Club class seats on gravy plane

MPs' trips often have the whiff of a 'freebie', writes Steve Boggan
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The Independent Online
Clement Freud, the former Liberal Democrat MP, once wrote gleefully of the "mother of all freebies", an all-expenses paid trip to see the world's richest horse race in Dubai, complete with club class ticket, stretch limo and luxury hotel room.

The visit, paid for by Sheikh Mohammed, was punctuated by banquets and the arrival of gifts in a manner that he gloried in but which also, he confessed, made him feel uneasy.

"'We've already established what you are; now we're haggling about the price,' sums it up," he wrote. It is a measure of his integrity that he felt so uneasy; at the time, he was no longer an MP but was covering the race as a journalist.

Most, if not all, MPs are approached from time to time by lobbyists or the representatives of foreign governments eager to promote a cause.

"Usually, you get a letter or a phone call from someone who says, 'I understand you take an interest in...' such and such a subject. Then they drop in that they've arranged a gathering of similarly interested people in some exotic location," said Gerry Bermingham, a senior Labour member of the Home Affairs Select Committee. "When that happens, you have to ask yourself: 'Why? Why me? There's no such thing as a free lunch. I always turn them down."

Entries in the House of Commons Register of Members' Interests sometimes indicate an astonishing willingness to accept the hospitality of governments, companies and airlines. Most foreign travel involves genuine fact-finding, but some trips have a distinct whiff of freebie about them.

An analysis by the Independent two years ago showed that hundreds of MPs had been abroad during the previous year at someone else's expense. Often, wives were paid for too. The duration of the stay ranged from one day to 36. Most MPs aggressively defend their paid-for trips, arguing that they led to a level of understanding of international affairs that could not otherwise be reached from London.

Sir Gordon Downey, the new Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, has no objection to genuine fact-finding missions, but he would like to outlaw paid-for visits when they result in MPs acting as "advocates" for those who paid.

Sources close to the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges say that its long-awaited Code of Conduct for MPs could be presented to Parliament as early as next week. It is understood its recommendations are likely to preclude blatant freebies.

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