'Cash for questions' rules to be relaxed for MPs

Rules preventing MPs from promoting their financial interests in Parliament are to be relaxed because members have complained that they are too strict. The shake-up is expected to reverse changes made in the wake of the "Cash for Questions" scandal.

But while some MPs say the rules prevent them from giving the benefit of their expertise, others believe thatchanges could allow sleaze to return to the House of Commons.

The easing of the code of conduct for MPs comes as peers face much stricter rules on their behaviour and the registration of their interests.

The Standard and Privileges Committee chairman, Robert Sheldon, told The Independent his committee planned to draw up a new code of conduct, which would then have to be approved by the whole House of Commons. "There have been a number of complaints about this which we accept," he said.

"What we are really looking for is people trying to make money out of paying MPs and other people not knowing about it so there is a hidden agenda. But it has become more and more complicated."

Lord Neill of Bladen, whose independent Committee on Standards in Public Life is investigating peers' interests, sparked Mr Sheldon's inquiry into the rules for MPs.

In a report published in January, Lord Neill's committee suggested that the "advocacy rule" - which bans MPs from taking money to represent outside interests - was too strict. It said MPs should be able to initiate debates on subjects in which they had a financial interest as long as they declared their links and did not engage directly in "paid advocacy".

He heard from MPs who complained that if they went abroad at the expense of a foreign government they could not then speak in the House about that country for 12 months. The rules were designed to stop them from taking money to represent companies' interests but went much further, the MPs said.

The "advocacy rule" was introduced in 1995 after a report by Lord Neill's predecessor, Lord Nolan. The Nolan inquiry followed allegations that a number of MPs, including Neil Hamilton, then MP for Tatton, had taken cash from the lobbyist Ian Greer and from the Harrods owner Mohamed Al Fayed to ask questions in Parliament about issues that concerned Mr Fayed.

But despite support from some MPs for a relaxation of the rules, others believe it would be a retrograde step.

Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, said the development could arouse suspicions that MPs were given free trips and gifts to encourage them to support the donor's point of view. "I come from a council background where if you have a financial interest you not only declare it but you leave the room. Why should MPs have different rules from local councillors?" he asked.

Other MPs believe there should be cautious change.David Wilshire, a Conservative member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said he had been prevented from speaking on Taiwan after a trip there although he was one of the few MPs with in-depth knowledge.

Guidance on the advocacy rule says MPs must not initiate a debate, question or motion on a subject in which they have a financial interest.

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