Cash-for-questions MPs suspended by Commons

Two members barred from the chamber without pay as House hands down severe punishment for conduct that `falls below standards expected'

The House of Commons last night took the rare and grave step of suspending without pay the two Tory MPs censured in the "cash for questions" row which engulfed Parliament last summer.

David Tredinnick, MP for Bosworth, was suspended for 20 sitting days and Graham Riddick, MP for Colne Valley, for 10 days, for being prepared to take payments for parliamentary questions from a Sunday Times reporter posing as a businessman.

But while the Commons last night approved without a division a Privileges Committee finding that the two men had fallen "below the standards which the Commons is entitled to expect from its members", 156 Tory MPs - including 20 ministers - last night wrote to Mr Riddick's constituency party expressing confidence in the MP's "honesty and propriety".

While both men made fulsome apologies at the outset of yesterday's two-hour debate, Mr Riddick was given a markedly more lenient penalty because of his swift decision that he had been wrong to agree the payment, and his returning of a cheque for £1,000.

The suspensions are operative from today and mean that with weekend and non-sitting days the two MPs will lose pay for a total of 32 and 14 days - a loss of £2,800 in Mr Tredinnick's case and £1,300 for Mr Riddick. The two men are barred from the chamber though they are allowed to visit their Westminster offices.

Yesterday's Commons decision is likely to prove to be the last gasp for the present 400-year-old system of total Commons self-regulation, given the determination of the Nolan committee on standards in public life to recommend a new outside commission to investigate allegations of misconduct against MPs. Like the National Audit Office, this would still be accountable to the ultimate authority of Parliament.

The sea change towards Commons acceptance that MPs cannot regulate their own affairs without outside help was underlined when John Biffen, a former Leader of the Commons, told MPs that the Commons would end up subject to a "framework of law". He warned that both the Nolan report and that of Lord Justice Scott's arms-to-Iraq inquiry would "go to the very heart of what are proper relationships and conduct in this House of Commons".

Peter Shore, a senior Labour member of the Nolan committee, neverthless said last night that the Commons decision had been "very serious" and added: "It's very difficult to recall anyone who has been censured in this kind of way surviving politically."

But last night's highly supportive Tory round-robin sent to Mr Riddick's constituency chairman is designed precisely to prevent it inflicting lasting and possibly terminal damage to the MP's career. It said: "We express our confidence in Graham's integrity and believe that whilst he made a momentary error he corrected it as soon as possible and in such a way as to confirm his reputation for honesty and propriety."

Although Mr Tredinnick received the stiffer penalty, some MPs claimed that he too would have had received overt support if he had asked for it.

In a classic joint Commons operation by Labour and Tory whips, potentially divisive votes were averted on a series of amendments including ones condemning the Sunday Times. Kevin Barron, Labour MP for Rother Valley, agreed to withdraw an amendment seeking the expulsion of the two MPs, while a counter- amendment from Julian Brazier, Tory MP for Canterbury, seeking to limit their penalty to a mere reprimand, was also withdrawn.

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