Tuesday 23 March 2010 | Politics feed

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MPs caught by sleaze sting

Senior MPs and former cabinet ministers have been caught up in a sting operation exposing the way companies can buy political influence.

 
Stephen Byers : MPs caught by sleaze sting
Stephen Byers was filmed telling actors posing as potential employers that he would be a valuable addition to their company because of his position Photo: Reuters

Stephen Byers, Patricia Hewitt, Geoff Hoon and Margaret Moran were among those targeted by an undercover operation by the Channel 4 Dispatches programme, which used a fake lobbying firm to offer MPs cash to use their position to help various businesses.

Conservative MPs were also featured on the programme including Julie Kirkbride, who declined to take the bogus firm up on its offer.

But Mr Byers, a leading former Blairite minister, was filmed telling actors posing as potential employers that he would be a valuable addition to their company because of his position.

He was later so worried about what he had said that he sent an email claiming he had "exaggerated".

A Labour source said its MPs were "mortified at being so stupid".

Many had rung the firm in the days following the sting and told them that "any comments they made had been lies and stupid exaggeration".

The revelations will be acutely embarrassing to the party ahead of an election and will intensify the debate about the influence of lobbying which David Cameron has described as "the next big scandal waiting to happen".

The fake lobbying company offered some of the MPs £35,000 a year for just a few days' work if they agreed to exploit their links with government, or in the case of the Tories, an incoming administration if Mr Cameron wins.

All the MPs targeted are understood to be standing down at the next election but that will not limit their access.

Under controversial rules brought in by the former Speaker Michael Martin, they and all retiring MPs will be entitled to a pass giving them special access to the Houses of Parliament for the rest of their lives.

This year there will be an unprecedented number of MPs looking for new jobs. Since the expenses scandal was first exposed by The Telegraph last May, dozens of MPs have announced that they will be standing down.

The fake firm, called Anderson Perry Associates, was given a sophisticated front with offices in Central London, hired by the hour, and a phone number for a branch in California, which diverted inquiries back to the UK.

A website was created describing it as 'a bespoke consultancy that helps organisations and individuals maximise and exceed expectation', and boasting of advising 'more than 120 clients in Europe, the Middle East and United States' – although it failed to identify any of them on the grounds of confidentiality.

Ms Kirkbride explained how she had visited the company's office in London's St James's Square. Over coffee, she was told by a "consultant" that the company, an American operation, was looking to open a London branch.

They were hoping to assemble an advisory panel of former Parliamentarians to "front up their lobbying team" and offer advice to the firm.

Ms Kirkbride was offered a salary for help in developing the business of one of the company's main clients, a large pharmaceutical company.

She was asked: "Would you be able to ring up your mates in the party for us?"

Later Ms Kirkbride said: "The girl didn't look like the sort of person who would be setting up an office on her own.

"When she made the comment about ringing up my mates, I did the very British thing of swallowing hard, spluttering that it was not the done thing, and keeping up polite conversation."

However, embarrassingly for the Tories, a second Conservative MP is believed to have fallen for the stunt and agreed to work for the bogus company.

The Labour insider said he did not believe rules had been broken although the party would view any wrongdoing "very dimly".

Although Commons rules forbid former MPs from using the pass to further their lobbying career, there are no safeguards to stop them from doing so.

Earlier this month Mr Cameron identified this type of lobbying as a problem.

"We all know how it works," he said. "The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisers for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way."

The programme will be shown tomorrow.

 
 
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