Scandal Forces British MPs To Elect New Speaker

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Monday's election follows last month's resignation of Michael Martin, who became the first speaker in more than 300 years to step down. Martin took the fall after details were leaked to a national newspaper of a parliamentary expenses system that allowed MPs to claim an array of goods and services at taxpayers' expense.

DAVID GREENE, host:

Today, the British Parliament will elect a new speaker. This move comes after the previous one, Michael Martin, quit under pressure last month. Martin became the first speaker in more than 300 years to step down. He took the fall after details were leaked to a national newspaper about a parliamentary expenses system. He presided over that system, which allowed lawmakers to claim for an extraordinary array of goods and services, all at taxpayers' expense. NPR's Rob Gifford reports from London.

ROB GIFFORD: That voice you always hear saying order, order when British members of Parliament start insulting the right honorable gentlemen on the opposition benches, that's the speaker of the House of Commons. Unlike the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives who actively promotes the policies of the majority party, the British speaker is supposed to be impartial, more a kind of umpire in the cut and thrust of British parliamentary politics.

Whoever gets the job today has their work cut out restoring the reputation of the institution after revelations in the Daily Telegraph newspaper in recent weeks that lawmakers have been billing the taxpayer for everything from repairing their tennis court to cleaning the moat around their country home. Justice Secretary Jack Straw said it was time to turn over a new leaf in British politics.

Mr. JACK STRAW (British Labour Party, Secretary of State for Justice): We've got to put the party's own interests aside and elect a speaker who is best placed to lead the House of Commons to a restored position of authority and trust with the British public.

GIFFORD: Two women and five knights of the realm are among the 10 candidates standing for the post, most of them back benchers barely known by the public, let alone household names. Every one of the 646 members of the British lower house will have a vote, and the election of a speaker is not supposed to be based on party loyalties.

Meanwhile, the expenses scandal simply won't lie down and die. British police have now launched a criminal inquiry into the alleged misuse of expenses by a small number of MPs. At the end of last week, Parliament, in an attempt to make itself look more transparent, posted all MPs expenses online, but had blacked out huge amounts of personal information. Many observers said that defeated the whole point of the operation, especially since the Daily Telegraph published a whole supplement on Saturday detailing all the expenses of every member of Parliament. Leader of the opposition Conservative Party, David Cameron.

Mr. DAVID CAMERON (Conservative Party): It's no good publishing things covered in black ink. Only black out the really sensitive personal stuff like your bank account number or the telephone numbers of people you've run. The rest of it really can be published. The people should have a right to know this sort of stuff.

GIFFORD: The last month has been an extraordinary period in British politics that has damaged all parties. Reforms to parliamentary procedures are now under way. A general election must be called within the next year, so it's not just the governing Labour Party of Prime Minister Gordon Brown who will be hoping that under the administration of a new speaker, order, order will come again to the House of Commons.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.

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