Page last updated at 16:56 GMT, Monday, 22 March 2010

Lord Adonis blasts lobbying claims as 'pure fantasy'

Lord Adonis: ''These are the facts. Any claims to the contrary are pure fantasy"

Transport Secretary Lord Adonis has dismissed claims he was involved in a secret deal over a National Express rail franchise as "pure fantasy".

It follows undercover footage of ex-minister Stephen Byers claiming he had persuaded the minister to allow the firm to withdraw on favourable terms.

Mr Byers said later he had overstated his case and never lobbied ministers.

And Lord Adonis told peers there was "no truth whatsoever" in claims he came to "any arrangement" with Mr Byers.

But Lord Adonis's confirmation that he had had "a brief conversation" with Mr Byers in the House of Commons last June about the East Coast mainline led the Tories to step up calls for an inquiry by Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell into the claims.

'Equally untrue'

The row follows an undercover investigation by the Sunday Times and Channel 4, in which former ministers and other MPs were approached by a fictional US firm looking to hire them for lobbying work.

Mr Byers, himself a former transport secretary, was filmed saying he was like a "cab for hire" who would work for up to £5,000 a day and claimed to have saved millions of pounds for National Express who wanted to get out of its East Coast mainline franchise.

But Lord Adonis told peers there was "no truth" in claims he came to "any arrangement" over National Express with Stephen Byers.

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

"It is equally untrue that National Express were allowed by the government to avoid any of their rail contract obligations when the company's East Coast subsidiary announced its intention to default on its franchise on July 1 last year," he said.

"Stephen Byers had a brief conversation in the House of Commons with me last June about the East Coast mainline. We discussed his experience in dealing with rail franchise difficulties when transport secretary.

"As regards the situation then facing National Express, I told him that despite the company's difficulties, I had no intention whatsoever of renegotiating the East Coast franchise on terms favourable to the company, as the company was seeking in its approaches to my department.

"I told Mr Byers that such a move would undermine the rail franchise system and would not be in the best interests of taxpayers."

He added: "These are the facts. Any claims to the contrary are pure fantasy."

'Completely fictitious'

National Express told the BBC it had paid no money to Mr Byers and had only spoken to him in his capacity as an MP for a constituency on the "eastern side of the country".

In undercover footage due to be broadcast on Channel 4's Dispatches programme on Monday, Mr Byers was also recorded saying he had intervened on behalf of Tesco to delay and amend food labelling proposals, by phoning Business Secretary Lord Mandelson.

The Business Department has denied the claims and Tesco said they were "completely fictitious".

The public will expect the Government to treat these revelations with the seriousness they deserve
Sir George Young

Patricia Hewitt, a former health secretary, and another former cabinet minister Geoff Hoon, were also filmed as part of the documentary. They and Mr Byers deny any wrong-doing.

In the Commons, Harriet Harman told MPs that the prime minister had asked Sir Gus O'Donnell for assurances that the departments of business, transport and health - about which allegations were also made in the documentary - had looked into the claims.

She added: "They have assured the cabinet secretary that they are satisfied that there has been no improper influence on government policy or ministerial decisions."

She said ministers in both the Department of Business and transport were "clear that these decisions were made properly in the public interest" and civil servants in the Department of Health were "satisfied that they made the correct decision in the public interest and were not responding to any inappropriate or undue influence".

Standards inquiry

Labour wants all lobbyists to be legally required to register and give details of their clients, Ms Harman added.

But her Conservative shadow Sir George Young said the claims would have "deeply appalled" the public who would expect them to be treated "with the seriousness they deserve".

Harriet Harman: "There has been no improper influence on government policy or ministerial decisions"

He said the prime minister's "decision to rule out a proper inquiry before the television programme has even gone out was simply the wrong response" and repeated calls for Sir Gus O'Donnell to carry out a review.

And David Heath, for the Liberal Democrats, told MPs: "What will our constituents think when they read that honourable and right honourable members of this House think that they should be paid on top of their parliamentary salary more for two days' work than a pensioner gets in a whole year?"

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

In a statement on Monday, Mr Byers, MP for North Tyneside and also a former trade and industry secretary, said: "I have this morning referred myself to the standards commissioner, John Lyon, and asked him to investigate my actions.

"I am confident that he will confirm that I have complied with the MPs' code of conduct and have fully disclosed my outside interests."

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