End to Secrecy As Britain Probes Parliament Sleaze

Major forms independent watchdog group

FOR the first time in 600 years, Britain's members of Parliament will have to submit to independent investigation.

A succession of scandals have jarred Prime Minister John Major's government since the 1992 elections. Four ministers have been forced to resign because of allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct or shady financial dealings. Two Conservative members of Parliament are under investigation for accepting bribes.

This week proved the last straw. Two ministers quit, including the man in charge of maintaining high ethical standards in business, over charges that they had accepted money from lobbyists in return for favors.

Already struggling to boost flagging public confidence, Mr. Major said he would create a permanent watchdog agency, with members nominated by the two main opposition parties. Major lags far behind Labour leader Tony Blair in polls, and many analysts speak of Mr. Blair as a possible future prime minister.

Under under mounting news media pressure, Major told the House of Commons Tuesday: ``This country has an international reputation for the integrity and honor of its institutions. That reputation must be maintained and be seen to be maintained.''

The new committee will inquire into the conduct of Parliament members (MPs), government ministers, civil servants, members of government-appointed administrative bodies, and local councils. The designated chairman, Lord Justice Nolan, said most of its hearings would be public. Major asked Lord Nolan to produce his first report in six months.

In an angry resignation letter to Major, the corporate affairs minister, Neil Hamilton, denied wrong-doing and attacked the prime minister for bowing to ``foully motivated rumor.''

Several Cabinent ministers rallied to his support. Michael Portillo, the employment secretary, one of Mr. Hamilton's defenders, was said by friends to be furious with Major for forcing his colleague to resign.

Other right-wing ministers and Conservative MPs privately criticized the prime minister for his handling of Hamilton's resignation.

David Hunt, Major's minister with responsibility for open government, said the allegations against Hamilton were ``unfounded.'' Blair, meanwhile, welcomed the establishment of the committee, but dismissed Major's move as ``decisionmaking on the run,'' and said the conduct of senior Conservatives had been ``ignored for too long.''

A PRACTICE known as ``cash for questions'' lies at the heart of the government's current troubles. Under the British parliamentary system, members of Parliament are able to submit questions for written or verbal answer by government ministers. It is a way of forcing into the open information that might otherwise remain secret.

The two ministers who quit this week were alleged to have asked questions in return for cash, which is against parliamentary rules. Mr. Hamilton had been charged with accepting a six-day holiday in Paris from the Egyptian-born chairman of Harrods, Britain's famous department store.

One of the accused ministers admitted receiving money for questions asked and resigned immediately. Hamilton denied the allegation and sued the Guardian newspaper for making it.

In the 1980s, Harrods used lobbyists when Mo-hammed al-Fayed was fighting to consolidate his ownership of the store against the Lonrho Corporation. Mr. Fayed is reported to have told Major through an intermediary that some ministers had been breaking ethical guidelines. Two other ``cash for questions'' cases involving Conservative MPs are being considered by the parliamentary privileges committee.

Earlier cases of apparent sleaze in government have involved arms sales to Iraq, the granting of construction contracts to foreign governments, and the questionable sexual activities of Conservative politicians.

In a report to Parliament today, the House of Commons public-accounts committee said it had found evidence of misuse of public funds by nongovernmental organizations and health authorities, and of a general fall in standards of public life.

The ``cash for questions'' issue has drawn public attention to the rapid growth in the last 15 years of parliamentary lobbying firms that attempt to influence the activities of government. Though common in the United States, political lobbying began to increase sharply under Margaret Thatcher, the long-serving Conservative prime minister.

The government has come under attack in recent months for appointing many of its own supporters, financial benefactors, and family members of Conservative MPs to the boards of industries privatized during the Thatcher years.

Earlier this month, Major agreed to investigate complaints that former ministers who had helped to take utilities out of the public sector were receiving lucrative jobs in the resulting privatized companies. The Nolan commission is expected to range widely over such matters. Several Conservative MPs say privately they are concerned that sources of their party's finances might be revealed when the commission gets under way. The Conservative Party depends heavily on private donations from business corporations.

The Labour Party has been calling for many years for such donations to be made public.

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