Cash for questions `is widespread practice' in Lords

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The Liberal Democrat lawyer Lord Lester QC last night demanded tougher rules to stop peers taking cash to push outside commercial interests.

He raised a "sleaze" furore this month when he claimed four peers had taken substantial sums to put questions to ministers. The allegations came in secret written evidence to the Lords Sub-Committee on Declaration and Registration of Interests.

Appearing before the committee last night, he said he believed the practice was widespread in the Lords, but was unable to supply the names of the four.

Lord Lester said his source - a commercial client at the Bar - had been "reluctant" to give him any further information and had not given him the names. When asked if he thought such conduct was "widespread", Lord Lester said his source would not have been so reluctant to give information "unless he felt that there was still a continuing activity".

In the written submission, Lord Lester said the source had told him he had paid substantial sums and given indirect financial benefit to four peers as well as several MPs, to ask questions and take other action on behalf of him and his company.

The claims come as the Nolan committee sits and as the Commons Privileges Committee investigates allegations that two Tory MPs took cash for questions.

Lord Lester criticised the "narrowness and obscurity" of existing guidance to peers about outside commercial interests. Peers should act as individuals, not on behalf of outside interests, and it was unacceptable for peers to accept a direct or indirect financial reward for doing so, he said. They should also not be allowed to lobby on behalf of outside interests.

A register of interests was not a sufficient safeguard. He suggested the creation of a select committee with a judicially qualified chairman, to give guidance to peers on particular problems as well as investigating alleged breaches of the relevant principles and rules.

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