We're all going on a summer holiday

Champagne and sun lotion as MPs take a free trip to Malta
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Four MPs and a member of the House of Lords are spending this weekend at a luxury Mediterranean resort as all-expenses-paid guests of a foreign airline.

The parliamentarians - who have been told to take their bathing costumes and sun lotion - have been flown by Air Malta to a five-star hotel in the Maltese resort of Sliema, where they will be wined and dined, shown the sights and offered a helicopter ride to the nearby island of Gozo.

Lady Olga Maitland, Tory MP for Sutton and Cheam, Gerald Kaufman, the former shadow Foreign Secretary, Simon Coombs, Conservative MP for Swindon, Barry Sheerman, Labour MP for Huddersfield, and Baroness Hooper, a Tory, have been invited to the island to celebrate Air Malta carrying its 10- millionth passenger.

Lady Olga and Mr Sheerman defended the trip yesterday, as they sunbathed by the side of the hotel swimming pool, pointing out that all five had reason to be there. Mr Sheerman, Mr Coombs and Lady Olga were members of a variety of "Friends of Malta" or "Anglo-Maltese" groups, they said.

Lady Hooper said she may have been invited, with her sister, Angela, because she is a member of a parliamentary delegation to the Council of Europe at a time when Malta's main priority is to join the European Union. "They probably want to get some people on side," she said.

And Mr Coombs is chairman of the All Party Group on Tourism.

Last night, however, a source close to the Commons Select Committee on Standards and Privileges told the Independent that the trip might be the last of its kind. It is understood the committee's long-awaited Code of Practice for members will be presented to Parliament as early as next week.

"It will include guidance on accepting hospitality," said the source. "There are genuinely useful fact-finding missions and there are other types where you question the value of information that can be gleaned."

The parliamentarians met at Heathrow airport yesterday morning and were ushered through the "Fast Track" check-in to the Club Class lounge. Once in their pounds 538 seats, they were given complimentary champagne and a choice of lamb or beef.

On arrival in Malta, they were whisked to the pounds 160-a- night Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza Hotel. Within 15 minutes, Lady Olga and her husband, Robin Hay, were in the pool, followed five minutes later by Mr Sheerman. Last night, the party were taken to a reception at the Upper Barrakka Gardens in Valletta hosted by Joseph Tabone, chairman and chief executive of the state-owned Air Malta.

Today, Mr Tabone is due to speak at a breakfast meeting at the hotel, hosted by Budget Rent-A-Car Malta, after which the party will be flown to Gozo for lunch at the luxury Ta Cenc hotel. Then they will be taken sightseeing.

Tonight, they will be taken to a "Farewell Dinner", again hosted by Mr Tabone, at the Maritim Selmun Palace Hotel. Tomorrow, they will travel to the south side of Malta, where they will visit the Hagar Qim neolithic temples before lunching at the Marsaxlokk fishing village and flying home.

Mr Sheerman, chairman of the Friends of Malta group, said he intended to spend the weekend meeting as many businesspeople as possible who could help firms in his constituency.

"There is a big Chamber of Commerce exhibition here next year and I want to ensure that there will be places in it for firms in my constituency," he said. Asked whether the trip could be considered a junket, he replied: "No. There are lots of meetings all over the island and it will be very useful." He said he had decided not to go on the helicopter trip to Gozo because he would be too busy.

Lady Olga said: "If you want to debunk this and jeer about it, then you can. But this is about trying to boost Malta and our links with it.

"This is how things get done in business and in the City. It is about communication and building links to bring in more business." Asked why the entire trip involved dinners, lunches and sightseeing, she said: "Because Malta is all about tourism."

Airline sources told the Independent that the parliamentarians have been told all their expenses will be met except telephone calls, laundry, room service and drinks from their mini-bars. "They were also told to take bathing costumes and sun lotion," he said.

Air Malta was the main sponsor of the visit, with the assistance of Holiday Inns, Maritim Selmun Palace, the National Tourist Organisation of Malta, Meli Garage, Air Supplies and Catering Company Limited, Emmanuel Delicatia Winemakers, Lowenbrau Beer, General Soft Drinks and Corinthia In-flight Catering.

'Lazy' MPs, page 8