LONDON — The speaker of Britain's House of Commons apologized Monday for his role in the burgeoning lawmaker expense scandal, hoping to retain his office by pledging to lead efforts to restore Parliament to respectability.
Michael Martin's authority has been shaken by daily revelations that lawmakers used taxpayers' money for paying non-existent mortgages, constructing swimming pools and other frivolous expenses. Martin, a member of Prime Minister Gordon Brown's ruling Labour Party, has been criticized for ignoring warnings that the expense system needed reform _ and then trying to block publication of the claims.
In testy exchanges with angry lawmakers, Martin ignored calls for him to become the first speaker in 300 years to quit, ducking the issue by invoking parliamentary procedure to stall debate on a motion to oust him.
"Please allow me to say to the men and women of the U.K. that we have let you down very badly indeed," Martin said in an extraordinary moment in the Commons. "We must all accept the blame and to the extent that I have contributed to the situation, I am profoundly sorry."
Britain's main opposition leader, David Cameron, said he will ask members of the public to sign a petition urging Brown to call an election as soon as possible, offering voters a chance to kick out lawmakers who've abused expenses. While Cameron has been agitating for an election for months, his reasoning appears to have changed _ and may strike a chord among a British public outraged over the scandal.
The final decision on an election rests with Brown, who must call an election by mid-2010 and is expected to wait until the last possible moment, hoping for the economy to revive. His Labour Party lags behind Cameron's Conservatives in opinion polls and is deeply in debt, meaning it has few funds for an election campaign.
Labour is considered likely to suffer most from the scandal, because it has failed to reform the expenses system during 12 years in office. Newspapers reported that major donors to Labour have threatened to cut off funding in protest.
Anthony Bailey, who previously donated 72,000 pounds ($110,000) to Labour and recruited other donors, told The Observer newspaper that he wouldn't support Brown's organization in future.
In response, Brown on Monday promised a "root-and-branch reform" of the expenses system.
Fifteen lawmakers made a rare step of tabling a motion Monday calling on Martin to quit, a virtually unheard of step in Britain's Parliament _ where the speaker traditionally enjoys wide support and retires when they _ rather than others _ choose.
Martin keeps order during debates, decides which lawmakers are called on to speak and represents the chamber in discussions with Queen Elizabeth II and the House of Lords.
Unlike in the U.S., where the House of Representatives speaker is often a partisan advocate for the majority party and relies on their support, the British speaker is supposed to be impartial and independent of government. While Martin is a member of Brown's Labour Party, it is the support of his fellow lawmakers _ rather than the British leader _ that is critical to stay in his role. Brown said he will support the consensus of legislators about whether Martin should stay in office, or be ousted.
Martin said he apologized for his role in damaging the reputation of Parliament, and then called a meeting of senior lawmakers within 48 hours to consider how to proceed.
"That's not a subject for today," Martin, elected as speaker in 2000, told lawmakers.
If removed, Martin would become the first speaker to be forced out since John Trevor was deposed in 1695 for accepting a bribe.
Other predecessors suffered a worse fate. According to Parliamentary records, seven previous speakers were beheaded, most famously Thomas More _ who was killed on the orders of King Henry VIII after he refused to declare the monarch the supreme head of the Church of England.
On the Net::
The motion against Michael Martin http://www.talkcarswell.com/show.aspx?id716