Graham Riddick, the MP for Colne Valley, and David Tredinnick, MP for Bosworth, will this morning be relieved of their unpaid 'bag carrying' duties as parliamentary private secretaries (PPS) pending an inquiry into whether they abused parliamentary privilege by allegedly agreeing to each accept pounds 1,000 in return for submitting questions.
The suspected willingness of some MPs to engage in the practice was revealed after approaches from a reporter posing as a 'businessman' seeking details of commercial dealings with government departments. The affair could open up the wider issue of the use of the procedure by MPs who receive annual fees of several thousands of pounds as business and industrial consultants.
The taxpayer foots the pounds 97 average cost of the 50,000 written questions submitted each year. Many involve substantial research by departmental civil servants.
Mr Tredinnick, PPS to Sir Wyn Roberts, the Welsh Office minister, and Mr Riddick, PPS to John MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport, were among 20 MPs on both sides of the Commons approached during a Sunday Times investigation last week.
The paper claimed the two MPs, who are among those who have suffered losses as Lloyds Names, asked for cheques to be sent to their homes after concluding the deals during brief meetings on the House of Commons terrace.
Number 10 said: 'The Chief Whip (Richard Ryder) . . . will be telling them that they are suspended pending the outcome of any inquiry which may be instituted by the Committee of Privileges. If there is no inquiry by the Committee of Privileges (they) will be suspended while an internal inquiry is conducted into this issue.'
Dale Campbell-Savours, Labour MP for Workington, will today appeal to Betty Boothroyd, the Commons Speaker, to set a committee inquiry in train. Richard Tracey, Tory MP for Surbiton, another of those telephoned by the 'businessman' for 'advice', said he had suggested the caller would be better off speaking to a parliamentary consultant.
Mr Tracey said: 'This may not be illegal but it is certainly an abuse. It seems on the face of it an abuse of parliamentary privilege, but in particular it is an abuse of the taxpayer's money.' Erskine May, the 'bible' of parliamentary procedure, outlaws as a 'breach of privilege' the acceptance of fees in connection with any matter submitted to the House.
But MPs appear to get some protection under a separate set of rules requiring them to declare within four weeks in the Commons Register of Members' Interests 'any pecuniary interest or other material benefit which a Member receives which might reasonably be thought by others to influence his or her actions.'
None of the Labour MPs approached would agree to the 'buying' of a question.
Both MPs denied any wrongdoing, threatening legal action against the paper, which had 'set them up'. Mr Tredinnick, alleged to have been sent the money for tabling a question about a fake drug, said on BBC radio: 'I never asked to see this person. He pressed to see me. I acted in good faith to help him. I did not expect to receive a cheque from him. I refused to accept a cheque from him.'
Mr Tredinnick said he was surprised to receive the cheque and would donate it to a local charity.
Mr Riddick, whose question involved a fake company, was reported by the paper to have planned to enter the pounds 1,000 in the Register as a 'consultancy project', but he returned the cheque last Friday. Mr Riddick said he found it 'staggering that a journalist should tell me a tissue of lies to manufacture a story where neither illegality nor impropriety was being investigated'.
Michael Portillo, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, appeared reluctant to condemn the 'sale' of a tabled question. He said on London Weekend Television: 'We don't need any more rules . . . The thing to do is to make sure that it's all declarable.'