John Major was told by Richard Needham that he was contemplating a job on the board of GEC when he stepped down as a trade minister at the beginning of July, it was confirmed last night.
As the Government rallied behind a vigorous defence of his decision to join GEC as overseas director, Mr Needham said in an interview with the Independent that he had told the Prime Minister of his interest in an "opportunity" at the company. He also told Mr Major he was determined to ensure that taking such a job would not conflict with Lord Nolan's recommendations on standards in public life.
Labour last night stepped up its attack on Mr Needham's appointment in the wake of the disclosure that Lord Carlisle, chairman of the Civil Service Advisory Committee, had told Mr Needham that he was confident that the appointment, would have been approved if the new Nolan recommendations on ex-ministers were in force.
Brian Wilson, a Labour trade spokesman, said last night he had written to Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, to secure exact details of the impact of Mr Needham's specific responsibilities on GEC while he was a minister.
In particular Mr Wilson is asking Mr Lang how many contracts undertaken by GEC were eligible for help under the Export Credit Guarantee scheme when Mr Needham was responsible for it.
Mr Wilson emphasised that Labour was not suggesting Mr Needham had been guilty of any impropriety in his role as export minister. But the Nolan committee had been concerned to ensure a public perception of high standards by insisting on a decent interval between ministers leaving office and taking private sector jobs. Mr Wilson also suggested that the clearance given by Lord Carlisle and Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, suggested that Lord Nolan might have to look again at the regulations on ex-ministers' jobs.
Mr Needham, 53, who will announce today that he is standing down from Parliament at the next election, has known Lord Prior, the GEC chairman, well since he worked for him in Opposition in the 1970s. He said it was "ridiculous" to bar politicians from industry. That would discourage talented people from going into politics.
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