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British Speaker of the House of Commons Resigns Over Expense Scandal

May 19, 2009 at 6:35 PM EST
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Michael Martin, the Speaker of the House of Commons, announced his resignation Tuesday following allegations that officials used public funding for personal expenses like housing renovations and mortgage payments. Special correspondent Simon Marks reports.
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JIM LEHRER: Now the growing political scandal in Great Britain. We have a report from special NewsHour correspondent Simon Marks.

NEWS ANCHOR: A moment of history, a time of crisis. Parliament forces out Mr. Speaker.

NEWS ANCHOR: On this special edition of the evening news…

SIMON MARKS, NewsHour Special Correspondent: On British television tonight, the resignation of the speaker of the House of Commons was portrayed as a seismic political event.

Just hours earlier, Michael Martin became the highest-profile casualty of a scandal concerning lawmakers’ personal expenses that is shaking the British political establishment to its core.

MICHAEL MARTIN, Speaker, British House of Commons: Please allow me to say to the men and women of the United Kingdom that we have let you down very badly, indeed. We must all accept blame. And to that extent that I have contributed to the situation, I am profoundly sorry.

SIMON MARKS: It took the speaker, a member of Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Labour Party, just half a minute to make British political history: becoming the first occupant of his office to be forced out in more than three centuries.

MICHAEL MARTIN: In order that unity can be maintained, I have decided that I will relinquish the office of speaker on Sunday, 21st of 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.

British public outraged

SIMON MARKS: Unlike dozens of other lawmakers, Mr. Martin has not been accused of filing illegitimate expenses himself. Instead, his critics contend that he failed to recognize the gravity of a scandal that has dominated headlines in Britain for nearly three weeks and brought the public reputation of the British Parliament, the cornerstone of the country's democracy, to its lowest level in modern times.

BRITISH WOMAN: Absolutely appalling. When families are being made redundant and all the rest, it's criminal, actually.

BRITISH WOMAN: They should be called to account. And I think if fraud has taken place, then I think, you know, obviously, the police need to be involved.

SIMON MARKS: That alleged fraud has claimed casualties among government and opposition lawmakers alike. Labour parliamentarian David Chaytor was suspended amid allegations that he made $20,000 in fraudulent mortgage claims.

Justice Minister Shahid Malik, the first Muslim to serve in a British government, stepped down pending questions about his expenses.

Andrew Mackay, a senior adviser to the leader of the opposition Conservatives resigned over allegedly fraudulent claims for a second home.

And four other prominent Conservative lawmakers are repaying more than $25,000 in claims that they made for furniture, a pipe under a tennis court, home improvements, and gardening expenses.

To date, members of parliament have repaid nearly $200,000, claims for items including ornate lamps, feather-dusters, horse manure, and ginger cookies.

The speaker of the House of Commons is not part of the British political leadership. Michael Martin does not exercise anything approximating the powers of Nancy Pelosi. He does officiate over proceedings in the House of Commons and is required to act with neutrality, even as in recent weeks when calls have grown for his own leader, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, to go.

Prime Minister's "Question Time" in the House of Commons, always a boisterous weekly affair, has become a cauldron in which the British political leader now battles for his survival.

GORDON BROWN, Prime Minister of Britain: We must prove ourselves worthy of the public's trust. We must apologize for mistakes that have been made. We must rectify all the errors that have happened.

EDWARD LUCE, Washington Bureau Chief, Financial Times: It's one of those moments in Britain that has taken everybody by surprise.

Brown may suffer from scandal

SIMON MARKS: Observers of the British political scene, like Ed Luce of the Financial Times, say that, even though the scandal has touched all the major political parties, its biggest casualty may yet be Gordon Brown himself.

EDWARD LUCE: The Labour Party came to power 12 years ago on an "anti-sleaze, cleaning up London, cleaning up politics" platform. And it seems to be coming to an end with exactly the same problems and allegations that brought down its Conservative predecessors.

And as the prime minister, Gordon Brown is the ultimate lightning rod. I don't think this stops with the speaker; I think this is going to gather momentum.

SIMON MARKS: Speaking in London tonight, the British prime minister tried to position himself as an agent of change.

GORDON BROWN: Westminster cannot operate like some gentlemen's club where the members make up the rules and operate them among themselves. If MPs continue to set their own codes and rules, however objectively they try to do so, the public will always question the transparency and the standards that they rightly demand.

SIMON MARKS: The scandal, with its scent of privilege and entitlement, is only adding to the public's sense that the political and business establishment has been enriching itself at a time of economic pain for everyone else.

The scandal touched off by the household expenses lawmakers claim could put the opposition Conservative Party closer to their goal of evicting Gordon Brown from his home, the prime minister's residence, Number 10 Downing Street.