Grovelling is not enough

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The Independent Online
With one grovel, Sir Jerry Wiggin was free. The Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, sternly hoped this was the last "such distasteful occasion".

But to the astonishment of Labour MPs and not a few Conservatives, there was no disciplinary action. Being paid a pounds 1,000 to table a question merits a 10- or 20-day suspension (and loss of salary). But being paid thousands more to try to change the law of the land by smuggling in a commercial organisation's amendment in someone else's name merits just a three-minute squirm.

The Speaker was clearly exasperated at Sir Jerry's indefensible behaviour. No doubt she was also concerned at public reaction to last Thursday's ignominious government fudge over implementation of the all-party Nolan committee recommendations. These propose an end to self-regulation for the Commons, greater openness, a new code of conduct and restrictions on paid lobbying activities by MPs.

Backbench Tories' determination to at least double their salaries by payments from lobbyists, consultants and companies resulted in the Government's retreat from Nolan. You could hear the howls of protest as they saw their bank balances shrinking. But it looked dreadful to voters.

So, as Sir Jerry apologised, elsewhere in the Palace of Westminster another government U-turn landed on Tony Blair's desk. The letter from John Major stated that he was not, after all, backing off from Nolan's recommendations to improve standards in public life.

Perhaps the two events were a coincidence. But to the public this was the House of Commons at its impenetrable clubbiest. Whatever arcane niceties protected Sir Jerry, voters now hold Parliament in greater contempt than at any time in living memory. Honest and hardworking MPs are also being tarnished.

Those many Tories who insist they need outside payments because they cannot survive on the pounds 33,000 salary are quite content to peg it at that level for the rest of us. There is a case for paying MPs the rate for the job. There is a stronger case for providing adequate secretarial, research and office resources. The cult of the amateur gentleman of independent means which still stalks the Westminster culture is the root of the problem. It must be eradicated.

There is a cancer that Nolan only partly addressed: MPs for hire. Until that iniquitous practice is ended, there will be more Betty and Jerry shows and our democracy will breed cynicism instead of respect.

The writer is Labour MP for Neath.