23 Feb 2015

Straw and Rifkind suspended over ‘cash for access’ claims

Two former foreign secretaries are suspended from their parties after accusations they were prepared to use their positions to benefit a private company in return for money.

Jack Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind were filmed in an undercover investigation by Channel 4 Dispatches and the Daily Telegraph. Both man have strongly denied any wrongdoing.

Mr Straw and Sir Malcolm were approached by the undercover reporters, who claimed to represent a fictional Hong Kong-based communications agency called PMR which was seeking to hire senior British politicians to its advisory board.

The Conservative party announced that it had has suspended the whip from Sir Malcolm Rifkind, and a party disciplinary committee will investigate cash-for-access allegations resulting from an undercover sting operation.

Mr Straw has suspended himself from the Labour party while he fights to clear his name.

Both men have referred themselves to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, and both said there was no suggestion that they had been offering to use their influence as MPs.

‘Charm and menace’

Mr Straw is reported to have described how he operated “under the radar” to use his influence to change European Union rules on behalf of a commodity firm which paid him £60,000 a year. He was also said to have claimed to have used “charm and menace” to convince the Ukrainian prime minister to change laws on behalf of the same firm.

Sir Malcolm is said to have claimed he could arrange “useful access” to every British ambassador in the world because of his status.

Sir Malcolm told Dispatches: “I have never undertaken nor would undertake any lobbying as an MP on behalf of any private organisation for which I was receiving remuneration. You suggest that I showed myself as ‘willing to act as an MP for hire’. That is untrue.

“There was no suggestion that I was being approached as an MP… Their approach to me was because of my previous experience as a minister… Ambassadors tend to respond not because I am a current MP but because I was foreign secretary.

“I said I would not be prepared to write to ministers on behalf of PMR or any other company…The most I could do would be to inquire from them information…which was already in the public domain.”

Mr Straw, who is standing down at the general election, said in a statement that he made clear from the outset that any discussions he entered into related to what he might do once he left the Commons and not while he was a serving MP.

‘Kicking myself’

He said that despite his requests, Dispatches and the Telegraph had not supplied him with a transcript of his conversations with the undercover reporters so he could not identify the context of any of his remarks.

“I now face the horrible situation in which what I said is being used to suggest wrongdoing when there was none. But I’ve spent long enough in politics to know how some of the remarks I made in what I had thought was a private conversation will now be used,” he said.

“In view of this, and in order to clear my name, I have written to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to make a self-referral to her. I have also written to Rosie Winterton, opposition chief whip, to say that pending consideration of my referral by the Commissioner, I shall voluntarily withdraw from the parliamentary Labour Party.

“I am mortified that I fell into this trap, despite my best efforts to avoid this, and my previous public criticism of colleagues of all parties who have done so in the past. Of course I am kicking myself.

“However, I am clear that there was nothing that I said in the meetings which was improper. I am proud of my record as member for Blackburn and a parliamentarian over 36 years.”

‘Disturbing allegations’

In the course of the investigation, the Telegraph/Dispatches team contacted 12 MPs. Six did not respond and one said his contacts were not for sale.

While members of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords have been caught up in access scandals in recent years, Mr Straw and Sir Malcolm are by far the most prominent figures to face such claims.

A Labour Party spokesman said: “We have seen the disturbing allegations against Jack Straw in the Daily Telegraph. The chief whip has spoken to Jack Straw.

“He has agreed to refer himself to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and in the meantime he has agreed the best course of action is to suspend himself from the parliamentary Labour Party.”

A Downing Street source said: “Sir Malcolm Rifkind has referred himself to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.”