PM in storm over curbs on sleaze

Major supports block on fees declaration
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John Major last night made it clear he would vote in favour of new rules for MPs which stop short of requiring earnings disclosure, despite the growing threat of an embarrassing defeat at the hands of a rebel Tory minority seeking a tougher regime.

The row over how the Commons should act to regulate itself and outlaw "sleaze" last night turned into a full-scale inter-party confrontation which will reach a climax on Monday night in what now promises to a knife- edge vote.

It came after a special Commons select committee split on party lines over a majority Tory decision that there should be a total ban on "paid advocacy" by MPs, but that they should not have to follow a key recommendation of Lord Nolan's committee on public life by disclosing their earnings.

Downing Street went out of its way last night to make the Prime Minister's intentions clear after at least seven MPs indicated they were seriously considering voting with Labour in favour of full disclosure of MPs' income from activities connected with their membership of Parliament.

The committee makes no changes in the rights of MPs to give paid advice to lobbying firms. But ministers argue that in one important respect the report by the select committee goes considerably further than Nolan's report into standards in public life by imposing a ban on paid advocacy. The committee proposes that MPs should register all deputations to ministers and officials which they lead or arrange in connection with their commercial interests.

Nevertheless, concern over a potential weakness - even in the advocacy ban - was reliably reported last night to extend into the ranks of the Nolan committee. Critics of the select committee report were quick to point out that the ban would not inhibit MPs from pursuing the interests of firms in which they had an interest in private or informal contacts with ministers.

The list of Tory MPs holding out yesterday for full earnings disclosure - which may prove far from exhaustive - includes John Biffen, Stephen Day, Hugh Dykes, Richard Shepherd, Sir Teddy Taylor, David Martin and David Wilshire who said last night: "We have the opportunity to say we are not in this place purely for what we get out of it."

The present recommendations of the select committee would take effect from April 1996, but Sir Teddy has said he would support disclosure provided that it came into force after the next general election.

Labour, convinced that it will the win presentational battle over MPs' commercial interests whatever the outcome of Monday's vote, has nevertheless recalled its deputy leader John Prescott from an official visit to Australia as part of a high-profile attempt to secure a government defeat.

Tony Blair accused Mr Major of "caving in" to pressure from Tory backbenchers by rejecting Nolan's key proposal. He said: "This is an absolute disgrace. This was a big test for the Prime Minister and he has failed it. This shameful episode exposes the Tory Party for what it is - not a political party running the country in the national interest, but a vested interest, a faction looking after itself."

Tony Newton, Leader of the Commons and chairman of the select committee, was adamant that its proposals would bring about a much-needed strengthening of the sometimes vague rules governing MPs' behaviour.

Mr Newton, who briefed Lord Nolan on the select committee report yesterday, added: "These are undoubtedly the most significant changes in the rules relating to the House of Commons since the introduction of the Register of Members' Interests in 1974," he said. "They go substantially further than Nolan to address public concern relating to procedures, and will do much to overcome difficulties in the perception of politicians that have arisen."

Mr Major was said by aides "strongly" to support the distinction drawn by the select committee between payments for acting on behalf of outside bodies and payments for offering advice. But it was also stressed that he had always been against Parliament being filled with purely professional politicians and agreed with the Nolan committee's view that the Commons' expertise was enriched by those without outside business or other interests.

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