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Friday, October 29, 1999 Published at 07:40 GMT

UK: Scotland

Standards watchdog clears McConnell

Beattie staff: Alex Barr, Gordon Beattie, Kevin Reid

The Scottish Parliament's Standards Committee has cleared the Finance Minister Jack McConnell of acting improperly in the Lobbygate controversy.

Brian Taylor: "Code of conduct"
Members of the commitee unanimously declared there was no evidence that Mr McConnell had been influenced by the lobbying arm of public relations company Beattie Media.

The findings followed the committee's investigation into allegations in The Observer newspaper.

Beattie Media executives, including Kevin Reid, the son of Scottish Secretary Dr John Reid, were filmed telling an Observer journalist posing as a businessman that they had influence with ministers and Mr McConnell in particular.

[ image: Mr McConnell denied links with PR firm]
Mr McConnell denied links with PR firm
Mr McConnell, whose career would have almost certainly been ended if the allegations had been upheld, consistently denied being open to influence by his former employers at Beattie Media.

Members of the standards committee said that on the basis of material given to them, there was no evidence he had acted wrongly and a report on the inquiry would now be prepared for the Scottish Parliament.

The committee will now set about drafting a code of conduct for MSPs and regulations for lobbying firms.

BBC Scotland Political Editor Brian Taylor on the standards committee's findings
However, the seven-member committee voiced concern over an apparent conflict in evidence given by Mr McConnell's constituency secretary, Christina Marshall, and lobbyist Alex Barr.

Ms Marshall disputed evidence given under oath by Mr Barr about a conversation relating to the minister's diary.

The 22-year-old, who works in the Wishaw constituency office of Mr McConnell, bluntly denied that Beattie Media had ever been able to place an engagement in his diary.

Documentary evidence

The committee took evidence on Wednesday from witnesses and adjourned until Friday so that further documentary evidence could be presented.

The extra evidence provided was a typewritten note of a telephone conversation between Ms Marshall and journalist Dean Nelson of The Observer and a record of a question-and-answer session with Mr McConnell and First Minister Donald Dewar on the affair.

When the committee reconvened, Liberal Democrat chairman, Mike Rumbles, invited its members to give their views on all of the evidence in the case.

Tricia Marwick, one of two Scottish National Party members on the committee, said: "From the material presented to me and from the evidence I have heard over the last 24 days, I conclude there is no evidence that Jack McConnell has acted improperly."

However, Ms Marwick added that she suspected there had been a conflict in the evidence given on oath by "at least one" of the people who had given evidence.

Referring to evidence of a conversation between Christina Marshall and Alex Barr, Ms Marwick said that Ms Marshall had called it a "difference of recollection".

She added: "In my view, there was a difference of fact."

[ image: Christina Marshall: Conflicting evidence]
Christina Marshall: Conflicting evidence
But Ms Marwick then told the committee: "I don't think it is the role of this committee to decide who, between Christina Marshall and Alex Barr, was not telling the truth."

The committee's role, she said, had been to investigate the behaviour of Mr McConnell and she said: "From the evidence that has come to us, I conclude there is no evidence that Jack McConnell has acted improperly."

Other members of the committee delivered a similar verdict, as one by one their views were taken by Mr Rumbles.

In evidence to the committee, Mr Barr admitted "over-stating" his company's capabilities in politics.

The company, which is led by Gordon Beattie, has apologised to ministers for any embarrassnent caused and announced the winding up of the lobbying operation.

A Scottish Executive spokesman said: "Mr McConnell has consistently stated that there was no evidence of impropriety. The committee has agreed.

"He now wants to get on with the job he was appointed to as Scotland's finance minister."

The outcome was welcomed by First Minister Donald Dewar, who said: "I did not doubt the outcome. There never was any evidence to suggest it was anything more than an over-enthusiastic sales pitch."

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