Speaker calls order over sleaze reports

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Indy Politics
The Speaker of the Commons, Betty Boothroyd, yesterday read the riot act to the media in an attempt to restore the reputation of Parliament by curbing reports of sleaze with "highly generalised and unsubstantiated comments".

In a Commons statement she said the media must not repeat and pursue claims in a way that prejudges the outcome of investigations by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Sir Gordon Downey, into "sleaze" allegations. Her action was said to have been prompted by an increased mailbag after the Channel 4 Dispatches programme on payments of money to MPs by Mohamed al-Fayed, owner of Harrods. "She is very concerned that the reputation of Parliament has been damaged. Everyone thinks we are on the make, and she wants to call a halt," said a Commons source.

However, her intervention infuriated some prominent Tories, who said it was too late to prevent the damage inflicted by the "cash for questions" disclosures. "She should have done this two years ago," said one MP.

The Speaker was not threatening to impose any fresh penalties on the media for reports on sleaze, but senior MPs were last night convinced that action will be taken after the election to draw a line under the allegations of "MPs on the make" which have dogged the Tories for the past five years.

New MPs are to be given a course in the outside interests they are expected to declare under House rules. It is likely they will receive reminders of the rules before they take their seats after the election.

The Speaker said she was determined that the new rules laid down by Lord Nolan's inquiry into standards in public life should bolster Britain's democratic system, adding: "The media can play their part with fairer and better balanced coverage and comment."

Her statement came in response to a complaint in the House last week by Labour's Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) about remarks made by Mr Fayed on the Dispatches programme. But the extent of her remarks surprised MPs on all sides.

Ms Boothroyd said the Nolan committee had urged the press to give more acknowledgement "that the overwhelming majority of public servants work hard and have a high standards. We would prefer more recognition of the value of our democratic mechanisms and the dangers of undermining them".

And she added: "I agree. It can hardly be a coincidence that it is to this House above all others that parliamentarians from all over the world seek to come for consultations and training.

"I am determined that the new procedures and rules which the House has established should work in such a way as to bolster our democratic system. The media can play their part with fairer and better balanced coverage and comment. I also look to Members in all parts of the House for the constructive support for this historic institution, to which our constituents have sent us and which all of us have the honour to serve."