Such a thing as a free lunch for junket MPs

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The Independent Online
Four MPs on an all-expenses-paid trip to Malta yesterday ended their jaunt the way they began it - with a slap-up meal paid for by someone else.

They flew home to controversy last night after the Independent revealed that their visit to the holiday resort of Sliema - paid for by Air Malta - involved little more than wining, dining and sightseeing.

Their itinerary was amended to include a trade fair on Sunday, but only after two - Lady Olga Maitland, Tory MP for Sutton and Cheam, and Barry Sheerman, Labour MP for Huddersfield - were pictured sunbathing at the five-star Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza minutes after they arrived at the hotel.

Yesterday, they were taken with Gerald Kaufman, Labour MP and former shadow foreign secretary, and Simon Coombs, Tory MP for Swindon, to Hun- ter's Tower, one of the island's best fish restaurants.They also hoped to visit Neolithic temples.

On Friday, they were flown out of Heathrow in pounds 538 Club Class seats by the airline.

They were taken to the pounds 160-a-night Crown Plaza with the Conservative Baroness Gloria Hooper, who brought her sister, Angela. Lady Maitland brought her husband, Robin Hay.

On Saturday, they flew by helicopter to the island of Gozo to have lunch with its minister, Anton Tabone, who is believed to be a cousin of Joseph Tabone, chairman of Air Malta.

They met Professor Joseph Bonnici, Minister for Economic Services, and visited a trade fair in Naxxar, at which they had not originally been expected.

All the MPs have defended the trip, arguing that it was designed to build good relations between Malta and Britain.

On Sunday, Lady Olga tried to invoke memories of Lady Thatcher's trade visits abroad, during which she said she would be "batting for Britain".

According to the latest House of Commons Register of Members' Interests, Lady Maitland goes off to bat quite often.

In 1995, she went on batting missions to Turkey, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Dublin,France, Bahrain. She visited Kuwait twice. Mr Kaufman went to India, Pakistan, Kashmir, Jersalem and Cyprus.

Mr Coombs went to Switzerland, America and Spain, while Mr Sheerman went with his wife, Pamela, to Malta.

At a lavish reception at the Upper Barrakka Gardens on Saturday night, hosted by Air Malta, Joseph Tabone said that neither the airline nor the Maltese government - which is anxious to be accepted into the EU - expected anything in return from the MPs for their latest trip. Mr Kaufman assured him he wouldn't get anything.