Lobbying MP is cleared of guilt thanks to old rules

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Indy Politics

Political Correspondent

The former Conservative minister Patrick Nicholls was yesterday cleared of wrongdoing in lobbying ministers on behalf of a company in which he had a financial interest before the rules on MPs' disclosure were tightened last November.

Mr Nicholls was the first MP to have his case decided by Sir Gordon Downey, the parliamentary commissioner for standards, whose appointment last year he had bitterly opposed.

But Sir Gordon's report signalled clearly that he would have fallen foul of the new rules, and dismissed his claim that he had done nothing wrong because he would only have received payment if the company were successful. The distinction between past payment and the expectation of future payment "could not be maintained", it said. Mr Nicholls, MP for Teignbridge, Devon, tried to persuade ministers to buy water-purifying systems from World Water Services, which offered him a 5 per cent shareholding if it made a profit. He had declared his interest in WWS, as required under the old rules, but the new rules - passed when 23 Tories rebelled in a Commons defeat for the Prime Minister - ban all advocacy on behalf of interests from which MPs could benefit.

In a letter to the company, leaked to the press, Mr Nicholls promised: "I can ensure that we are given a hearing . . . using my own credibility with ministers to promote what WWS has to offer."

Mr Nicholls tabled parliamentary questions to find out about government departments' use of water and wrote to Michael Heseltine, then President of the Board of Trade, plugging WWS and asking about grants to help it expand.

Attacking the appointment of Sir Gordon to oversee MPs' ethics, Mr Nicholls had said: "We got into this position . . . because two stupid, silly, greedy members did something that most of us would never do," referring to Graham Riddick and David Tredinnick, who were disciplined for being willing to accept cash for questions from reporters posing as businessmen.

Mr Nicholls resigned as adviser to the company after November's vote, but his role was referred to Sir Gordon by John Prescott, Labour's deputy leader.

Mr Prescott said: "Mr Nicholls has been technically cleared but morally condemned. Of course I accept the findings of the report, but most people will rightly be shocked by Mr Nicholls's behaviour."