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UK ex-ministers for hire, £3,000 a day

Three former cabinet ministers are suspended by the ruling Labour Party as British politics becomes engulfed in fresh claims of sleaze.

Stephen Byers, left and Patricia Hewitt along with Geoff Hoon, the former defence secretary, deny any wrongdoing.
Stephen Byers, left and Patricia Hewitt along with Geoff Hoon, the former defence secretary, deny any wrongdoing.

LONDON // Three former cabinet ministers were suspended by the ruling Labour Party yesterday as British politics became engulfed in fresh claims of sleaze. With the public's disenchantment with its elected representatives already at an all-time high after last year's revelations that hundreds of MPs had been fiddling their parliamentary expenses, the latest allegations have come as a further blow to the body politic in the run-up to general election, expected to be held in May.

On Channel 4 TV's Dispatches programme, broadcast on Monday, undercover reporters posed as recruiters for a high-powered US firm of lobbyists trying to recruit Stephen Byers, the former transport secretary, Patricia Hewitt, the former health secretary, and Geoff Hoon, the former defence secretary. Mr Byers was secretly filmed during an interview comparing himself to a "cab for hire", claiming that he had already influenced government policies on behalf of private companies, and requesting a fee of up to £5,000 (Dh27,500) a day.

Although all three ex-ministers - all members of Tony Blair's inner circle - deny any wrongdoing, Jack Straw, the justice secretary, said yesterday that many Labour MPs felt a sense of "anger and incredulity" at their actions. Just when things could seemingly get no worse for the standing of the nation's politicians, a separate investigation by the BBC claimed that more than 20 MPs had broken parliamentary rules by accepting free holidays paid for by foreign governments and had not declared a potential conflict of interest when they had subsequently raised questions to ministers about those countries. Among the nations that entertained MPs who raised issues in parliament about those countries were Israel, Qatar and Oman.

But it was the secret filming of the three ex-ministers that was causing most of the renewed angst in Westminster yesterday after the trio were suspended by the Labour Party "for bringing it into disrepute". In a statement, the party said it "expects the highest standards of its representatives and believes that they have a duty to be transparent and accountable servants to their constituents at all times".

Mr Straw added: "It appears that former cabinet ministers are putting making money ahead of meeting their constituents' needs. There's anger and incredulity about their stupidity [and] getting suckered by a sting like this." During the filming, Mr Byers is seen to claim that, in secret talks with government ministers, he had successfully changed legislation over a rail franchise contract and food labelling on behalf of two private companies.

By yesterday morning, the ministers, the companies and Mr Byers himself had all denied that any of this had actually happened. "What is so ghastly about this is that somebody like Stephen Byers feels it necessary to make completely untrue, unfounded boasts to these people in order to get himself future business," said Lord (Peter) Mandelson, the business secretary and Labour's chief political strategist. "It's extremely disappointing and it's very sad and altogether rather grubby."

Ms Hewitt and Mr Hoon, who tried in vain in January to generate a coup against the prime minister Gordon Brown's leadership in January, were both filmed in the TV programme offering their services as lobbyists for £3,000 a day. Under parliamentary rules, sitting MPs are not barred from working for corporate clients but the practice is becoming highly controversial. Additionally, any paid work undertaken by ex-ministers within two years of their leaving office must be cleared by a parliamentary panel and they are normally barred for 12 months from becoming lobbyists specialising in fields for which they had ministerial responsibility.

Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, said the willingness of the ex-ministers to work as lobbyists "just beggars belief" and illustrated the need for "reform of the whole rotten system from top to bottom". David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader, said there needed to be a "brief but comprehensive" inquiry into the whole affair, something Mr Brown has already ruled out. He said that the revelations could only leave people thinking that all MPs were "sleazy pigs" with parliament's reputation being "dragged through the mud".

Mr Cameron told a press conference yesterday: "Anyone who watched the Dispatches programme last night could not help but be, frankly, disgusted by what they saw. "We need a proper inquiry into all of this. The fact is the last [Conservative] government ended with scandals like this and the current government is ending with scandals that are, frankly, worse." He said a Conservative government would forbid former ministers from working for lobbying firms for two years, rather than one, after leaving office.

dsapsted@thenational.ae