Leading Article: Piggies in the market

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The Independent Online
PREVIOUS governments have been accused of being incompetent, amateurish, spendthrift or dictatorial. This is the first British government in more than 70 years - we must go back to Lloyd George's coalition to find anything remotely comparable - to be charged with the systematic abuse of power.

There have been political scandals before. That the names are so well-remembered - Horatio Bottomley, John Belcher, Jimmy Thomas, for example -is a testament to their rarity. Discussing the Marconi scandal of 1912, George Dangerfield, author of The Strange Death of Liberal England, could write that 'accusations of ministerial corruption' had been 'practically unknown in England since the eighteenth century'. Writing of the 1945-51 period, John Gross, in The Age of Austerity, observed that 'the harshest critics of the Government stopped short of hinting at corruption'; people 'took it for granted that English ministers and English civil servants were beyond the reach of a bribe'.

Now, almost anything is believed. Last week, the Daily Mirror reported a claim by Mohamed Al Fayed, the Egyptian-born owner of Harrods, that a senior minister had taken a pounds 500,000 bribe and the wildest rumours as to his identity began to circulate. Over the past year, the spotlight has ranged over a variety of government practices with bewildering speed. One week it is trained on some dubious international transaction, such as the Al Yamamah deal with Saudi Arabia or the Pergau dam in Malaysia. The next it moves to the 'quangocracy' - the way in which such bodies as the NHS trusts are stuffed with Tory nominees, of which we disclose further details on page one. Then we learn of how ministers, shortly after leaving office, join the boards of companies they have helped to privatise. Now, light is shed once more on MPs who allegedly accept payment for placing parliamentary questions and, almost as a side-effect, the issue of donations to Tory party funds reappears.

Tory MPs and their apologists try to pretend that cash-for- questions is a complex matter. It is, in reality, perfectly simple. MPs, lest we forget, are elected to represent their constituents. The average constituency contains some 60,000 people with, one imagines, enough grievances, problems and hardships to preoccupy even the most dynamic and alert backbencher. Why should MPs - aside from the entirely defensible continuation of a previous career or profession - saddle themselves with further commitments? Take Michael Colvin, MP for Romsey and Waterside. In the current Register of Members' Interests, he is listed as a remunerated adviser to the Federation of Retail Licensed Trade (Northern Ireland), Caledonia Investments, Meridian Broadcasting, Thames Heliport and C U K, an aerospace company. He also has two company directorships and extensive farming interests. Or take Dr Charles Goodson-Wickes, MP for Wimbledon, who, alongside six company directorships, lists consultancies to pharmaceutical, public relations and construction groups. Can all these be what Margaret Thatcher once called 'real jobs'?

It is only against this background that the cases of Tim Smith and Neil Hamilton can be judged. Mr Smith has resigned as a Northern Ireland minister; Mr Hamilton insists on staying in office as the mysteriously-described 'minister for business probity'. But - and this important point has been obscured - neither man admits that he did anything wrong. Mr Smith, as a backbench MP, accepted fees (his word) from Mr Fayed.

He accepts that he should have declared the money at the time in the Register of Members' Interests. (Failure to do so, according to his resignation letter, gave rise to 'circumstances' which 'may be misinterpreted'.) Mr Hamilton, also while a backbench MP, had a free week with his wife at the Paris Ritz, which is owned by Mr Fayed. He does not accept that he should have declared this under 'gifts, benefits and hospitality' in the Register.

Both men have a point. It is far from clear that, under the present rules, they did do anything wrong. Both raised what Mr Smith calls Mr Fayed's 'legitimate concerns' in the Commons. But the rules appear to prohibit the exchange of cash for tabling a specific set of questions, not a longer term relationship. The rules should, therefore, be changed.

The arguments for retaining the present permissive system do not bear scrutiny. First, MPs say, it keeps them in contact with the world of business and helps them to do their jobs better. But why do they need to be paid to do this? There is nothing to stop them visiting factories or attending boardroom discussions without charge. Second, it is argued, MPs need to supplement their meagre incomes. If truly so, MPs' salaries should be higher. Yet most Labour MPs, who generally have less personal wealth, manage on the same salaries. (Trade union sponsorship, of which the Tories make so much, rarely benefits a member personally and is often only for election expenses.) The third argument is that accepting fees, gifts or hospitality does not imply an obligation. Really? The Conservatives have been telling us for years that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Now we are asked to believe in five free dinners and three free breakfasts at one of Europe's most expensive hotels.

The overwhelming message of this, and all the other non- sexual scandals that beset the Government, is that money talks. The market rules supreme: anything is allowed so long as it makes a profit. The Conservatives offer no wider values or aspirations. Morality has been privatised along with almost everything else. So why should MPs not join the market, offering their services to the highest bidder? Thus is exploded one of the century's biggest myths: that it is the left that expects more of human nature than the right. On the contrary, the left accepts the need for government to control and regulate the more venal aspects of human behaviour. The right looks to individuals to restrain their own greed. It has not worked.