Steel: Lobby firm offered me pounds 20,000

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AN OFFER of around pounds 20,000 to a senior MP to entertain and assist clients of a political consultancy is to be investigated by the Commons Committee of Privileges.

Sir David Steel, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, rejected the offer in 1988 when he stood down from the party leadership. Yesterday he said that he expects to give details of the incident to the committee, of which he may be a member, in the autumn.

Sir David, who confirmed that he had been asked to book Commons dining rooms for the consultancy and play a part in entertaining its clients, declined to name the company before giving evidence to the committee. The former Liberal leader is said to have been 'surprised' to be approached by the company, of which he had never before heard, who are said to have offered a rolling annual contract. It is not known which other MPs were approached, or if any agreed to the lucrative arrangement.

The revelations come in the wake of the payments-for-questions row involving two Conservative MPs, David Tredinnick and Graham Riddick, who were each offered pounds 1,000 to ask parliamentary questions. Both initially accepted, but then returned the cheques.

It also emerged that Mr Riddick who, until he was suspended a week ago, was Parliamentary Private Secretary to John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport, had been in line for a junior ministerial job in the reshuffle which is expected this week.

Ministers believe that the reshuffle may now take place on Wednesday, with possible Cabinet casualties including Peter Brooke, Secretary of State for National Heritage, John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, and Lord Wakeham, Leader of the Lords.

Those likely to win promotion include Stephen Dorrell, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Jonathan Aitken, Minister of State for Defence Procurement and Dr Brian Mawhinney, Minister of State at Health.

Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat MP for Bermondsey who disclosed the bid to 'buy' Sir David Steel, yesterday called for the discreet trade in banqueting facilities at Westminster to be made public.

He said: 'It clearly is a nonsense that public representatives cannot know who books public rooms in the public's name at the public's expense. Details of which MP books what room and for whom - and if paid, how much - ought to be declared.

'The Committee of Privileges, which is looking at links between MPs and outside, should widen its net to look at all the possible links and to establish firm rules so that everything is in the public domain.'

The Liberal Democrats are to join forces with Labour MPs who are demanding full disclosure of the identity of Members who book facilities at Westminster.

Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport West who has made a special study of the issue, says that only one in ten is booked on behalf of a charity. The rest are either lobbyists or commercial organisations.

In a complaint to the clerk of the catering committee, Mr Flynn quotes figures obtained by the Independent on Sunday which show that, overwhelmingly, Tory MPs are involved. In 1991, Dining rooms A and B were booked 1,566 times - 1,399 times by Conservatives and 167 times by Labour members. The nine-to-one ratio almost exactly correlates with MPs' links to outside consultancies; 85 per cent of eligible Tories have either consultancies or directorships, compared with 14 per cent of Opposition members.

Mr Flynn said:'Soft corruption has become endemic at Westminster. Part of that is the use that is made of the banqueting facilities.'