Lobbying row deepens as Lord Laird denies breach of rules

Ulster Unionist peer vigorously denies sleaze claims amid undercover sting that also targeted two Labour peers

A peer denied breaching parliamentary rules as the Westminster lobbying controversy extended to the House of Lords.

Ulster Unionist Lord Laird said he had referred claims to a sleaze watchdog that he offered to act as a paid advocate for lobbyists. He was one of three peers caught up in an undercover sting by Sunday Times reporters posing as representatives of an energy firm.

The newspaper said he was recorded setting out ways he could lobby for new laws on behalf of a South Korean solar power firm. But he insisted he had suspected from the start that they were not genuine.

“In recent days I have been the subject of a scam operated by journalists masquerading as communications consultants,” he said in a statement. “This has led to allegations that I have broken the rules of the House of Lords.

“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.”

He said that because he suspected a scam, he took a journalist to the meeting as a witness. “Shortly after the meeting, because it was so obviously a scam, we reported it to the appropriate authorities in the Lords.

“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.”

The latest claims emerged a day after the MP Patrick Mercer quit the Tory whip after being filmed in a separate undercover operation. He is alleged to have tabled Commons questions and offered a Westminster security pass after signing a deal with a lobbying firm that paid him £4,000 seeking the readmission of Fiji to the Commonwealth. The lobbyists were in fact undercover reporters conducting an investigation for BBC’s Panorama and the Daily Telegraph newspaper.

The Sunday Times said the peers – two from Labour – were caught offering to ask parliamentary questions and lobby ministers in return for cash. All three are believed to have referred themselves to the watchdog.

A Labour spokeswoman said: “The party expects all peers to comply with the Lords code of conduct, which is there to bring clarity to their dealings with outside commercial interests and consultancies. We demand high standards of behaviour from our parliamentarians.

“Where there is genuine evidence of wrongdoing, including non-compliance with the code of conduct, the Labour party will consider appropriate disciplinary action as and when necessary.”

Mercer said he was taking legal advice but resigned the whip to save his party embarrassment, and would step down from the Commons at the next general election. He also referred himself to the parliamentary commissioner for standards.

The MPs’ code of conduct prohibits “paid advocacy” and requires the declaration of financial interests. The Tory Monmouth MP, David Davies, has revealed that he was among those targeted by the Panorama sting, but insisted he refused the offer of lobbying work.

Mercer tabled questions to ministers in May about Fiji and also tabled a motion saying there was “no justification for Fiji’s continued suspension from the Commonwealth”. Names were revealed of some of the MPs who agreed to join an all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on Fiji at Mercer’s invitation – none of whom faces any allegations of wrongdoing.

Among those named by the Sunday Telegraph were Tories Julian Brazier and Mark Field and Labour MPs Keith Vaz, Valerie Vaz and Fabian Hamilton. All defended their decision to offer support to the group. Mercer reportedly boasted to the undercover reporters that among 18 MPs he signed up were “several freeloaders that would like to go to Fiji”.

A spokesman for Vaz said he was a member of several such groups but had not been offered a visit to Fiji. “He fully supports Fiji’s suspension from the Commonwealth which should remain until there are free and fair elections. This reflects the views of his Fijian-origin constituents,” he said.

A review into APPGs was announced by the Commons standards committee in January following a working group set up by Speaker John Bercow whose recommendations included the need for greater transparency. The Fiji group was never formally registered.

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. Nick Clegg has made clear his determination to secure the register – blaming the Tories for the lack of action.

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