Commons Speaker John Bercow today suspended the issuing of new Commons passes to staff working for all-party parliamentary groups amid concerns they are being used as a vehicle for political lobbying at Westminster.
Mr Bercow said there was a need for "urgent and effective action" following allegations that a Tory MP, two Labour lords and an Ulster Unionist peer were prepared to exercise political influence in exchange for cash from undercover reporters posing as lobbyists.
Following a meeting last night of the House of Commons Commission, Mr Bercow said he had instructed the Serjeant at Arms to contact MPs who had sponsored Commons passes for staff working for all-party parliamentary groups (APPGs) in order to confirm they had been "properly requested and allocated". A total of 83 passes are covered by the order.
No new passes will be issued to APPG staff while the situation is reviewed by the Commons Administration Committee who will consider whether it is "necessary or appropriate" for such passes to exist at all.
The Speaker has also written to the chairman of the Commons Standards Committee Kevin Barron to bring forward recommendations for reform of the system of registering and administering APPGs before MPs break next month for the summer recess.
"As Speaker I have long felt that the operation of all party parliamentary groups needed to be improved to meet the high expectations of transparency and accountability required in public life," Mr Bercow said in a statement.
"Recent events have heightened my concern and underlined the need for urgent and effective action".
The Committee on Standards is currently considering a proposals for reform of the APPG system drawn up by a working group led by the Labour former cabinet minister, Jack Straw.
The Tory MP at the centre of the storm, Patrick Mercer, is alleged to have agreed to establish an APPG on Fiji after being contacted by undercover reporters from The Daily Telegraph and the BBC who were posing as lobbyists seeking to get the country's suspension from the Commonwealth lifted.
Mr Mercer has resigned the Conservative whip, referred himself to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, and announced that he will not stand at the next general election. He said that he is taking legal advice regarding the allegations against him.
Downing Street announced yesterday that a bill to introduce a statutory register of lobbyists will be published before the start of Parliament's summer recess next month.
But the legislation immediately ran into controversy, after it emerged that it will also include provisions which could impose new restrictions on trade union funding of the Labour Party, as well as audits of union membership rolls.
Doubts were raised over whether the Liberal Democrat side of the coalition had signed up to the proposals, after Lib Dem minister Tom Brake - who is leading for the party on lobbying - said the announcement of measures relating to unions was "premature".
Prime Minister David Cameron's official spokesman today told reporters that yesterday's announcement was "very much" on behalf of the whole Government.
"There will be a bill introduced before the summer recess and that bill will have the three components we set out yesterday," he said.
"They are a package designed to address the role of third parties in politics. The bill will be a Government bill, agreed across Government."
Asked if the contents of the bill had already been agreed between the coalition parties, the spokesman appeared to indicate that they had.
But a senior Lib Dem source later told reporters: "I can absolutely categorically tell you that the details have yet to be agreed.
"The Liberal Democrats will not sign up to anything that is tailored only for the trade unions. That is not what this is about. This is about ensuring that third party organisations (are subject to a) more transparent process."
Karen Jennings, assistant general secretary of Unison, said: "These proposals are typical of the Tories playing the same tired old anti-union card. They want to divert attention away from themselves and parliamentary sleaze by turning their fire on the trade union movement.
"We are not lobbyists so we have no place in a Bill about lobbyists. Don't forget that what trade unions do as part of the Labour party, is to give a democratic voice to ordinary people like nurses, paramedics, teaching assistants, librarians and dinner ladies. What we do is above board and transparent and are there to give working people a voice."
Mick Whelan, general secretary of train drivers' union Aslef, said: "This Government is cynically trying to exploit the lobbying scandal - a problem David Cameron promised, and failed, to address - to crack down on trade unions in this country."
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