Two Labour peers involved in the "cash for amendments" scandal were today facing suspension from the House of Lords after a parliamentary sleaze inquiry found them guilty of misconduct.
The Lords' privileges committee found that former minister Lord Truscott and Lord Taylor of Blackburn were prepared to help Sunday Times' reporters posing as lobbyists to seek amendments to Government legislation in return for cash.
The powerful committee has recommended their suspension from the House until the end of this session of Parliament - probably around six months - which would also cost them access to tax-free allowances worth up to £335 a day.
If approved by the House of Lords in a vote next week, this would make Lord Truscott and Lord Taylor the first peers to be suspended since the time of Cromwell.
Suspension until the end of the session is the maximum penalty available to the committee and an indication of how seriously the misconduct is regarded.
Two other Labour peers - the former minister Lord Moonie and Lord Snape - were cleared of wrongdoing, but invited to make apologies to the upper house for showing an "inappropriate attitude" to parliamentary rules banning paid advocacy.
A Labour Party spokesman said: "Lord Taylor of Blackburn has been suspended from the Labour Party following the House of Lords Privilege Committee's report and the party is now mounting a full disciplinary investigation, which will take into account any decision that the House of Lords makes on this report.
"Lord Truscott has already resigned from membership of the Labour Party in connection with this issue."
An initial investigation by the Lords Interests' Subcommittee found Lord Snape guilty of expressing a "clear willingness" to breach the peers' Code of Conduct, but he was cleared by the Privileges Committee at a hearing on Monday.
In a sting operation which started last year and was made public in January, Sunday Times reporters approached a number of peers posing as lobbyists acting for a foreign client who wanted to secure an exemption from the Business Rates Supplements Bill for a chain of small shops he was planning to set up in the UK.
Secret recordings showed former energy minister Lord Truscott discussed a fee of up to £72,000 to work "behind the scenes" on behalf of the lobbyists, while Lord Taylor offered to conduct a campaign to persuade ministers and officials for a one-year retainer of £120,000. Neither peer took any money nor offered to table an amendment themselves.
The Interests Subcommittee found Lord Truscott had breached the ban on exercising parliamentary influence in return for financial inducement by expressing his willingness to "smooth the way" for the lobbyists, make introductions, influence peers, set up meetings, approach ministers and lobby officials.
"The evidence against Lord Truscott is so clear and so plentiful that we have little doubt that Lord Truscott was advertising his power and willingness to influence Parliament in return for a substantial financial inducement," the Subcommittee found.
In an appeal, Lord Truscott dismissed the findings as "outrageous and slanderous" and compared the approach of the Subcommittee - chaired by crossbench peer Baroness Prashar and including former Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine and ex-MI5 chief Baroness Manningham-Buller - to Stalinist Russia.
But the Privileges Committee rejected his claim to have been pursuing legitimate financial interests and upheld the Subcommittee's finding.
It was clear from his actions that "in order to secure a lucrative consultancy, he was willing at the very least to hold out the prospect that he would be willing and able to exercise improper parliamentary influence", found the Committee.
In a statement to the Interests Subcommittee, Lord Taylor claimed he had worked out early on that he was the target of a sting and was stringing the journalists along to flush out the truth.
But the Subcommittee was "not persuaded" by this claim, and the Privileges Committee described it as "inherently so implausible that we do not find ourselves able to attach much weight to it".
The Subcommittee found Lord Taylor's claims in conversations with the journalists were "so exaggerated and his conduct so irrational that it may well be thought that no genuine lobbyist would have taken much time" with him.
Lord Taylor himself admitted being "a loquacious old man with an advanced degree of self-satisfaction, but one who is easily confused and who rambles on".
Finding against Lord Taylor, the Interests Subcommittee said it was "disturbed" by his "disdain for the rules" and deplored his efforts to give the journalists the impression he had already breached the code of conduct on behalf of other commercial clients. There was "no basis" for his claim that he was primarily motivated by the opportunity to win new jobs for the North West.
In its findings, the Subcommittee ruled an agreement to promote an amendment in return for a fee amounted to a breach of the ban on paid advocacy and a failure on the part of the peer to "act on his personal honour" as required by the code of conduct, even if no money has changed hands.
In their appeals, Lords Snape and Truscott argued there was no modern legal definition of the term "honour", while Lord Taylor described it as an "arcane term dating from the time when escutcheons were blotted and political life was lived in gentlemen's clubs".
But the Privileges Committee ruled there was no need to spell out to peers what "honour" meant, finding "its meaning has never been defined and has not needed definition because it is inherent in the culture and conventions of the House".
The Committee also rejected arguments that evidence from the Sunday Times reporters should be disregarded because they were involved in entrapment.
There was no doubt the journalists "asked leading questions designed to elicit apparently incriminating answers", but this "did not amount to incitement to or instigation of a breach of the code", the report found.
Labour's Leader in the Lords, Baroness Royall of Blaisdon, announced the vote on suspension would take place on May 20, following a debate on the Privileges Committee report.
Peers will also debate a separate report on the powers of the House in respect to its members, which revealed dispute among legal experts on whether temporary suspensions are allowed.
Attorney General Baroness Scotland of Asthal QC told the Privileges Committee the House had no power to suspend individual peers, as this would interfere with the fundamental constitutional right conferred by the Crown for a peer to attend, sit and vote in Parliament.
But former Attorney General Lord Mackay of Clashfern, who sits on the Committee, argued the writ of summons inviting a peer to attend Parliament implied a requirement to respect its rules, and that the House therefore had the power to suspend those found guilty of "clear and flagrant misconduct". The Committee unanimously backed Lord Mackay's judgment.
Lord Strathclyde, the Conservative Leader in the Lords, described the report as "a bleak day in the history of the Lords" and said he would back the call for suspensions in next Wednesday's vote.
"The findings were clear. The attitudes and actions revealed fell short of what both Parliament and the country is entitled to expect. The sentences proposed are very severe. But they are in my view fully deserved," said Lord Strathclyde.
"The law must never be for sale to those with the money to buy it - and there must be no suspicion in public minds that it ever could be. That is why I support these findings and will ask the House of Lords to back these sentences next Wednesday."Reuse content