A House of better repute

MPs have it within their grasp to restore public confidence. But some Tories just fail to comprehend
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The Independent Online
The source of Parliament's authority is not the monarchy nor its long history, nor the settlement of 1688, but its acceptance by the people. A despised Commons becomes a disregarded, demoralised Commons, encroached upon by rival power centres. You cannot have a strong parliamentary democracy in which parliamentary politics is reckoned filthy stuff.

This is why the unsavoury revelations of recent years and the sleaze mania were such a bad business, good for newspaper sales but awful for Westminster. It's why the attempt by the Nolan committee and now MPs to clean up the palace is not trivial, or irritating, but central.

Now the Select Committee on standards in public life, by proposing a blanket ban on paid advocacy, has done a lot to clear up the miasma of suspicion. Despite the row over whether or not MPs' earnings from some sources should be published, this is a tough report. Its proposed ban on paid advocacy is strongly worded. Life inside the village will change as a result.

The key question is whether that inside change will be enough to wipe out the outside impression of MPs on the make. And that depends on whether it works, whether it is actually possible to ban paid advocacy in the Commons.

The place is a closed and gossipy club, a seething influence market beyond public view. Advocacy is what MPs are for. It is what they are good at. As the committee recommends, certain formal kinds of advocacy can be stopped - the mechanical actions of putting down questions, tabling motions, preparing private members' bills and so on. You can control, up to a point, what they say in a committee or on the floor of the House, where the journalists are watching.

But to hope to ban MPs speaking for certain interests in this warren of private rooms and corridors seems like trying to outlaw eye-contact on a university campus. No regulation, policed by a commissioner, can lay down what is said over pudding at Rules restaurant, or determine how a conversation between friends goes in a minister's room. It is on this issue of how MPs behave outside the House that the report is weakest. And anyway, the line between innocent inquiry and advocacy is too subtle for a rule book.

This is not to challenge the usefulness of the proposed ban. It will have a cultural effect. The prohibition of acts of vice in public helps change the attitude to such acts in private. MPs will now be self-conscious about making suggestions or fixing meetings which they had convinced themselves were fine. Ministers, discussing the week ahead with their private offices, may find themselves uneasily asking whether the Member for Cosgrave isn't paid by London Roads plc. We should never underestimate the power of embarrassment. MPs look one another in the eye, like the rest of us.

This may be enough. But we are talking about money and influence here. They tend to trump bashfulness. It is all too possible that paid advocacy will shrink deeper into the shadows. The particular mood that gave rise to this tough-sounding report will pass, and be forgotten. And then one day, sure as bad eggs are bad eggs, another scandal will crack open and reek. Acknowledging that the committee has gone a long way in trying to remedy matters, it is right to be sceptical about the advocacy ban; and that leaves us with the most controversial proposal from Nolan, that MPs' earnings from sources directly related to their parliamentary work should be published.

Quite right. The old High Horse is snorting and pawing the ground. But before saddling her up, there are some strong arguments against disclosure to be addressed.

First there is the inequity of exposing the finances of some MPs and not others. The Hon Bloggins, with no private income and five children, may be pilloried in his local constituency for taking pounds 5,000 from the Mobile Telephone Association, while Sir Bilbo Baggins, a multi-millionaire landowner in the next seat, reveals none of his private income because it isn't related to his membership of the Commons.

Second, there is the difficult question of what is relevant to parliamentary work and what isn't. Barristers have an interest in certain law reforms which might be more direct than the interest of MPs with paid consultancies. As the Nolan proposals stand, QCs wouldn't have to declare their earnings.

Third, there is the mixed issue of invasion of privacy and that much underrated national pastime, the politics of envy. As disclosure of income spreads, we could face a political argument which was more about individuals' tax returns than national policies. What would that do for the tone of debate? People who already fear that going into public life will mean the exposure of every sexual experiment they've ever indulged in would also have to ask themselves whether they wanted their neighbours to know the details of their bank accounts.

These three objections to disclosure of MPs' earnings aren't merely the discharge of guilty minds. But nor are they insuperable. However unjust some of the effects may be, there is a moral case for saying that payments to MPs made because they are MPs are in a different category from other forms of wealth or income.

The problem of intrusion should be dealt with by a general privacy law that clearly separates private sexual conduct from financial matters. Above all, the issue of MPs' and ministers' pay should be faced honestly. MPs are well-paid by the standards of non-London, non-AB Britain. But so long as one can come across a knot of people, including a cabinet minister, a few journalists, an obscure lawyer, a middle-ranking company professional and a successful academic, and find the cabinet minister is by far the lowest-paid, then the case for higher political salaries is a strong one.

The surrounding thicket of reforms on privacy and salaries that would make disclosure of MPs' earnings wholly fair will not happen this side of an election. The grubbier demands of the party battle intervene; Labour, hardly surprisingly, will play this game hard. But it is now time for Conservative doubters, in the higher interest, to be a little unfair on themselves.

Conservatives can hardly come out of this well. It is already plain, however, that some are determined to come out of it as badly as possible. Whatever the denials, Government whips are helping to harden Tory ranks against Monday's vote on disclosure of payments.

If they succeed, the Conservatives will be pilloried by the Opposition from now until the election as greedy, brown-snouted cowards. Voters, used to a diet of sleaze in the Press, will believe the worst.

That so many Tories simply don't seem to understand what a gift they are handing Labour just defies belief. Maybe it shows how out of touch they are. Maybe they need the money so desperately that the politics don't matter to them. But the main losers will be their own party and the Parliament they are so proud to represent.

Far shrewder are those Tories who are preparing to jump ship and vote with the Opposition. Often from marginal seats, they know what their voters want. It's true that if disclosure is voted through, Labour will be publishing details of Tory MPs' earnings. But if MPs are taking money that they would rather their electorates didn't know about, then that's their problem.

Conservatives have the weekend to make up their minds about what matters most - a few thousand quid in private consultancy fees or the chance to restore their collective reputation. For people of imagination who understand how low the Commons has fallen in public affection, there is really no choice. Yesterday was a good day for Westminster; they have it in their power to make Monday a splendid one.