Tory leader took six times what he did in mortgage interest from the taxpayer.

 
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