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Britain Struggles With How to Stop 'Sleaze'

MPs balk at revealing outside income

SHOULD Britain's legislators be forced to disclose how much they earn acting as consultants to organizations outside Parliament?

Six months ago it seemed the question had been answered robustly in the affirmative. In a special report last May, Lord Nolan, a senior judge, urged full disclosure, and it seemed Prime Minister John Major supported his view.

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But last week, ahead of a House of Commons vote today on "sleaze" in public life, a threatened revolt by ruling Conservative Party backbenchers persuaded Mr. Major to back away from Nolan's key recommendation.

Major's majority in the Commons is down to single figures. It requires only a handful of Conservative members of Parliament (MPs) to "cross over" for the government to suffer a humiliation.

The result of Major's change of stance has raised a parliamentary storm and renewed confusion about the propriety of MPs accepting cash for the advice they give to commercial companies and other groups.

As Major defended his standpoint, Tony Blair, leader of the opposition Labour Party, ordered a nationwide poster campaign asking: "What have the Tories got to hide?"

Several senior members of Major's own party criticized his backtracking on the sleaze issue.

Declaring that he would vote for full disclosure, John Biffen, a former leader of the Commons, said the outside earnings of MPs were "a matter of public interest."

David Wiltshire, another Conservative MP, said: "I don't relish being called a sleazebag. The price of proving I am not, by voting for disclosure, is worth paying."

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Conservative MP Richard Shepherd said: "We damage ourselves and the institution of Parliament if it is thought that interests other than those of the country or people we represent prevail." Mr. Biffen, Mr. Wiltshire, and Mr. Shepherd, along with about a dozen other Conservative parliamentarians, indicated that they were dismayed by Major's apparent flip-flop. Nor did they go along with the findings of a Tory-dominated parliamentary committee that last week said MPs should not be required to make public how much they earn from outside consultancies.

The hullabaloo about sleaze in British politics erupted last year when a Sunday newspaper revealed that two Conservative MPs had each been prepared to accept 1,000 ($1,600) in cash for asking questions in the House of Commons. The MPs were later censured by the House. Amid the uproar, Major appointed Nolan to head a permanent committee charged with monitoring so-called sleaze in politics.

When Nolan reported back, Major said: "I don't just accept the broad thrust of Nolan's report. I agree with it."

But he did not reckon with a backlash from his own followers, many of whom find their 33,000 ($52,800) annual parliamentary salary inadequate and insist that they should be allowed to undertake outside consultancies without disclosing the fees.

lan Duncan, one of the younger generation of Conservative MPs, argues that when Nolan was asked to monitor sleaze, he should also have been required to assess whether MPs are paid a living wage. US congressmen, for example, are paid the equivalent of 86,000 ($137,600) a year.

Major's difficulties in coping with many of his supporters' reluctance to disclose their outside earnings were compounded yesterday, when the London Sunday Times reported that a Conservative MP had said he was willing to accept a 1,500 fee to arrange a meeting between a businessman and a Cabinet minister.

The MP denies that he was doing anything wrong. Mr. Heath, along with other defenders of nondisclosure, argue that it is healthy for MPs to have interests and connections beyond Parliament, and that Britain's political life is enriched by the knowledge and contacts thus gained.

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