New speaker warns of watering down new expenses rules

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John Bercow, the Commons Speaker, warned yesterday it would be a “catastrophic mistake” to water down tough plans for sweeping reform of MPs’ expenses.

He admitted that some MPs were facing “rough justice”, but insisted that “denial, delay or dilution is simply not an option” if MPs were to regain public confidence following the expenses scandal.

The veteran civil servant Sir Christopher Kelly provoked a Commons backlash after calling for a ban on MPs employing spouses and relatives. He recommended that MPs should in future be required to rent, rather than buy, their second homes and that should they not be allowed to claim for properties in London if they lived within commuting distance of Westminster.

Sir Ian Kennedy, the new chairman of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), faced attacks after he suggested that he might not implement the Kelly proposals in their entirety. It emerged yesterday that he considered resigning the post because of the ferocity of the reaction to his comments.

In an apparent sideswipe at Sir Ian, Mr Bercow said: “Sir Christopher Kelly has come forward with a detailed, explicit and comprehensive blueprint for a reformed system which would be far better than what we have at the moment.

“I think it would be a catastrophic mistake to row back from that and to try to stick with a system that the public regards as excessively generous and fundamentally rotten to the core.”

The main party leaders have urged their MPs to accept the Kelly plans, but many backbenchers have reacted with anger and dismay to the proposed reforms and have also protested they might not get the opportunity to debate the changes in the Commons.

Some of the 200 family members who work for MPs have sought legal advice on whether they could challenge the ban on their employment in court.

But Mr Bercow, who succeeded Michael Martin five months ago, insisted the public would not understand if MPs attempted to resist reforms designed to end an “indefensible” expenses system.

“It has to be changed,” the Speaker told BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show. "Let's go about the process of change together in a positive spirit, recognising that in the end we individually and the House collectively will benefit from that change.”

He also repeated his warning to MPs that they should accept the verdict of Sir Thomas Legg, the former civil servant auditing their expenses, and pay back any cash that he requires. Sir Thomas's final demands are expected to be sent out next month, with some politicians expected to be told to pay back tens of thousands of pounds they insist they claimed in good faith.

But Mr Bercow said: "We have to have a conclusion, we have to have closure. People must accept the consequences and we then move onto the future."

He said his job was not to act as a “shop steward” for backbenchers, but to raise the reputation of the Commons in the country.

He said he did not doubt that most family members employed by MPs worked hard and provided good value for money, but added: “Public trust in Parliament has plummeted. The damage has been seismic.

"And the truth now is that the public perception of the way in which we operate is so negative that it is necessary to accept a wholesale, fundamental and, I think, irrevocable change.

“An important part of that wholesale, fundamental and irrevocable change is saying we shall not have family members employed. There's an element of rough justice, but it is necessary.”

Mr Bercow declined to comment on the demand made by some MPs for a pay rise of as much as £35,000 to compensate them for the loss of their allowances.

He said he did not believe there was a big pay rise “around the corner”, but insisted that any future decision on MPs' salaries should be made by an independent body, without input from MPs, ministers or the Speaker.

Future parliamentary pay awards should take place on the principle of “automaticity” so that neither the Prime Minister nor MPs can intervene to change the independently determined arrangement, he said.