'Refusenik' MPs spark new row on earnings

Click to follow
The Independent Online
John Major faces a new row over the financial interests of Conservative MPs with the publication next week of the new-style Register of Members' Interests.

It emerged yesterday that his friend and former Cabinet minister David Mellor leads a group of 30 to 40 Tories who have refused to declare their outside earnings on the grounds that this income has nothing to do with their role as MPs.

The rules on disclosure of MPs' earnings were tightened last November when 23 Tory MPs rebelled to vote against the Prime Minister. Paid advocacy of any kind is now banned, and earnings from other sources related to "parliamentary services" have to be declared in pounds 5,000 bands.

The first register under the new rules will be published on 7 May, and is certain to spark new opposition claims that the Tory party is mired in "sleaze".

The definition of "parliamentary services" is likely to be controversial, as it was designed primarily to exempt earnings from previous occupations, such as law, medicine or farming.

Mr Mellor and Sir Edward Heath are the leading members of the group of Tory "refuseniks" who have avoided disclosing most of their earnings, according to the Sunday Times. Sir Edward is reported to argue that much of his earnings relates to his former position as prime minister rather than to his current role as a backbench MP. He is said to have discussed the matter with Sir Gordon Downey, the commissioner for standards, who polices the new rules. Sir Edward is paid through a company, Dumpton Gap, which reported a profit of pounds 772,000 in 1993.

Mr Mellor's entry in the new register is believed to list several consultancies, but does not reveal the income derived from them, which has been estimated as between pounds 100,000 and pounds 350,000 a year.

Mr Mellor resigned as Secretary of State for National Heritage in 1994, after it was revealed that he had failed to declare a family holiday to Spain paid for by Mona Bauwens, the daughter of a PLO official.

A member of the standards committee, to which Sir Gordon will have to report on Mr Mellor's case, said yesterday that the difficult issue was whether or not MPs earned money by virtue of being MPs, and that at least some of Mr Mellor's earnings, for example from journalism, would appear to fall into a "grey area".

Sir Gordon would not comment on individual cases, but said: "I have made it clear that it is a matter for decision by MPs what they include in the register. But if MPs decide they are not providing parliamentary services they have to take the consequences if ever there is a complaint that they have been doing so."

The new rules also pose problems for the Labour Party in that, until the next election, most Labour MPs continue to be sponsored by trade unions.