Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Three former cabinet ministers accused of sleaze

Three former cabinet ministers are suspended by Britain's ruling Labour party after being secretly filmed claiming they could use their position to influence government policy for cash.

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM (MARCH 23, 2010) - Three former cabinet ministers were suspended by Britain's ruling Labour party on Monday (March 22) after being secretly filmed claiming they could use their position to influence government policy for cash.

Former Defence Minister Geoff Hoon, Stephen Byers and Patricia Hewitt were suspended pending further investigation following the screening of a Channel 4 Dispatches documentary, in which all three were secretly filmed meeting a bogus American lobby firm.

Margaret Moran, a Labour member of parliament, who also featured in the programme has also been suspended. All four are due to stand down at an election due by June.

Undercover footage showed Byers, a former transport secretary, telling reporters he could be hired for 5,000 pounds ($7,474) a day in exchange for access to ministers, secret government information and advice on influencing policy.

"I am a bit like your sort of cab for hire, I suppose," Byers told the undercover reporter.

Byers referred himself to parliament's standards watchdog over the comments, but denied any wrongdoing.

His claim to have lobbied successfully for National Express over their east coast mainline rail franchise has been dismissed as "pure fantasy" by Transport Secretary Lord Adonis.

Lord Adonis told the House of Lords he had a "brief conversation" with Mr Byers last year about the company's threat to default on its franchise, but said there was "no truth whatsoever" in suggestions that he changed his policy as a result.

"My Lords there is no truth whatsoever in the suggestion that Stephen Byers came to any arrangement with me on any matter relating to national Express. These are the facts, any claims to the contrary are pure fantasy," Adonis said.

Conservative leader David Cameron, whose own centre-right party was mired in sleaze allegations in the 1990s, said the government should also investigate the Byers allegations.

"No wonder there is deepening suspicion that politicians are out to serve themselves and not the country. A couple of months ago I said that I thought this was the next big scandal waiting to happen. I worried that the culture of excessive lobbying and quiet words in the minister's ear were threatening to do even more damage to the battered reputation of parliament," Cameron said.

However one of Cameron's own MP's Sir John Butterfill appeared to be offering influence from the House of Lords, telling the undercover reporter:

"Can I tell you something very much in confidence, well it is quite likely that I will go to the Lords. No no nothing is certain in this world so that would be nice and it also gives me another string to my bow as far as you are concerned because quite often the right mover and shaker happens to be in the Lords."

Former Defence Minister Geoffrey Hoon told the programme: "One of the challenges which I have been looking forward to is sort of translating my knowledge and contacts about sort of international scene into something that bluntly makes money."

Labour backbench MP Margaret Moran who is stepping down from parliament after the next election appeared to be overlie keen to start a lobbying role ahead of time.

"Yeah, Im free now," Moran told the programme.

The timing of the inquiry is uncomfortable for Brown, whose centre-left party trails the Conservatives in the opinion polls.

Source: ITN