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'Consultancy' bonuses cream on cake for MPs

FORGET all the talk about late hours, pressure of public life, insecurity of tenure: being an MP, especially a Conservative one, is nice work if you can get it.

On top of your Parliamentary salary of pounds 31,687 you receive: an allowance of pounds 40,380 for the running of your office (you can get your wife or mistress to work as your secretary); a supplement of pounds 11,000 if you have a constituency outside inner London; and travel expenses. On top of that you will receive the other perks of Westminster life, such as free central London parking and subsidised bars and restaurants.

But the cream on an already impressive cake comes if you decide your pounds 82,000 from the taxpayer is not enough and feel the need to tap big business.

While the Sunday Times highlighted the questionable morality of MPs being paid to ask questions it was also being pointed out at Westminster yesterday that they had done nothing wrong.

If the paper had been more patient, and found MPs who cashed the cheques and then, four weeks later, failed to register the relationship in the register of members' interests, it would have had a much stronger story.

Even then, such are the gaping holes in a system that was never meant to contend with the professional lobbyist, all they would have needed to say was 'consultant' to the company involved.

In their cases, knowing what they did for their money would have been easy: they had been 'stung' into asking a question. In most cases, though, going beyond the register of members' interests is impossible.

MPs do not have to say how much extra money they receive - the average rate for a consultancy is pounds 10,000 a year - or what services they provide. They do not have to declare an interest when asking oral questions, asking written questions, signing Commons motions and making points in debates. The degree of penetration of Westminster by the lobbying firms is massive - not just, it must be said, on behalf of corporate clients but also for pressure groups and trade organisations.

While that access to the government machine has reached epidemic proportions it has also been accompanied by secrecy and sensitivity: MPs do not like constituents knowing what they are up to.

Alan Williams, MP for Swansea West, has received more that 50 signatures to an early day motion demanding that Central Television show MPs a suppressed Roger Cook programme on Ian Greer Associates, a leading exponent of the lobbyists' art.