Flowers fear over MPs' interests rules

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Tory MPs today condemned "unworkable" changes to rules relating to their outside interests, which they claimed would see them having to declare bunches of flowers.

Former ministers Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and the Weald) and Sir George Young (Hampshire NW) attacked abolition of the de minimis rules in the Register of Members Interests.

The changes, which come into force next week, would mean the entries of some female MPs would "have more petals than the average botanical gardens", claimed Miss Widdecombe.

And Sir George complained that the Parliamentary Standards Bill would mean he would be committing a criminal offence if he failed to declare a bouquet given to his wife following one of his after dinner speeches.

"If I ask her to give them back I will be in even deeper trouble," he said.

The Parliamentary Standards Bill, to be rushed through the House over three days next week, would mean MPs who fiddle expenses could face up to a year in prison.

It creates new criminal offences as well as establishing an independent body to oversee a reformed system of MPs' pay and perks.

During exchanges on future business, Commons Leader Harriet Harman told MPs there was "no intention to have an unworkable system" and she would work "closely" with the Registrar of financial interests relating to the de minimis rules.

Miss Widdecombe said: "I have been told now in all solemnity by the registrar today that in future every bunch of flowers will have to be registered.

"I suggest that will mean that not only will my entry in the register but that of several female Members have more petals than the average botanical gardens."

Ms Harman replied: "If it is a donation then there is a de minimis rule and I suspect if people give you flowers it is as a donation rather than payment for services.

"If it is payment for services in cash or in kind then indeed it does need to be declared.

"It is quite easy for Members to work out - is this a gift that has been given after something has been done or is this payment for services? If it is payment for services then there is no de minimis rule nor should there be."

Sir George added: "The new rules that come into effect next Thursday are virtually unworkable.

"If I make an after dinner speech and my wife is presented with a bouquet of flowers those become registerable and under the Parliamentary Standards Bill failure to register becomes a criminal offence.

But Ms Harman told him: "I think the guidance will be workable.

"We will make sure we work closely with the Registrar of financial interests to make sure Members are understanding them clearly. There is no intention to have an unworkable system."