Accused MPs may be forced to prove innocence

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The Independent Online
A two-part crackdown on parliamentary standards of conduct was threatened last night.

The Government is considering whether to reverse the burden of proof in cases where MPs and public officials are accused of corruption, forcing them to prove that they are innocent of wrongdoing.

But a further, surprise, turn-of-the-screw against Westminster impropriety was threatened by Sir Gordon Downey, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, last night.

He suggested for the first time that the new Parliament should reconsider the question of full-time MPs, forcing them to get rid of all paid "outside" interests.

If that idea was picked up by the Government, Labour MPs could certainly vote it through, causing acute political and financial embarrassment for a significant proportion of Conservative MPs who insist on maintaining lucrative directorships and consultancies with outside business.

Interviewed by Counsel, the Bar magazine, Sir Gordon said: "I certainly think the argument is more balanced than I did some time ago.

"I was completely persuaded that MPs were able to have outside interests because they acquired outside experience that helped in the House.

"I now think there is quite a strong case for further consideration as to whether or not we would be better off with professional politicians without outside interests."

Conservative MPs mounted a strong rearguard resistance to a post-Nolan crackdown on the registration of outside interests before the election, and if Sir Gordon's proposal was picked up, some Conservatives would fight it hard.

It was also revealed yesterday that under new anti-corruption legislation being proposed by the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, MPs would have to show the source of any "questionable payments" and keep their private affairs "in such a way as to avoid any impression of corrupt activity".

The legislation may also cover some offences which take place abroad.

The proposal came in a Home Office consultation paper which suggested that a new offence of corruption covering both the public and private sectors should be created, with those found guilty facing up to seven years in prison.

It would clarify the law now embodied in the three Acts concerned with corruption of 1889, 1906 and 1916, which do not include an offence specifically covering the behaviour of MPs.

The consultation paper suggests that politicians, public officials, and even those in receipt of public money through a contract, would have to show they were innocent of any corruption, should any doubts as to where they received money arise.

The paper says that it is right for the Government "to consider carefully" reversing the burden of proof for this legislation even though it accepts that it is "a serious step to take".

Although Mr Straw presented yesterday's move as a rapid action by the new Government, in fact much of the ground work had been laid by the Conservative administration and the Nolan committee which it created in the wake of sleaze allegations. Lord Nolan recommended a new law on bribery and yesterday he welcomed the Government's move.

Mr Straw said in reply to a Commons question from Paul Flynn, a Labour backbencher, that he would not make the legislation retrospective and therefore all those implicated in the cash-for-questions affair would not be affected by the new law.

In a related plan, Ann Taylor, Leader of the House, announced that she wants to review the working of parliamentary privilege, which ensures that MPs have freedom of speech without fear of prosecution from the courts.

This follows the amendment to the Defamation Act 1995 brought in to help Neil Hamilton, the former Tory MP for Tatton, waive his parliamentary privilege in order to bring an action for libel against the Guardian last year.

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