Page last updated at 16:48 GMT, Wednesday, 10 June 2009 17:48 UK

MPs' questions 'breached rules'

By Mark Easton
Home editor, BBC News

Houses of Parliament
It is left to MPs to decide when a declaration is necessary

Some MPs who did not declare financial interests when asking questions in Parliament were in apparent breach of Parliamentary rules, the BBC has found.

They registered money paid by outside sources, but did not mention it when tabling questions to ministers - potentially "a very serious breach".

MPs must register any money they make outside Parliament.

They must also declare it when asking a question if it "might reasonably be thought" it influenced their actions.

The Conservative MP David Amess recently tabled a question to Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell asking what discussions she had had with the Caravan Club about caravan sites at the 2012 Games.

Undeclared interests

Mr Amess has registered an annual payment of between £5,000 and £10,000 he receives from the Caravan Club.

But he did not declare his interest when putting down the written question to the minister.

Nor did he alert ministers to his registered interest when asking five other questions about caravans.

According to the "Rules Relating to the Conduct of Members" not declaring a relevant interest in such circumstances is "a very serious breach of the rules".

Mr Amess has told the BBC it was "an innocent mistake".

He said: "Whether or not my office forgot to tick the box, the questions were completely in order anyway. I've spoken to register of interests and the Caravan Club.

"My question was trying to divert a potentially embarrassing PR disaster if people turned up in caravans in large numbers for the Olympics with no provision.

"There is no financial interest for the caravan club in the question. They can't deal with the capacity problem."

I hold up both hands for that, but it was a genuine omission, not an attempt to avoid rules
Jim Hood MP

Another MP who may have breached the rules on declaring an interest is Labour's Jim Hood.

He tabled questions about government plans to support clean coal technology in Scotland but did not declare his registered interest as a paid consultant to Scottish Coal.

The company has been actively campaigning for government to support clean coal technology.

Mr Hood is paid between £5,000 and £10,000 by Scottish Coal.

Referring to the written questions he said: "On both of those I should have ticked the box and I omitted to do so. I hold up both hands for that, but it was a genuine omission, not an attempt to avoid rules."

In relation to a prime minister's question on the security of supply of electricity generation he said it was a "criticism of SNP policy not to build nuclear".

"It had no relation to Scottish Coal," he said.

'No interest'

Conservative Philip Hollobone also tabled written questions asking for details of government plans for clean coal while being paid by a company which markets clean coal technology.

In October 2007 he asked the Scottish Secretary and Welsh Secretary "what assessment he has made of the future for clean coal".

Mr Hollobone first registered income of between £15,000 and £20,000 a year as a director of Nviro Cleantech in January of that year.

He told the BBC he did not deem it necessary to declare his interest when he wrote to ministers because it was such a "general question".

The Kettering MP added: "I am confident that I have behaved in a proper and correct way, and would not have asked these questions if there were any conflict of interest."

The rules say that "a pecuniary interest should be declared if it might reasonably be thought by others to influence the speech, representation or communication in question".

The BBC has identified a number of other MPs on both sides of the House who, it might be argued, should have declared a financial interest when tabling or asking Parliamentary questions.

Above all it should be disclosed when a member is dealing with ministers of the crown and civil servants
Guide to the Rules

Under the current system no-one checks whether MPs are declaring relevant outside interests.

It is left to members to decide when a declaration is necessary and potential breaches would only be investigated by the Parliamentary Commissioner if a complaint was made.

The rules on declaration go back decades with the current rules reminding MPs they have a duty to make any relevant financial interest clear.

"Above all it should be disclosed when a member is dealing with ministers of the crown and civil servants", the Guide to the Rules states.

If an MP does not declare a relevant interest when tabling a written question to a minister, the Parliamentary authority "assumes that no interest is declarable".

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has announced that a new independent Parliamentary Standards Authority will be created.

Among other duties, he said it would "maintain the register of interests".

What is not yet clear is if that body will proactively investigate whether MPs are abiding by the rules on outside payments.



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