Downey's rules strike terror into the heart of the Commons

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The Independent Online
The number of Commons consultancies, with MPs acting as consultants to outside interests, has crashed in the wake of the Nolan Report. Anthony Bevins, Political Editor, examines a dramatic change of culture at Westminster.

The new Register of Members' Interests, issued for the first time since Labour's election landslide over the Tories, was published yesterday.

Sir Gordon Downey, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, reported that following the 1995 report from Lord Nolan's Committee on Standards in Public Life, the Commons had decided that MPs had to register all agreements "involving the provision of services in his or her capacity as a Member of Parliament".

Agreements, which had to be deposited with Sir Gordon, have to be registered with fees received in bands of up to pounds 1,000, up to pounds 5,000, and, then, in bands of pounds 5,000. It would appear that the exposure of the previously endemic consultancy process has acted as a severe deterrent - as Lord Nolan might have expected.

Sir Gordon said in an introduction to the new register yesterday: "While it is too early in the new parliament to be certain of long-term trends, it is notable that the number of commitments of this kind undertaken by Members has fallen by some two-thirds compared with the register published in March 1996, when the new rule came into force."

The new register also underlines another feature of the Nolan era, introduced following the cash-for-questions saga - the complete ban on MPs' "engaging in advocacy on behalf of outside bodies or persons from whom they receive payment. And even: "In the case of any `one-off' benefits such as visits and gifts recorded in this register, the advocacy rule will apply for the period of a year from registration."

The stringency of the new rules would appear to have put such a degree of terror into the minds of MPs that they have started to declare even the slightest details of their lives.

David Marshall, Labour MP for Glasgow Shettleston, for example, has declared the fact that between 13 and 27 February he was loaned a Ford Mondeo by the Ford Motor Company "for a test drive". Denis Murphy, Labour MP for Wansbeck, declares the gift of a "small crystal figure of unknown value by Mr Leslie Koo, President of Synpac (company based in my constituency)." That gift was registered on 27 July, and, under the rules, it would appear that Mr Murphy is barred for a year from advocating the interests of Synpac in any Commons question or speech.

Another element thrown up by the register yesterday was the final terms of sponsorship for the Tory leadership candidates in May and June this year - with William Hague getting the lion's share of financial backing.

His biggest supporter was Harris Ventures Ltd, who donated pounds 74,000 to the Hague campaign. The company is owned by Lord Harris of Peckham, one of the treasurers to the Conservatives. Mr Hague's campaign received more than pounds 110,000 in all, compared with pounds 42,000 for Kenneth Clarke, whose largest backer was a Nat Puri, who gave pounds 32,000.