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Parliamentary scandal rocks Britain

BRITAIN has seen its share of sex and sleaze scandals over the years, but few have tarnished all three of the country's main political parties in a single stroke.

Leaked lawmaker expenses for chandeliers, pornography, moat upkeep on country estates and other claims have enraged voters - many of whom have lost jobs and homes during Britain's deepening recession.

Talk show lines buzzed on Friday with irate callers. Websites flashed reader comments comparing politicians to greedy bankers. And commuters clenched newspapers with such headlines as: "Parliament's Darkest Day" and "House of Ill Repute." Many politicians were being heckled during events scheduled long before the leak.

"It's not just one or two rotten apples, it's the whole lot," said Randy Wallace, 41, an unemployed London electrician. "Our Parliament used to be the envy of the world. Now, it's a laughing stock."

Early elections

Thousands of pages of expense claims were leaked to the Daily Telegraph more than a week ago. Although around 80 of the 646 House of Commons lawmakers have been named so far, the newspaper says it will continue to roll out details as it plows through the rest of the documents. The Labour Party, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have all been damaged by the data.

A poll released on Friday showed that 65 percent of the population want early elections because of the expense scandal, while 64 percent want some lawmakers to resign. Commissioned by the BBC, the London-based polling company ComRes conducted the telephone poll of 1,011 voters on Wednesday and Thursday. There was a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Labour lawmaker Shahid Malik stepped down as justice minister early on Friday after data showed that he claimed more than 65,000 pounds (US$98,000) in housing costs over three years despite having discounted rent.

Major error

Brown's aide on climate change, Elliot Morley, was also suspended after he billed taxpayers 16,000 pounds for mortgage interest payments on a loan that had already been paid off. Morley says he's now paid the money back.

The latest revelation came late on Friday, with another Labour lawmaker claiming thousands of pounds of taxpayer money for interest on a non-existent mortgage. David Chaytor said he would pay back 13,000 pounds after continuing to submit bills on his paid mortgage.

"In respect of mortgage interest payments, there has been an unforgivable error in my accounting procedures for which I apologize unreservedly," Chaytor said. "I will act immediately to ensure repayment."

For the Conservatives, lawmaker Andrew Mackay quit his post as an aide to party leader David Cameron after he said he'd been guilty of errors over his expenses claims. The party published expense claims by senior members online on Friday under new transparency rules imposed by Cameron.

Police and prosecutors were meeting to decide what, if any, action should be taken against lawmakers who misused parliamentary expenses. No charges had been filed.

"As our concern about what's been claimed has grown, our horror of how (lawmakers) are trying to slip out of this sticky situation has grown," said Mark Wallace, spokesman for the Taxpayers' Alliance, which set up a fund to pay for any public prosecutions that could come from the scandal.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Labour-led government has steadily lost parliamentary seats since it led calls for Britain to join the war in Iraq. Most expect the Conservative Party will win the next general election, which has to be called by mid-2010.

Built on a political system that historically favored land owners, Britain lacks a system of proportional representation. Therefore, it is not very likely that smaller parties would make significant gains in the next election.

Low voter turnout is more likely, said Steven Fielding of the Center for British Politics at Nottingham University.

"It will probably further depress the Labour vote and it will give the Conservatives some gains, but the thing is that everyone has been tarred by this information," Fielding said.

Dozens of lawmakers have apologized and pledged to return more than 125,000 pounds.

Expense rules are laid out in the 66-page Green Book - a guide sent to every legislator. Though the guidelines don't ban any specific items, the rules say expenses should relate to parliamentary work and shouldn't damage the Parliament's reputation.


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