Italy's MPs steer clear of debate on 'moral question'

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If Italians wondered how their elected representatives feel about putting morality back into political life they had only to look at the Chamber of Deputies yesterday. When the debate on the 'moral question' raised by the corruption scandals resumed, seven members were present.

The country was still recovering from the hooligan-style scenes created by opposition Senators on Wednesday when television viewers were treated to the sight of bench after deserted bench in the lower house. Senate fury over the government's attempt to save corrupt politicians from jail was apparently not matched by any interest among MPs in discussing how to clean things up.

On Thursday, the first day of the debate, only around 100 of the 631 deputies attended. Yesterday, the seven eventually swelled to around a dozen. Of the 16 members scheduled to speak, 10 cancelled. The debate was adjourned until Tuesday when the Prime Minister, Giuliano Amato, will speak and votes will be held.

The MPs' behaviour has been watched with amazement by visiting schoolchildren taken to the public galleries by their teachers to see how democracy works. 'Why are they talking when nobody is listening to them?' asked a 16-year-old boy from Bologna, bewildered.

Those who saw the Senate debate were even more shaken. 'They were howling like animals. We would never dare to do that in class,' exclaimed a boy from Lombardy. 'Uncivilised,' said another. Were they disappointed? 'Perhaps, yes,' conceded the second, 'because in a certain sense they too are a part of Italy.'

'The politicians have forgotten their ABC' of how to behave, commented President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro after the scenes in the Senate. 'But woe betide anyone who says all this country is infected, because it is not true.'

The Chamber has 12 different resolutions with ideas for a moral clean-up before it. Most parties want to abolish or at least reform the system of parliamentary immunity, under which an MP cannot be arrested, searched or prosecuted without the permission of the Senate or Chamber, and this is often denied. They also favour a closer watch on members' property and sources of income, and stricter laws on the awarding of public works contracts.