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Wednesday, 14 February, 2001, 10:32 GMT
MPs call for new sleaze watchdog
Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair
Mr Mandelson resigned over the Hinduja passport affair
A cross-party committee of MPs has called for a new parliamentary watchdog to be set up to investigate allegations of ministerial sleaze.

We have a situation now where in a sense the verdict is pronounced before the investigation takes place

Tony Wright MP
The Commons public administration committee wants an independent investigator to be appointed to examine alleged breaches of the ministerial code of conduct.

However, a spokesman for the prime minister has ruled out any changes.

In a report published on Wednesday the committee also called for the prime minister to be required to come before a Commons committee once a year. The proposals come barely a month after Peter Mandelson was forced to resign as Northern Ireland secretary and amid continuing uncertainty about the future of Europe Minister Keith Vaz.

Boost for Mandelson?

MPs believe the new watchdog would help ensure fairness to ministers subject to intense political pressure and avoid a premature rush to judgement.

Increasingly, ministers are failing even to attempt to justify themselves to parliament for their conduct and its compliance with the [ministerial] code

Andrew Lansley MP
The report is likely to be seized on by Mr Mandelson and his small but vocal band of supporters, who have been pushing the line that he was hastily dumped from the cabinet without being given a fair hearing.

Mr Mandelson's second cabinet resignation amid scandal in two years was sparked by allegations that he misled Tony Blair and colleagues over his role in the passport application of Indian billionaire Srichand Hinduja.

The Hartlepool MP had denied intervening in the application by telephoning Home Office Minister Mike O'Brien about it - a denial contradicted by both Mr O'Brien and Home Secretary Jack Straw, and at one stage by Mr Mandelson himself.

Mr Mandelson has since declared he intends to clear his name and is understood to have written "hundreds of pages" in his defence for the inquiry set up by Mr Blair to investigate the affair.

'Give ministers a chance'

In its report, the committee also said it was not good enough for inquiries into allegations of ministerial impropriety to be carried out by cabinet secretary Sir Richard Wilson or other senior civil servants.

Srichand Hinduja
Srichand Hinduja: Did he get improper help getting a passport?
Committee members said the role of the parliamentary ombudsman should be expanded to be extended to take over this role.

At present the ombudsman investigates only complaints about MPs from constituents.

Labour's Tony Wright MP, chairman of the committee, said the proposed changes would give ministers "a chance".

"We have a situation now where in a sense the verdict is pronounced before the investigation takes place.

"If [ministers] are charged with something under the code of conduct they should have the chance to have an independent investigation.

"You've got the media howling for their blood, you've got a great furore inside Parliament. They need to be able to say 'Let's have an investigation, let's see if I've done it or not'."

'Political football' fear

But Lord Neill, outgoing chairman of the committee on standards in public life, rejected the idea of appointing an investigating officer.

He told the BBC that having a "permanent standing officer" ready to probe allegations against ministers would "turn the thing into a political football".

He also backed the prime minister's discretion to launch any sort of investigation - such as the Hammond inquiry ordered by Mr Blair into the passport saga.

Shadow Cabinet Office minister Andrew Lansley said the report's proposals should be looked at.

"The prime minister shows no willingness to undertake open and transparent investigation of complaints," said Mr Lansley.

"If the prime minister will not enforce the code an independent investigator mechanism should be considered."

However, the proposals are not expected to receive much support from Downing Street.

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See also:

27 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Neill calls for new sleaze code
04 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Tories demand ministerial watchdog
12 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Cabinet secretary met Hindujas
05 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Vaz pressured to go
28 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Mandelson aims to clear his name
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