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Monday, 26 January 2009

Revealed: Labour lords change laws for cash

LABOUR peers are prepared to accept fees of up to £120,000 a year to amend laws in the House of Lords on behalf of business clients, a Sunday Times investigation has found.

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Four peers — including two former ministers — offered to help undercover reporters posing as lobbyists obtain an amendment in return for cash.

Two of the peers were secretly recorded telling the reporters they had previously secured changes to bills going through parliament to help their clients.

Lord Truscott, the former energy minister, said he had helped to ensure the Energy Bill was favourable to a client selling “smart” electricity meters. Lord Taylor of Blackburn claimed he had changed the law to help his client Experian, the credit check company.

Taylor told the reporters: “I will work within the rules, but the rules are meant to be bent sometimes.”

The other peers who agreed to assist our reporters for a fee were Lord Moonie, a former defence minister, and Lord Snape, a former Labour whip.

The disclosure that peers are “for hire” to help change legislation confirms persistent rumours in Westminster that lobbyists are targeting the Lords rather than the Commons, where MPs are under greater scrutiny.

Brendan Keith, the registrar of Lords’ interests, said on Friday that taking a fee to help amend bills was a breach of the “no paid advocacy” rules which prevent peers from promoting the cause of a paid client in parliament. “The rules say that a member of the House must never accept any financial inducement as an incentive or reward for exerting parliamentary influence,” he said.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon, leader of the House of Lords, issued a statement yesterday saying: “I am deeply concerned about these allegations. I have spoken to the members who are the subject of them and I shall be pursuing these matters with the utmost vigour."

Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat MP, said he would take up the issue with the Lords authorities. “Legislators in the Commons and the Lords are there to pass legislation on behalf of the country, not to change the law in return for financial favours,” he said.

The Sunday Times began its investigation last year after Taylor had been forced to apologise for asking a question in the House on behalf of a paying client without declaring an interest. His friend Jack Straw, the justice minister, was reprimanded last week over an undeclared donation which had been arranged by the peer.

Our reporters posed as lobbyists acting for a foreign client who was setting up a chain of shops in the UK and wanted to secure an exemption from the Business Rates Supplements Bill. We selected 10 Lords who already had a number of paid consultancies. The three Conservative peers did not return our calls and a Liberal Democrat and an Ulster Unionist both declined to help after meeting the undercover reporters.

However, four of the five Labour peers were willing to help to amend the bill in return for retainers. Some were more forthright than others.

Taylor, a former BAE consultant, said he would not table the amendment himself but offered to conduct a “behind the scenes” campaign to persuade ministers and officials. After agreeing a one-year retainer for £120,000, he said he would discuss the amendment with Yvette Cooper, chief secretary to the Treasury, and talk to officials drafting the bill.

Truscott, his Labour colleague, was also keen to help “behind the scenes” — for a fee of up to £72,000: “I can work with you . . . identifying people and following it . . . meeting people, talking to people to facilitate the amendment and making sure the thing is granted.”

He said he would identify and talk to people who could be persuaded to change the legislation. He offered to contact MPs, peers, civil servants and John Healey, the minister in charge of the legislation.

Moonie offered to help for a fee of £30,000 a year and Snape indicated that he would charge £24,000. By contrast Lord Rogan, the Ulster Unionist peer, said: “If your direct proposal is as stark as for me . . . to help to put down an amendment, that’s a non-runner. A, it’s not right and b, my personal integrity wouldn’t let me do it.”

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