British Speaker Resigns – A Victory for Transparency
May 20, 2009
Michael Martin 3.jpg

In a historic and momentous move, Michael Martin, the Speaker of the British House of Commons (lower House of Parliament) resigned his position yesterday. The last time a British Speaker resigned was three hundred years ago. The events were precipitated by proceedings under the new Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that became operative four years ago.

It all started in October 2004 with a US journalist, Heather Brooke, making a request for expense receipts of a few UK Members of Parliament. The FOIA came into force in 2005. The House of Commons refused to release the receipts and Brookes asked the UK Information Commissioner to intervene under the FOIA. The Information Commissioner backed the request but did not order the receipts to be released. Brookes appealed to the Information Tribunal under the FOIA and the Tribunal backed her request for receipts.

That was when Michael Martin, as the Speaker of the House of Commons, decided to block the release of the receipts. He retained legal counsel (at the expense of the tax payer) and challenged the Information Tribunal’s and Commissioner’s rulings before the High Court. Fortunately for the public, the High Court upheld the ruling and ordered that the MP’s receipts be released to Brookes. In its ruling of May 2008 the High Court had this to say-

“We have no doubt that the public interest is at stake. We are not here dealing with idle gossip, or public curiosity about what in truth are trivialities….The expenditure of public money through the payment of MPs’ salaries and allowances is a matter of direct and reasonable interest to taxpayers. They are obliged to pay their taxes at whatever level and on whatever basis the legislature may decide, in part at least to fund the legislative process.” In response, all the MP’s expense receipts were due for release this summer but someone leaked the documents to the Daily Telegraph. Within days it became clear that MPs had used tax payer’s money to pay for everything from chandeliers to cookies and moat cleanings to mortgage payments. The rules are clear that expenses should relate to parliamentary work and should not damage the reputation of Parliament. The British public was outraged and the scandal took the House of Commons by storm. Clearly, the Speaker had dragged his feet and acted against the general public interest, perhaps with a mistaken sense of protecting MPs. In essence, he had lost the confidence of the House of Commons and of the public.

Commenting on the situation Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg reportedly told the BBC that Michael Martin the Speaker had “proved himself over some time now to be a dogged defender of the way things are, of the status quo. And what we need very urgently is someone … who will lead a wholesale radical process of reform. I do not think we can afford the luxury of a speaker, who is supposed to embody Westminster, who has been dragging his feet on transparency and greater accountability in the way in which (lawmakers) receive their expenses.”

The resignation of the Speaker of the British House of Commons is significant because it originated with a modest freedom of information request under the new UK FOIA. The power of transparency to ensure compliance with the law and corruption free politics is obvious. In this case, the Michael Martin stood on the wrong side of the line perpetuating secrecy and protecting wrongdoers. Today, over 80 countries have FOIAs and citizens all over the world are beginning to enjoy the right of access to information, a basic human right rooted in the freedom of expression.

For more see:

-New York Times article “In Britain, Scandal Flows From Modest Request

-Daily Telegraph article “MPs’ expenses: Gordon Brown criticises ‘gentlemen’s club’ Commons

-Washington Post article “British Official Quits in Lawmaker-Expenses Scandal

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