A humble apology was offered to the House of Commons yesterday by Graham Riddick, one of the Tory MPs at the centre of the 'cash-for-questions' storm.
Explaining his conduct as MPs agreed without a vote to refer the affair to the Committee of Privileges, Mr Riddick said he had been 'unwise' even to consider the request put to him by a Sunday Times reporter posing as a businessman.
'I accept that I made an error of judgement in agreeing to table a question and in agreeing initially to accept a fee,' Mr Riddick said. The MP for Colne Valley apologised to John MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport, for whom he had acted as a parliamentary aid until suspended when the story broke.
'Most of all, for undermining to whatever degree the standing of this House, I wish to apologise to you Madam Speaker and to every MP. I look forward to giving evidence to the Committee of Privileges in which in which I have complete confidence.'
Mr Riddick explained how he had been approached by a Jonathan Calvert who claimed to be a businessman but turned out later to be a Sunday Times journalist. Soon after agreeing to table a question and accept a fee, the MP said he had 'started to reflect' on what he had done.
'I came to my own conclusion that I could not justify accepting a fee and I decided that I would not accept the payment. This was before the Department of Social Security had told me that they did not know anything about the fictitious company (mentioned by the reporter) and before I knew that I was the victim of an elaborate Sunday Times scam.
'I returned to my Yorkshire home last Thursday. The cheque (for pounds 1,000) arrived on Friday morning. I sent the cheque back by return of post on that Friday.'
To laughter from Labour MPs, Mr Riddick said he was 'grateful' for Speaker Betty Boothroyd's decision to refer the behaviour of the Sunday Times to the Committee of Privileges. 'It does seem to me to be somewhat dubious to say the least that a journalist from a national newspaper should masquerade as a businessman and tell an MP a tissue of lies in order to manufacture a story.
'Beyond the challenge to my own integrity, which I deeply regret, the thing which has mortified me most is that my judgement may have undermined the general standing of Members of Parliament and even, perhaps, have damaged the reputation of this Parliament.'
The other member who accepted an offer of pounds 1,000 for tabling a question, David Tredinnick, Tory MP for Bosworth, was in the chamber for the debate but did not speak.
Introducing the motion, Nick Brown, Labour's Commons affairs spokesman, said there was widespread public disquiet about the relationship between MPs' public duties and their private business interests. 'Our rules must ensure that there is no improper overlap between the two.
'There is a widespread view among many who originally supported the Register of Members' Interests who now fear it acts more as a licence than a safeguard.'
He said that as the questions set up by the newspaper related purely to fictional matters, no public interest justification for tabling them could be claimed. 'On the face of it the relationship between the money and the tabled questions seems overwhelming.'
Pointing to parliamentary rules outlawing the bribery of MPs, Mr Brown said it was the exchange of money for asking questions that should be looked at while the use to which the money was put was beside the point.
It was not possible to consider the ethics of making the payment without looking at the ethics of offering the payment, he said, and suggested the Sunday Times Insight team should give evidence to the committee. 'The Sunday Times story makes perfectly clear that Members of Parliament had been entrapped . . .'.
Eschewing any commentary, Tony Newton, Leader of the Commons, hoped MPs would approve the motion. The Sunday Times report 'plainly raised serious and difficult issues', he said. The proper course was for the House to remit the complaints made to the Speaker to the Committee of Privileges for its consideration and advice. The Government would undertake appropriate consultation with a view to tabling a motion to nominate the committee 'as soon as possible'.
Sir John Gorst, Conservative MP for Hendon North, wanted the committee to deny the Sunday Times 'access to any privileged facilities in the Palace of Westminster, and that it will not be allowed to return until it has purged its contempt and given assurances that there will be no repetition of this disreputable conduct'. Named in the newspaper's story, Sir John outlined how he too had been offered pounds 1,000 to table a question. Mr Calvert had met him in the Central Lobby and asked him to establish the facts about 'an uncommon disease' to help him decide whether to invest in a drugs company.
'I explained to him that it was not proper for an MP to accept money for tabling questions.' Sir John said he put the request down to 'ignorance or naivety'.
Turning on the Sunday Times and the secret tape-recording of its conversations with MPs, Sir John said the power of the press needed to be diminished. Bribery and bugging were a 'gross abuse' of Parliament. 'Are we now to tolerate a secret, self-appointed journalistic police answerable only to the commercial imperatives of the transatlantic Rupert Murdochs?'
Joe Ashton, Labour MP for Bassetlaw, called for the privileges committee to sit in public and for its proceedings to be published. In 1974 he had appeared before such a committee, which had met in private, after alleging there were 'MPs for hire'. They had wanted him to 'grovel' but he had been 'defiant' as part of campaign to set up the Register of Members' Interests.
Clare Short, Labour MP for Birmingham Ladywood, said the Sunday Times had 'done democracy a favour in this investigation exposing such gross behaviour that needs to be scrutinised by the House of Commons'.
But Roger Gale, Conservative MP for Thanet North, told MPs: 'This afternoon the editor of The Sunday Times Insight team, who is in the gallery hearing what I am saying, has admitted on the record that his team had been researching this story and trying to stand it up since January.
'But they had investigated a number of Members, had been unable to pin this case on any particular member at any time, and had to resort to subterfuge in order to set up the story.'
Veteran parliamentarian Tony Benn proposed that every MP should list all sources of income and abide by the same procedures that barred ministers from accepting gifts, hospitality or favours from anyone which might place them under an obligation.
Mr Benn, Labour MP for Chesterfield, said confidence in the Commons would disappear if people thought the transactions which MPs presented as the conflict of ideas were 'really a cover for financial arrangements'.
He had tabled many questions for businesses, over inventions, exports or other problems, but would not dream of ever accepting or receiving money, 'either in a personal capacity or in setting myself up as a consultant.
'We are elected to be consultants to the British people,' Mr Benn stressed. He insisted that people making money from being in Parliament should be disqualified from being MPs. And the rules governing their conduct should be in statute, 'not in the old boy regulations of the House'.
Another Tory approached, Bill Walker, MP for Tayside North, said he was looking forward to the tape recordings of his own conversations being heard in full: 'I welcome that.' He read out the address of Mr Calvert as 35 Cambridge Cottages, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 3AY; and gave the journalist's telephone number as 081 940 2534.
Mr Walker declared: 'The right to ask questions, the right to have questions answered, is the cornerstone of our unwritten constitution. Anyone tampering with that, for whatever motives, should be dealt with severely by this Parliament.' He stressed: 'If The Sunday Times has erred - and I believe they have in a ghastly way - the committee should treat them properly as well.'
Liberal Democrat Simon Hughes, MP for Southwark and Bermsondsey, told MPs: 'It is a common view that we do financially very well. It is a common view that we have our snouts in the trough.
'If we are to enhance democracy, the committee should take this view as widely as possible - because otherwise we will be regarded as open to the same form of corruption as other democracies around the world.'
Jeff Rooker, Labour MP for Perry Barr, urged the committee to revise the report of the Royal Commission on Standards in Public Life, published in July 1976. Many of its recommendations affecting business and local government had been implemented but those concerning the Commons had never been addressed. He backed the report's recommendation that corruption, bribery and attempted bribery of an MP acting in his capacity as an MP should be brought within the criminal law. By the lack of attention given to vested interests over the years, MPs had failed in their duty to the public.
Rupert Allason, Conservative MP for Torbay, said he feared investigative journalism had changed with an emphasis now on targeting people in public life. Illicit recording of conversations in Westminster raised important issues which he hoped the committee would investigate. 'Investigative journalism is not a licence to invade privacy.'
George Galloway, Labour MP for Glasgow Hillhead, supposed Mr Riddick now wished he had not been 'so zealous in denouncing in an unsubstaniated way' the activities of Labour-controlled Monklands council. If a Monklands district councillor had accepted pounds 1,000 for anything 'he would now be behind bars'.
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