Page last updated at 03:49 GMT, Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Michael Martin says media 'bullied' MPs on expenses

Michael Martin
Lord Martin quit as Speaker over his handling of the expenses row

Former Commons Speaker Lord Martin has said MPs were "bullied" into referring their expense claims for investigation.

Lord Martin, who quit over his handling of the expenses crisis, spoke during a Lords debate on setting up a standards commissioner for peers.

He said journalists with no "prima facie" evidence would justify running stories on MPs by persuading someone to call for an investigation.

"Vexatious" complaints were often made against MPs in marginal seats, he said.

Lord Martin was elevated to the Lords after being effectively forced out as Commons Speaker in May over the way he had handled the row over MPs' expenses.

Self-referral

The peers were debating plans for their own standards commissioner to investigate breaches of the Lords' code of conduct.

Lord Martin said he had "no objection" to a Lords' standards commissioner but had some warnings for his fellow peers.

I don't necessarily think that self-referral is a good thing. It means that people can be bullied into going to the parliamentary commissioner
Lord Martin

He regretted the increase in MPs' "self-referral" to the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner - the most recent example being that of standards and privileges committee chairman David Curry.

Lord Martin said: "Because so many honourable members were being badgered by the press for an investigation by the commissioner, then many members have sought and have been able to get self-referral.

"I don't necessarily think that self-referral is a good thing. It means that people can be bullied into going to the parliamentary commissioner."

Lord Martin warned of the "awesome power" of the press and said journalists would persuade someone to make a complaint against an MP to justify running a story with little evidence.

'Great and good'

"It's one thing saying you will have an all-singing all-dancing parliamentary commissioner. It's another thing with the problems with the media looking to report another peer," he said.

"They can put a taint on them and they will look for the great and the good."

Lord Martin said he hoped the Lords' standards commissioner would have a "proper job description" and terms of employment.

Two peers were temporarily suspended earlier this year for misconduct after a Lords committee found they had been willing to change laws in exchange for cash.

But in Monday's debate, independent Labour peer Lord Stoddart warned the House against being "panicked into making a hasty and ill-considered decision in the wake of problems that have arisen in the House of Commons over expenses".

He told peers that appointing an outsider "shows a lack of confidence in ourselves".

He also mocked the proposals to require peers to "sign to be of good behaviour", questioned whether it would be enforceable and suggested it was treating peers like "naughty delinquents".

But the former Archbishop of Armagh Lord Eames, who chaired a committee that drafted the new code, warned that rejecting the commissioner would be a "body blow" to moves to improve self-regulation.

"We need to maintain and build on public trust. We need transparency and accountability. We need an investigatory function which is independent, fair and efficient," he said.

The new code, which will come into force on 1 April next year, was approved without a vote.



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