MPs may face jail for corruption

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The Independent Online
The Government will this week announce plans to make sleaze in the House of Commons an offence punishable by up to seven years in jail.

The move, which is a response to the cash-for-questions scandal, will end the anomaly whereby parliamentarians are not covered by the country's anti-corruption laws.

Under proposals to be outlined by Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, on Tuesday, bribing an MP will become a criminal offence alongside other forms of corruption. The proposed legislation will also cover other officials in public life such as judges, councillors and other public servants. At present MPs are exempt from laws on corruption that apply to the rest of the population.

Government sources say the initiative is a central part of the Prime Minister's commitment to clean up public life. During the election Tony Blair made Conservative sleaze a key campaigning issue, arguing that the Tory years had taken their toll on the public's perception of MPs.

The proposals are likely to prove controversial among MPs who have traditionally guarded jealously their right to police their own disciplinary matters.

Sleaze dominated the final years of John Major's premiership with allegations that MPs, including Neil Hamilton and Tim Smith, both former ministers, accepted gifts and cash from the Harrods boss Mohamed al-Fayed. Mr Hamilton lost his seat in Tatton at the election to Martin Bell, former BBC war correspondent, who stood on an anti-corruption ticket.

However, since the election Labour has also been embroiled in a controversy with Mohamed Sarwar, the MP for Glasgow Govan, accused of breaking election laws by giving a pounds 5,000 loan to a political opponent. His case is being investigated by the police and by the party's National Executive Committee.

Ministers admit that a Bill to change the law will not be ready until the 1998 parliamentary session. The detail of the plans, and the issue of whether an element of parliamentary privilege will remain, has yet to be worked out.

Mr Straw's eventual decision on the fine print of the proposals will take into account recommendations from a report by Sir Gordon Downey, Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, into the cash-for-questions affairs. Ministers are also awaiting the outcome of Lord Nolan's report into local government which could propose a new statutory offence of misconduct in public office. Mr Straw has already signed the EU convention on corruption.