New Speaker John Bercow will not claim second home allowance
The new Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, revealed today that he will not claim the parliamentary second home allowance while in the post.
Mr Bercow, who yesterday told MPs he offered a "clean break" after the expenses scandals of the past weeks, has claimed more than £20,000 annually over the past four years to cover the cost of staying away from home on parliamentary business.
The Buckingham MP will also break with tradition when he takes the chair in the House of Commons for the first time today by wearing a business suit and tie with "simple" robes, rather than the old-fashioned court dress donned by predecessors including Michael Martin. He also confirmed that, like Mr Martin, he will not wear a wig.
He said that he wanted to see the issue of parliamentary expenses dealt with "in a timely fashion" and said reform should not be put off for "a period of several months" or more. But he stressed that, while transparency should be a fundamental principle of any new regime, financial support for MPs should not be pared away to the point where only those with a private income can follow a political career.
Presenting himself as a champion of backbench MPs, he said he intended to ensure that the proceedings of the House were "brisk" and indicated that this might involve requiring the Prime Minister and leader of the Opposition to be more "snappy" in their weekly exchanges over the despatch box at Question Time.
Mr Bercow was speaking to the Press Association on the morning of his first full day in the job, after he saw off nine rivals to claim the Speaker's chair in a secret ballot of MPs yesterday. He was "dragged" to the chair after seeing off his main rival Sir George Young by a margin of 322 MPs to 271 in the third round of voting.
His victory was greeted with dismay by some on the Conservative benches, who regard him as close to a turncoat because of his political journey away from the right towards New Labour, culminating with him accepting a job from Gordon Brown last year.
Mid-Bedfordshire MP Nadine Dorries this morning said she believed no more than three Tories voted for Mr Bercow, and described his election as a "vindictive" act by Labour MPs who were delivering "a two-fingered salute" to voters and to a future Government led by David Cameron.
Reports suggest some Conservatives want to see a challenge to Mr Bercow at the time of the next general election, when a large turnover of MPs is expected to see a very different House of Commons in place.
Mr Bercow this morning sought to brush off claims that did not enjoy cross-party support, saying: "I did enjoy very widespread support right across the House. I was informed by a very significant number of colleagues form my former party - my party at the time, the Conservative Party - that they would be supporting me in the secret ballot and I have every reason to believe that they did so.
"I am not going to get into a numbers game and argue about how many people voted for me from one party rather than another, but I said I had broad support and I meant it and it is true."
Mr Bercow insisted he was not even thinking about the possibility of a challenge at the time of the election, adding: "I am preoccupied with the rather important responsibility of trying to do my best to serve the House in this Parliament.
"My responsibility to the House of Commons is to devote myself wholeheartedly every day to the task of doing a good job as Speaker, by upholding the rights of backbench members, by facilitating fair play, by ensuring that the House does its business in the way that it should and as the public expects."
Mr Bercow, whose new job comes with a £141,866 salary and a lavish apartment on the banks of the Thames, said he would personally not claim the parliamentary Additional Costs Allowance to which MPs are entitled to cover the cost of staying away from home. He last year claimed the maximum permitted £23,083.
Mr Bercow himself repaid £6,500 to HM Customs and Excise after it was revealed that he "flipped" his second home in a way that meant he was not liable for capital gains tax on property sales.
But he dismissed suggestions that his record on expenses made him an inappropriate choice as Speaker.
"I have always behaved properly and honourably," he said. "I have complied with the law, I have claimed allowances which I am entitled to claim, and those expenses have been incurred wholly, necessarily and exclusively in discharging my obligations as a Member of Parliament."
Mr Bercow takes the Speaker's chair on the day when the Government publishes a Bill creating a new independent authority to oversee MPs' allowances.
Further reform of the allowance system is expected after the publication - expected in October - of a thoroughgoing review by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, chaired by Sir Christopher Kelly.
Asked what reforms he believed were necessary and how quickly they could be introduced, Mr Bercow said: "The House of Commons has a responsibility to address the allowances issue and to do so in a timely fashion.
"It is by no means principally a matter for the Speaker but I think the Speaker of the House of Commons can assist in the process of reaching agreement on reform and effecting its implementation.
"I am reluctant today to say precisely how quickly that can happen. It depends on the receipt of the report from Sir Christopher Kelly and consideration thereafter.
"But I think we are all seized of the urgency of the issue and it must be dealt with as quickly as possible. It can't be allowed to fester for, for example, a period of several months.
"I certainly don't anticipate that and I hope we can make progress more speedily."
The "vast majority" of MPs want to see reforms which embrace two principles, he said.
"First, we have to have transparency, so that the public knows what costs people have incurred and why," he said.
"Secondly, we need to ensure, whilst protecting the public purse and guaranteeing value for money, that Members of Parliament receive the support they need in order to do their job.
"We don't want, in cleaning up the system and reforming the arrangements for allowances, inadvertently to take a giant step back to an earlier century in which realistically the only people who could afford a parliamentary career were those who enjoyed a private income.
"We want a House of Commons that is transparent in its expenses arrangements, which has decent but not excessive provision for members and their staff, and which, as a House, is open to people of ability from all walks of life."
Mr Bercow made clear that he would be making some immediate changes to his own appearance in the House
"So far as I am concerned, I have no intention of wearing a wig," he told the Press Association.
"I think it is perfectly proper that the Speaker should wear a business suit and have a simple and unfussy gown over that suit and that is what I intend to do.
"That is very much a personal choice for me. I think that is right for the spirit of the times."
Wider reforms of archaic Commons procedures - such as the practice of MPs addressing one another as "my honourable friend" and directing all questions through the chair - were "issues that can potentially be considered over a period", he said.
But he added: "They should be considered in a sensible fashion and on the understanding that a wide range of views might be held and ought to be sought."
Mr Bercow said: "I described myself as a clean-break candidate. I do believe in reform. I think the House needs to change, to evolve, to reflect the reality of the 21st century.
"But I am not in the business today of making specific proposals or announcements. That would be quite wrong."
Mr Bercow will preside over his first Prime Minister's Questions in the Commons tomorrow, and made clear that he intends to give backbench MPs more opportunity to speak by encouraging Gordon Brown and David Cameron to rein in their exchange, which often took up half of the 30-minute session under Mr Martin.
"I am very keen to uphold the rights of backbench Members of Parliament," he said. "I think it is very important that the House of Commons makes proper progress in the consideration of business, including in the conduct of Question Time.
"I would like to think we would go about our affairs in a businesslike fashion with good opportunities for people to contribute.
"My sense is that, both within the House and outside it, there is a desire to see brisk progress as we go down the Order Paper, and I hope that that can be achieved."
Asked if this would mean curtailing the "Punch-and-Judy" exchanges between Mr Brown and Mr Cameron, he replied: "I hope that everybody in the House, from the highest level, will accept the need to make progress and the primacy of the rights of backbench members.
"If we are to make progress, it does logically follow that the exchanges need to be as snappy as possible."
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