Inside Parliament: Question time for inquiry team: Labour MP alleges 'vested interests' - Tories welcome committee's experience - Move to oust 'busy' Sir Marcus defeated

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Indy Politics
THE Government was accused last night of stuffing the House of Commons committee which will investigate the 'cash for questions' affair with MPs who have a vested interest in the status quo.

The nine Conservative MPs on the Committee of Privileges set up after a brief debate have between them nine consultancies and 20 paid directorships.

Urging the Government to think again about the composition of the committee, Chris Mullin, Labour MP for Sunderland South, said it was too in hock to vested interests. 'It is extremely cynical of the Government to stuff this committee with members who so obviously have an interest in making sure that nothing changes.'

The Government had badly misread public opinion on the issue. 'Members are sent here to serve their constituents and not to enrich themselves.'

Underlining his point, Mr Mullin proposed the removal from the the committee of Sir Marcus Fox, chairman of the Tory backbench 1922 Committee, from its membership. Listing Sir Marcus's seven paid directorships and three consultancies, he added: 'He's obviously an extremely busy man. There is even a question of whether he has time to fit in service on this committee between his other engagements.'

The nine Tories, together with seven Labour MPs and one Liberal Democrat, will examine the conduct of the Tory MPs Graham Riddick and David Tredinnick in initially agreeing to put down Commons questions in return for pounds 1,000. They will also consider the behaviour of the Sunday Times and the wider issue of paid consultancies.

Countering the 'puritan' argument that MPs should manage on their pounds 31,000 salaries, Tristan Garel-Jones, the former Tory Foreign Office minister, said the House and the committee should reflect 'not only the hopes of constituents but also their whims and their foibles'.

Labour MPs were seeking 'a sort of reverse stitch-up' which would do irreparable damage to the House, said Mr Garel-Jones, who was careful to declare his own interests as an adviser to a Swiss bank and two companies. They would turn it 'into a refuge for the unemployable, the third rate, one or two millionaires and a few perfectly admirable but rather evangelical campaigners'.

But Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport West, said MPs decided their own levels of pay and allowances. 'We should put them at a level that is adequate and we would not need to prostitute our work here and our attendance here to bodies outside.'

Dale Campbell-Savours, Labour MP for Workington, said the Commons was 'making an ass of itself'. He read out a long list of Conservative MPs, including four ex-ministers, without outside commercial interests and asked why some of them had not been chosen for the committee.

The motion appointing the committee was carried by 151 votes to 23. Mr Mullin's amendment to remove Sir Marcus was defeated by 158 to 43. Tony Newton, Leader of the Commons, commended it as a 'committee whose experience and judgement will command the respect of the House and in which it can have confidence in the discharge of the responsibility the House has laid upon it'.

Rupert Allason, Conservative MP for Torbay, said there should be at least one journalist on the committee to inquire into the Sunday Times's conduct. 'It is my belief that, far from there being a complaint six months ago which was the subject of research, the reality is that because Roger Cook's programme couldn't be shown . . . there was an investigation conducted by the Sunday Times in a very short space of time.'

Bill Walker, Conservative MP for Tayside North, who was approached by the newspaper, said it was 'nonsense' to suggest MPs should have no outside interests. 'We bring to this House all of our experience, all of which is valuable, and the committee should reflect that experience.'

Dennis Skinner, Labour MP for Bolsover, said the investigation should be in the form of a public inquiry: 'We can't satisfactorily deal with this matter by setting up a committee of MPs to judge other MPs.' He believed many MPs were 'probably putting down questions by the barrow-load and no one knows how much they are getting paid.'

Peers awarded themselves a backdated, inflation-linked increase in their allowances. A backbencher can now claim pounds 31.50 a day for attending the Upper House, or pounds 70 if staying overnight. Lord Dean of Beswick (Labour), who said he once narrowly escaped being mugged on the Underground after a late-night sitting, complained the 50p increase in day subsistence was not enough for peers to afford taxis home. Lord Avebury, a Liberal Democrat, said the mileage allowance of up to 44p a mile - on a par with that for MPs - to be 'extremely greedy'. Only a Rolls-Royce cost 44p a mile to run - and if you could afford one then you did not need the allowance.