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U.K. ministers resign over widening scandal

/ Source: The Associated Press

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 Friday with irate callers. Web sites 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 that had been 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."

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 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 Wednesday and Thursday. There was a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Expense aftermathLabour lawmaker Shahid Malik stepped down as justice minister early Friday after data showed that he claimed more than $98,00 in housing costs over three years despite having discounted rent.

Brown's aide on climate change, Elliot Morley, was also suspended after he billed taxpayers' $24,000 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 Friday with another Labour lawmaker claiming thousands of dollars of taxpayer money for interest on a non-existent mortgage. David Chaytor said he would pay back $18,000 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 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.

Voter backlash
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 and would end more than a decade of Labour Party rule if predictions hold.

Built on a political system that historically favored land owners, Britain lacks a system of proportional representation so it is unlikely 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.

"There has also been this traditional historical myth that we have the mother of all Parliaments ... few have stepped up to say that our political system is flawed because one party or the other has benefited from it over the years."

Lawmakers scheduled meetings with voters over the weekend to address anger and an immediate threat — that smaller far-right parties could make significant gains in the June 4 elections for seats in the European parliament. Parties such as the UK Independence Party and the British National Party have long campaigned against Britain's entrenched political system and its traditional parties.

Past scandals
Dozens of lawmakers have apologized and pledged to return more than $190,000.

Other scandals have rocked Britain's politician system in recent history — British Cabinet minister John Profumo's liaison with a prostitute almost brought down the government after it was revealed the woman was also linked to a Soviet spy — but few have shaken all main political parties.

Expense rules are laid out in the 66-page Green Book — a guide sent to every legislator. It sets limits on expense claims, such as a 25 pound ($38) cap on eating out when away from home and how much can be claimed toward a second home, usually a residence in London.

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.

The leaked data was due to have been made public in July after Britain's High Court quashed a legal attempt by the House of Commons to keep the details secret. Some of the data in that disclosure, however, was to be redacted.

"We need our own Barack Obama," said Francis O'Hara, 24, a student. "This country needs a change."  

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