Minister's aide works for PR firm

Chris Blackhurst reports on a meeting the Nolan inquiry was not told ab out
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An aide of a government minister spends four hours a week working for the public relations agency headed by Sir Tim Bell, Baroness Thatcher's favourite media adviser. Peter Luff, Conservative MP for Worcester, is parliamentary private secretary to Tim Eggar, the Energy Minister. Mr Luff is also retained by Lowe Bell, Sir Tim's company. In the House of Commons internal directory, Mr Luff gives two phone numbers: one isat the Commons; the other, listed as for his "diary secretary", is at Lowe Bell's Mayfair headquarters.

Mr Luff last week gave evidence to the Nolan inquiry into standards in public life. He described the parliamentary private secretary's role as "the bridge between the minister and the House of Commons, as the problem-solver for ministers leading busy lives in the department . . ."

Even though they are not paid, PPSs form part of the government machine. Mr Luff acknowledged to Nolan, they "are normally regarded as part of the payroll vote" in the Commons.

Nolan was told by Mr Luff, who declares his consultancy in the Register of Members' Interests, that he spent "four hours a week" on Lowe Bell business. No mention was made of his office or secretarial arrangements at the firm.

The ministerial aide also said he advised just one client of the firm, the Chamber of Shipping. He said that if he was PPS to the minister responsible for shipping and he still advised the Chamber of Shipping, "it would be a perceived difficulty and for that reason I think I would suggest that it was not appropriate".

Lowe Bell is advising Northern Electric, the north-eastern privatised electricity supplier, in fending off a £1.2bn takeover bid from the Trafalgar House conglomerate.

Part of Northern's strategy is to secure a referral to the Monopolies Commission on the ground that the move is contrary to the public interest. The decision to refer rests with Michael Heseltine, Mr Eggar's boss at the Department of Trade and Industry. Mr Heseltine will receive advice from Mr Eggar, the minister directly concerned, who, in turn, will consult Mr Luff about the parliamentary implications.

Mr Luff recently met David Morris, Northern Electric's chairman, at the Commons to be briefed on the company's argument. This meeting was not mentioned to Nolan. Mr Luff has not seen Mr Morris's opposite number from Trafalgar House.

"I did see the chairman of Northern Electric," Mr Luff told the Independent. "I will see anyone who asks to see me." Trafalgar House, he declared, "has not asked to see me." Mr Morris wanted to see him, "because he wanted to put his political case across".

It was part of normal practice, Mr Luff said, that "if you're lobbying you will want to see the PPS to the minister responsible".

Dale Campbell-Savours, Labour MP for Workington, said the news of Mr Luff's office inside Lowe Bell was disturbing. "From the parliamentary point of view, Mr Luff has to make up his mind who is his boss, Sir Tim Bell or Mr Eggar. Perhaps Lord Nolan wouldlike to establish which of them he was working for when he met the chairman of Northern Electric."