Commons suspends MPs over tax leak

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The Independent Online
LABOUR FACED new allegations of "nobbling" the House of Commons last night as a close aide to Gordon Brown resigned for demanding a leaked advance copy of a sensitive select committee report.

Don Touhig, the Chancellor's parliamentary private secretary (PPS), will be suspended from the Commons for three days after obtaining a report on taxing child benefit from Kali Mountford, a Labour member of the Social Security Select Committee.

Both Mr Touhig and Ms Mountford, who faces a five-day suspension in the autumn, made full apologies to the Commons last night.

The Government has already been accused of interfering in the work of select committees, which act as independent watchdogs. Another Labour MP, Ernie Ross, is to be banned from the Commons for 10 days after leaking a critical report on the arms-to-Sierra Leone affair to Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary.

The leak of the child benefit report is serious because Mr Brown was considering plans to tax the benefit at the time the committee was investigating the issue. On the same day that Mr Touhig was handed the report, Chris Pond, a Labour member of the social security committee, tabled 40 amendments which watered down the criticism of the proposal in the original draft.

But Mr Touhig denied showing the report to any of his colleagues at the Treasury. He insisted that he was merely acting as a go-between after committee members asked him to persuade the Treasury to allow two officials to be questioned.

Last night, the Tories demanded to know whether Mr Brown was briefed on the contents of the report. Sir George Young, shadow Leader of the Commons, said: "This is symptomatic of the way the Government and its supporters treat Parliament and short circuit its procedures for holding the executive to account."

The suspension of the two MPs was recommended in a highly critical report by the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee yesterday. It revealed that Ms Mountford, the MP for Colne Valley, initially denied leaking the report, saying: "My answer is no, I did not." Last Friday, she confessed to the leak, admitting that she had been "rather silly" and resigning from the select committee.

"I deeply regret my actions, and would like to apologise both for my original error in showing another member the draft report and for the delay in being totally forthcoming in this matter," she said.

The committee said Mr Touhig had committed two distinct offences by asking for the draft report and then refusing to identify the leaker. In a firm warning to the Government, it declared: "A senior PPS to a major department may be seen as a member of the establishment. Select committees are part of the parliamentary system that is supposed to keep the executive in check and under scrutiny."