MPs `may need external policing'

THE NOLAN COMMITTEE: MacGregor concerned that parliamentarians can act as judge and jury over members being judge and jury
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Indy Politics
John MacGregor, the former Cabinet minister and ex-Leader of the House, yesterday brought the ending of MPs' traditional ability to police themselves a step nearer, when he told the Nolan inquiry into standards of public life that there was a case for "outside involvement" on the Select Committee of Members' Interests.

In a move that will outrage those MPs who jealously guard parliamentary sovereignty, he told the Nolan committee that the recent "sleaze" revelations had stretched the historical system. "I am concerned about the extent to which [the Members' Interests committee] is asked to be judge and jury. I don't think the procedures of the committee are appropriate." What he had in mind was something analogous to a court of law, like the disciplinary proceedings of the General Medical Council or Law Society. "Forexample, a member is not entitled to question witnesses," he said.

He did not regard the introduction of an independent outsider as a breach of self-regulation. It was necessary because party politics had come to dominate the proceedings.

Mr MacGregor's tacit admission of the extent to which standards had fallen was graphically highlighted by another witness, Michael Jones, political editor of the Sunday Times. Asked if his paper ever paid MPs for information from private meetings, he said it did not but claimed such a practice did occur. He did not name the MPs or newspapers who engaged in the trade.

John Witherow, the editor of the Sunday Times, defended his paper's role in exposing MPs accepting cash to ask parliamentary questions.

Claiming it had "uncovered a grey area about what MPs thought was acceptable and what wasn't", he said that MPs, not the media, were to blame for a public impression that they were intent on advancing their own financial interests.

Part of that negative publicity arose from revelations about the role of professional lobbyists in the Government's decision to locate the high-speed Channel tunnel rail station at Ebbsfleet in Kent. Mr MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport at the time, said that lobbyists' documents leaked to the press, detailing the extent of their campaign, were grossly exaggerated. He had held a private meeting with two local MPs and representatives from the decision makers firm lobbying for Ebbsfleet. Becauseof diary comitments, he had been unable to see the rival team pushing for Stratford in east London.

But, he stressed, other colleagues had held meetings with Stratford and lobbying played no part in influencing him.

Mr MacGregor was also closely questioned on ministers taking jobs in private companies after they leave the Government. Controversially, he had joined Hill Samuel, the merchant bank that has advised the Department of Transport, after he left the Cabinet.In his defence, he pointed out that he had been a director of Hill Samuel until becoming a minister. MPs and ministers had to be allowed to return to their former jobs.

It would be a grave mistake, he said, if the inquiry barred them from holding any outside interests, for four reasons: nParliament needed to remain in touch with the business and financial world.

nGovernment would also suffer.

nMany MPs and ministers faced "substantial cuts in salary" when they were elected or appointed. "It is a highly precarious career - with a limited shelf life," which could only be mitigated by maintaining outside interests.

nHigh-calibre people are being discouraged from entering Parliament. He said he did not want the Parliament in 15 years' time to be composed of full-time politicians who had done nothng else with their lives.