Leading Article: Westminster drags its heels

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IT MIGHT be expected, when shocking accusations have been made against MPs, that speedy investigations would follow. The cash-for-questions allegations are unquestionably grave. Any self-respecting legislature should want to clear its name as a matter of urgency. Not this Parliament. Yesterday the House of Commons set up an inquiry that will not even open until mid-October; MPs need their holidays first. Then, of course, they have to fit in a few all-expenses-paid parliamentary trips to exotic destinations. Why interrupt the long summer months with the tawdry business of investigating who has been enjoying nice little earners on the side?

Here is an example of parliamentary arrogance at its most blatant. Vatican aficionados would find kindred spirits in this antique British institution. Like Rome, Westminster regards its ways as virtually immutable, however high the public gorge has risen. Self-examination moves at a snail's pace. So a report that could easily have been completed within a week will probably not be finished until as late as Christmas.

The sleuthing will not be led by independent, iconoclastic outsiders. The fearless team will be packed with MPs who have been institutionalised and who long ago accepted the bizarre ways of the Commons as normal. Many are themselves in the pay of interest groups, be they companies, political consultancies or trade unions. If there is a line between their activities and those of the two MPs called to task, it is difficult to discern. Had the BBC faced similar allegations and opted for such a seemingly partial inquiry team, the news would have been greeted with an outcry from . . . well, MPs. But Parliament is, and acts as, a law unto itself. No one should hold their breath for radical change.

At the heart of the problem seems to be a perversion of Parliament's hard-won independence. This was initially achieved against the absolutist pretensions of the reigning monarch. Yet that independence is now being used to disregard the justified concerns of the electorate.

The self-serving nature of MPs over the cash-for-questions issue is only matched by their hypocrisy. Central government has not flinched at transforming most aspects of British life, notably local government. In 1988, the Conservatives implemented the Widdicombe report preventing councillors, who are unpaid, from taking jobs as officials with neighbouring councils. Many have been surcharged for doing their jobs badly. The same cannot be said for MPs, ministers or civil servants. They remain untouchable, however many disastrous mistakes they commit.

Doctors, teachers, trade unionists and miners, to name but a few, can all eloquently describe how the Government, acting through Parliament, has turned their lives upside down. Yet MPs still cannot decide, after years of discussion, whether they should meet early one day a week and sit on fewer Fridays.