MPs face tough rules on lobbying

MPs were warned yesterday that they face the end of their present lobbying activities and the imposition of much tougher controls to be administered by an independent watchdog.

The stark message was delivered by Lord Nolan, the law lord, at the opening of the third public session of his committee looking into standards of public life. In a surprisingly early indication of the way his committee is thinking, he said it was plain from the evidence, "that the rules on MPs' connections with lobbyists need to be tightened up" and "the declaration of certain interests must be made in more detail".

The present system under which MPs police themselves was not up to the task. "It is also reasonably clear that we need to consider, in detail, the possible introduction of an independent element into Parliament's current arrangements for self-regulation.

" Such a move is likely to set his committee on collision course with MPs who have regarded their right to rule on their own behaviour.

In private, the Nolan committee is understood to have discussed requiring MPs to reveal their outside earnings, to disclose details of their employment contracts with outside organisations and most significantly, force them to cease working for specialist lobbying firms. The inquiry is also considering banning MPs from canvassing on a company's behalf, in return for cash. They would be forbidden from intervening in debates, asking questions and arguing a company's cause with ministers. Howe ver, they would be allowed to advise on procedure.

A bar on MPs holding outside interests completely is unlikely. Indications are that they believe MPs must not be cocooned from the real world, that contact with the business community and links with professions like farming and the Law enable them to better perform their political duties. But the committee is planing a radical shake-up of the present, cosy, usually anonymous system which sees some MPs being retained by lobbying firms with long lists of clients.

Lord Nolan received heavyweight support from Lord Callaghan, the former Prime Minister who told the inquiry the Commons Privileges Committee was not doing its job properly.

He accused it of being "slow," to the extent its authority has been undermined, in ruling on the recent cases of MPs being paid to ask questions. While anxious to avoid scoring political points, Lord Callaghan, said he had no doubt that a "get rich quicksociety has had an adverse impact on standards". At present too many MPs appeared to put their own interests first, their party second and country third, he said.

Another blow was struck by Nigel Forman, a Tory backbencher who told the inquiry that "if it recommends leaving lobbying to the lobbyists, that would be a healthy outcome."

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