UK parliamentary speaker steps down over scandal

LONDON Tue May 19, 2009 3:49pm EDT

1 of 3. A video grab image shows Britain's Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, speaking to the House of Commons in London, May 18, 2009.

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LONDON (Reuters) - The speaker of Britain's lower house said on Tuesday he would step down after lawmakers from all the main parties demanded he resign over an expenses scandal that has tarnished the reputation of parliament.

Michael Martin, 63, became the most senior figure to step down after parliamentarians' expense claims for everything from manure to porn films triggered outrage across recession-hit Britain and opposition calls for an early general election.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown said an early election would not solve the expenses scandal and called for independent oversight of lawmakers' pay and expenses in a major break with parliament's centuries-old tradition of self-regulation.

The government and opposition parties agreed to curb the worst abuses of the system, saying there would be no more claims for furniture and appliances, home improvements and gardening.

"Westminster (parliament) cannot operate like some gentlemen's club where the members make up the rules and operate them among themselves," Brown told a news conference.

He insisted the expenses scandal was not diverting him from tackling Britain's worst recession since World War Two.

"The economic work and all the other work of the government goes forward. We're absolutely determined to move this country quickly out of recession," he said.

Martin, a former metalworker, faced intense pressure to resign from lawmakers who saw him as an obstacle to reform.

In extraordinary scenes on Monday, members of parliament (MPs) called for him to go and he faced a no-confidence motion signed by 23 MPs from all major parties.

"In order that unity can be maintained, I have decided that I will relinquish the office of speaker on Sunday, June 21," Martin said in a short statement to a packed parliament.

BROWN REJECTS EARLY ELECTION

The last speaker forced from the post was John Trevor, who lost the confidence of the house in 1695 for taking a bribe.

Parliament will elect a new speaker -- who could come from any of the major parties -- by secret ballot on June 22.

The speaker is parliament's most senior official and his departure escalates the crisis engulfing British politics.

Martin will step down as a lawmaker, triggering a by-election in his Glasgow North East constituency that may pose a headache for Brown given the unpopularity of his Labour Party.

Conservative opposition leader David Cameron, well ahead of Labour in opinion polls before a parliamentary election due by June 2010, called for an early general election to allow people to "pass judgment on their politicians."

Brown said an early general election was not the answer.

"Those people who somehow believe that this can be sorted out just by a few names changing on a few name plates are wrong," he said.

Brown said lawmakers should submit expenses to an independent body, rather than parliament. No Labour candidate would be allowed to stand for election if they broke the rules.

Brown, Cameron and other party leaders agreed on Tuesday to impose strict curbs on expenses until an in-depth review of the system is completed later this year, Martin told parliament.

Lawmakers would only be able to claim rent, mortgage interest and utility bills for their second homes in future, preventing them charging the taxpayer for items such as cleaning swimming pools or repairing tennis courts.

The past four years of claims will be reviewed. Parliamentary officials will refuse any future claim they think is unreasonable and publish approved payments online.

Parliament has been damaged by a series of reports in the Daily Telegraph newspaper based on leaked information on how members milked the expenses system to supplement an annual salary of around 65,000 pounds ($100,700).

In a rebuff to parliamentary officials who alerted police to the leak, police said on Tuesday they would not investigate.

The scandal has damaged all the main political parties but is hitting Labour hardest after 12 years in power. It may boost fringe parties at June 4 local and European elections.

The expenses disclosures have forced a junior minister to step down pending an inquiry while two Labour lawmakers have been suspended and a senior adviser to Cameron has quit.

Conservative member of parliament Douglas Hogg, who was sharply criticized over reports he claimed thousands of pounds in expenses for cleaning the moat around his second home, said on Tuesday he would step down before the next election.

(Additional reporting by Keith Weir, Avril Ormsby, Kate Kelland and Peter Griffiths; Editing by Jon Boyle)

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