Northern Ireland peer Lord Laird has forced the BBC into a climbdown over appearance fees it paid to a Labour MP.
The Ulster Unionist peer combed the corporation’s rule book and complained about the money paid to shadow health minister Diane Abbott to appear alongside Tory Michael Portillo on Thursday night TV show This Week.
Lord Laird (below), known at Westminster for thousands of written questions he has tabled to ministers, said he took on the BBC as he believed it did not show enough Ulster-Scots programmes.
After his initial letter was rebuffed, the BBC Trust upheld his appeal in a verdict published yesterday. It was found that Ms Abbott’s performances on the show, presented by Andrew Neil, had been “too frequent” since her promotion to the front bench and she had been paid more than £6,000.
Front bench MPs are more likely to express party political views than backbenchers, and BBC guidelines state it should not normally pay MPs for “expressing political views”. Instead, smaller “disturbance” payments should make up for any inconvenience.
Lord Laird said: “I checked in minute detail, because I had a feeling there was something funny about Diane Abbott.
“They tried to fob me off with a load of rubbish but I persisted, and I like to think that my persistence has been vindicated. She was being paid by the BBC to put forward her political viewpoint. They got very uppity about it, and fobbed me off with a very dismissive letter. They thought they would just steamroller an ordinary Northern Ireland backbencher. But if they are going to play funny with me, I am going to play funny with them.”
Ms Abbott was named shadow minister for public health in October 2010. She appeared on the show eight times up to July this year and declared earnings from the show of £6,712 in that period.
The BBC admitted she had appeared “too often”.
With around 15,000 to date, Lord Laird tops the list of the most questions posed a year in the Upper House. This has made him a scourge of civil servants, particularly in the Northern Ireland Office. Recently officials limited peers’ written questions — prompting Lord Laird to complain he has been “gagged”. BBC rules say MPs should not be paid for appearances when they are “speaking as a member of their party or expressing political views”. The BBC initially claimed Diane Abbott had “a co-presenter role”, but later agreed her shadow ministerial role meant “she had less licence to depart from the party line”.