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.Reuse content