Leading Article: Something fishy in Parliament

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The Independent Online
Most MPs are not really interested in cleaning up Parliament. They only do it out of embarrassment . The investigation of two MPs who accepted cash for asking questions in the Commons shows how slow and ineffectual Parliament is in regulating itself. Yesterday those MPs were censured by the Commons Privileges Committee which recommended that the pair of them should be suspended without pay for 10 and 20 days respectively.

We have waited a long time for some action. We first heard about this scandal last July. Since then the IRA has ceased fire, Japan has lost a city and Prince Charles has admitted on television to committing adultery. In all that time, the two politicians - Graham Riddick and David Tredinnick - have remained unpunished, shamelessly drawing their salaries. Only now is Mr Tredinnick preparing to apologise formally to his fellow MPs. The punishment is not only belated, it is also inadequate: the salary loss amounts to little more than the price of a parliamentary question.

MPs could have been more imaginative in their punishment. Instead of suspension - which merely gives the two of them more free time to pursue their business interests - the MPs should be required to offer, la Eric Cantona, 100 hours of political training to children thinking of a career in Westminster. And they could staff a free helpline for citizens seeking advice on how to influence Parliament.

Failure of self-regulation goes beyond the Riddick and Tredinnick cases. Remember the case of Neil Hamilton? Back in the autumn, Mr Hamilton was found to have transgressed the rules on ministerial ethics by failing to register his freebie at the Ritz in Paris. Mohamed al-Fayed, the owner of Harrods, picked up the tab. Yet the Members' Interests Committee hasn't even finished hearing witnesses on that affair.

Meanwhile the Nolan Committee, set up by John Major to investigate sleaze, has been treated with frosty disdain by most ministers. They seem to think it was enough to set up the committee and behave as if it will make little difference to the way Britain is governed.

But perhaps the biggest giveaway concerning parliamentary indifference to reform is demonstrated by the way many MPs condemn those who expose their dubious practices. The Privileges Committee yesterday reprimanded the Sunday Times for trapping the two MPs with its request for questions. The newspaper had fallen "substantially below the standards to be expected of legitimate investigative journalism," said the committee. This is code for: "We wish the newspaper had not revealed this sordid, bothersome scandal."

MPs should remember that the practice of taking cash for questions was not created by the Sunday Times. That paper merely collected evidence to prove what was already going on. Messrs Riddick and Tredinnick are unconvincing when they present themselves as naifs. As Cantona would surely observe: "When the seagulls follow the trawler, they should be careful not to choke on the sardines."