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Wednesday, October 27, 1999 Published at 13:47 GMT 14:47 UK

UK: Scotland

Secretary disputes Lobbygate evidence

Christina Marshall gives evidence to the committee hearing

A secretary involved in the so-called Scottish Parliament "Lobbygate " row has disputed evidence given under oath by a public relations executive about a conversation relating to a minister's diary.

Christina Marshall, 22, who works in the Wishaw constituency office of Finance Minister Jack McConnell, appeared before the parliament's Standards Committee to give her version of events.

Finance Minister Jack McConnell reads a statement
Mr McConnell took the witness chair after Miss Marshall and bluntly denied that the company at the centre of the row had ever been able to place an engagement in his diary.

MSPs are investigating newspaper allegations that the lobbying arm of the public relations company Beattie Media had privileged access to ministers.

Earlier this month, Beattie Media executive Alex Barr told the committee he was organising a Finance Director of the Year event for next year and rang Miss Marshall to ask if Mr McConnell would be interested in attending.

Statement denied

Mr Barr said Miss Marshall advised him that if he did not hear back from him within a couple of days, "you can consider it confirmed".

But Miss Marshall repeatedly denied making this statement during the conversation, which took place in August on a mobile phone while she was out of the office.

"I never on any occasion gave him any indication that Mr McConnell would attend," she declared.

[ image: Mr McConnell delivers his evidence]
Mr McConnell delivers his evidence
Mr McConnell later supported her statement: "The truth is that my constituency assistant never at any time committed me, even provisionally, to attending this engagement."

He also denied suggestions that there had been regular contacts between himself and Beattie Media. "I have never been open to undue influence arising from my former employment," he said.

"Beattie Media did not, and would never be able, to place an appointment in my diary. I have not acted and will not act in any way that would let down the people of Motherwell or Wishaw."

Miss Marshall, daughter of Glasgow Shettleston Labour MP David Marshall, said she had made a rough note of the conversation with Mr Barr in the back of a forward planner when she returned to the office. The entry was never entered into Mr McConnell's diary.

When she told Mr McConnell about the conversation, the minister said she should not bother responding unless an invitation was received in writing. She said he had also told her he was unlikely to accept any such invitation.

Note blanked out

"Having spoken to Mr McConnell I then tippexed over the entry in the forward planner. The brief note which I made of my telephone conversation with Mr Barr was on a piece of paper and once I had placed a note in the forward planner I disposed of the piece of paper, as was my practice," she told the committee.

Miss Marshall explained that it was also her practice to destroy short-hand notebooks when they were full. The notebook she had had at the time of her conversation with Mr Barr had been destroyed two or three weeks before The Observer newspaper published the story which started the investigation.

Secretary Christina Marshall reads her submission to the committee
She told MSPs that she worked for Beattie Media from May 1998 until July 1999, first as assistant personal assistant to the managing director Gordon Beattie, and was later promoted to the events division.

During this time, she met Mr McConnell, who was then chief executive of Public Affairs Europe Ltd, a company in which Beattie Media has an interest.

She applied for the post of Mr McConnell's constituency secretary as a result of a newspaper advertisment and was interviewed by him and Professor Mike Donnelly, professor of management studies at the University of Paisley.

Beattie 'placement' rejected

She said she was asked by management to continue with Beattie Media. "The suggestion that Beattie Media had placed me to work with Mr McConnell is wrong," said Miss Marshall.

The Observer secretly filmed a meeting between the journalist posing as a potential client, Mr Barr and his Beattie colleague Kevin Reid, the son of Scottish Secretary Dr John Reid.

In evidence to the committee, Mr Barr admitted "over-stating" his company's capabilities in politics but said he believed he was in a competitive situation, pitching for a new client.

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