Speaker's allies dismiss allegations of sleaze as 'smears and innuendo'
ALLIES of Michael Martin leapt to his defence yesterday, branding continued scrutiny of the Commons Speaker's expenses and allowances a result of "smear and innuendo".
Supporters claimed Mr Martin, who is in charge of reform of MPs' controversial expenses system, was being subjected to a "witch-hunt".
George Foulkes, the MSP and peer, claimed it was part of a campaign started a number of years ago by "people who went to private schools and Oxbridge who didn't like someone from a working-class background in Glasgow getting into the highest office in the land".
A former home secretary, David Blunkett, described a string of negative stories about Mr Martin as a "witch-hunt", while Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, said: "Clearly, someone is out to get him. Whether any of it is valid, I can't judge."
Critics said Mr Martin must hand over control of a review of MPs' allowances, after fresh questions over claims by him and his wife, Mary.
The disclosure that his office deceived the public over Mrs Martin's taxpayer-funded taxi journeys caused his spokesman, Mike Granatt, to resign for "ethical reasons" on Saturday.
The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards was last night urged to investigate the revelation that Mrs Martin had not been accompanied on the trips by a Commons official, as had been briefed.
There was also concern over the Speaker's use of the second-home allowance, after it emerged he had no mortgage on a property in Glasgow for which he has claimed more than 75,000 to maintain. He
was already under fire for using air miles earned on official trips to pay for flights by his family.
Last night, Lord Foulkes said: "I've been reading a lot of the acres of news coverage about the Speaker's expenses today and there is nothing illegal or improper alleged in any of them," he said. "It's a lot of unsubstantiated smear and innuendo. The Speaker is one of the top offices of state in this country. He needs to be looked after properly, he needs to be treated properly and the denigration that is going on not only demeans the people that are doing it, but undermines the whole democratic system that we have."
But anti-sleaze campaigner Martin Bell said Mr Martin was, in fact, being protected from MPs' criticism by the convention that they do not openly criticise the Commons Speaker.
"He is protected by a wall of silence, actually, because MPs can talk about anything they like, inside or outside the House, except their views about the Speaker," the former independent MP said.
"They do not speak up and we know there is widespread disquiet on both sides of the House, and no-one dare speak up."
Mr Bell suggested Mr Martin was one of many MPs who were claiming as much as they could from the 23,000-a-year additional costs allowance – regardless of whether or not they had a mortgage or rent to pay.
"There is evidence, not only in this case, but so many others, that MPs have not been charging what it costs but up to the limit of allowances, and people are getting really upset about this," Mr Bell said.
The Taxpayers Alliance pressure group yesterday wrote to John Lyon, the parliamentary standards commissioner, asking him to add the question of the 4,000 paid out for taxis to his existing examination of Mr Martin's use of air miles gathered on official Commons business to fly his family down to London.
Sir Alistair Graham, a former chairman of the committee for standards in public life, said the row undermined the "credibility" of Mr Martin's review of MPs' allowances in the wake of the Derek Conway affair.
"It's unfortunate and really does undermine the credibility of this review that he himself has become part of this story, though it's clear he hasn't broken any rules," Sir Alistair said.
"But it does suggest the rules are inappropriate and need radically reforming."
He went on: "The scope for reform is pretty enormous, but unfortunately now the Speaker and the committee the Speaker chairs is not the body to carry out that reform."
The latest revelations follow the resignation of Mr Granatt after he rebutted a story that the Speaker's wife had claimed more than 4,000 in taxpayer-funded taxi expenses since May 2004.
He told a journalist that any shopping trips she had undertaken had been for food for government-related functions, and that Mrs Martin had been accompanied by an official at all times.
However, Mr Granatt later learned the official was actually a housekeeper from the Speaker's household.
He was adamant Mr Martin was not at fault and blamed officials, saying they had not told him the entire truth.
MICHAEL Martin's Speakership of the House of Commons has been controversial ever since he was first elected in 2000.
He had replaced fellow Labour MP Betty Boothroyd and many Tories felt Commons convention dictated the post should have gone to a Conservative MP.
With his thick Glaswegian accent, Mr Martin was an unusual choice for the high-profile task of keeping order in debate. First elected as an MP in 1979, he is the first Roman Catholic to serve as Speaker since the Reformation. He earns roughly the same salary as a cabinet minister and is expected to be neutral.
As the son of a Glasgow merchant navy stoker and a school cleaner , the nickname "Gorbals Mick" was soon coined for him. Supporters said he had become the victim of snobbery.
It was not long before whispering began that he was not up to the job and was too partisan.
In October 2001, he was forced to apologise after speaking up for then Home Secretary David Blunkett's abolition of the voucher scheme for asylum seekers.
But in reality he has slapped down both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown during Prime Minister's Questions.
And he has allowed urgent Opposition questions ministers would rather not have to answer.
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