Deal that broke down after request for Blunkett was rejected

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The Independent Online
A LEADING left-of-centre think-tank was asked to try to secure David Blunkett's presence at a public meeting during negotiations over a pounds 20,000 education project, it was claimed last night.

The allegation came as the extent of links between Labour and the lobbying industry were uncovered by The Independent. Not only does almost every major political consultancy now employ staff with close links to Labour, but the party's fundraisers have been wooing lobbyists to milk sponsorship from their clients.

The request to bring the Secretary of State for Education into the launch of a joint project between the Fabian Society and the Edexcel Foundation exam board was made by a lobbyist who used to work for Labour.

Paul Wheeler, who at the time worked for a firm called the Public Policy Unit, was helping to negotiate a project including educational research, a series of seminars and an essay competition. However, when he asked the Fabian Society's senior officials if they could secure Mr Blunkett's presence at a public launch with Sir Michael Lickiss, Chairman of Edexcel, the answer was "no".

A Fabian source said last night: "We told them, 'We can't guarantee Blunkett. We are not in that game, and we can't do it anyway." The deal had broken down for a number of reasons including the non-involvement of Mr Blunkett, he added.

The Fabian Society has recently issued funding guidelines to its supporters which state: "The Fabian Society's work frequently involves ministers, advisers or senior Labour Party personnel ... We do not provide access to such figures simply in return for funding. We are not a lobbying organisation.'

Last night, Mr Wheeler said the pounds 20,000 grant had never been contingent on Mr Blunkett's presence. Nor had the collapse of the deal been due to that aspect. "There were a whole range of people's names mentioned. David Blunkett might have been one of them but I don't think that was very practical and we weren't saying that if David Blunkett doesn't come we are not doing it."

In a letter to Edexcel, the Fabians' general secretary Michael Jacobs said he felt the amount of work involved was not commensurate with the level of sponsorship and the seminar subjects needed more rigorous definition.

Gordon Tempest-Hay, head of corporate affairs for the Edexcel Foundation, said it had no need to offer money to meet ministers. "We have regular day-to-day contact with the frontbench team. If David Blunkett had got involved and had been there, that would have been great, but at no stage did we say 'We must have David Blunkett standing under an Edexcel banner'," he said.

A senior figure in the lobbying business said last night that the involvement of ministers in deals was common practice. Although most lobbyists would never be so crude as to specifically offer money for a meeting or appearance, the link would be implicit, he said.

"It is like sponsoring any conference. You only want to sponsor it if you can get good people coming."