INSIDE PARLIAMENT:Peers demand `cash for questions' allegations be prov en

House leader challenges Lord Lester to substantiate payment claims Pro-Olympic MP's absence incurs wrath of `voice of the animals'
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Viscount Cranborne, Leader of the House of Lords, yesterday stepped into the "cash-for-questions" affair, challenging Lord Lester of Herne Hill to substantiate allegations that substantial sums had been paid to four peers. With the barrister peer's charges extending to "several" unnamed MPs, the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, also intervened. Acting on her recommendation, the Labour MP Max Madden is referring Lord Lester's claims to the Commons Select Committee on Member's Interests.

Lord Cranborne, a Cabinet minister, said peers risked being "blackguarded" without evidence. But he none the less warned peers to "err on the side of declaration" when disclosing their financial interests.

Lord Lester, who was not in the chamber, said in a confidential memorandum that a client told him he had paid "substantial sums" to four peers and several MPs to ask questions of ministers and take other action on behalf of him and his company.

No names were given by Lord Lester, a Liberal Democrat, in his memorandum, written for a Lords' Procedure Committee inquiry into the case for a Commons-style register of peers' financial interest.

The issue was raised by former British Rail chairman Lord Marsh, a crossbencher. Referring to Lord Lester's assertion that the information came from "one of my commercial clients at the Bar", he said: "That information has apparently been obtained from someone whom the peer concerned is not able to name because he is is paid by him. But that alleged informant does know of some other chaps who know of some other people who are also engaged in encouraging people to behave improperly." To lordly rumbles ofsupport, Lord Marsh, a former Labour Cabinet minister, urged Lord Cranborne to give Lord Lester "an opportunity to cast light on these matters or, if not, possibly even apologising".

Noting the "jealousy" with which peers regarded the reputation of the House, the minister said it was the responsibility of those making allegation "of so serious a nature" to be able to substantiate them.

"I am sure the Lord who apparently made these allegations, whose nature I have only myself gathered from reading the press, if he made them, will no doubt be in a position to substantiate them. Because otherwise we will find ourselves in the difficult position of being blackguarded without any evidence to substantiate the blackguarding," he said.

Underlining the point, he repeated the hope that - in view of what the press called ``the current climate'' - if there was any evidence whatsoever, Lord Lester and his professional clients would be able to substantiate these allegations.

"Otherwise, I have to say that the reputation of this House risks being blackened in the public mind without substance."

Lord Cranborne said it was up to all peers to make sure that no suspicion could be attached to members of the House.

"It has long been the practice of this House for peers to speak on their honour ... Now, perhaps more than at any other time, all of us should make sure that, before any intervention in the business of the House, if we have a financial interest to declare, we should do so. To err on the side of declaration would be a fault on the right side."

Raising the matter in a point of order in the Commons, Mr Madden, MP for Bradford West, said Lord Lester should be invited to submit his evidence and to amplify on it. Miss Boothroyd told him: "I am very conscious of the allegations made about MPs by a member of the Lords. Mr Madden can take action himself and refer the matter to the Committee on Members' Interests. I hope he will do precisely that." Later, Mr Madden said he was doing so.

Another notable absentee after stirring up front- page controversy was Oliver Heald, MP for Hertfordshire North and parliamentary aide to William Waldegrave, the Minister for Agriculture.

Mr Heald won infamy in the eyes of animal rights campaigners for his part in "talking out" a backbench Bill to ban the export of live calves. During a 24-minute speech, ensuring the Bill was not debated, he read from Encyclopedia Britannica on the history of the Olympics.

But yesterday Mr Heald was absent at Question Time when called to ask one he had tabled for the Attorney General, and was still absent when his minister opened the second reading of the Agricultural Tenancies Bill.

According to his secretary, Mr Heald was "delayed on a constituency engagement". But Tony Banks, Labour MP for Newham NW and the animals' voice in the Commons, assumed "he hadn't got the guts'' to face the House.

Speaker Boothroyd agreed it was "extremely discourteous" of MPs not to let her and ministers know when they would be absent, having tabled questions. But as for the shenanigans over the calves Bill, she said: "Nothing untoward took place."

Time for private members' legislation is so tight that MPs are only likely to get a Bill on the statute book if it is early in the queue, non-controversial and simple and cheap to enact. Breakthroughs like David Steel's 1967 Abortion Act are a rarity.

Eric Martlew, Labour MP for Carlisle, will not have expected his Protection of Calves (Export) Bill to become law but to fuel the campaign.

Mr Heald need only have cited the example set the week before by Dennis Skinner, Labour MP for Bolsover, in helping talk out a Bill giving added security to insurance policyholders, a measure introduced by Mr Heald and supported by the Labour front bench.

Wise to all the wiles and mock outrage accompanying private members' legislation, Miss Boothroyd pointed out that Mr Heald's Olympian effort had been exceeded earlier on Friday by a 30 minute speech by a Labour MP. "So that seems to be even-Stephens." With Bills scheduled over the next few weeks on civil rights for the disabled, anti-smoking, more animal welfare and even a referendum on a single currency, recrimination will abound.