Foreign forays for MPs cost 450,000 pounds

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SELECT committee membership is one of the few ways rank-and- file MPs can enjoy something approaching power - and, according to the latest information, expenses-paid foreign travel.

Of the pounds 451,346 spent on overseas trips during the 1990-91 session, visits to Africa, the Middle East, Washington and Europe by foreign affairs committee members accounted for pounds 153,901, and those of defence committee members for pounds 54,181. Sessional Returns show that members of all 15 select committees, bar social security, travelled abroad.

The activities of the Welsh affairs committee, for example, took four of its 11 members, a member of staff and an adviser to Oregon and California to study elective surgery, at a cost of pounds 21,130.

The third-highest spender was environment, with a pounds 33,335 trip for eight members and two staff to Brazil to inquire into destruction of rainforests accounting for the lion's share of its pounds 38,655 total. Seven trade and industry members and two staff spent pounds 31,308 examining takeovers and mergers in the United States and Canada.

Six of the 11-member (now defunct) energy committee and two staff spent six days in Japan inquiring into energy efficiency ( pounds 23,359), while seven of the 15- strong public accounts committee and one staff member studied defence spending in Washington ( pounds 17,784).

The home affairs committee ventured abroad only on sporting matters - Utrecht, Milan and Rome for football hooliganism, and Dublin and Paris to study, respectively, operation of the horse race betting levy and the tote.

Last night, as the House voted to set up the current session's committees, MPs were eagerly seeking seats on the committee to shadow David Mellor's Department of National Heritage. Extensive travel to inquire into state lotteries, artistic and sports events can be expected.

Despite the attractions, attendance during the 1990-91 session was no better than fair.

Defence scored highest, with an overall attendance rate of 82 per cent, followed by trade and industry at 76 per cent, foreign affairs and employment (73), health (72) and social security (70). Rates for the remainder were in the sixties, with Welsh affairs bottom of the league at 51.6 per cent.

Environment appeared to be the least popular committee, with a turnover rate of 36 per cent.

------------------------------------------------------------------------ Committees' travels ------------------------------------------------------------------------ Expenditure on overseas visits Session November 1990 - July 1991 Committee (pounds) Foreign Affairs 153,901 Defence 54,181 Environment 38,655 Trade & Industry 38,105 Energy 32,359 Welsh Affairs 21,130 Employment 20,894 Education, Science & Arts 20,586 Health 19,696 Public Accounts 17,784 Home Affairs 13,751 Transport 9,512 Treasury & Civil Service 5,822 Agriculture 4,970 Social Security nil TOTAL pounds 451,346 ------------------------------------------------------------------------