Six MPs calling for the Government to drop plans for plain cigarette packaging received hospitality worth thousands of pounds from a leading tobacco company.
Parliament's register of MP's interests shows that Japan Tobacco International – which owns brands such as Benson & Hedges, Camel, Silk Cut and Mayfair – states that Brian Binley, along with Alun Cairns, Karl McCartney, Stephen Metcalfe, Laurence Robertson and Therese Coffey, were among a number of MPs to have accepted lunch and two tickets to the Chelsea Flower Show valued at £1,132.80. Mr Binley also received tickets worth the same amount to the Glyndebourne theatre.
In a letter written to Health Secretary Andrew Lansley last month, seen by The Independent and due to be published in today's Daily Telegraph, the politicians were reportedly among 51 MPs to have expressed "serious concerns with the Department of Health's proposal to introduced standardised or 'plain' packaging for tobacco products". Health campaigners believe the measure will reduce the attraction of smoking to teenagers.
But the letter argues that there is no reliable evidence and that the tobacco sector "should not be subjected to further red tape and regulation". It adds that "the forcible removal of branding would infringe fundamental legal rights, severely damage principles around intellectual property and set a dangerous precedent for the future of commercial freedom of speech".
Anti-smoking campaigners argued yesterday that tobacco companies presenting gifts to MPs was evidence of the influence of cigarette companies on British politics. Martin Dockrell, at Action on Smoking Health, said: "This is how it works: a couple of MPs take a 'little harmless hospitality' from big tobacco. Next thing, those MPs are having a word with other MPs and the tobacco company gets its letter to the health secretary. Job done."
However, Mr Binley told the Daily Telegraph he had "not acted immorally". Japan International Tobacco, he said, "made a kind invite that I accepted on that basis. From the perspective of freedom, people who smoke are victimised. No one is doing very much about the 40,000 who die from eating too much every year".
Mr Robertson, Mr Metcalfe and Mr Coffey denied their acceptance of the hospitality had caused a conflict of interest, while Mr McCartney and Mr Cairns could not be contacted.
The MPs accepted lunch as well as tickets to the Chelsea Flower Show worth £1,132.80