LEADING ARTICLE:Say No to Nolan at your peril

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The Independent Online
Today MPs should vote to accept the Nolan Committee's recommendation that they make public any earnings related to their parliamentary activities. Though it may be uncomfortable for MPs to let go their financial privacy, their whole credibility is at stake.

The Government and most Conservative MPs want to keep the financial affairs of backbenchers under wraps. They argue that, as long as MPs are not indulging in "paid advocacy" - furthering the interests of the companies that pay them by influencing legislation, and by lobbying other MPs and ministers - there is no risk for democracy. Paid advice, they say, is a matter of legitimate confidentiality between the individual and company concerned.

But Nolan was appointed to restore public faith in a parliament whose reputation is stained with sleaze. The "paid advocacy" argument fuels public suspicion, because it looks as if MPs are finding the kind of slippery escape route the public expects them to look for.

Voters anyway have a right to know exactly how much "paid advice" by their representatives is worth. Backbenchers who host dinners at the House of Commons so that company executives can impress prospective clients are retailing the offcuts of power. All very well, if companies want to pay for it. But we should certainly know how much is being paid, because MPs are selling something they do not strictly own. They are in a position to sell such things only because voters elected them, and they cannot therefore hide the proceeds from their electors. An MP's access to power and enjoyment of privilege is given in trust through the ballot box.

Of course, this is an uncomfortable process, given that the British are almost as bashful about money as they are about sex. But top executives of public companies answer to shareholders and have recognised the need for fuller accountability. Anyone who exercises the kind of power in which the public are expected to place their trust should be willing to fall within the net. If MPs, why not judges and senior police officers? If utility bosses, why not television interviewers and, God bless us, newspaper editors?

Nolan represents an opportunity. To reject the recommendation of an outsider brought in to lend independent credibility to the attempt to clean up public life would be to undermine the whole exercise. If MPs want to continue under suspicion of sleaze then they should say No to Nolan. If they want to mend public confidence, they should vote today to flip their pocket- books open.