THE Labour Party has suspended two of the region’s leading peers over claims they were caught offering to carry out parliamentary work for money.
Ex-cabinet minister Lord Cunningham of Felling and former senior police officer Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate, both of whom live in the North East, were recorded by reporters allegedly explaining how they could use their influence for paying clients.
The pair deny breaching House of Lords rules with Lord Cunningham, who lives in Stocksfield, Northumberland, claiming he knew he was being targeted by a scam and spoke to undercover reporters only to test his suspicions.
Today parliamentary authorities will begin an investigation into both peers as well as Lord Laird, who was also subject to the same media probe and has stood down as Ulster Unionist whip in light of the allegations.
A statement released by the Labour Party said it “expects the highest standards of its representatives and believes that they have a duty to be transparent and accountable at all times”.
All three peers have referred themselves to the House of Lords Commissioner for Standards.
Film footage taken by Sunday Times journalists posing as lobbyists for a fake South Korean solar energy firm reveals Lord Cunningham explaining how he could help push its agenda – in apparent breach of a ban on paid advocacy.
The former MP for Copeland in Cumbria, who attended the Jarrow Grammar School and Durham University, told the journalists he would become their advocate at Westminster for a monthly fee of £12,000 – requesting £2,000 more than he was offered.
He is also alleged to have said he would be able to introduce them to senior figures of all three parties as well as host networking receptions on the House of Lords terrace.
Former Chief Superintendent of Durham Police Lord Mackenzie is also recorded allegedly explaining he could get around a parliamentary rule banning the hosting of receptions if they had an interest in the matter by getting a colleague to take on the role as a favour.
The revelations come two days after MP Patrick Mercer quit the Tory whip and announced he would leave the Commons in 2015 over similar allegations.
It is claimed he tabled parliamentary questions and a motion, offered a security pass and set up a parliamentary group for a lobbying firm paying him £2,000 a month to push for the end of Fiji’s suspension from the Commonwealth.
They were in fact undercover reporters from the BBC’s Panorama programme and the Daily Telegraph.
The scandal involving the North East peers has been described as a “new low for British politics” by a Labour shadow cabinet minister.
It has also reignited calls for the Government to act on a pledge to introduce a statutory register of lobbyists.
In a statement, Lord Cunningham said the report of his meeting with the bogus lobbyists was “misleading” and that he was taking legal advice.
The MP, who served in Tony Blair’s cabinet, insisted he had been testing his suspicions that he was being targeted by a scam.
“The Sunday Times story contains a highly sensationalist and misleading account of one meeting with journalists posing as business people,” he said in a statement.
“I quickly became suspicious of them and the money they were offering and sought to test my suspicions during the meeting.
“What the article does not make at all clear is that I told the undercover journalists that I always stick to the rules and declare any interests.
“The article also fails to properly acknowledge the important fact that I informed them the next day that I wanted nothing more to do with them.
“That same day I notified Baroness Royall, the Labour Leader in the House of Lords, and Lord Bassam, the Chief Whip, of my suspicions and what had occurred. I also reported to the Clerk of the Parliaments and the Registrar of Members Interests.”
Darlington-born Sir Brian Mackenzie, who went on to advise the Home Secretary Jack Straw on policing after leaving the force and was a former President of the Police Superintendents Association, said he had not broken any rules and had declined the fake business’ offer.
He said he thought he was being asked to be a consultant for the sham company and had followed the Parliamentary Code of Conduct and had not done anything wrong.
He said: “It’s a very complex area, but I made sure I knew the rules before I went into any of this and it’s an important thing to do obviously because what we don’t want is parliamentarians breaking the rules. But there may well be case for changing them.”
The scandal involving the North East peers has been described as a “new low for British politics”