Straw tells MPs to grasp the nettle over corruption

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Government hopes to resolve a long-standing question about corrupt MPs will be put to Parliament by the Home Secretary today. Anthony Bevins, Political Editor, reports on a parliamentary "nightmare".

More than 20 years after a Royal Commission urged Parliament to consider making corruption, bribery and attempted bribery of an MP a criminal offence, Jack Straw will make another attempt to get a special committee of MPs and peers to grasp the nettle this morning.

But there are strong indications that some senior MPs and peers are continuing a rearguard action to protect parliamentary privilege - and keep corrupt MPs out of the dock.

No action was taken on the 1976 proposal by the Salmon Commission on Standards of Conduct in Public Life, but the question was again raised by Lord Nolan's 1995 report on Standards in Public Life, when he recommended that "the Government should now take steps to clarify the law relating to the bribery of, or receipt of a bribe by, a Member of Parliament".

That was followed up by Michael Howard, then Tory home secretary, who issued a discussion paper in December 1996, entitled "Clarification of the law relating to the Bribery of Members of Parliament". That document was sent to the Commons Committee on Standards and Privileges, but it appears that it took no action.

Shortly after the May election, however, Mr Straw issued his own paper, "The Prevention of Corruption", in which he asked for parliamentary views. The Home Office said it planned to determine whether and how to amend the law on corruption early in 1998.

But a joint Lords and Commons committee on parliamentary privilege only started taking evidence last month - and it appears that its inquiry is largely focused on the much broader question of parliamentary privilege, under which corrupt MPs can be protected from criminal proceedings.

An official advertisement in yesterday's Independent said: "Parliament wants your views. A joint committee of both Houses of Parliament chaired by a Law Lord [Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead] is looking at what special rights members of Parliament need to carry out their duties, e.g. freedom of speech, freedom to regulate their own affairs".

There is no mention of making parliamentary corruption a criminal offence.

The public is asked to submit views by 16 March. On that basis, it is possible that the inquiry will not be completed until the end of the year - unless Mr Straw can persuade the committee to examine corruption before it turns to the modernisation of parliamentary privilege.

Meanwhile, the Commons Committee on Standards and Privileges has opened an inquiry of its own, on setting up a fully-fledged appeal procedure for MPs who, like Neil Hamilton, dispute the findings of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

Of 24 questions now being posed by the committee, only one addresses the question put more than 20 years ago by Lord Salmon; in 1995 by Lord Nolan; in 1996 by Mr Howard; and again, last year, by Mr Straw: "Would the transfer to the criminal courts of corruption allegations lessen the need for an appeal system designed for highly complex cases?"

One senior parliamentary source said yesterday that the whole situation was a mess, and sorting it out was a "nightmare", but it was possible that Mr Straw's evidence this morning might yet persuade the joint committee to make a recommendation.