- guardian.co.uk, Monday 22 March 2010 13.39 GMT
Stephen Byers, the former cabinet minister, said today that he had asked the parliamentary commissioner for standards to investigate allegations that he was willing to use his access and influence to lobby in return for cash.
He announced the move 24 hours after it was revealed that he and two other former cabinet ministers – Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt – were caught by undercover reporters investigating the willingness of MPs to engage in lobbying.
In a bid to turn Labour sleaze into an election issue, David Cameron urged Gordon Brown to investigate Byers's claims that he had successfully lobbied the transport secretary, Lord Adonis, and the business secretary, Lord Mandelson, to change important decisions on behalf of commercial firms.
But Downing Street dismissed the calls for an inquiry. Gordon Brown's spokesman said the prime minister was "satisfied" that there had been no impropriety on the part of ministers in the transport and business departments, so there was no need for an internal investigation.
Harriet Harman, the leader of the Commons, is to make a statement to the house on "paid advocacy and lobbying" this afternoon, it was announced.
Byers claimed he had persuaded Mandelson to tone down food labelling rules on behalf of Tesco. He also suggested he had persuaded Adonis to tone down his approach to National Express over its decision to pull out of the East Coast mainline franchise.
Byers, offering himself as "a cab for hire", made the claims in an attempt to persuade an undercover reporter posing as a company executive of his influence in government. He said he would expect £3,000 to £5,000 a day in return for his services.
He was secretly recorded by journalists from Channel 4 and the Sunday Times posing as representatives of an American lobbying firm. He withdrew the claims a day later. Adonis, Mandelson and both companies have denied the claims.
Today Byers said that he wanted John Lyon, the parliamentary commissioner for standards, to investigate the allegations made against him. "I am confident that [Lyon] will confirm that I have complied with the MPs' code of conduct and have fully disclosed my outside interests," Byers said.
Sir George Young, the shadow leader of the Commons, said the allegations against Byers were "quite serious". Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Young said: "I think it is quite wrong that contacts and knowledge gained when you are a minister should then be used for private gain."
The Tories and Liberal Democrats will today table a series of parliamentary questions seeking clarification from ministers about the claims and whether there had been any breach of the ministerial code.
Yesterday cabinet ministers including the foreign secretary, David Miliband, denounced Byers and the other former ministers. "There is absolutely no room for anyone to trade on their ministerial office," Miliband said. Labour also quickly followed an earlier Conservative initiative by making a manifesto commitment to a statutory registry of lobbyists.
But Cameron said the claims raised wider questions about whether MPs had broken sleaze rules and urged the prime minister to investigate potential breaches within the government itself. Exploiting Labour discomfort, Cameron said: "These are shocking allegations. I have been warning for some time that lobbying would be the next scandal to hit politics.
"First of all, the House of Commons needs to conduct a thorough investigation into these [former] Labour ministers but also the prime minister would want to get to the bottom of the allegations being made about his government."
Byers issued a statement yesterday saying: "I am confident that any investigation from the standards commissioner will confirm that I have always fully complied with the MPs' code of conduct. I have never lobbied ministers on behalf of commercial organisations and have always fully disclosed my outside interests."
There has been no suggestion that he sought money from either Tesco or National Express. This meant he was not required to register the meetings in his entry in the register of interests. He also had no requirement to seek the agreement of the business advisory committee on public appointments, since he was not offered a job by the fictitious lobbying firm.
Byers, due to stand down at the election as MP for North Tyneside, said he had exaggerated his influence, and both National Express and Tesco rejected his account. A spokesman for Tesco said: "We did not speak to Mr Byers on food labelling, regulation or indeed any other issue. These claims are completely fictitious and Mr Byers has acknowledged this to us."
Adonis and National Express both denied Byers had influenced government thinking. The transport firm said: "We have not paid Stephen Byers MP in relation to the discussions we had with him on the East Coast mainline or for any other matter. He has not made any deals for National Express."
Labour responded to the revelations by saying "the time has come to support a statutory register of lobbyists and we will bring forward proposals to that effect in our manifesto, building on the work we have already done to create a voluntary code".
The public administration select committee proposed a statutory code a year ago, but the government rejected the proposal in favour of a voluntary measure.
In other responses to the committee report, the government agreed departments will publish online information about ministerial meetings with interest groups and hospitality received in a ministerial capacity on a quarterly basis.
Hoon, the former defence secretary, offered to lead delegations to ministers and told the reporter that he was looking to turn his knowledge and contacts into "something that, frankly, makes money".
Hoon said: "There was a discussion about my qualifications and experience for such a position. I made clear in the course of the conversation that I would not lobby government and that I was not interested in work of that kind.
"At no stage did I offer, nor would I attempt, to sell confidential or privileged information arising from my time in government. I did not break any parliamentary or ministerial rules in the course of the conversation."
Hewitt, the former health secretary, was accused of claiming she helped to obtain a key seat on a government advisory group for a client paying her £3,000 a day. She later denied the allegation, saying she had only been offering to do such work once she had left the Commons.
Thirteen Labour MPs and seven Tories were approached for the investigation. The Tory whips' office was alerted to a possible sting when one of their MPs, Julie Kirkbride, became suspicious of a fake lobbyist.