Expenses: Speaker hits out at party leaders

Click to follow

Michael Martin today hit out at party leaders over the expenses scandal which led to him becoming the first Commons Speaker to be forced out for over 300 years.

In his farewell speech, Mr Martin said it was "deeply disappointing" that MPs did not vote to change the allowances system when they had the chance last year.

He said: "I wish that party leaders would have shown then some of the leadership that they have shown now."

The crisis, revealed after details were leaked to the Daily Telegraph, had caused an "understandable loss of public trust and confidence in us all" and he had seen "nothing like it" in his 30 years as an MP.

Following his last Prime Minister's questions time, Mr Martin said: "Let me say to the men and women of this country - I am sorry.

"But also let me remind this House that it passed up an opportunity of dealing with this emotive issue less than a year ago."

The Members' Estimate Committee had produced a "blunt and straightforward" report with 18 recommendations that was presented to the House in July 2008.

"The response from this House was deeply disappointing," Mr Martin said.

"Half of the Members did not attend to vote and more than half of those who did vote rejected the proposals.

"I regretted that then, I deeply regret it now and I expect that many Members of this House now share my regret."

The recommendations would not have solved "every difficulty" but would have ended many practices for which MPs had been "attacked" in recent weeks, he said.

"I wish that party leaders would have shown then some of the leadership that they have shown now."

His speech, which preceded tributes from party leaders, received a 30-second bout of applause from across the House, with a handful of MPs getting to their feet.

Mr Martin last month dramatically announced he would be stepping down after nine years as Speaker, following the scandal that revealed the full extent of controversial allowances in Parliament.

He said he had decided to relinquish the post so that "unity can be maintained" in the Commons.

By convention he will also step down as an MP, forcing a by-election in his Glasgow North East constituency.

A new Speaker will be elected on Monday from a field of 10 candidates.

The most recent case of a Speaker being forced out was in 1695 when Sir John Trevor was expelled from the Commons after being found guilty of accepting a bribe.

On last year's expenses votes, Mr Martin added: "Tradition has it that such votes are not whipped.

"But this does not remove the responsibility of leaders to speak up for common sense and for the obvious wishes of the country in seeking necessary reform.

"We should have done that last year."

Mr Martin also spoke of the arrest and police search of the parliamentary office of shadow immigration minister Damian Green.

The incident prompted Mr Martin to make a statement to the Commons last December, confirming that the police had entered Mr Green's office without a warrant.

He said that the Serjeant-at-Arms, Jill Pay, had allowed officers into the House but insisted that he had not been told.

Today he told MPs that he "affirmed" this statement and said an inquiry into the affair would "establish the truth".

"I am pleased that the Government chief whip (Nick Brown) has assured me that an all-party inquiry of eight senior members, with a member of the opposition in the chair and with no Government majority, will inquire into this matter and establish the truth of those events in full transparency and allow all the lessons to be learned.

"I will give evidence to any depth required by this House."

Mr Martin also thanked Commons staff - including the clerks, Hansard, police and security officers - for their dedication. He said many of them walked to work on the day of the London July 7 bombings in 2005.

He also paid tribute to the Fees Office, which had been renamed "Resources".

He went on: "Though this Parliament is at its lowest ebb, I can testify to the goodness of the vast majority of Members of this House.

"I have had the privilege, often late at night, during adjournment debates, to witness members from every party, including minority members, raising the problem of one sole constituent, perhaps experiencing a health or social security problem."

Mr Martin warned MPs that they would be "criticised strongly, particularly for this sad period".

But when "scorned", they should take comfort from a Robert Burns poem:

"Then gently scan you brother man,

"Still gentler sister woman;

"Tho' they may go a little wrong,

"To step aside is human."

Prime Minister Gordon Brown offered "heartfelt thanks" on behalf of the whole House for Mr Martin's "long and dedicated service to Parliament".

He said the Speaker's background, rising up from the streets of Glasgow to high office, was "an inspiring story of commitment and determination in the service of your community, your party, this Parliament and our nation".

It "tells of a man both of unique parliamentary abilities and of dedication, self belief and tireless hard work", Mr Brown said.

"This House should salute a Speaker who has made his constituency proud, and who is hailed as a friend by people of every background and every walk of life when he walks down the streets of his own constituency.

"A Speaker, who as he said was born and brought up in the city he has represented with pride for 30 years. A Speaker whose small kindnesses to hundreds of people are remembered and unfailingly appreciated, and has brought home to thousands what Westminster at its best can do for people - never interested in the trappings of office but only the concerns of people we represent.

"This is a Speaker who returned to his constituency every weekend to meet the people he represented and who has never forgotten where he came from, always determined to hear what they had to say to him.

"A Speaker who because he worked his way up with no special privileges accorded to him can encourage and inspire young people in the same position to do the same."

Mr Brown said Mr Martin could take pride in a number of reforms he had introduced to the Commons.

And he added: "The whole House will always be grateful to you. We hope you will enjoy a long and happy retirement and we offer you every good wishes from every side of this House and every Member for the future. Thank you."

Mr Brown did not refer to the issue of MPs' pay and perks during his tribute to Mr Martin, but Tory leader David Cameron said "we must all deliver what you said we must, which is to restore trust in this House of Commons".

Mr Cameron said there had been easier times to be Commons Speaker but pointed out that several of Mr Martin's predecessors had been beheaded.

"The whole House" shared in its responsibility for what had happened over expenses, Mr Cameron said, acknowledging that many of the reforms now being proposed were similar to those that previously had been rejected.

"Fortunately a consensus exists in this place now to accept what it was not willing to accept then," he said.

"But we all share collective responsibility for that delay, and we all now have a responsibility to restore the reputation of this House."

Mr Cameron praised Mr Martin for his service to the Commons and to his constituents.

Running through a list of positions held by Mr Martin, he said: "It is a remarkable record of distinguished service, matched only by the huge dedication that you have shown to your constituency in Glasgow starting from your period as a councillor.

"As the Prime Minister said, your life story is inspiring - not just to people in this House, not just to people in Glasgow - but to people up and down our country."

Mr Cameron also highlighted Mr Martin's "decency and kindness" and "approachability", and offered personal thanks and those on behalf of his party.

Nick Clegg said it was "especially generous" of Mr Martin to call him to speak, after the Liberal Democrat leader had led calls for the Speaker to resign.

"Personal kindness had been the outstanding characteristic of your time in the chair," he said.

"Mr Speaker, whatever differences there have been, you and I share a belief in the vital importance of our democracy.

"Our political institutions, as you have pointed out, have come under immense, unprecedented pressure in recent times.

"But democracy remains an idea that is bigger than every one of us - an idea that must be defended no matter the personal cost.

"And I know, and everyone here knows, that you gave yourself heart-and-soul to the job of Speaker and above all you have shown us all how to temper great authority with great kindness - and that will be your legacy."

Labour Glasgow Central MP Mohammad Sarwar said he had been "incredibly sad" when Mr Martin had announced his decision to resign, and said many constituents felt the same.

"You have always had the best interests of this House at heart, and even now in leaving office you have put those interests first," he said.

"Many young people look to you as a source of inspiration that anything can be achieved through dedication and hard work."

Democratic Unionist William McCrea (South Antrim) told Mr Martin he could leave the Commons "with your head held high", having been the defender of ordinary MPs.

He also highlighted the Speaker's inspirational story and wished Mr Martin's family every happiness for the future.

"You have served not only this House, but you have given excellent service to the United Kingdom," Mr McCrea added.