'Cash for access' scandal: What is it about, what impact will it have and who is involved?

Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw have denied any wrongdoing

Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw have dismissed allegations of wrongdoing in a new “cash for access” scandal involving the two former foreign secretaries.

What are they accused of doing?

Both MPs were filmed meeting undercover reporters from the Daily Telegraph and Channel 4’s Dispatches posing as a fictitious Hong Kong-based communications agency called PMR, appearing to offer to use their positions to benefit the firm in exchange for thousands of pounds.

Mr Straw, the former Labour Foreign Secretary, is said to have described how he operated “under the radar” to use his influence to change European Union rules on behalf of a commodity firm which paid him £60,000 a year.

He was also said to have claimed to have used “charm and menace” to convince the then Ukrainian Prime Minister to change laws on behalf of the same company, ED&F Man.

Mr Straw met the undercover reporters at his office in the Commons - a potential breach of Commons rules - explaining that he normally charges a fee of £5,000 a day for his work.

Sir Malcolm, the Conservative head of the parliamentary committee which oversees Britain's intelligence agencies, also met with “PMR”.

He allegedly claimed that he could arrange “useful access” to every British ambassador in the world because of his status.

“You’d be surprised by how much free time I have. I’m self-employed so nobody pays me a salary. I have to earn my income,” Sir Malcolm was filmed saying.

For his services he discussed his usual fee of ‘somewhere in the region of £5,000 to £8,000’ for a half a day's work. He earns £67,000 as an MP.

What do they say about it?

Both MPs have denied any wrongdoing and referred themselves to the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner.

Sir Malcolm repeated his refusal to stand down on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“These are very serious allegations. They are unfounded and I'm going to fight them with all my strength,” he added.

"None of the matters are remotely to do with intelligence or security.”

In the meetings, Mr Straw had made clear he would not take on the role while he remained an MP and emphasised that the discussions only referred to possible employment after he leaves Parliament in May – although he was tipped for a seat in the House of Lords.

He told Radio 4 he was “scrupulous” in observing all Parliamentary rules but had referred himself to the Commissioner for Standards “because of the way this appears”

“I very much regret the fact that I ever saw these people,” he added.

Are they in trouble with their parties?

Yes – Mr Straw already planned to stand down as MP at the general election in May but had been tipped for a Labour peerage, while Sir Malcolm is still in Parliament.

A Labour Party spokesman said: “We have seen the disturbing allegations against Jack Straw in the Daily Telegraph. The chief whip has spoken to Jack Straw.

"He has agreed to refer himself to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and in the meantime he has agreed the best course of action is to suspend himself from the parliamentary Labour Party."

A Conservative Party spokesman said Sir Malcolm would be meeting the Chief Whip later today but did not say whether the Tories would be taking any disciplinary action.pg-1-gove-getty.jpg

If they did not take any money, what's the problem?

The suggestion that they would even hypothetically take money from a private company to use their Parliamentary influence and contacts to benefit it is hugely damaging, even if no rules are found to be broken.

The MPs are described as “elder statesmen of Westminster” by Dispatches and have built up considerable power in their long careers.

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Jack straw was also filmed in the sting (Channel 4 Dispatches / Telegraph)

Mr Straw, who has been the Labour MP for Blackburn since 1979, has held positions including Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary, Leader of the House of Commons and Justice Secretary.

Sir Malcolm is still the head of the highly influential Intelligence and Security Select Committee and the Tory MP for Kensington.

He has previously held posts including Foreign Secretary, Transport Secretary and Scottish Secretary.

Was anyone else involved?

In the course of the investigation, the Telegraph/Dispatches team contacted 12 MPs saying PMR wanted to hire influential British politicians to join its advisory board and get a foothold in the UK and Europe.

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Reporters claimed to be from a firm in Hong Kong

Six did not respond, one said his contacts were not for sale and another refused to meet until he checked the firm out in Hong Kong.

What impact will the scandal have?

For the affected parties, it could not have come at a worse time in the run-up to the general election but their opponents will be seizing the chance to pounce.

As Mr Straw was already due to leave Parliament in little over two months, he may not be forced to resign but has already been suspended from Labour.

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The scandal has come at a crucial time before the general election

Sir Malcolm will be fighting to retain his seat – both from the prospect of resignation and in the general election as voters react to the row.

After his meeting with the Chief Whip today, he may be suspended from the Conservatives or from his chairmanship of the security committee.

Such a scandal is ripe to be weaponised by opposition MPs as an attack on lobbying and existing political networks so close to the general election.

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Nigel Farage may seek to capitalise on another stain on the existing order in Westminster

Parties like Ukip and the Greens may seek to benefit by contrasting their new candidates with the tarnished establishment but that ship has sailed for the battered Lib Dems.

David Cameron and Ed Miliband are unlikely to attack each other over “cash for access” as MPs in both their parties are involved.

This all sounds a bit familiar…

That’s because it is. This is one of several scandals dubbed “cash for access”, where MPs have allegedly offered their influence for money.

Five years ago, Channel 4’s Dispatches conducted another undercover investigation into how other MPs were asking for large sums of money for their services to private businesses.

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Former Labour cabinet ministers Stephen Byers, Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon were suspended from the party after being involved in a similar sting in 2010

The repercussions were huge, with former Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon banned from Parliament for five years and former transport minister Stephen Byers barred for two.

An inquiry was held that resulted in the tightening of rules. The broadcaster said five years on, it wanted to see if anything had changed or whether “politicians still falling short of public expectations”.

Both MPs will feature in Politicians For Hire – a Channel 4 Dispatches programme airing tonight at 8pm.

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