Steel paid pounds 94,000 by foxhunt lobby

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The Independent Online
David Steel, the elder statesman of the Liberal Democrats, was paid nearly pounds 100,000 while an MP to campaign to preserve fox hunting and oppose plans for a "right to roam" in the countryside, the Independent on Sunday can reveal.

The revelation of what he admits was a "well-paid job" is bound to cause a row at the party's annual conference, which opens in Eastbourne tomorrow. Liberal Democrat policy opposes hunting with hounds, and some delegates will be pressing to add the right to roam.

Official records show that the former party leader - now Lord Steel of Aikwood - was paid a total of pounds 93,752 for an average of one-and-a-half to two days' work a week for 18 months from October 1995 to the end of March this year as part-time chairman of the Countryside Movement. Lord Steel quit as an MP at the general election in May. His Countryside Movement salary far exceeded his MP's salary of pounds 43,000.

The records also reveal that the movement - which aimed to be "a powerful yet cost-efficient voice" for rural concerns - spent more than double its income and had to be rescued with a pounds 1m loan from the Duke of Westminster, one of Britain's richest men, who has been attacked by the Ramblers Association for refusing access to most of his moorland in the Forest of Bowland. The money is not expected to be repaid.

This spring, the troubled organisation and the Countryside Business Group, which originally backed it, amalgamated with the British Field Sports Society. The three organisations, working together as the Countryside Alliance, organised this summer's mass pro-hunting rally in London.

Lord Steel, who spoke at the rally, says it seems to have helped persuade the Government to "rein back" support for a private member's Bill to ban hunting. It is also believed to have led some ministers to have second thoughts on an election pledge to institute a right to roam across mountains and moorlands: proposals for legislation have since been progressively delayed.

But critics say that today's revelations explode the campaign's claim to be a popular movement. "We were told that the Countryside Movement was a genuine grassroots uprising," says David Beskine, assistant director of the Ramblers Association. "But it turns out to have been fronted by a senior politician on a fat-cat salary and bankrolled by a billionaire landowner."

The movement was launched with a pounds 1m advertising campaign in autumn 1995 to "promote awareness of the British countryside" and "protect country life from its detractors", including "a small but dedicated band of animal rights activists".

Early backing came from the Country Business Group, formed by Eric Bettelheim, an American corporate lawyer, who once said: "If you can sell death in packages called cigarettes, you can sell field sports."

The organisation planned to spend pounds 3.5m in its first year, but its audited accounts show that its income during its separate life of just under 18 months was only pounds 1,203,260 (including just pounds 166,166 in supporters' contributions), while its expenditure totalled pounds 2,421,561.

The Duke of Westminster (a director of the Countryside Movement thought to be worth more than pounds 1.7bn) provided a pounds 1m unsecured, interest-free loan. Though this is described in the accounts as "repayable on demand" Roger Loodmer, the movement's secretary, admits it is hard to see how he will ever get his money back.

Alex Armstrong, who was chief executive of the organisation, said Lord Steel was an "inspired selection" as chairman, but had not himself felt he "had got to a point of critical mass in terms of his contribution" by the time it ceased separate operations.

Lord Steel, now unpaid vice-chairman to the Countryside Alliance, agreed, saying he had been preparing for the job. He had worked an average of one- and-a-half to two days a week, but had planned to increase this when he retired as an MP at the general election.

His chairmanship was listed as a "remunerated directorship" in the Register of Members' interests. He says: "It was supposed to be a well-paid job."

He has often said he dislikes hunting, but defends it for its value to the rural economy.

A keen angler, he also voiced fears that a hunting ban could be the "thin end of the wedge" on country sports. He supports more open access to the countryside, but regards a right to roam as "anarchic".

Leading article, Section 2, page 4

Geoffrey Lean, Section 2, page 5