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Sir Alistair Graham speaks to Panorama about MPs' expenses

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Caroline Mallan | 11:00 UK time, Wednesday, 20 May 2009

The man once described as Westminster's "sleaze watchdog" has told Panorama that MPs' abuses of their expenses amount to a failure of moral leadership that has changed political life in the UK forever.

"It has been depressing to see such a failure of moral leadership," said Sir Alistair Graham, former chair of the committee on standards in public life.

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Sir Alistair's comments came in an interview with Panorama as part of an ongoing investigation into the MPs' expenses scandal that has engulfed British political life in recent weeks.

Sir Alistair left his job in 2007 warning of the need for a wide-ranging "ethics package" aimed at cleaning up the public's poor image of their elected representatives to Parliament.

Speaking to Panorama, Sir Alistair said the already low level of trust that the public has for politicians has been further diminished by the scandal.

Sir Alistair said ongoing surveys of the public mood reveal that the trait they most seek in their politicians is honesty and a willingness to admit mistakes.

Sir Alistair also warns that the deepening scandal could open the door for extremist parties in Britain to gain a toe-hold in mainstream politics.

"I think that because people have lost so much trust in the mainstream parties, in what they see as a crucial area of their behaviour, it creates an opportunity for those on the fringe, on the extreme, to make themselves more credible as politicians and therefore for people possibly to elect them."

He also said the practice of allowing MPs to use their housing allowance for mortgage interest should be ended completely, with the allowance only available for rent for suitable accommodation near Westminster - in keeping with the spirit of the housing allowance.

"If you've got a case for a second property because you are a long way from Westminster...tell us what arrangements you want to put in place. If it involves renting some property then we'll pay for that rent for as long as you need it."

Sir Alistair said it is obvious that the amount of effort that was being put into buying, repairing and then selling taxpayer-funded properties and pocketing the profits was time and effort that should have been spent fulfilling their duty to their constituents.

And it is this apparent abandonment of their duty to taxpayers - the seven principles of public life set out by Sir Alistair's predecessor, Lord Nolan, - that Sir Alistair feels is at the crux of the unfolding scandal.

Those principles are objectivity, selflessness, integrity, leadership, honesty, openness and accountability.

"I think you could pick any of those principles out and they've been breached in the way that Members of Parliament have behaved - not all - but a fair number have behaved
in dealing with their expenses."

While Sir Alistair said he believes that Westminster will get through the current crisis, he tells Panorama that the Parliament that will emerge needs to be "radically different".

"We'll get through this expenses business and then we have to see have they really got the insight now into what the public want from their politicians and ensure that it effects all of their behaviour not just in the narrow area of expenses."

To find out more about what the Panorama team has found, watch Is Your MP Working for You?, Monday, 25 May, BBC One at 8.30pm.

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