Peer was among subjects of sting by undercover reporters, who offered cash incentives to ask questions in House of Lords
An Ulster Unionist peer has resigned the party’s whip pending an inquiry into allegations he broke rules by offering to carry out parliamentary work for cash.
Lord Laird is among a number of peers alleged to have offered to work with undercover journalists posing as lobbyists. He denies any wrongdoing and has referred the case to a sleaze watchdog.
Laird has been caught in two separate stings this weekend – one by the BBC’s Panorama and another by the Sunday Times. His resignation, which comes days after the MP Patrick Mercer resigned the Tory whip after being stung by undercover reporters, will increase pressure upon the parliamentary authorities and David Cameron to introduce new rules governing lobbying.
In a statement, the UUP 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.”
Laird was allegedly recorded by Panorama saying he would be able to bribe fellow peers with the promise of free trips to Fiji. The undercover reporters claimed to be lobbyists who said they wanted to overturn sanctions imposed on the country for its human rights record.
Laird said: “I’ll deny having said this, but it’s a bribe … the sort of thing I can say to these guys … you put that question down now,” it is alleged. He was also 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 Mercer quit the Tory whip. 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.
Justine Greening, the minister for international development, said that the rules of lobbying will have to be re-examined in the light of the latest claims. “With the cases that have come to light over the weekend, it looks as if they [the peers] may have broken the rules … but I think we also need to look at whether we can go further than that and be better and clearer about what constitutes fairer lobbying and when it goes beyond the right line,” she told Murnaghan on Sky.
Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, told the Andrew Marr show that if the rules have been broken, then it is for Labour’s chief whip to take action. “It would be for the chief whip to take that action and I would be encouraging her to do so,” he said.
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 will 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 Keith 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.