Page last updated at 19:24 GMT, Monday, 8 February 2010

David Cameron attacks Gordon Brown over expenses MPs

David Cameron: "They are now in a headlong retreat"

David Cameron has accused Gordon Brown of a "humiliating change" of stance after Labour suspended its three MPs facing charges over their expenses.

The suspension came as the Tory leader prepared for a speech featuring a claim his Labour counterpart was tolerating the MPs' attempt to "evade justice".

The Tories were the "new generation" of politicians "at ease with openness" needed to reform politics, he said.

Downing Street called Mr Cameron's attack on Mr Brown "desperate".

It is understood that lawyers for Labour MPs Elliot Morley, David Chaytor and Jim Devine, who are charged with theft offences, may claim their expense claims are covered by the centuries-old Parliamentary privilege law, which traditionally protects them from being sued for what they say in the Commons.

Politicians from all the main parties have criticised the lawyers' move, but in a joint statement the three MPs said "our approach is not one of trying to avoid culpability or seek immunity, but simply to determine the correct forum in which to make our case".

Labour MPs suspended

The MPs - plus a Conservative peer, Lord Hanningfield - face charges of false accounting under section 17 of the Theft Act 1968. If found guilty they face a maximum sentence of seven years' imprisonment. They all deny the charges.

Meanwhile, the "golden goodbye" payments for the three MPs will be suspended until legal proceedings are over, Commons Speaker John Bercow has said.

The MPs would have been entitled to resettlement grants on stepping down from the Commons at the general election.

In his speech at the University of East London, Mr Cameron highlighted reports that the Labour Party's official solicitor was providing the three MPs with legal advice.

Gary O'Donoghue
Up until now the prevailing wisdom has been that all parties have suffered equally from the expenses scandal
Gary O'Donoghue
BBC political correspondent

He had been due to say that the least Mr Brown could do was withdraw the party whip from the three - something which he said the Conservatives had been demanding for two days.

But, after the news from Labour that the three were being suspended "pending finalisation of the legal process", Mr Cameron said Labour were in "headlong retreat" and had again showed that the Conservative Party's instincts on expenses were in tune with the public's.

Mr Cameron is also asking shadow Commons leader Sir George Young to prepare a new Parliamentary Privilege Act which "we would introduce as soon as possible, to clarify the rules of parliamentary privilege to make clear that they cannot be used by MPs to evade justice".

Mr Cameron said: "Gordon Brown cannot reform the institution because he is the institution: he made it."

'Cut the rhetoric'

"How Gordon Brown can claim to be a reformer with a straight face I just don't know," he said.

"He can't reform the institution because he is the institution: he made it. The character of his Government - secretive, power-hoarding, controlling - is his character."

But deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman said the Conservatives had opposed such a law coming into force in the summer.

It's like a couple of cowboy builders coming back to your house to tell you how bad their workmanship is
Nick Clegg
Lib Dem leader

They were being "at best muddled and at worst downright opportunistic", she told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

Ms Harman also said she was "completely satisfied" that parliamentary privilege did not apply to cases like theft or fraud.

And she warned Mr Cameron to be "careful" not to jeopardise the trial with comments that could allow the MPs to argue they could no longer receive a fair trial.

And a Labour spokeswoman added that the party "has not and continues to have absolutely no involvement in the legal arrangements of these MPs, who were barred from standing as Labour candidates last year".

The party said it would not expect to be consulted or have any influence over what clients any group of solicitors acted for.

The Liberal Democrats want to go one step further this week by amending existing legislation in the House of Commons to ensure those charged with abuse of expenses cannot evade the legal process.


And Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg said: "Listening to the two of them anyone would think they were powerless backbenchers rather than the leaders of the two parties in Parliament which have proved to be the real roadblocks to reform.

"It's like a couple of cowboy builders coming back to your house to tell you how bad their workmanship is.

"If they genuinely want political change, it is in their power to deliver it. So I challenge them to cut out the speeches and the rhetoric and get on with the job."

Mr Clegg said he thought Mr Cameron was "getting as vicious and personal as he is because he's trying to cover up his tracks, he's trying to hide the fact that it was the Conservatives who blocked a deal to clean up party funding".

On Sunday, Home Secretary Alan Johnson said the four politicians should be tried in court, as people wanted to see MPs treated like everyone else.

He told the BBC: "They are entitled to a fair trial and the public... would be aghast if they thought there was some special get out of jail card for Parliamentarians."

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