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British leader to boost authority with shake-up

Published on 15/06/2009

London — British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced a shake-up of the House of Commons last week including a code of conduct for MPs tarred by an expenses row, as he tried to firm up his political authority.

In future, lawmakers deemed to have misbehaved over their finances could be expelled from parliament and a new, beefed-up watchdog would be set up to vet their spending, the prime minister said.

He also pledged an overhaul of the House of Lords, Britain’s unelected upper chamber, which still features a handful of aristocrats who have inherited their titles.

Brown was attempting to seize back the political initiative after the worst week of his premiership which saw calls for him to step down, the resignation of 11 ministers and historic losses in European and local elections.

David Cameron, the leader of the main opposition Conservatives who opinion polls tip to take Brown’s job at the next general election, due by mid-2010, accused Brown of trying to divert attention from his troubles.

"The problem is that the prime minister has promised constitutional change countless times before… but nothing ever happens," Cameron said.

He accused Brown of a "relaunch distraction strategy to try and give the prime minister something to talk about when he’s in desperate straits" and again urged a snap general election.

However, a motion put to the House of Commons later Wednesday by Scottish and Welsh nationalists calling for an immediate dissolution of parliament — which would spark an election — was defeated 340 votes to 268.

Brown pledged legislation on the conduct of MPs (members of parliament) before they take their two-and-a-half month summer break from July 21.

The Commons’ reputation has been damaged by the Daily Telegraph newspaper’s recent revelations of extravagant claims by lawmakers from the public purse for items such as a duck island, moat cleaning and swimming pool maintenance.

Despite this, the last time an MP was expelled from the Commons was in 1954, Brown said.

"All of us have to have the humility to accept that public confidence has been shaken and the battered reputation of this institution cannot be restored without fundamental change," he added.

The prime minister said he would publish proposals in a few months on the final stages of reforming the Lords, including the removal of all hereditary peers and making it between 80 and 100 percent elected.

In addition, details of MPs’ expense claims will be published online within days.

Despite media reports that he would throw his weight behind reform of the electoral system, Brown played down his interest in the issue and said there were "no plans" for a referendum on a change.

He also pledged to broaden freedom of information law and release secret official documents to the public after 20 years instead of the current 30.