Leading article: This Parliament needs more than cosmetic reform

A new Speaker and outside regulation are necessary, but not enough

Share
Related Topics

After Monday's dramatic session in the House of Commons, in which the Speaker's authority was seen to visibly drain away, yesterday's brief resignation announcement from Michael Martin felt like something of an anti-climax. Nevertheless, the first Speaker resignation in some 300 years is undoubtedly a significant moment.

Anyone tempted to feel sorry for Mr Martin should recall that he played an active role in preventing details of MPs expenses being made public. And his petulant attack on two MPs who had the nerve to question his handling of the affair last week revealed an individual bereft of any real understanding of the damage the expenses revelations has inflicted on the moral standing of Parliament. He was part of the problem, not the solution.

But we should not imagine that the departure of the Speaker will, in itself, do much to rebuild public faith in our MPs. Foolish and arrogant as Mr Martin was, he did not force parliamentarians to submit extravagant expenses claims or indulge in the various other dishonourable financial scams that have come to light over the past fortnight. The public are unlikely to be impressed by the departure of the Speaker if those parliamentarians who fiddled the system remain on the green benches. What the public wants is not cosmetic reform, but a thorough overhaul of Parliament's procedures and personnel.

The most blatant failure of procedure has been in the Commons fees office, which has responsibility for administering MPs expenses. It has emerged that the bureaucrats of this department were not only turning a blind eye to questionable claims, but also giving MPs advice on how to maximise their allowances. Outsourcing responsibility for expenses oversight to an independent auditor, as the Prime Minister proposed yesterday, would be an undoubted improvement.

The issue of reforming the second homes allowance system is, admittedly, more complicated. MPs with constituencies outside central London must divide their time between two parts of the country and it is fair that they have access to a housing allowance. That accepted, reasonable people will have differing views of what MPs ought to be allowed to claim for. For instance, should mortgage interest be claimable, or just rent?

Yet the difficulty of fashioning a fair system with no scope for the sort of abuses we have witnessed – from "flipping" to capital gains evasion – should not be overstated. Other democracies seem to have managed it. We should also bear in mind that, after the public roasting MPs have received in recent weeks, they will think much harder about the appropriateness of each claim they submit from now on. It will be a long time before we see MPs claiming public money for moat cleaning or Christmas decorations again. And so long as expense claims remain open to public scrutiny, as they must, that deterrent will continue. How many of these abuses would have taken place if MPs had known the details would appear in their local newspapers?

But while that combination of reform and transparency lay the basis for a cleaner expenses system in the future, the problem of public revulsion against a substantial minority of MPs who have abused the public's trust and ransacked the taxpayer's wallet still needs to be tackled. The country is not just looking for reforms, but punishment too.

To a large extent the responsibility for that lies in the hands of the leaders of the main political parties. Gordon Brown and David Cameron, and to a lesser extent Nick Clegg, need to fire those MPs who have committed what appears to be fraud. And if they are wise they will also prevent those MPs who have cynically exploited the system (whether what they did was allowed by the rules or not) from contesting the next general election. Mr Brown fell short of pledging such sanctions against Labour MPs at his news conference yesterday.

There are, of course, risks associated with an internal purge. A hard line on miscreants could provoke party splits. But the consequences of failing to act are surely greater. Such is the level of public anger that it is easy to foresee those MPs who have milked the system being slaughtered by their opponents (of any political stripe) the next time the electorate comes to vote. It would be in the interests of both Labour and the Conservatives to take any compromised MP out of the game before it comes to that. It would also be in the interests of the country for the Prime Minister to call a general election this autumn. The alternative is for this discredited parliament to stagger on for another year, stirring up public animosity and achieving little.

Mr Martin's departure is welcome in so far as it removes an egregious symbol of the old, tarnished regime. But the truth is that the hard work of cleaning up the reputation of the Commons has barely begun.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Manager

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity to...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Manager - Production

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Trainee Managers are required to join the UK's...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Manager

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will maximise the effective...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + uncapped commission : SThree: Hello! I know most ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A picture posted by Lubitz to Facebook in February 2013  

Andreas Lubitz: Knee-jerk reaction to 9/11 enabled mass murder

Simon Calder
The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, presides at the reinterment of Richard III yesterday  

Richard III: We Leicester folk have one question: how much did it all cost?

Sean O’Grady
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss