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Labour Peers suspended in 'cash for questions' row

by OLIVER WRIGHT

Two peers, including a former cabinet minister, were yesterday suspended from the Labour Party after being filmed apparently offering to use their power and influence in Parliament for cash.

Lord Cunningham, who served in Tony Blair's government as Agriculture Minister, and the former senior police officer Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate were recorded by undercover reporters posing as lobbyists seemingly boasting at how they get round House of Lords rules to promote their client's interests.

For £144,000 a year Lord Cunningham claimed to be able to offer to arrange parliamentary questions on behalf of a fictitious solar energy company, arrange company events in the House of Lords and lobby ministers on the firm's behalf.

A third peer, Lord Laird, resigned the UUP whip after being targeted by the same probe.

It comes just two days after the Tory MP Patrick Mercer resigned the whip after being filmed by Panorama apparently offering to use his parliamentary privileges to lobby on behalf of Fiji.

The revelations will increase the pressure on David Cameron to follow through on his manifesto pledge to clean up the UK's lobbying industry and introduce a mechanism for MPs to be kicked out of the House of Commons.

In a statement, Labour said the peers had been suspended "pending further investigation," and that it "expects the highest standards of its representatives and believes they have a duty to be transparent and accountable at all times".

All three peers deny breaching the rules and have referred themselves to the House of Lords Commissioner for Standards.

Lord Cunningham, a privy councillor who led the joint committee on Lords reform under Tony Blair, asked for a fee to provide a lobbying service. He told the reporters, posing as representatives of a South Korean firm, he would be their Westminser advocate. Cunningham said he offered "value for money" because he could introduce them to senior figures in all three parties.

"Introductions and getting to see people, including the ministers -- this is part of the package," he said.

He would be happy to ask questions in the Lords and could "get other people to ask questions as well". He could also host receptions on the terrace for the reporters and their fake client.

But yesterday he said he had simply been using the meeting to test his suspicions that he was being targeted by a scam. "I quickly became suspicious of them and the money they were offering. What the article does not make clear is that I told the undercover journalists I always stick to the rules and declare any interests. The article also fails properly to acknowledge the fact I informed them the next day I wanted nothing more to do with them."

Lord Mackenzie described navigating parliamentary lobbying rules as "walking on eggshells", but denied any wrongdoing.

"I'm very meticulous about what I do and what I don't do and make sure that I'm not crossing the boundary. When I left that interview, I checked the code of conduct in the House of Lords and I came to the decision that it was very near the mark and I immediately emailed the people who did the interviewing and I said that I'm not interested."

The Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude said recent scandals underlined the need for legislative action. He said it was "very unlikely" the Government would go into the next election without a statutory register in place.

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