MPs set code for their own conduct

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The Independent Online

Political Correspondent

The actions of Members of Parliament, rather than what kinds of paid outside relationships should be allowed, lie at the heart of yesterday's select committee report.

Such a formula gets round some awkward problems of definition bequeathed by the recommendations of Lord Nolan's Committee on Standards in Public Life, the report says. The distinction Lord Nolan had made between single- client consultancies, which he said should be permitted, and multi-client consultancies, which should not, was "especially difficult to understand", the MPs said.

Iain Duncan-Smith, the Tory member who pushed hardest for the alternative of a ban on paid "advocacy" - without any need to declare any outside earnings, as Nolan had recommended - said yesterday the "cash for questions" affair started the Nolan inquiry off but it had turned out to be a whitewash.

"Saying multi-client consultancies should be banned could be easily circumvented by MPs becoming directors of the individual company clients. Under our report, advocacy is out. It goes way beyond Nolan," he said.

The approach could have some unforeseen effects. New wording to be added to the so-called 1947 Resolution, which deals with advocacy for payment, reads as follows: "And that in particular no member of this House shall, in consideration of any remuneration, fee, payment, reward or benefit in kind, direct or indirect, which the Member ... has received, is receiving or expects to receive."

Some Tory MPs suggested yesterday that this could catch trade union sponsorship of Labour MPs. While members do not receive personal benefit, union funds are channelled into constituency parties or used to pay researchers, which might be construed as indirect benefit. Such a reading of the provision could limit the kinds of issues many Labour MPs could raise in the House or in questions or motions.

That interpretation appears to be cut down, however, by another part of the report, saying that sponsored MPs would not be covered by the ban "if trade union donations to a constituency party are not linked in any way to the member's candidacy". Tony Blair, the Labour leader, has proposed the end of individual union sponsorships.

The future could be fraught with questions of interpretation for a newly created select committee on standards and privileges, as advised by the newly appointed Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Sir Gordon Downey.

As it is, the paid advocacy ban will not only disappoint MPs, commercial lobbyists, PR firms and companies, but also organisations such as the Police Federation and charities, who will no longer be able to pay members to advocate causes on their behalf, although paid advice will still be allowed.

The activities covered by the ban (a descriptive rather than exhaustive list) would be speeches, questions, motions, introductions of bills or amendments to motions or Bills.

Those who are paid for advising their outside interests in their capacity as MPs will be allowed to continue doing so, but contracts must be properly registered. MPs would have to deposit copies of the relevant agreements with the Commissioner and record them in the Register of Members' Interests.

The advocacy ban will come into effect from the beginning of the next parliamentary session, 15 November, while all contracts must have been registered by 31 March next year. That represents a Government retreat on the timing of implementation, which ministers originally pressed to be delayed until after the next election.

The real bone of contention for Monday night's debate, to be voted on under a Labour amendment, is over whether fees from agreements should be disclosed. An amendment to yesterday's report by the four Labour committee members and Robert Maclennan, the Liberal Democrat, called for earnings to be disclosed in bands up to pounds 1,000, pounds 5,000 to pounds 10,000 and thereafter in bands of pounds 5,000, but was voted down by the Conservative majority.

Labour MPs, and around half a dozen Tories so far, argue that the advocacy ban in no way obviates the need for disclosure, as argued by the committee majority.

Large amounts of money would still be earned from advice work - and transparency was absolutely paramount if income was derived from the holding of office as an MP.

It was also conceded yesterday, even by some Tory MPs, that the advocacy ban could not be guaranteed to be watertight because unofficial "advocacy", in some cases with the help of parliamentary colleagues, could occur behind the scenes.

The registered interests of Nolan select committee members

Tony Newton (Conservative, chairman): None.

Quentin Davies (Tory): Director of Dewe Rogerson; member of Market Access Panel, adviser to NatWest Securities, consultant to Chartered Institute of Taxation; occasional lecturing and broadcasting.

Iain Duncan-Smith (Tory): Occasional journalism, broadcasting and lecturing.

John Evans (Labour): Sponsored by AEU, receives no personal benefit.

Sir Archie Hamilton (Tory): Director of Saladin Holdings, Woodgate Farms Dairy, Siam Selective Growth Trust, First Philippine Investment Trust, James R Glass, Crownridge Industries; consultant to WS Atkins, Merrill Lynch Europe, Litton Industries Inc; member of Lloyd's (he resigned in 1995).

Sir Terence Higgins (Tory): Director of First Choice Holidays (formerly Owners Abroad), Lex Pension Trustees; trustee ex-Service Retirement Benefit Plan; economic consultant to Lex Service group, adviser to KPMG Peat Marwick; economist; occasional lecturer.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson-Smith (Tory): Non-executive director of Taylor Alden, Glengate Holdings, Monk Dunstone Associates SA; adviser on Parliamentary and public affairs to Philips Communications Systems.

Robert Maclennan (Liberal Democrat): Director of Atlantic Tele-Network Inc; consultant to Encyclopaedia Britannica; receives expenses as President of Liberal Democrats.

John Morris (Labour): Queen's Counsel, Recorder of Crown Court; sponsored by GMB union, does not receive any personal benefit.

Stan Orme (Labour): Sponsored by AUEW, receives no personal benefit.

Ann Taylor (Labour): Adviser to Association of Teachers and Lecturers; sponsored by GMB, no personal benefit.

Source: Latest published Register of Members Interests, 31 January 1995).