MPs' spouses `should list their interests'

Parliament should keep a register of the interests of the wives and husbands of MPs, the Nolan inquiry into standards of public life was told yesterday.

Peter Luff, a Tory backbencher who is a consultant to Lowe Bell, the public relations company chaired by Sir Tim Bell, Baroness Thatcher's media adviser, said there was a growing need for such a list. "It has become increasingly clear that the activitiesof spouses can be as important as the interests of the member. Some simple form of declaration for spouses would improve the register."

Spouses, suggested Mr Luff, would have to disclose their "major occupations and major shareholdings".

His proposal - a move sought by the opposition for years - is unlikely to endear him to some colleagues. Labour has long argued that MPs and ministers have been able to hide interests and patronage behind wives or husbands.

Earlier, the Nolan committee heard a trade union delegation strongly defend the movement's sponsorship of MPs.

Alan Jinkinson, general secretary of Unison, and Rodney Bickerstaffe, associate general secretary of Unison and a former head of Nupe, said it was not correct for union sponsorship of Labour MPs to be compared with Tories being paid by compaies and lobbying firms. They reminded the commitee: "The political involvement of trade unions is more highly regulated by law than any other institution in British society."

Unions had no difficulty with full disclosure - if Nolan recommended MPs having to lodge all correspondence and contracts with their sponsors, together with the amount of money received, they would be happy.

What they were anxious to emphasise was the importance of continuing union funding. Labour was fighting a "Government which has civil service resources behind it". To laughter, Mr Bickerstaffe acknowledged it was "highly unlikely" the unions would support Tory MPs in opposition. He trusted, though, that Labour would "open up the debate about the funding of political parties".

All the unions were trying to do was level the playing field between the parties.

On the committee, Tom King, a former defence secretary, accused unions of engaging in a "much bigger web of interests" than he had realised, sponsoring MPs, paying researchers and having their own public affairs agency called Connect.

Mr Bickerstaffe retorted that there was no web, no intrigue. "It is all above-board."

While they clearly pay constituency parties and a small number of MPs for research purposes, the unions claimed not to put the MPs concerned under any pressure over voting. Angela Eagle, a Unison-sponsored MP who accompanied them, repeatedly and, at times angrily, denied any undue influence was brought to bear.

Tony Benn made a characteristically impassioned plea for constituents to be made the final arbiter of an MP's conduct, unless he or she is convicted of a breach of the law which automatically leads to disqualification. Legislation was needed to underpin higher standards.

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