Politics: Steel's lobbying broke rules

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THE FORMER Liberal Leader Lord Steel broke Parliamentary rules when he supported a pro-hunting group without declaring an interest, Sir Gordon Downey ruled yesterday.

Lord Steel, then Sir David Steel, tabled an amendment in October 1996 to a Commons motion which criticised the Countryside Movement. At the time, he was paid pounds 93,000 a year for one day's work each week as chairman of the movement, as revealed by the Independent on Sunday last Autumn.

Five months later he tabled a further three motions in support of the movement, again without declaring an interest. Although it had stopped paying him by then he apologised to the House for the omission, according to Sir Gordon's report.

However, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards rejected "on balance" a further complaint from the Labour MP Dale Campbell-Savours that Sir David broke advocacy rules by tabling the amendment. He also ruled out allegations that Sir David's actions had breached rules on advocacy and on the registering of employment agreements.

If Lord Steel had not retired as an MP at last year's general election he would have been required to amend his omissions, a report yesterday from the Committee of Standards and Privileges said.

Last night, Lord Steel was in France on business, but a statement released by the Liberal Democrat MP Charles Kennedy with his agreement said the report "puts in some context the more lurid headlines" on the matter.

"David's relationship with the Countryside Movement was a public matter of fact from the outset. That is the reality. There is no question in my mind of any dishonourable conduct whatsoever," Mr Kennedy said.

Mr Campbell-Savours said that if it had been clear in 1996 that the foxhunting lobby was paying a prominent liberal, it would have become an election issue. It was "particularly objectionable" that one of the motions had attacked a pounds 1m donation to Labour from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, he added.

"We now need a total review by the Standards and Privileges Committee of the operation of employment agreements. They are being abused and the Nolan reforms were intended to cut out this kind of abuse," he said.

Lord Steel confirmed to the committee that he had no objection to the inquiry and had no wish to seek the "protection" as a member of the Lords.

He did, however, take exception to the fact that Mr Campbell-Savours' complaint had been made and released to the press without the courtesy of prior notice.

The chairman of the committee, Robert Sheldon, said that even if Lord Steel had still been an MP it was unlikely he would have faced suspension. However, some penalties would probably have been discussed.

"We note that he has apologised and we hope that this will explain the way in which this committee responds to failures of this kind."