House Ethics Case Stirs Heated Debate in Britain

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

BRITAIN'S House of Commons has ordered a high-level investigation into charges that many of its members routinely accept money from business corporations and lobbyists seeking inside information on government policy.

The affair has cast doubts on the ethical standards of the Conservative government, which has held power continuously for 15 years. Prime Minister John Major, whose personal popularity remains low, was forced to agree to the inquiry when the London Sunday Times revealed on July 10 that two of his junior ministers had been duped by a journalist, posing as a businessman, into agreeing to accept 1,000 ($1,539) British pounds each in return for doing favors.

Although the amount involved was fairly small, the opposition Labour Party seized on the revelation, claiming that sleaze was widespread in the government. Coming on top of a series of sexual indiscretions by senior Conservative parliamentarians, the allegations persuaded House Speaker Betty Boothroyd to hold an emergency debate. After acrimonious exchanges, the Commons voted to ask the Committee of Privileges to look into the matter and report back.

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Sensing that the government had been thrown onto the defensive, Labour pointed out that scores of Conservative MPs accept paid directorships, consultantcies, and one-time payments from organizations that want to be given an inside track on official thinking.

Mr. Major has suspended the two MPs at the center of the row, pending the outcome of the investigation. Political analyst Anthony Bevins says the issues raised are a grave embarrassment to the premier, who is likely to have to rewrite the ethical guidelines for MPs who accept business appointments. At present they have to list their business contacts, but they do not have to say how much they get paid. The Sunday Times says it acted on a tip-off from a ``prominent businessman'' who alleged that payments for favors were rife among MPs.

The offense the two MPs were accused of involves the system whereby members submit questions to government ministers with the aim of obtaining detailed written replies based on government research. MPs are allowed to ask questions in this way, but there are rules against accepting cash for doing so. The pair believed they were asking the questions on behalf of businessmen wishing to learn about government policy on pharmaceuticals, but the inquiries were bogus. When the MPs discovered they had been tricked, they returned the checks.

Mr. Bevins says that because Commons salaries are so low - MPs get only 31,689 a British pounds year - there is a standing temptation to take money from lobbyists and business groups.

During the emergency debate, Tony Benn, a senior Labour MP, argued that it was wrong for parliamentarians to be offered and to accept money for performing their normal duties. He declared: ``I would not dream of ever accepting money ... either in a personal capacity or in setting myself up as a consultant.... We are elected to be consultants to the British people.''

In taking quick action in the ``cash for questions'' affair, Major wants to demonstrate that he will not tolerate lax conduct by his supporters in Parliament.

As a result of its revelations, the Sunday Times has found itself in parliamentary hot water. In the emergency debate, there were calls from Conservatives for the paper's editor to be summoned to the House and reprimanded.

The editor claims, however, that he has tape recordings that prove the two ministers had been ready to accept money. He also says the paper's tactics did not break rules agreed to by the Newspaper Complaints Commission, the industry's watchdog body.

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