Gordon Brown attacked as fraud charge MPs are suspended

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Gordon Brown was accused of being out of touch on the expenses scandal today after Labour withdrew the party whip from the three MPs being prosecuted.

Tory leader David Cameron described the move, three days after the charges were announced, as a "humiliating" U-turn by the Prime Minister.

Labour insisted the suspension of David Chaytor, Elliot Morley and Jim Devine followed a review undertaken "immediately" after it became clear on Friday they were facing trial.

Aides to Mr Cameron pointed out he removed the Tory whip from Lord Hanningfield within a couple of hours of the Conservative peer's charges being announced at the same time.

Mr Cameron used a speech to blame the Prime Minister of helping create the culture that resulted in the collapse of public confidence in politics.

"Now I gather, in a humiliating change, they have actually withdrawn the Labour whip from all three of those MPs. They are now in a headlong retreat," he said.

"The last 24 hours, I believe, have shown the instincts of the Conservative Party, when it comes to this issue about expenses, are in tune with the public mood, are in the right place, and Labour's are not."

But the Conservative leader also faced criticism for his outspoken attack on the three MPs' attempts to avoid prosecution by citing parliamentary privilege.

Labour figures suggested Mr Cameron risked prejudicing court proceedings.

Separately, Commons Speaker John Bercow ordered MPs, under sub judice rules, to avoid any reference to the cases in the House.

Mr Chaytor, Mr Morley, Mr Devine and Lord Hanningfield are all charged with counts of false accounting in their expenses claims.

They will appear at City of Westminster Magistrates' Court on March 11. If found guilty, they could face jail sentences of up to seven years.

In a statement today, Labour said the party's general secretary, Ray Collins, had temporarily suspended the MPs pending the legal proceedings.

"The decision follows a formal process which included representations from the Chief Whip and consultations with party officials over the weekend and means the three MPs have been suspended from the whip and cannot attend any Labour Party meetings," the statement said.

Mr Cameron today hit out at the possibility of Labour MPs claiming parliamentary privilege as a defence, saying the move provoked "disgust".

He has asked shadow leader of the House Sir George Young to draft a Parliamentary Privilege Act which would clarify the rules and prevent the principle being misused.

Downing Street said the Government would also legislate to clarify the situation if it proved necessary.

Mr Brown's spokesman said: "The Prime Minister's view is very clear - no MP is above the law."

In a speech at the University of East London, Mr Cameron said the premier had shown he was not capable of dealing with the issues involved in reforming Parliament.

"How Gordon Brown can claim to be a reformer with a straight face I just don't know," he said.

"He can't reform the institution because he is the institution: he made it.

"The character of his Government - secretive, power-hoarding, controlling - is his character.

"Just as he's the roadblock to public service reform, he's the roadblock to political reform."

Commons Leader Harriet Harman warned Mr Cameron against making comments that prejudiced any of the expenses cases coming before the courts.

"He's got to be very careful what he says or his comments might actually jeopardise the trial, and nobody wants to see that happen," she added.

Labour MP Denis MacShane claimed Mr Cameron's comments had prejudiced any chance of the accused MPs and peer receiving a fair trial.

"They have been effectively declared guilty by Mr Cameron this morning, as well as by William Hague and senior ministers who commented on television yesterday," he said.

"The newspapers long ago found them guilty. There is no judge or juror who can think otherwise.

"Any trial would now be a farce as their guilt and punishment by being stripped of membership of the Commons has already been determined."

Mr Bercow later told MPs they should not refer to the criminal cases affecting their three colleagues.

"The House and members would not wish to interfere with the judicial process, risk affecting the fairness of a criminal trial, or furthermore, prevent such a trial taking place," he said.

Shadow justice secretary Dominic Grieve insisted Mr Cameron had said nothing that would affect a fair trial.

"These individuals are innocent until proven guilty," he told BBC Radio 4's The World At One.

"But the issue of parliamentary privilege and the stir that the assertions that were made last week have caused with the public can't just be ignored."

Mr Morley, Mr Devine and Mr Chaytor issued a joint statement today saying they were not trying to "avoid culpability or seek immunity, but simply to determine the correct forum in which to make our case".

"Indeed, the DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer) in his statement on 5th February concluded the applicability and extent of any parliamentary privilege should be tested in court," they added.