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History > 2009 > UK > Politics > House of Commons (I)




Dave Brown

The Independent

11 February 2009
















Speaker Michael Martin quits:

I will step down on June 21


May 19, 2009
From Times Online
Philippe Naughton
and Philip Webster


Michael Martin announced his resignation as Speaker of the House of Commons today, the first Speaker to be forced from office for more than 300 years.

Mr Martin effectively sealed his fate when he delivered a "profound" apology to voters yesterday for the controversy into MPs' expenses but stubbornly refused to countenance discussion of his own future. As a string of senior MPs stood up to demand his resignation, his authority crumbled away.

This afternoon, after bowing to the inevitable, Mr Martin again addressed a packed House to lay out the timetable for his departure – and ended up being clapped out from the chamber in recognition of his sacrifice.

After remarking that he had always considered the House to be "at its best when it was united", Mr Martin's resignation statement was brief and to the point.

He told MPs: "I have decided that I will relinquish the office of Speaker on Sunday 21st June. This will allow the House to proceed to elect a new Speaker on Monday 22nd of June. That is all I have to say on this matter."

Mr Martin's spokeswoman confirmed that he would also be standing down as an MP when he steps down from the Speaker's chair – leaving a vacancy in his constituency of Glasgow North East.

Under electoral rules, the party that holds a vacant seat has the right to choose the date for a by-election but in this case the Speaker no longer represents the party, Labour, for which he was first elected 30 years ago.

It is assumed at Westminster that the decision over timing will nevertheless fall to Labour, which will move quickly to call a by-election to avoid giving the Scottish National Party, which stood against Mr Martin in 2005, even longer to prepare its campaign.

The picture is clouded because neither the Conservatives nor the Liberal Democrats put up a candidate against Mr Martin last time.

As has happened with previous Speakers, Mr Martin is expected to be given a seat in the Lords – although that has not yet been confirmed and would doubtless cause an outcry given the circumstances of his departure.

Mr Martin's decision to resign allowed him to avoid the humiliation of a debate and vote from a no-confidence motion tabled by the Tory backbencher Douglas Carswell.

That motion showed up for the first time on the Commons order paper this morning, signed by 23 MPs, including Labour's Kate Hoey and the Liberal Democrat Norman Baker, both of whom were victim of unparliamentary rebukes from the Speaker last week which prompted the first open calls for his departure.

Mr Carswell said after the Speaker's statement: "It had to happen – it was not a nice business. It's been an extremely unpleasant week – you cannot clean up a cesspit without doing some unpleasant things."

Shortly before Mr Martin's statement today, it emerged that he received a secret visit from Gordon Brown after yesterday's appearance, reinforcing the assumption that he was encouraged to stand down despite the longstanding parliamentary convention that the Speaker is above party politics.

More obviously wielding the knife was the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, who told reporters this morning that he, too, would be signing the no-confidence motion. Mr Clegg had already broken with convention at the weekend by calling for the Speaker's resignation.

So far the field appears to be wide open for Mr Martin's successor, who will be the first Speaker to be chosen by secret ballot.

Among the early frontrunners are Sir George Young, the "bicycling baronet" who chairs the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee, and Frank Field, the former Welfare Minister under Tony Blair.

Also throwing in her hat this afternoon was the veteran Tory MP Ann Widdecombe, who offered to serve as a stand-in Speaker until the next election, when she is due to stand down.

Her fellow Tory Nigel Evans, attempting to get a Widdecombe bandwagon rolling, said: "The institution of Parliament is in need of serious reform. I would like to see Ann Widdecombe in the Speaker’s chair helping to lead that reform.

"She has served her constituents with distinction for many years. She is well-respected across the House and well-known across the country for her integrity, independence and high moral standing."

As Westminster reverberated to the news of Mr Martin's departure, the Tory MP whose claim for the cleaning of the moat his country estate came to embody MPs' excesses announced that he is to stand down at the next general election.

Douglas Hogg, who has represented Sleaford and North Hykeham in Lincolnshire since 1979 and served as Agriculture Minister under John Major, was embarrassed by the revelation that he claimed £2,115 for having the moat dredged at his country manor house.

He has paid that money back even while denying that he ever specifically claimed it, insisting that he gave the Fees Office a list of costs associated with the running of his estate which far exceeded the Additional Costs Allowance which is at the heart of the expenses scandal.

As Speaker since 2000, Mr Martin has been in ultimate charge of Commons administration and had repeatedly thwarted moves to ensure greater transparency on parliamentary expenses.

He had himself been criticised on more than one occasion on his lavish expenditure, which included £4,000 in claims for his wife's taxi bills while she was out shopping and more than £700,000 spent on refurbishing Speaker's House, where he received the Prime Minister yesterday.

As Mr Martin prepared to deliver his resignation statement, his supporters complained that he had simply been made a scapegoat for MPs' excesses.

The former Cabinet minister Frank Dobson said he was "distressed and to some extent disgusted" at what was happening to Mr Martin, telling BBC News: "It is a bit like a lot of people in a lifeboat slinging one person out in the hope that the water won’t now lap over us."

Mr Martin had summoned Mr Brown and other party leaders for talks this afternoon on reforming the expenses system. Even though he will now be a lame duck, that meeting was going ahead.

As he left the Speaker's chair today to prepare for it, MPs on both sides of the house stood up to applaud him for his years of service, although formal tributes will be paid later.

In a written statement, the Commons Leader Harriet Harman said: "Michael Martin’s resignation today as Speaker is an act of great generosity to the House of Commons that Members of Parliament from all parties will respect.

"Michael Martin has served the House as Speaker with distinction. The House will have an opportunity to pay its own tribute to him before he leaves the Chair. As someone who has been in the House of Commons with him for over 25 years, I know that his passionate commitment to the House is beyond doubt. The House owes him a great debt of gratitude."

    Speaker Michael Martin quits: I will step down on June 21, Ts, 19.5.2009, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article6320367.ece






Elliot Morley suspended from Labour over expenses

Gordon Brown sacks Scunthorpe MP as climate change adviser
for claiming £16,000 in mortgage interest payments after loan had been repaid


Thursday 14 May 2009
15.34 BST
Hélène Mulholland


Gordon Brown today sacked Elliot Morley as his climate change adviser and suspended him from the parliamentary Labour party for claiming £16,000 in mortgage interest payments after the loan had been repaid.

In a move designed to limit any further damage over the revelations, the prime minister vowed to take immediate disciplinary action wherever standards of behaviour had been "transgressed" by Labour MPs.

"Where there is irregularity, it will be dealt with immediately," Brown said at the launch of Labour's local and European elections campaign in Derbyshire.

"Where standards have been transgressed and the evidence has been shown to be there, action has got to be taken.

"Where disciplinary action is necessary it will taken and taken immediately."

The prime minister said the public wanted the expenses system reformed to restore public trust in the political system.

John Mann, who has campaigned for reform of Westminster pay and perks, called on Morley, the MP for Scunthorpe, to stand down as an MP if reports about his claims for non-existent mortgage payments were correct.

Mann told the BBC's World at One that Morley's explanation of what happened was "not credible at all".

"If what has been printed is true, it is truly staggering," he said.

"I can only think that he got so carried away with the system and the laxness of it that he temporarily lost sense of his own marbles."

Earlier today, Morley said he had referred his claims to the parliamentary standards commissioner, John Lyon, to demonstrate that there was "no intent" to overclaim.

"I have repaid in full the money involved, which came to over £16,000," he said.

Morley – who had previously described the parliamentary expenses set-up as a "complete shambles" – said his future as an MP was in the hands of his local constituency party.

The 56-year-old admitted claiming £800 in mortgage interest for his constituency home for at least 21 months.

It also emerged that the London house he had designated as his main residence between March 2004 and November 2007 had been rented to the Labour MP Ian Cawsey.

In November 2007, Morley changed the designation of his second home to his London property in Southwark – a process known as "flipping" – and both MPs claimed expenses on the same address for four months.

Morley is also facing the prospect of legal action after campaign group the TaxPayers' Alliance called for a police inquiry.

The organisation warned that it would launch a private prosecution if Scotland Yard did not investigate.

Matthew Elliott, the head of the pressure group, said the reports about Morley were "the most concerning and disgusting yet".

"This has gone beyond the question of a flawed system, and the police must now be called in," he added.

"If they do not investigate, then the TaxPayers' Alliance will consider bringing a private prosecution against Mr Morley and any other MPs who appear to have broken the law."

Morley, a father of two, became the MP for Glanford and Scunthorpe in 1987. The seat changed to Scunthorpe County 10 years later.

The previous July, he had his wife, Patricia, bought a house in Winterton, near Scunthorpe, and took out a mortgage.

Under parliamentary rules at the time Labour came to power in 1997, ministers had to declare their London address as their main home, meaning expenses claims had to be made on their constituency property.

Morley, who had served as a shadow spokesman while Labour was in opposition, became a junior minister under Tony Blair when the party was elected to government.

At this time, the mortgage on the Morleys' Winterton home was coming to an end, according to the Telegraph.

The paper reported that Morley began renting his London home to Cawsey for £1,000 a month – enough to cover the mortgage payments.

But the parliamentary authorities were told that the Southwark home was Morley's main residence, despite Cawsey declaring it as his second home . Cawsey said he was unaware of Morley's arrangement.

In 2004, the rules were changed to allow MPs to designate their homes as they wished, and Morley continued to declare the London address as his main home.

The following year, the rules were tightened and the Commons fees office wanted evidence of mortgage payments.

Morley produced a bank statement declaring a payment of £800 to a building society, but it is believed this was actually a payment to an endowment policy – a savings plan MPs are banned from claiming.

In March 2006, the Morleys' mortgage for their Winterton home was paid off, yet the MP continued to claim the £800 as "mortgage interest".

Though most MPs were asked to provide statements detailing their mortgage interest claims in 2007, he did not do so.

In March 2008, the fees office became aware that two MPs were claiming parliamentary expenses on the same property in Southwark and cut Morley's allowance, but he was not independently investigated or disciplined.

In the same month, an official wrote and said the documentation in support of his claim for the Winterton property was insufficient and requested "the last statement" relating to the mortgage for which Morley had claimed for much of the previous financial year.

The MP wrote back within minutes to say he would "see what I can do".

    Elliot Morley suspended from Labour over expenses, G, 14.5.2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/may/14/elliot-morley-mortgage-expenses






Britain aided Iraq terror renditions, government admits

Two Pakistani men were handed to US and taken to Afghan jail,
defence secretary tells Commons after year of official denials


Thursday 26 February 2009
13.27 GMT
Richard Norton-Taylor
This article was first published on guardian.co.uk at 13.27 GMT on Thursday 26 February 2009.
It was last updated at 16.51 GMT on Thursday 26 February 2009.


The government admitted today that British troops in Iraq handed over terror suspects to the US, which then secretly rendered them to a prison in Afghanistan.

After a year of allegations and repeated ministerial assurances to the contrary, the admission was made in the Commons by John Hutton, the defence secretary, who apologised to MPs for inaccurate information ministers had previously given them.

He said British soldiers, believed to have been SAS troops, handed over two terrorist suspects to the US in Iraq in February 2004. The men had been captured outside the UK-controlled zone covering south-eastern Iraq.

Hutton said the pair, believed to be Pakistanis, were still being held in Afghanistan. He said they were members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a banned organisation that he said was linked to al-Qaida. The US had assured Britain the two continued to represent "significant security concerns" and it was "neither possible or desirable to transfer them to either their country of detention or country of origin", Hutton told MPs.

The US had assured him the men were being held in humane conditions and had access to the Red Cross, Hutton said.

The admission is hugely embarrassing to the government, coming in the wake of the continuing dispute over the suppression of evidence of UK collusion in the alleged torture of former British residents, including Binyam Mohamed, who was released by the US last week after more than four years in Guantánamo Bay.

The defence secretary said a review of all records of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003 had revealed the inaccuracy, adding: "This has been a thorough and comprehensive review and it really has got to the heart of the issue."

But Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said damaging "secrets about British complicity in rendition and torture continue to seep out" and a judicial public inquiry into was the "only hope for lancing the boil and moving on".

The call was echoed by Human Rights Watch, which described the internal review announced by Hutton as an apparent "bureaucratic and documentary exercise designed not to get at the truth but to cover tracks by ring-fencing any incriminating evidence in official records".

In the Commons, Crispin Blunt, the Tory security spokesman, welcomed the information about the two detainees but said Hutton had left open the "glaring hole" of wider UK complicity in torture. Fellow Tory MP Andrew Tyrie, chairman of the parliamentary group on extraordinary rendition, told Hutton that as ministers had previously denied a number of allegations that turned out to be true, he hoped he could "understand that we have less confidence than we did in assurances being made now".

Nick Harvey, a Liberal Democrat MP, asked whether records had now been so exhaustively checked that today's statement could be considered the "last word".

The defence secretary said the review was "comprehensive and as thorough as it can possibly be," adding: "We operate to a very high standard. It is right that we do, because as I said earlier these define the nature of our country."

Labour's Andrew Dismore (Hendon), chairman of the joint committee on human rights, asked Hutton whether the Lashkar-e-Taiba members would be transferred out of Afghanistan. He also asked whether they had been subjected to waterboarding.

Hutton reiterated that there was "no evidence" of torture and said UK forces were not aware "at the time" that the detainees would be transferred to Afghanistan.

In March 2006, Ben Griffin, a former SAS soldier, revealed that Iraqis and Afghans had been captured by British and American special forces and rendered to prisons where they faced torture. The MoD said at the time that it did not comment on the activities of special forces.

The government subsequently obtained a gagging order in the courts preventing Griffin from saying any more.

Hutton also said the transfer had first been brought to his attention on 1 December last year. He revealed that officials knew about the transfer of the two prisoners in 2004, and references had been made in "lengthy papers" sent in April 2006 to Jack Straw and Charles Clarke, the then foreign and home secretaries. "It is clear that the context provided did not highlight its significance at that point to the ministers concerned," Hutton said.

The foreign secretary, David Miliband, was forced last year to admit, after earlier government denials, that two CIA aircraft transporting abducted prisoners landed on UK territory in 2002. The planes refuelled on the British dependent territory of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

Today, Tom Porteous, spokesman for Human Rights Watch, said it was clear the UK had more knowledge and involvement in US counter-terror policy than had been admitted, adding: "The drip, drip of allegations and admissions does huge damage not only to the government but the international reputation of the UK and the ability of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to hold their heads high and say that they are fighting on the side of justice and truth."

    Britain aided Iraq terror renditions, government admits, G, 26.2.2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/feb/26/britain-admits-terror-renditions






Straw vetoes publication of cabinet Iraq war minutes

Justice secretary refuses to comply with information tribunal's order to release minutes of two meetings


Tuesday 24 February 2009
16.39 GMT
Andrew Sparrow, senior political correspondent, and Katherine Baldwin
This article was first published on guardian.co.uk at 16.39 GMT on Tuesday 24 February 2009.
It was last updated at 19.03 GMT on Tuesday 24 February 2009.


Jack Straw today said he would take the unprecedented step of vetoing the release of cabinet minutes relating to the decision to invade Iraq.

The justice secretary made his announcement in response to a decision from the information tribunal, which last month ordered the publication of the minutes of two cabinet meetings, held on 13 and 17 March 2003.

It is the first time the government has used its power to veto the release of documents under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act .

In a statement to MPs, Straw said he had not taken the decision "lightly".

He added that the public interest in disclosure of the minutes could not "supplant the public interest in maintaining the integrity of our system of government".

"It is a necessary decision to protect the public interest in effective cabinet government," he said.

Straw's decision was supported by the Tories, although the shadow justice secretary, Dominic Grieve, said the government should have made it clear earlier that it was not going to release the minutes.

Under the FoI legislation, the government does not generally have to release information relating to the formulation of policy.

However, the tribunal ruled that this was an exceptional case because of the public interest in knowing what was said as ministers discussed the decision to approval the invasion.

Straw told MPs he disagreed with the tribunal's findings.

He said confidentiality was most important when the cabinet was discussing the most sensitive issues.

"Cabinet is the pinnacle of the decision-making machinery of government," Straw said.

"It is the forum in which debates on the issues of greatest significance and complexity are conducted.

"This matter – whether the nation took military action – was indisputably of the utmost seriousness."

He said he disagreed with the argument that the "momentous" nature of the decision meant the minutes should be made public.

"The convention of cabinet confidentiality and the public interest in its maintenance are especially crucial when the issues at hand are of the greatest importance and sensitivity," he said.

"Responsibility for cabinet decisions is with the government as a whole, not with individual ministers ... that remains the first principle of the ministerial code.

"If permitted to demonstrate their degree of attachment – or otherwise – to any given policy, ministers could absolve themselves from responsibility for decisions which they have nevertheless agreed to stand by.

"The conventions of cabinet confidentiality and collective responsibility do not exist as a convenience to ministers.

"They are crucial to the accountability of the executive to parliament and the people.

"The concomitant of collective responsibility is that debate is conducted confidentially. "In short, the damage that disclosure of minutes in this instance would do far outweighs any corresponding public interest in their disclosure."

Straw said the decision to go to war had already been extensively investigated by a series of official inquiries.

"The decision to take military action has been examined with a fine-toothed comb," he said. "We have been held to account for it in this House and elsewhere."

He also said although 1,500 FoI requests relating to government information had been considered by the information commissioner, the government had not, until now, used its power, under section 53 of the FoI Act, to issue a ministeral veto.

The two cabinet meetings were particularly controversial because they occured at a time when ministers were considering the legality of going to war.

Lord Goldsmith, the attorney general at the time, initially suggested that the legality of the invasion was questionable,

He subsequently issuing legal advice saying it would be safe for Tony Blair to proceed with the attack. Campaigners wanted to see the minutes to find out whether this issue had been fully debated by ministers at the time.

Responding to Straw's statement, Grieve said the decision not to release the minutes "... classically illustrates what has been wrong with the government's approach to freedom of information and propaganda".

Referring to the fact that Straw had been foreign secretary at the time of the invasion, Grieve questioned how it would look to the public "for someone so closely involved in the key decisions now to be personally blocking the release of that information".

However, he said the Conservatives agreed with the decision.

David Howarth, the Lib Dem justice spokesman, said: "This decision has more to do with preventing embarrassment than with protecting the system of government."

Like Grieve, he called for a full inquiry into the Iraq war.

Kate Hudson, the chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, said: "This disgraceful decision is yet another attempt to suppress public debate on the biggest political scandal in decades.

"The use of the veto cannot be justified in any way – there is no risk to candid discussions in cabinet as such minutes do not single out those making each point.

"We had hoped that, with the withdrawal of the last British troops expected in a matter of months, the government would have released these minutes in preparation for the full inquiry into the Iraq war, long promised by Gordon Brown."

In its ruling last month, the information tribunal said: "We have decided that the public interest in maintaining the confidentiality of the formal minutes of two cabinet meetings at which ministers decided to commit forces to military action in Iraq did not, at the time when the Cabinet Office refused a request for disclosure in April 2007, outweigh the public interest in disclosure.

"We have reached that decision by a majority, and not without difficulty.

"We concluded that there was a strong public interest in maintaining the confidentiality of information relating to the formulation of government policy or ministerial communications (including, in particular, the maintenance of the long-standing convention of cabinet collective responsibility).

"However, this is an exceptional case, the circumstances of which brought together a combination of factors that were so important that, in combination, they created very powerful public interest reasons why disclosure was in the public interest."

    Straw vetoes publication of cabinet Iraq war minutes, G, 24.2.2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/feb/24/iraq-freedom-of-information





Leading article: Britain's bankers still have tough questions to answer

The job of the Treasury Select Committee is only half complete


Wednesday, 11 February 2009
The Independent


The grand Parliamentary inquisition of four of Britain's most prominent failed bankers yesterday might not have delivered the merciless evisceration many in the country had been hoping for, but it at least succeeded in getting Sir Fred Goodwin, Sir Tom McKillop, Andy Hornby and Lord Stevenson to offer a public account of themselves.

The apology that the former heads of the Royal Bank of Scotland and the Halifax Bank of Scotland delivered at the outset of the hearing was a study in ambiguity. The bankers were sorry for "the turn of events" and for "all the distress" caused, but not, it seems, for their own conduct. Their real failure, they argued, was one of omission rather than commission: they failed to anticipate that the flow of credit in the world financial system would come to an abrupt stop.

The Treasury Select Committee, to its credit, did not let them get away with that generous interpretation of their failings. MPs on these committees often adopt a scatter-gun approach to the interrogation procedure of witnesses. This time they were well briefed and reasonably well co-ordinated. And it became apparent over the course of the hearing that this quartet of bankers simply lost control of their businesses.

The admission extracted from Mr Hornby that "the bonus system has proved to be wrong" provides an important contribution to the present public debate about bankers' remuneration. It is much harder to justify such payments if the head of a failed bank believes they were a factor in his institution's downfall.

Yet an even bigger test for MPs on the Treasury Committee will come today when John Varley, the chief executive of Barclays, and Stephen Hester, brought in to manage the stricken RBS, come before them. For all the attention the inquisition of Sir Fred and Mr Hornby attracted, they are essentially yesterday's men. Those in the hot seat today are still players.

Mr Varley, in particular, needs to answer some tough questions, both about the manner in which he has run his bank in recent years and about how he intends to run it going forward. The committee needs to find out why Barclays chose to eschew the Government capital on offer last October, preferring instead to raise more expensive funding from the Middle East. There is a widespread belief in the financial world that the motivation was to avoid any Government interference in the bank's remuneration practices.

There is also some scepticism in the City over Barclays' methods of valuing its assets. Can Mr Varley guarantee that there will be no nasty surprises in store for shareholders? There is a clear public interest in getting an answer to this. If Barclays' attempt to go without state support does end in disaster, the Government would have to clean up the mess. Barclays is, in that dreaded phrase, "too big to fail".

Mr Hester cannot be called to account for the woeful past performance of RBS. But there is a good deal to ask him about the bank's future, not least the question of whether he is running the bank primarily in the interests of its remaining private shareholders, or the taxpayer, which now owns a majority of the business?

MPs must also demand an explanation from both men of why they are still planning to pay their staff bonuses despite the fact that the share price of their respective institutions has collapsed. The Treasury committee made a decent start yesterday. But this inquisition is far from over.

Leading article: Britain's bankers still have tough questions to answer, I, 11.2.2009, http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/leading-articles/leading-article-britains-bankers-still-have-tough-questions-to-answer-1606269.html