Sleaze load `now too much for MPs'

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Indy Politics
MPs are incapable of managing their own breaches of discipline and need independent assistance, the Nolan inquiry into standards in public life was told yesterday.

In a stark admission that Parliament cannot cope with the growth in "sleaze", Sir Geoffrey Johnson-Smith, chairman of one of the two MPs' watchdog bodies, said procedures needed toughening.

At present, he said, the Members' Interests Committee, composed entirely of MPs, was investigating the case of Neil Hamilton, the minister who resigned over allegations that he received favours from Mohamed al-Fayed, chairman of Harrods. Mr Hamilton is suing the Guardian newspaper for libel over the revelations. Sir Geoffrey said the committee was having difficulty looking into the affair in the knowledge that outside Parliament a legal action had been started. The gravity of the situation was not something his committee enjoyed.

"We feel bound to say we are uneasy in this role," he said, acknowledging it was "almost impossible for the committee to do justice to the case without prejudicing the libel action".

Driving what must surely be the final nail into the coffin of the current system of self-regulation, Sir Geoffrey said an "outside element" would be welcome.

Echoing previous witnesses, including John MacGregor, the former Cabinet minister, he said the committee's proceedings should more closely resemble a court of law, with powers of cross-examination.

A firm line was taken by Ann Taylor, shadow Leader of the House. Speaking for Labour, she called for an "independent element" to be introduced into inquiries into breaches of MPs' conduct.

"This could take the form of an ethics advisory committee which could have a role in respect of the Privileges Committee [the other watchdog], similar to the role of the National Audit Office in respect of the Public Accounts Committee," she said.