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Wednesday, September 29, 1999 Published at 13:06 GMT 14:06 UK

UK: Scotland

Privacy ruling in lobby row inquiry

Left to right: Dr Reid, son Kevin Reid and Jack McConnell

An inquiry into allegations that a lobby company offered improper access to Scottish Parliament ministers is to begin behind closed doors.

Brian Taylor reports on the committee's brief deliberations
The parliament's standards committee took the decision after receiving transcripts of film from The Observer newspaper allegedly implicating PR company Beattie Media and ministers in the controversy.

The move provoked anger among opposition parties and Scottish National Party Leader Alex Salmond has called on the Scottish Executive to issue a statement on the matter.

[ image: Mike Rumbles: Committee convener]
Mike Rumbles: Committee convener
The Standards and Privileges Committee broke off from its planned agenda to consider the submission from the newspaper and decided after a recess that the matter should be initially be considered in private.

Committee convener Mike Rumbles said the naming of an MSP in any matter before the committee meant it had to go into private session.

He revealed that the committee had decided to meet in private next Tuesday to set out the terms of reference of its inquiry.

Mr Rumbles said: "It has been a convention of the standards committee that when any individual MSP is named in anything that comes before us, we take that in private session.

"We will meet on Tuesday in private session for careful consideration of the matters raised which have been placed before us with a view to deciding on the terms of an investigation."

Within minutes of convening, the committee had adjourned to consider a letter from The Observer which accompanied the transcripts amid reluctance from convener Mike Rumbles to consider the matter in detail immediately.

Potential client

The newspaper said the transcripts are of a conversation between two employees of public relations company Beattie Media and a newspaper reporter who posed as a potential client seeking to use the company to gain access to ministers.

One of the Beattie officials was Kevin Reid, son of Scottish Secretary Dr John Reid, who has since issued a strong denial of impropriety on his son's behalf.

The PR company staff were secretly filmed allegedly telling the reporter they held influence with ministers and in particular Finance Minister Jack McConnell, who is a former employee of Beattie Media.

Brian Taylor reports on the committee's brief deliberations
The allegations caused a political storm, with the Scottish National Party calling for an immediate investigation and concern that committee chairman Mike Rumbles had not acted swiftly enough in dealing with the controversy.

Scottish First Minister Donald Dewar said a subsequent apology by Beattie Media for any embarrassment caused showed ministers had been exonerated and he promised a detailed inquiry.

Before the MSPs adjourned to consider The Observer's letter, SNP member Tricia Marwick called on convener Mr Rumbles to tell the committee when he was first made aware of The Observer's allegations - prompting a stiff exchange.

[ image: Jack McConnell: Named in story]
Jack McConnell: Named in story
Mr Rumbles said he had already stated that he first knew of the story on Thursday and felt it was unnecessary to repeat himself

Ms Marwick said: "With respect convener these are issues which are revelant to the standards committee and to the people who believe that the standards committee has a responsibility to this whole parliament.

"So I think it is germane that we establish who knew about these allegations and when."

Mr Rumbles sought to reject a call from Ms Marwick to consider the transcripts straight away, stating that MSPs needed time to digest the information.

He added: "You have been on record at I think the last two standards committee meetings of criticising me for my openness and accessibility. I do feel it is important to move on on this.

"I don't feel any purpose is served here and I want to move on to the actual agenda."

Earlier in the day, Mr McConnell denied any wrongdoing in the affair and backed a parliamentary inquiry.

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