Page last updated at 22:00 GMT, Monday, 22 March 2010

Q&A - MPs' foreign trips and rule breaches

A BBC investigation has revealed that more than 20 MPs have breached rules in relation to registering and declaring overseas trips paid for by foreign governments.

Are MPs banned from accepting free trips abroad from foreign governments or other organisations?

No. MPs are within their rights to accept such trips. As their code of conduct acknowledges: "The knowledge obtained by members on such visits can often be of value to the House as a whole."

For example, MPs could later use insight they gained into regional economic, social or political issues - such as the Middle East peace process - or information on local developments or initiatives to contribute to debates.

However, there are strict rules barring "paid advocacy", or lobbying, on behalf of other countries.

The code says: "There is a point at which promoting the interests, of eg a foreign government from which hospitality has been received, crosses the line between informed comment and lobbying."

What are the obligations on MPs who take such trips?

According to their code of conduct: "When accepting foreign visits they should be mindful of the reputation of the House".

Any MP who has an overseas trip paid for by a foreign government must register it within four weeks.

Mark Easton
By Mark Easton, BBC home editor

The point of the regulations is to ensure that a sceptical citizenry can be confident about the integrity of their elected representatives.

Transparency is key.

The whole system only works if members take this responsibility seriously. Declaration doesn't imply wrongdoing, but a failure to declare might be interpreted that way.

The widespread abuse of the system uncovered by our investigation suggests some Members of Parliament don't understand this.

But what really struck me as I conducted the investigation is that the system of scrutiny surrounding the rules clearly does not work.

For a year from the date of registration, the MP must then declare a financial interest if the trip "might reasonably be thought by others to influence the speech, representation or communication in question".

This includes tabling questions, motions, bills or amendments, and when speaking out during Commons proceedings.

Members may not, for example, call for increased UK financial assistance to the government which provided the hospitality.

However, the code leaves room for doubt by stating it is the MPs' responsibility "to judge whether a financial interest is sufficiently relevant to a particular debate, proceeding, meeting or other activity to require a declaration".

How should MPs declare an interest?

According to the MPs' code of conduct, declaring an interest on a written notice or order paper "should be done by inserting "[R]" after the member's name on the motion or amendment... or filling in the appropriate box which appears on the form for parliamentary questions".

When speaking in the Commons, MPs should make a verbal declaration. The code acknowledges that: "The House has always recognised that there are certain proceedings where declaration of interest is impracticable; eg during oral questions or when asking a question in response to ministerial statement on a matter of public policy or supplementary to an urgent question."

However, it adds that "members are advised to declare any relevant interest when such a declaration does not unduly impede the business of the House".

How serious are these breaches?

According to the Committee on Standards and Privileges, it would be a "very serious breach of the rules" for an MP to fail to declare an interest when putting forward a bill, petition or motion, or tabling a parliamentary question or amendment.

The House of Commons code of conduct declares that paid advocacy is "wholly incompatible with the rule that any member should take payment for speaking in the House".

Do the rules apply to all overseas trips?

No. Visits by ministers on government or European business are not affected by these rules.

Other trips which are exempt include those paid for wholly by political parties, or undertaken on behalf of select committees - such as the Foreign Affairs or International Development committees.

Visits organised by named groups such as the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy are also exempt.

Who oversees the rules?

Ultimately, the procedures are overseen by the MPs themselves.

If anyone suspects an MP has breached the rules, they can report this to the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

If the commissioner believes there is evidence to support a breach, he may decide the matter can be simply resolved.

Where an MP has failed to register a foreign trip, a late registration can be made. In cases where MPs have failed to declare an interest, they can apologise to the House through a point of order.

Alternatively, the commissioner can report his conclusions to the MPs of the Committee on Standards and Privileges.

Where those MPs agree that there has been a breach in the rules, the committee may make recommendations to the House on whether further action is required.

MPs who have breached the rules:

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