Bribery of MPs `should be a criminal act'

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Bribing an MP should be made a criminal offence, the Nolan committee on standards in public life was told yesterday.

Robert Maclennan, MP, the Liberal Democrat party president, said many of the recent "sleaze" scandals involved allegations of money or gifts being used to induce MPs to take a particular course of action or to lobby a public official.

Under present law, he said, it was unclear whether MPs were covered by the criminal sanctions relating to bribery and corruption of public officials. "Parliament should consider bringing corruption, bribery and attempted bribery of an MP acting in his or her parliamentary capacity within the ambit of the criminal law."

MPs would have to be more forthcoming about their relationships with lobbying organisations. The Liberal Democrats called for them to be forced to list the specific services they provide and the actual matters where the assistance was given. Remuneration would have to be declared, as would the exact purpose of sponsored overseas trips.

The Liberal Democrats also proposed tough new rules for ministers, requiring them to declare all offers of hospitality and gifts not related to official business and barring them from working for companies with which they had dealings while in office for two years.

The party wants to see the establishment of a permanent, independent Public Ethics Commission, which would monitor new codes of conduct for MPs, peers, senior civil servants, quangos and lobbying firms.

The Liberal Democrats' submission clashed with that of Lord Howe, a former Foreign Secretary, who pleaded with the committee not to put too much faith in legalistic provision. Endorsement of three propositions, he said, would do much to restore public confidence:

Seeking personal reward as a consequence of holding public office must be seen to be inadmissible;

Making MPs and ministers ask themselves, would they feel happy to see all the relevant facts of any transaction or relationship fully reported on the front page of their favourite newspaper?

Finally; if in doubt, cut it out.

Lord Howe asked the committee to take a "grown-up attitude" to MPs holding outside interests and ministers joining companies after leaving office.

The Independent is sponsoring "Public Standards and Business Values", a conference organised by Charter 88 on the implications of the Nolan inquiry, on 14 March in London. Booking and details from Sarah Atkin, 0171 222 1280, or 0171 222 1278 (fax).