Cash-for-questions MPs face ban

Fresh threat to Government majority as two Tories are found guilty of breach of parliamentary privilege
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The Independent Online
TWO Conservative MPs who accepted "cash for questions" have been found guilty of breach of parliamentary privilege and face punishment that could mean their temporary expulsion from the House of Commons.

David Tredinnick, MP for Bosworth, and Graham Riddick, MP for Colne Valley, will be dealt with by the Commons Privileges Committee next week. They may be fined or suspended from parliament.

"I am sure they could be expelled," said a member of the committee yesterday. Expulsion would cut John Major's low majority in the Commons even further, adding to the risk of defeat for the Government.

The Government's notional majority is 13 - but only if the nine Tory Euro-rebels who have had the whip withdrawn vote on the Government side.

The Privileges Committee, meeting in private at Westminster last week, found that Mr Tredinnick and Mr Riddick had breached parliamentary rules by accepting payments of £1,000 each from a Sunday Times reporter, posing as a businessman, to ask questions of ministers. When news of their conduct broke last July, the MPs resigned their positions as ministerial aides.

The 17-man committee has asked Commons officials to examine historical precedents for breach of privilege, and report back to a meeting next week when the fate of the two MPs will be decided. The decision is unlikely to be announced officially for some time - probably on the eve of the Easter recess which begins on 7 April.

The committee's recommendations would then have to go to the whole House for approval, as happened in the last privilege case when John Browne, Conservative MP for Winchester, was suspended for 20 days in the last parliament for failing to disclose all his commercial and financial interests.

A parliamentary debate and vote on the issue will revive the controversy over MPs taking on outside consultancy work to inflate their £32,000 a year salaries.

"Having decided that is how much we are worth, we should be prepared to live on it for our parliamentary work," said Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport West. "Members are prostituting their time and public resources here by working for the causes that pay them, not for those most worthy of their attention."

The Sunday Times itself is unlikely to escape censure in the Privileges Committee's final report. Some Tory MPs argue that the paper's investigation was an invasion of the privacy of the House and therefeore a breach of privilege in itself.

However, members of the committee are expected to confine their criticism of the paper to remarks about the allegedly "casual" manner in which it co-operated in the inquiry.

The Tories have a majority on the Committee of Privileges, and Labour members believe that they will try to prevent the suspension of the two MPs because of the danger to the Government's majority.

A third Conservative MP who agreed to table a question in return for £1,000, Bill Walker, member for North Tayside, has also been arraigned for breach of privilege, but his case is regarded by the committee as less serious because he asked for the cheque to be made out to his favourite charity.

There is unlikely to be much sympathy at Westminster for Mr Tredinnick, formerly parliamentary private secretary to Sir Wyn Roberts, the Welsh office minister, or Mr Riddick, who was PPS to John MacGregor when he was transport secretary.

Erskine May, the "bible" of parliamentary practice, lays down that "the acceptance by any member of either House of any fee, compensation or reward in connection with the promotion of, or opposition to any bill, resolution or thing submitted or intended to be submitted to the House . . . is a breach of privilege".