Editorial: An MP's place is in the House of Commons

Paid-for foreign travel is not only a distraction, it also raises questions of independence

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The Independent Online

Nadine Dorries may be out of the celebrity jungle and returning to her parliamentary and constituency duties, but she is far from the only MP whose foreign jaunts keep them away from such quotidian matters as voting in the House of Commons and dealing with the concerns of those who elected them.

Indeed, a painstaking investigation by this newspaper reveals that, since the last general election, some 242 MPs have accepted the hospitality of foreign governments, pressure groups and private companies for "fact-finding missions" in places as far-flung as China, Uzbekistan and the Cayman Islands. And one has spent no less than four months out of the country in two years, including a month learning Chinese in Beijing.

Some travel is, of course, entirely reasonable and legitimate. Foreign trips can be useful learning experiences and can also help to promote the interests of UK plc. But the sheer scale of MPs' peregrinations cannot but raise concerns.

First is the matter of parliamentary duties. Even when justified, it is an inescapable fact that, while travelling abroad, an MP is not taking part in Commons debates and, even more importantly, votes. For all the scorn poured upon Ms Dorries for her preposterous foray into reality television, those overseas on more legitimate business are also taking time away from both constituency business and matters of national consequence.

Second, and no less disquieting, is the undue influence such practices give to causes with deep-pocketed lobbyists. In this regard, the findings of The Independent's investigations make grim reading. There are trips funded by London-based public relations companies paid to launder the reputations of countries with poor human rights records. There is also travel funded by political pressure groups, such as those supporting the Israeli and Palestinian causes; although some MPs – laudably – pursue their "fact finding" with both sides, the majority only see one side of the story.

Perhaps most problematic of all is the significant number of MPs who, on their return from gratis travel, then made speeches in Parliament in support of the governments whose countries they visited. One, for example, followed up a visit to Azerbaijan with a description of the country as "making tremendous strides as a democratic republic", omitting to mention the cases of arbitrary arrest, indefinite detention and torture for which human rights campaigners criticise the country. Similarly, of the 17 Tory MPs who signed a recent letter condemning Hamas in Gaza, more than half had been on pro-Israeli delegations to the region.

While it is entirely possible that MPs' views are not affected by any hospitality received, the acceptance of expenses-paid travel can only leave their integrity open to question. Parliament should be protected from such a taint, however unjustified. When it comes to conflicts of interest, perception is all. The impression that MPs might be grasping for "freebies", or that their partiality can be purchased by perks, is highly damaging whether true or not, as Sir Alistair Graham, the former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, rightly notes.

A more transparent code of conduct, policed by the parliamentary pay and expenses regulator, would certainly help. So might a requirement that expenses-paid trips are declared up-front in Commons debates. Ultimately, however, it is up to politicians and their parties to exercise greater scrutiny and restraint if the confidence of the public is to be maintained.