Scots MPs begin investigation into `cash for access'

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The Independent Online
THE SCOTTISH Parliament is investigating allegations that lobbyists have been offering access to Scottish ministers in exchange for cash.

The parliament's Standards Committee was passed a transcript of secret recordings. They were said to reveal that a public relations company, Beattie Media, including Kevin Reid, the son of John Reid, Secretary of State for Scotland, bragged about being able to influence the diary of Jack McConnell, the Scottish Finance Minister.

The recordings were made during conversations between Kevin Reid and Alex Barr of Beattie Media and Ben Laurence, a journalist with The Observer posing as an American businessman.

The claims have angered many politicians in Scotland who had been keen to establish the devolved Parliament as less prone to sleaze allegations than Westminster.

The scandal has also produced a rift between John Reid and Donald Dewar, Scotland's First Minister. When the story broke at the weekend, Mr Dewar immediately demanded a full inquiry by the Parliament's standards committee. In contrast Dr Reid vigorously defended his son and was said to be angered that Mr Dewar had taken the matter so seriously. The division was apparently only healed by the intervention of staff from Tony Blair's office.

Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party, has written to Mr Dewar, calling for the publication of all appointments diaries held by Scottish ministers so that the allegations can be disproved.

He said: "This is a major problem for the Labour Party and the Scottish Executive. The job of the Parliament is to investigate these allegations, and take all necessary action to resolve the issues." Yesterday, Mr McConnell denied that his diary has been influenced by lobbyists.

Dean Nelson, The Observer's Scottish editor, said the paper had been asked to pass on the tapes and transcripts of the "extraordinary claims" made by the lobbyists, and was now handing them in to the Parliament's Standards Committee in the hope that a "rigorous and impartial" investigation would take place.

Mike Rumbles, the Liberal Democrat chairman of the committee, said that he had seen The Observer's tape. "I have indicated, in my capacity as convener of the committee, that I would regard allegations of improper influence over the actions of any minister as a very serious matter."

However, there was some confusion about the committee's inquiry after members complained that The Observer had not supplied the transcript until just before yesterday's hearing. The terms of reference for the investigation will be decided next Tuesday at a private hearing.