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In Crackdown on Corruption, A British Judge Sallies Forth

Prime minister may soon set up overseer for Parliament

MINGLING with a mushrooming number of lobbyists, members of Parliament (MPs) in Britain may soon be saddled with an independent authority that would have sweeping powers to regulate their finances.

The idea comes from Lord Nolan, a senior judge who last week opened an inquiry into the standards of public life in Britain. He urged British Prime Minister John Major to act on his recommendation and, according to government sources, Mr. Major will almost certainly heed the call.

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The result could push Britain to the forefront of European nations grappling with corruption and sagging public confidence in leaders.

In Rome, corruption destroyed the country's long-established political parties and last year propelled Silvio Berlusconi into the premiership. Soon after his election, Mr. Berlusconi was himself engulfed in charges of misusing his position as a media tycoon, and was forced to resign.

And in Paris, several members of Prime Minister Edouard Balladur's government have quit amid charges of financial malpractice.

Last fall, several British Conservative MPs were accused of accepting money and favors from lobbyists in return for asking specific questions in the House of Commons. Amid the uproar, Major asked Lord Nolan to mount an inquiry into standards of public life.

Nolan decided to hold public hearings, which opened in London last week, and invited submissions from interested parties. He has received 1,400 written submissions.

``MPs need much better guidance on what is and what is not acceptable,'' Nolan says. The system - common in Europe - whereby politicians regulate their own affairs should be replaced by ``an independent element.''

He reached his conclusion after hearing from Lords and journalists. Simon Jenkins, a former editor of the London Times, condemned a tendency to ``pack health, education, and other administrative bodies with the wives of Conservative MPs.'' One of the few people to tell Nolan that MPs being paid by lobbying firms was acceptable was Dame Angela Rumbold, deputy chairman of the Conservative party. She argued that politicians need such contacts ``if they are to advance as individuals.''

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Last October, Dame Angela resigned a 12,000 pounds ($19,000)-a-year post with a parliamentary lobbying organization after being accused of influencing a government decision about the Channel Tunnel.

Nolan's inquiry will produce its first report in April. By favoring a watchdog on MPs, Nolan is breaking with long-established practice. For centuries, parliamentarians have been trusted to regulate their own conduct through the House of Commons privileges committee.

Now Nolan is saying that is not good enough. Evidence from Ivor Crewe, professor of politics at Essex University, may have helped persuade him.

Mr. Crewe says that probably very few politicians are corrupt, but the public in Britain and other European countries think otherwise.

Cynicism toward MPs has skyrocketed following a series of scandals about politicians' sexual behavior and financial dealings, Crewe says. ``MPs are now at the bottom of the league of public esteem, along with estate agents and journalists,'' he added.

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