Bercow: pay back your expenses now

Speaker says that he will not be a 'shop steward' for MPs
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Indy Politics

John Bercow, the Commons Speaker, has told MPs they must accept it is "payback time" on their expenses to restore public trust in Parliament and avoid allegations of a "Westminster whitewash".

In his first interview since becoming Speaker in June, Mr Bercow urged MPs to accept the verdict of Sir Thomas Legg, the former civil servant auditing their expenses who has demanded that they repay thousands of pounds in allowances. "Denial, delay or delusion is not an option," he said.

"Many MPs are upset but the public is extremely angry. We have to recognise and address that anger," he told Steve Richards, The Independent's chief political commentator, in an interview for tomorrow's Week in Westminster programme on BBC Radio 4.

The Speaker's tough message will disappoint MPs who hoped he would challenge Sir Thomas's decision to impose retrospective limits for cleaning and gardening costs. He declared that his role was not to be a "shop steward" for MPs but an "ambassador for Parliament".

Mr Bercow insisted the Legg inquiry was never intended to be a "receipt-authentication process" and was always going to review the wisdom of original payments. Although MPs could challenge its initial recommendations, he believed the vast majority would accept its final ruling in their case.

"In the end, we have to secure closure," he said. "There is no perfection in this process. There is a trade-off between 'within the rules' on the one hand and 'well beyond public expectations' on the other. If there is a choice of headlines between 'payback time' on the one hand and 'Westminster whitewash' on the other, I would much rather have the former than the latter.

"The public has to see and be satisfied that we have got the message, that there is public displeasure, that the process has to be changed, and that there must be consequences for past claims if they can be shown to be demonstrably wrong or extravagant."

Yesterday, the Speaker said he would repay an "accidental overclaim" of £978.51 after being asked by Sir Thomas to provide mortgage documentation relating to his second home. He said the discrepancy arose after he switched mortgage provider for a better deal.

In the BBC interview, Mr Bercow said he hoped Cabinet ministers who sit in the House of Lords, such as the Business Secretary, Peter Mandelson, and the Transport Secretary, Lord Adonis, could soon be answering questions in the Commons, and admitted there was currently a "democratic deficit". As an interim measure, they may be quizzed by MPs in the Westminster Hall mini-chamber rather than the Commons chamber.

Mr Bercow, who will be challenged in his Buckingham seat by the UK Independence Party's Nigel Farage at the general election, said he was happy to be judged on his track record, his commitment to the constituency and his determination to restore faith in Parliament.

The tensions caused by the Legg review surfaced yesterday, when the Commons Leader, Harriet Harman, said it would be "arbitrary" for Sir Thomas to apply different rules and standards than those which applied at the time MPs' expenses were claimed. Although Downing Street denied any split, her remarks to MPs appeared to differ from Gordon Brown's edict to Labour MPs to accept the payback demands.