Major at bay as Commons senses defeat over Nolan

Inside Parliament
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John Major was forced on to the defensive at Question Time yesterday as Labour berated him for going back on his word and refusing to back full disclosure of MPs' earnings from consultancy work.

Though the Prime Minister argued that a ban on paid advocacy went beyond Lord Nolan's recommendations, it made little impact on a House that senses he is heading for defeat on the issue next Monday.

After a succession of Question Times in which Mr Major has dominated the exchanges, the determination of his backbenchers to keep secret their earnings from consultancies has handed the initiative to Labour.

Opening the exchanges, Angela Eagle, MP for Wallasey, asked why, if disclosure of earnings was so unimportant, up to 100 Tory MPs were threatening to resign if they were forced to share that information with their constituencies.

Advising Ms Eagle not to believe all the "nonsense" she read in the newspapers, Mr Major emphasised that he had set up the Committee on Standards in Public Life because he believed that there was a problem that needed to be looked at dispassionately.

The [Tory-controlled] select committee that considered Lord Nolan's report had actually gone further by calling for a ban on MPs acting as paid advocates, he said.

But Tony Blair asked why having set up the Nolan committee and having agreed to implement its report, Mr Major and other ministers were going to vote against its key recommendation - "the simple, honest requirement that MPs who have outside financial interests connected with their being MPs should disclose the amount of money they earn from them. Just what do he and his party have to hide?"

Mr Major said he had made clear throughout that he supported the "broad thrust" of Lord Nolan's recommendations. The most important thing was the ban on paid advocacy, he insisted. "But if we do that, the income that MPs earn from other activities, explicitly approved by Parliament, seems to me to be a matter between them and the Inland Revenue."

Roared on by his backbenchers, the Labour leader said: "This is nothing to do with some detailed consideration of their interests. It's to do with the squalid, monied interests of the Conservative Party.

"That was their key recommendation and if now, in weakness, Mr Major goes back on his word to implement the report he commissioned, it will leave a stain on his prime ministership and his government that will not be removed until this rotten administration is swept from office."

Hitting back at what he called a "short-term, party political rant", Mr Major said it was a "shame" the Labour leader could not understand that disclosure was a very serious matter for Parliament with very long- term implications.

"I do not favour a wholly professional House staffed entirely by honourable members who are professional politicians and nothing else. That is the route that Mr Blair and his party would wish to lead us down."

Rising to the despatch box for a third time, Mr Blair pointed out that Nolan was not stopping people having outside interests. "It simply says we should be open and honest about them.

"Mr Major is a man saying today what he knows to be wrong. And the question for him is: when is he going to have the courage to stand up to his party and tell them what is right?"

Tom King, the former defence secretary and a member of Nolan committee, came to Mr Major's aid, lauding the advocacy ban as going to the heart of the issue of public concern. But the backbenchers who want to keep their earnings secret remained silent. Other Tory questioners steered well clear, with congratulatory dollies on the lottery and GP fundholders.

Labour allowed no let up. "No one would accuse the Prime Minister of being a professional politician," taunted Tony Banks, while Gerry Sutcliffe asked wasn't it true "that if MPs act as consultants the public have a right to know whether they earn pounds 50 or pounds 50,000?"