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PM's watchdog dragged into politicians' jobs row

Antony Barnett reveals what Lord Lang said to undercover reporter

Lord Lang is the head of the Advisory Committee on Public Appointments

Lord Lang is the head of the Advisory Committee on Public Appointments

In the aftermath of our Dispatches documentary on Monday there has been much speculation over which politicians did and which didn't come in for a discussion about a possible position on the advisory board of our fictional US company Anderson Perry.

I can disclose that one senior former minister who came in to chat about potential employment was Lord Lang of Monkton. Remember him? He was the Secretary of State for Scotland under Margaret Thatcher and the President of the Board of Trade under John Major.

Last summer Gordon Brown gave the Conservative peer an important new job: chairman of the Prime Minister's Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, or Acoba as it's known.

This is the critical Whitehall committee supposed to be the public's watchdog when it comes to former ministers and senior civil servants taking up jobs in the private sector. Its remit is to ensure that they don't use their government contacts for private gain within two years of leaving office.

The committee has faced criticism that it's toothless. It has no enforcement powers – it can only make recommendations to the Prime Minister.

So what happened when Dispatches contacted Lord Lang, who must safeguard public interest in this area, about taking a job with our fictional company?

In our initial phone exchange Lang expressed a desire to take a job, but made it clear that doing lobbying was out of the question. When we told him Anderson Perry did communications work he said: "PR becomes sensitive. It brings the word 'lobbying' in, which is very sensitive in Parliament."

Despite this "sensitivity", Lang did come into our St James's offices to discuss a possible position on the advisory board of our made-up firm. Once again he made it very clear that he would not do any lobbying for Anderson Perry or its clients, nor would he make any introductions to ministers or civil servants. And he also added for good measure that he would refer any job offer to Acoba, even though he didn't have to.

Lord Lang explained: "I do not charge a day rate but operate under an agreed annual fee, for which I am available as required, around a basic structure of an agreed number of regular meetings."

Although Lord Lang stressed he didn't want to do any lobbying for us personally, he did recommend that we consider hiring the lobbying outfit called Quiller Consultants, a firm with close connections to the Conservative Party.

In a follow-up email to our undercover reporter, Lord Lang wrote: "Jonathan Hill heads it [Quiller], whom I know and respect from his days in 10 Downing Street. It might be worth having a meeting with Jonathan – feel free to mention my name."

Three hours after his interview with our undercover reporter, Lord Lang emailed her his CV saying: "I enjoyed meeting you this morning and was interested in all you had to say." His impressive CV listed his business interests – and as an unpaid member of the House of Lords he is free to earn a living as he wishes. Given Lord Lang's position as chairman of the watchdog, I believe it's important to disclose his interest in a position with our bogus US company, even though he made it clear he would only offer strategic advice.

Lord Lang's appointment to Acoba was not without controversy. The Public Administration Select Committee questioned him and concern was expressed that he had a number of lucrative directorships. The committee concluded he had the "professional competence and personal independence required" to perform the chairman's job, but said it had "serious concerns about the appointment of a former Cabinet minister with business appointments of his own to a role that needs the perception of independence if it is to attract public confidence".

A Labour member of the committee, Paul Flynn, voted against Lord Lang's appointment and questioned the make-up of Acoba: "There are no waitresses, bus drivers or people independent of the new great and the good on Acoba. They are all people who think it's normal for an MP being paid £65,000 for a full-time job to take on five other jobs."

Lord Lang told The Independent last night: "I did not express an interest in joining [Anderson Perry]. I went to a meeting to try and find out more about it. I also made it very clear that I would not do corporate lobbying of any kind and I would need to find out a lot more about the company. Most of the members of the committee have business interests, as I do."

He said he informed Acoba's secretariat about the meeting before the Dispatches broadcast. "I believe I behaved entirely properly in everything I said in the meeting with the so-called company." Lord Lang said he had mentioned Quiller as a "helpful passing suggestion".

Antony Barnett is an investigative journalist who led the Dispatches investigation 'Politicians for Hire'

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[info]bgarvie wrote:
Saturday, 27 March 2010 at 06:31 am (UTC)
This is a complete non-story. But its intention is to suggest that there is intrigue and something suspect. This piece by Antony Barnett has been apparently written out of pure speculation and laziness to fill column inches. Perhaps even vindictiveness.
I do hope Mr Kelner MD has a word. I don't think Mr. Lebedev will condone such a poor standard of journalism. No wonder this newspaper is losing money
Lord Lang
[info]valdan70 wrote:
Saturday, 27 March 2010 at 06:52 am (UTC)
No doubt David Cameron will be calling for an enquiry. After all, that is what he always does, isn't it?
Re: Lord Lang
[info]professor_kelp2 wrote:
Saturday, 27 March 2010 at 11:48 am (UTC)
My dear chap, you never initiate an enquiry unless the outcome is pre determined (or words to that effect - with thanks to Sir Humphrey Appleby)
Left-handed clearance: Dragged is right
[info]had_it wrote:
Saturday, 27 March 2010 at 02:27 pm (UTC)
This seems to be about as snide a way as possible to say that Lord Lang was completely innocent of any wrong-doing in relation to the Dispatches/AndersonPerry entrapment team.

He told a start-up business (a business he did not know was really a scam) that he would offer business advice at his regular rates for business advice, but would not engage nor assist in political activity on their behalf or on behalf of their clients.

Apparantly, the scammers asked for lobbying help, so he gave them the name of a lobbying firm he thought trustworthy. (It is unclear whether the scammers made an illegal attempt to suborn a member of parliament. If they did, I doubt they would report it.)

The headline to this story says it all: "he behaved impeccably, but we want to drag his name in anyway."
[info]vhawk1951 wrote:
Saturday, 27 March 2010 at 04:02 pm (UTC)
i'm always a bit dubious of things like acoba; the only people i know who cannot be influenced are senior judges, so i'd have it made up of them

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