Labour attacked over 'MPs for hire'

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The Independent Online
THE LABOUR Party has offered to organise meetings between paying sponsors and MPs and ministers at its annual conference in Blackpool.

Fundraisers have asked exhibitors to list six Labour politicians they would like to meet as part of a "comprehensive service".

The "service", which could involve photographs and discussions about key pieces of policy, has been condemned by senior Conservatives as tantamount to Labour "renting out" its MPs. They will be pressing for the Neill Committee on Standards in Public Life to examine the practice.

A memo sent by Labour Party organisers to sponsors of its conference has been seen by the Independent on Sunday. It invites companies and lobby groups, paying between pounds 5,000 and pounds 10,000 for a stand, to request six MPs they "would wish to visit their displays in the conference centre''.

Labour organisers will then escort the MPs on "tours" to the exhibitors' stalls. The stands, accompanied by bright displays, are usually staffed by senior executives or lobbyists.

Some lobby organisations, including the body representing the privatised rail operators, have specifically asked to meet ministers.

The Association of Train Operating Companies has asked for John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, who is responsible for an impending transport review, and other transport ministers.

ATOC, which is interested in Labour's proposals for a strategic rail authority, wants to discuss proposed changes to the law that could adversely affect rail operators.

Among those paying for stands at the conference are the Virgin group, supermarket chain Somerfield, and rail operator, Connex South East. National Express, the bus and coach company which runs ScotRail, the Gatwick Express and Midland Main Line, will also be there.

A memo sent from Labour organisers at Millbank says that party organisers "will endeavour to organise the tours to accommodate your requirements". However, the tours, it warns, depend on MPs' work schedules, with "no guarantees".

"To help us provide as comprehensive as (sic) service as possible could you please give us some indication of the Members of Parliament that you would wish to visit your stand during the Labour Party Annual Conference," says the memo, which includes six blank slots for MPs' names.

Because meetings are not guaranteed, the tours do not contravene Labour Party rules, which prevent the party from offering meetings with government ministers or senior party personnel in exchange for sponsorship or donations.

But Conservative MPs believe the distinction is ambiguous and could lead to a conflict of interests.

"In its increasing commercial zeal, the Labour Party is coming perilously close to renting out its MPs," said a Conservative Party spokesman. "The risks of conflicts of interest are serious and obvious."

Labour's marketing team has achieved its target for sponsorship, believed to be pounds 300,000. Money given to the Labour Party as part of a sponsorship arrangement is not considered a political donation and is subject to VAT at the standard rate. In the party's annual accounts, political donations and sponsorship over pounds 5,000 appear in separate alphabetical lists.

The party has been seeking corporate sponsors for everything from the conference flowers, a champagne reception, wine and an international visitors' pack.

A party memo to companies listing "sponsorship opportunities" shows that almost everything has a price - even the welcome stand at Blackpool station. Each "sponsorship opportunity" guarantees exposure for the company and, in some cases, the promise of meeting "VIPs".

The conference's opening ceremony, for example, brings with it a logo on the invitation, display space, "VIPs", publicity photos, and a mention in the conference guide. The "title sponsor" of the conference dinner will, according to the memo, receive "name and logo in a prominent position on all dinner materials", the "opportunity for a representative to make the introductory speech at the start of the evening", "two tables of 10 guests in a premium position within the room" and "thanks to the sponsor from the host and the keynote speaker".

Thomas Cook, the travel company, is paying between pounds 20,000 and pounds 25,000 to sponsor the gala dinner at which Tony and Cherie Blair and many Cabinet ministers will be present, while Enron, the American power company, is paying a further pounds 15,000 for the cocktails at the same event.

Somerfield, the supermarket chain, is paying around pounds 20,000 to sponsor Labour's security badges and for a stand in the centre. But it has not requested that MPs visit its stand "because the purpose of the stand is information not to lobby".

Several companies, including Allied Domecq, Railtrack, Asda, Wessex Water and Tesco, are sponsoring fringe events and receptions.

Allied Domecq, the pub operator and Scotch whisky producer, is holding its own reception for MPs. It will hand out vintage bottles of Laphroaig whisky, with custom-made labels asking Labour not to crucify the company with tax.