Standards: Corrupt MPs `should be stripped of immunity'

CORRUPT MPs should be stripped of their immunity from facing criminal charges in the courts, a Westminster watchdog said yesterday.

Sir Gordon Downey, Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, increased pressure on the Government to change the law concerning MPs who get involved in bribery or corruption. "If, as seems likely, bribery or corruption were made a criminal offence applying to members, I believe such cases should be tried in the courts," he said.

MPs cannot be charged with criminal offences of bribery or corruption because in the past the House of Commons has taken the view that it should discipline members itself. It is also difficult to try MPs because their deeds and words in the Commons are privileged and cannot be used in a case against them. Now it seems the Government may have to reform the system.

A committee headed by Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead is due to report on the issue in the new year. A further, broader offence of "misuse of public office" has also been mooted.

In a report marking his retirement after three years in the job, Sir Gordon said the current system could fall foul of new human rights legislation because it does not allow MPs representation or a right of appeal. A committee of MPs can censure a member, require an apology, impose a suspension or even expel him in severe cases without redress MPs who have been disciplined could take the Government to the European Court of Human Rights under the new Human Rights Act.

Sir Gordon added that an independent, non-political panel should be set up to deal with appeals from the internal parliamentary discipline procedures.

Last year Ann Widdecombe, now Conservative health spokesman, resigned from the Standards and Privileges Committee because she felt the former Tatton MP Neil Hamilton had been unfairly treated.

Sir Gordon found that Mr Hamilton had taken cash from Mohamed Al Fayed in return for lobbying services - a charge which Mr Hamilton strongly denied. He was not able to appeal against the decision. Yesterday Miss Widdecombe welcomed Sir Gordon's call for change.

"I think it is iniquitous that there is no right of appeal to an independent body at the moment, and Neil Hamilton was caught in that trap. I know of no other court in the land where you don't have an appeal," she said. She also welcomed the move to introduce a new criminal offence.

However, Sir Gordon's report said the case against Mr Hamilton had been proved.

"The findings were supported by evidence," he wrote. "Without additional evidence there were no grounds for a further appeal."