Leading article: The lack of moral courage

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The Independent Online

If Michael Martin, the Speaker of the House of Commons, were the kind of person to take responsibility on behalf of the whole House, he would have resigned yesterday. Unfortunately he, like most MPs, failed to rise to the occasion, instead making a statement of morally lethargic buck-passing. Members should consider "the spirit of what is right" in claiming expenses from their constituents' purses, he said. Meetings would be held and new procedures would come into force "shortly".

He also launched a sarcastic and foolish attack on two MPs, Norman Baker and Kate Hoey, who dared raise criticisms of the manner in which the Commons authorities have dealt with the issue of expenses.

Of course, it makes no sense to demand that the Speaker be made the scapegoat for a failing for which MPs collectively are to blame. MPs are accountable to their voters for expenses for which they have claimed, and no doubt, in many cases, the voters will exercise that accountability at the ballot box.

But the collective failing demands leadership from those that represent the Commons, including the Speaker, the Prime Minister and the leaders of the other parties. David Cameron, the Conservative leader, has shown willing. He dealt promptly with the issue of Tory MPs employing members of their families; he offered his support for a cross-party reform; and on Sunday night he pre-empted publication of the Shadow Cabinet's expenses by saying that the system was "wrong" and "we are sorry about that". Nick Clegg has also been able to take a reasonably elevated moral tone, although his Liberal Democrats' expenses have yet to see the light of day.

But Gordon Brown has played defensive politics with the issue throughout, allowing his zealous knights to try to obstruct publication for years, and then trying to gain a party advantage by announcing a unilateral reform on YouTube last month, which unravelled within hours.

If the Speaker had shown some moral courage yesterday it would have been refreshing. But such qualities, in both his office and in the chamber over which he presides, seem worryingly lacking at the moment.