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U.K. scandal prompts calls for reform

Tory MP Derek Conway arrives home on January 31, 2008 in London. Mr Conway, Member of Parliament for Old Bexley and Sidcup, has been thrown out from The House of Commons for overpaying a member of his family from allowances.

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: With all the ads and primaries and partisan back and forth here, it's easy to tune out the rest of the global political scene, but there's a doozy of a scandal brewing over in the U.K. A member of parliament has been thrown out of the party for misusing public funds. He paid his sons more than $150,000 for doing basically nothing. The case has had some big repercussions, because it turns out many British MPs regard lawmaking as a family business.

From London, Marketplace's Stephen Beard reports.


HOUSE OF COMMONS: Order, order.

STEPHEN BEARD: Inside the Gothic wood-panelled House of Commons, the head of the standards committee rose from the green leather benches and delivered his verdict on the Conway affair.

COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: The committee made clear that it was not for the honorable member to establish his innocence, but we were frankly astonished.

To paraphrase, the committee found that the "honorable" member had ripped off the taxpayers. He'd paid his son $80,000 of public money for research that he didn't do. The "honorable" member, Derek Conway, duly abased himself before his colleagues.

DEREK CONWAY: I unreservedly apologize to the House for my administrative shortcomings and the misjudgements I made.

Parliament's initial punishment, for what he called "administrative shortcomings," was a 10-day suspension from the House, and Conway was ordered to pay back less than a third of the money he'd fiddled.

Back home in his electoral district, voters were rather less indulgent about their MP's financial affairs, especially when it emerged that he'd also paid $75,000 of public money to another son, also with little sign of any work having been done.

VOTERS: He's certainly not acted in a proper manner. He should be out immediately. I think its disgraceful. In no other field could you possibly get away with the way he's behaving, no business, no company, and I think he should be prosecuted with the full force of the law, like anyone else.

ANNOUNCER: Make Way for Black Rod. Make way for Mr. Speaker!

But MPs are not like anyone else. They have enormous latitude in how they spend their annual budgets of $500,000. There are no anti-nepotism rules here, as there are in Congress. They can hire family members to do research and clerical work, and more than a quarter of MPs are thought to do so, although they are not required to declare the family connection. In many cases they pay their relatives handsomely.

Andrew Tyrie is a member of parliament who wants reform.

ANDREW TYRIE: We live in a 21st century democracy with a parliament whose rules and structure and ways of doing things owe more to a 19th century club.

HOUSE OF COMMONS: We do, for that end, publish this our Royal Proclamation.

Tyrie is calling for all the outdated practices of parliament to be swept away, and that includes the opaque and loosely controlled system of allowances. Economist Andrew Hilton says MPs have got to stop regarding parliament as a cash machine.

ANDREW HILTON: You go into politics for power. You go into politics for the public good. You don't go into it for money.

HOUSE OF COMMONS: The ayes to right, 107.

The Conway affair has provoked widespread demands for more transparency, but the Speaker of the House of Commons controls the way things are done here, and he doesn't seem eager for radical reform. Even though he has a free apartment in the Commons. Last year he claimed $35,000 to help pay his rent.

In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

HOUSE OF COMMONS: Order, order.

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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