New sleaze law to target lobbyists and MPs Hamilton welcomes new law on bribes

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The Independent Online
Lobbyists who offer "cash for questions" to politicians will be caught by new laws to be announced today by Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, to clean up Parliament after the scandals of Tory MPs alleged to be guilty of sleaze.

MPs found guilty of taking bribes or illegal gifts would face seven years' imprisonment under the anti-sleaze Bill to be introduced by Mr Straw, overriding the failed system of self-regulation by the Palace of Westminster.

The anti-corruption legislation would cover those found guilty of offering bribes to MPs, in addition to the judiciary and local councillors, as part of the pledge by Tony Blair to raise standards in public life.

Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, said: "It would cut both ways. It's not just the MPs - it's those who offer the bribes that would be caught by this proposal.

"It is a common sense step forward to improving the state of the law. People are going to be slightly surprised to discover that although there are clear laws against bribery, members of Parliament are not among the categories if you attempt to bribe them."

The legislation will not act retrospectively and therefore the MPs criticised by Sir Gordon Downey, who is investigating cash-for-questions allegations, will not be caught in the net.

Mr Cook said on BBC television's Breakfast with Frost there was an unsatisfactory position in which there was no sanction by Parliament against Neil Hamilton, the former Tory MP for Tatton, because he had lost his seat.

Mr Hamilton strongly denies the allegations and has complained that he has been prevented from clearing his name. However, Mr Cook said that in future, general elections would not stop former MPs facing charges. "If a criminal offence had taken place then the charge would be pursued within the usual time bar but not dropped because there had been an election."

The Nolan Committee, set up to investigate standards in public life, welcomed the government initiative. The committee has backed Mr Straw's plan and is to recommend a new offence of misconduct in public life when it publishes a report in a few weeks.

Because of pressure on parliamentary time, the legislation will not be introduced until late next year. The Bill will close a legal loophole dating back to the 1689 Bill of Rights which gives MPs immunity from prosecution.

The prospect of legislation was welcomed last night by Mr Hamilton. "So far as MPs might be put in a position where they can be accused of offences of this kind, I think it is vitally important that they get the right to a fair trial which everybody else has got," he told ITN.

Martin Bell, the independent candidate who unseated Mr Hamilton as MP for Tatton in the general election, also backed the move. He said it was "amazing" that MPs were beyond the reach of the criminal law for bribery offences committed in the course of their official duties.