Britain's Premier Squirms With Latest Ethics Violations
LONDON — PRIME Minister John Major is cornered between the demands of a new ethics committee that he himself set up, and his party's uneasiness about showing the public how it gets its money.
In highly unfortunate timing, the unpopular British leader told his ethics committee leader, Lord Nolan, to back off from an investigation of how parties are funded-just days before another political scandal broke yesterday.
Sir Jerry Wiggin, a senior Conservative member of Parliament (MP) and ex-government minister, admitted having used another MP's name to introduce an amendment to a parliamentary bill in which he had a financial interest.
As British parliamentary rules stand, he is not required to resign as he has not broken a law.
Parliament, also the country's highest court, polices its own members, who can serve as lobbyists or advisers to companies and other organizations. But more than a dozen financial scandals since Mr. Major took office in 1990 prompted him to set up an investigative committee last October.
But now Major is anxious about the effect the 10-strong committee -- headed by Nolan, a judge -- has already had on Conservative MPs and government ministers.
Despite predictions that they would produce a ''whitewash,'' Nolan and his committee, made up of academics, legal experts and politicians, produced a set of hard-hitting proposals.
Nolan has demanded that politicians fully disclose what they are paid for lobbying or advisory work. He further argued that payment for lobbying should cease altogether.
The committee also called for a tougher code of ethical conduct, and guidance for newly elected members.
Even more controversial was the committee proposal to end the ''revolving door'' whereby government ministers, when they leave office, can walk straight into lucrative positions in private industry.
''The recommendations have had a profound impact on us,'' a senior Conservative MP said yesterday. ''Many of us could not continue without payment for consultancy work. We also believe such arrangements should remain confidential.''
MPs earn about 36,000 ($56,000) a year. Jack Straw, Labour's ''shadow'' Home Secretary, says that ''should be enough,'' but most Conservative MPs find the salary inadequate and are keen to supplement it by consultancy and lobbying work.
It was Nolan's attempt to throw open the details of political party finances, however, that persuaded Major to erect a ''thus far, no farther'' sign across the judge's path.
Unlike their counterparts in most other European countries, British political parties do not receive state funding. They have to rely on subscriptions, donations and, in the case of the Labour party, trade unions.
Labour publishes the amount of money it receives from trade unions.
The Conservatives refuse to disclose where their donations come from, though it has been widely reported that substantial gifts flow in from major companies.
Tony Blair, the leader of the Labour Party, has called for all gifts over 5,000 ($7,800) to be disclosed and wants a total ban on gifts from overseas.
There have been Labour claims that their political foes' coffers have been swelled by donations from business corporations abroad -- including Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Cyprus.
IN attacking the ''revolving door,'' Nolan entered an already lively debate. Mr. Blair has been trying to make it a central political issue. Nolan wants former Cabinet ministers wishing to take lobbying jobs within two years of leaving office to get official permission -- a rule that already applies to senior civil servants.
The disclosure that Mr. Wiggin, a member of Parliament for 26 years, had used the name of his fellow MP, Sebastian Coe (a gold-medal-winning Olympic athlete), to influence a government bill, further embarrasses Major. Mr. Coe has confirmed that Wiggin used his name without permission. Labour has called for an urgent inquiry.
Downing Street sources said yesterday, however, that the case would not change the prime minister's mind that Nolan had already ''done enough for the moment.''
Instead of undertaking detective work on party funding, Nolan said he would look into ethical standards in the House of Lords, the British Parliament's sleepy upper chamber.