THE Speaker of the House of Commons is an illustrious and historic position – the most senior authority of the House, who not only chairs the debates but represents the Commons to the monarch and to the outside world.
Given the expenses scandals of recent months, it is also notable that the Speaker is in charge of the MPs' expenses system. Following the exposure and disgrace of Derek Conway, the MP who was found to have paid his son for research that may not have been done, the current Speaker, Michael Martin, is running the review into MPs' expenses.
After the Conway scandal and the exposure of the John Lewis List, the price list showing that MPs were allowed to claim up to 10,000
for a new kitchen or 750 for a television, public faith in politicians
is extremely low.
A recent poll found that 66 per cent of people believe most MPs exploit public office improperly to make money. In that situation, it is the Speaker who would normally shake up the system, sweep away the cobwebs and start to restore public faith in Parliament.
Unfortunately, Michael Martin seems set on doing the opposite. Having spent thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money fighting a losing battle to keep the details of Parliamentary expenses secret, he has just decided to take it a step further and appeal to the High Court. The bill for the lawyers will, of course, be paid by you and me.
This is a disgrace. We elect Parliament and we pay the bills for Parliament – we have the right to know where our money goes. Mr Martin's brazen attempts to keep that information secret are not just an embarrassment, they contribute to a feeling that there must be something to hide.
It is a mystery why the Speaker disagrees with this. The evidence that the public are genuinely concerned at the way our money is being spent is undeniable, and the damage being done to Parliamentary democracy by this secretive behaviour is serious.
One possibility is that Mr Martin has signed up to the mindset of the MP who views Westminster as a Gentleman's Club.
The evidence that he enjoys the high life all too much himself is mounting, and raises serious questions about his own suitability to oversee the review of MPs' expenses.
Last weekend it emerged that 700,000 has been spent renovating the Speaker's official residence, which he enjoys free of charge as well as receiving assistance with the mortgage on a second home, one
of the country's most generous pension deals and a pay package of more than 138,000.
When it was reported earlier this year that his wife had also claimed 4,000 for taxis used to take her shopping for groceries (which she apparently needed despite having the use of a Parliamentary catering department), the TaxPayers' Alliance complained
to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.
Originally, the story was that Mrs Martin was accompanied at all times by a Commons official. It later turned out that she was, in fact, accompanied by her friend and housekeeper, who works for the Martins. Someone in the Parliamentary offices misinformed the Speaker's official spokesman about this, and he resigned on the point of principle. So far, so murky.
Now we have received confirmation from the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner that he has considered our complaint, and he thinks there is sufficient evidence to begin a preliminary enquiry into the 4,000 claim. This is shattering news, given the Speaker's important position. Rarely has there been such a pressing need to salvage the reputation of Parliament, but the man whose job it is has not only shown his commitment to secrecy but is now himself under investigation for his family's expenses.
Whether Mr or Mrs Martin have abused the system is a matter for the Standards Commissioner, and if any dodgy dealing have gone on, I trust that the matter will be dealt with strictly and appropriately. In the meantime, though, we must bear in mind the best interests of taxpayers and our democracy.
It would be totally inappropriate for Michael Martin to continue to run the review of MPs' expenses and to oversee the disciplinary system of his colleagues. If a policeman is accused of dubious activities, he is suspended while the investigation is carried out. Similarly, the Speaker should give up control of the expenses review while this enquiry is carried out.
The public are sick of paying so much money in tax, and they are angry that at the same time some politicians seem to be living the high life at their expense. It's only fair that people should have the right to see how their money is spent, and MPs should accept that the whole system is in urgent need of reform.
The Speaker of the House of Commons should be the figure at the head of those reforms, reassuring the public by throwing open the shutters and letting light in so we can all see what is going on. The fact that he is doing his level best to keep us all in the dark, and has now come under investigation himself, is a devastating indictment – he has become part of the problem.
Mark Wallace is Campaign Director of the TaxPayers' Alliance.