Saturday 25 November 2017

Ulster Unionist peer resigns whip amid lobbying controversy

Lord Laird. Photo: PA
Lord Laird. Photo: PA

Joe Churcher

LORD Laird has resigned the Ulster Unionist whip pending an inquiry into allegations he broke parliamentary rules.

The peer is alleged to have offered to carry out parliamentary work for cash after being caught in two separate stings by undercover journalists posing as lobbyists.


He denies any wrongdoing and has referred the case to a sleaze watchdog.


In a statement, party leader Mike Nesbitt said: "Having reviewed the video footage on the Daily Telegraph website, and other media reporting of Lord Laird's engagement with alleged lobbyists, I telephoned his home this morning and as a result he has relinquished the Party Whip, pending the outcome of the review of his behaviour that he has already requested of the relevant authorities at Westminster.


Lord Laird is alleged to have told reporters posing as lobbyists as part of a joint investigation by the Telegraph and BBC's Panorama that he could "bribe" colleagues to ask questions and arrange debates in return for a fee of £2,000 per month.


It was part of the same investigation that led MP Patrick Mercer to quit the Tory whip on Friday and refer himself to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards as the controversy over paid lobbying returned to haunt Westminster.


The peer was also one of three members of the upper house - two Labour - alleged to have told Sunday Times reporters posing as representatives of a fake energy firm that they could carry out parliamentary work in return for cash.


In a statement issued before he resigned the whip he said: "I wish to make it clear that I did not agree to act as a paid advocate in any proceedings of the House nor did I accept payment or other incentive or reward in return for providing parliamentary advice or services."


"I have not broken any rules. However, I have referred the situation to the appropriate authorities and I will be making no further statement until I have received their ruling."


Another of those accused, Labour's Lord Mackenzie, the former president of the Police Superintendents Association, also denied any wrongdoing.


The Sunday Times reported that he explained he had "devised a rouse" that allowed him to host events for paying clients, by asking colleagues to hold them for him.


The paper also alleged that he was happy to ask questions and approach ministers in the Lords to "bend their ear".


But speaking on Radio Five Live Lord Mackenzie said he thought he was being asked to be a consultant for the sham company and had followed the Parliamentary Code of Conduct.


When asked if he had done anything wrong, he said: "Not at all, I'm very clear on the rules".


All three peers caught up in the sting are believed to have referred the allegations to the authorities.


Mr Mercer is alleged to have tabled Commons questions and offered a Westminster security pass after signing a deal with a lobbying firm seeking the readmission of Fiji to the Commonwealth that paid him £4,000 .


He said he was taking legal advice but resigned the whip "to save my party embarrassment" and would step down from the Commons at the next general election.


Labour said it would take "appropriate disciplinary action" if there was genuine evidence of wrongdoing by its peers.


Commons and Lords codes of conduct prohibit "paid advocacy" by parliamentarians.


The controversy has reignited calls for the Government to press ahead with promised legislation both for a statutory register of lobbyists and the power for constituents to "recall" MPs who breach the rules.


Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said the public would share his anger about the alleged behaviour and called for immediate cross-party talks on lobbying reform.


"I am angry as a citizen of the United Kingdom that this seems to be happening in parliament and I am angry as a politician that the good name of the endeavour of politics - trying to find shared solutions to shared problems - is once again being smeared by what appears to be conduct that literally cannot be defended.


"It is right that people have the chance to offer an explanation of what they've done but if wrongdoing is proved, of course action should be taken, both by parliament and by the Labour Party."


He said urgent action was required to put lobbying "on a proper footing". And he called for any peers and MPs who broke the law and served time in prison to be barred from parliament.


International Development Secretary Justine Greening backed the need for a "cross-party approach to be able to tackle lobbying effectively".


"It looks like they may have broken the rules. There's a process in place, the Parliamentary Standards Committee, to assess that," she said.


"So within parliament, there is an ability to identify what the rules are, look at due process to find out whether they've been broken.


"But we also need to go further than that and perhaps be better and clearer around what constitutes effective lobbying and when it goes beyond the right line."


"But Parliament is also a place where many people, many different organisations, charities, come to lobby and we have got to make sure that if we do bring forward some proposals they actually do tackle the problem."

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