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UK watchdog barks at MPs' expenses

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The UK's political sleaze watchdog said yesterday that Britain's electoral system is in dire need of fixing and questioned whether MPs were really the best people to carry out an independent review of their own expenses.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life's annual report said it was impressed that MPs had decided to investigate expenses, but: "We were less impressed by the decision that the review should be conducted by a committee composed solely of parliamentarians ... it is difficult to see how the results can be expected to command full public confidence."

Sir Christopher Kelly, chair of the group, said the impact of Freedom of Information on standards "continues to be a matter of great interest". Speaker Michael Martin went to the High Court to try and keep so-called "John Lewis lists" secret but was over-ruled.

Turning to the other side of the political process, the committee is calling for a move to individual voter registration rather than current household voter registration which "leaves the electoral system in Great Britain more open than necessary to fraud, particularly when combined with increased postal voting".

Kelly noted that the issue was investigated by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and that: "This type of monitoring is more usually undertaken in relation to those states where democracy is new or unstable, such as in some parts of the former Soviet Union or in Africa.

The committee also looked at the workings of the Freedom of Information Act. It welcomed what it describes as a government change of heart on the issue - from trying to restrict FOI requests to moves to greater openness from the releasing of Cabinet minutes on the invasion of Iraq to MPs' expenses and contacts with lobby groups.

The group also called for action on the funding of political parties. It said the perception that donations to political parties result in influence and personal advancement was deeply damaging to public trust in politicians.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life was set up by Prime Minister John Major at the height of Tory sleaze allegations.

The commitee's website is mainly broken today but the report should be up soon. ®

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