Page last updated at 18:46 GMT, Sunday, 21 March 2010

Ex-ministers in 'cash for influence' row under fire

Stephen Byers in a secret video recorded by Channel 4 Dispatches/Sunday Times

Ministers have condemned ex-cabinet colleagues who were secretly filmed apparently offering to try to influence government policy in return for cash.

Labour MP Stephen Byers was recorded as saying he would work for up to £5,000 a day and was like a "cab for hire" in the Sunday Times and Channel 4 probe.

Patricia Hewitt allegedly said she would need up to £3,000. Both MPs firmly deny any wrongdoing.

Chancellor Alistair Darling says what happened was "ridiculous".

And Foreign Secretary David Miliband told Sky News Sunday Live he was "appalled" by the apparent actions of his former colleagues, saying "there is absolutely no room for anyone to trade on their ministerial office".

I have never lobbied ministers on behalf of commercial organisations and have always fully disclosed my outside interests
Stephen Byers, Labour MP

Mr Miliband said Labour had tightened up the rules on lobbying by former ministers already.

"But the Labour manifesto is going to say more about the need for a statutory register of the lobbying industry, because there is absolutely no room for the sort of innuendo or promises that seem to have been floated in this case."

'Nothing improper'

Mr Byers, the former trade and industry minister who is standing down as an MP at the election, told an investigative reporter that he had secured secret deals with ministers, could get confidential information from Number 10 and was able to help firms involved in price fixing get around the law.

THE RULES
Sitting MPs are not banned from working for corporate clients but the practice is controversial
They must declare any payment in the register of members' interests
Any paid work taken by an ex-minister within two years of leaving office must be cleared by a panel - the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments
They are not allowed to table amendments or vote on bills in exchange for payment
They are normally banned for 12 months from becoming lobbyists in their specialist fields
Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems all say they want the rules tightened to prevent ex-ministers exploiting their contacts for private gain

He also suggested bringing clients to meet former Prime Minister Tony Blair, the investigators allege.

The next day Mr Byers retracted his claims, saying he had "never lobbied ministers on behalf of commercial interests" and had exaggerated his influence.

According to the investigators, Mr Byers, who stood down as a minister in 2002, claimed to have put pressure on the relevant minister to change policies on behalf of rail and bus operator National Express and, on a separate occasion, on behalf of supermarket giant Tesco.

Lib Dem transport spokesman Norman Baker has said he will be asking the Parliamentary Standards commissioner to investigate Mr Byers' alleged claim that he had struck a deal with Transport Secretary Lord Adonis on behalf of National Express, when it was seeking to get rid of its East Coast rail franchise.

Lord Adonis later said in a statement: "There is no truth whatsoever in the suggestion that Stephen Byers came to any arrangement with Andrew Adonis on any matter relating to National Express."

In a statement, Mr Byers said: "I am confident that any investigation from the Standards Commissioner will confirm that I have always fully complied with the MPs code of conduct.

Really, what on earth did they think they were doing?
Chancellor Alistair Darling

"I have never lobbied ministers on behalf of commercial organisations and have always fully disclosed my outside interests."

National Express denied paying the MP and told the newspaper that he was among a number of MPs with seats along the affected rail line it had contacted.

Mr Byers also told the undercover reporter that - after contact from supermarket giant Tesco - he spoke to business secretary Lord Mandelson about the proposed food labelling regulation who "got it delayed and then got it amended".

Lord Mandelson said he had "no recollection" of talking to Mr Byers about the issue.

A Tesco spokesman said: "We did not speak to Mr Byers on food labelling, regulation or indeed any other issue. These claims are completely fictitious and Mr Byers has acknowledged this to us."

'Ridiculous'

Mrs Hewitt, who is also standing down as an MP, said she "completely rejected" the suggestion she helped obtain a key seat on a government advisory group for a client paying her £3,000 a day.

The former health secretary said the role she had been discussing would only have been taken up after she stepped down as an MP at the next election.

There was "nothing unusual or improper in the business appointments that I have taken up since leaving government", she added.

David Cameron said some weeks ago now that lobbying was the next scandal waiting to happen
William Hague, shadow foreign secretary

Former defence secretary Geoff Hoon, who is standing down at the election, is also named in the investigation, which claims he offered to lead delegations to ministers, and said he wanted to make use of his knowledge and contacts. He said he charged £3,000 a day.

Mr Hoon said he had not offered to lobby government, nor had he broken any rules.

"I was written to by what seemed to be a reputable American company. They had a website, and addresses in both the United States and St James's Square, London," he said in a statement.

"I was asked to visit their offices to have what they described as 'an informal chat'. This took place after the announcement of my decision to leave Parliament before the next election."

He said that "in the course of what I assumed to be a private conversation, I was asked whether I might be interested in joining the advisory board of a UK company that they were thinking of establishing".

He said he made clear he would not lobby government or "attempt to sell confidential or privileged information arising from my time in government".

Mr Hoon told the undercover reporter he was interested in "translating my knowledge and contacts about the international scene into something that frankly makes money".

'Code of conduct'

But he went on: "I do not want to be seen to leave politics and go back as some sort of lobbyist."

Questioned about the newspaper's claims by the BBC's Andrew Marr, Mr Darling said: "The best answer when you get a call like that is to put the receiver back down again. It's obvious.

"There are rules about serving MPs - we've said that we're going to have to, I think, get a statutory-backed code of conduct to deal with former ministers.

"But really, what on earth did they think they were doing?

"And equally for a company, you don't need a lobbyist. If you've got something to say, go directly to the government department and make your case. It's just ridiculous."

The investigation also claimed Luton MP Margaret Moran said she could call a group of female colleagues on behalf of clients.

According to the Sunday Times, 13 Labour and seven Conservative MPs were approached during the investigation.

'Serious issue'

Conservative leader David Cameron, who recently warned that lobbying would be the next political scandal in the UK, called for a House of Commons investigation into what he said were "shocking" allegations against the MPs.

He urged Prime Minister Gordon Brown to hold a separate probe into the allegations against ministers.

"I think what it shows is a party that has been in power for far too long and has lost touch with what it's meant to be doing," he told the BBC.

The Conservatives say they would rewrite the ministerial code so ministers are banned from accepting lobbying jobs for two years after they leave office.

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg told BBC One's Politics Show the story "just beggars belief" and illustrated the need for "reform of the whole rotten system from top to bottom".

Both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have said they plan to table Parliamentary questions next week to establish what contact, if any, Stephen Byers might have had with ministers.



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