MP's Interests: 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 landslide election victory, was published yesterday.

Sir Gordon Downey, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, said that following the 1995 report from Lord Nolan's Committee on Standards in Public Life - prompted by the cash-for-questions affair - 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 have to be deposited with Sir Gordon, are 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.

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 number of consultancies has evidently plunged because so many Tory MPs retired or lost their seats at the last election, but the attraction of the work also appears to have been dimmed by the embarrassment over parliamentary sleaze.

In the new register, Alan Beith, Liberal Democrat MP for Berwick-upon- Tweed, has dropped a previous consultancy with Magellan Medical Communications, a "medical public affairs company", which paid him between pounds 1,001 and pounds 5,000; and although Andrew Hunter, Tory MP for Basingstoke, remains a pounds 5,001-pounds 10,000 consultant with Lilly Industries, the pharmaceutical company, he no longer declares consultancies with Scott, Wilson, Kirkpatrick, consulting engineers and the Timeshare Council.

The new register also marks a significant shift in the nature of Commons directorships. Although some new Members - such as Archie Norman, Tory MP for Tunbridge Wells, the former Asda chairman and a Railtrack board member - have brought their former interests with them, the value of having an MP on the board would also seem to have diminished.

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

His biggest supporter was Harris Ventures, which donated pounds 74,000 to his campaign. The company is owned by Lord Harris of Peckham, a Tory party treasurer. Mr Hague's campaign received more than pounds 110,000, compared with pounds 42,000 for Kenneth Clarke.

Michael Howard's campaign drummed up pounds 49,000; Peter Lilley declared backing of pounds 27,850, while John Redwood said his campaign, which cost pounds 55,534.36, was financed by Conservative 2000.