Rumbold defends role in rail-link lobbying

NOLAN COMMITTEE: Tory chief `never advised firm on ministers to approac h'
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Indy Politics
Dame Angela Rumbold, a Tory party deputy chairman, yesterday defended her role on the board of a lobbying company as the Nolan Committee on standards in public life heard pleas for lobbyists to be given more powers.

Dame Angela and Maureen Tomison, chairwoman of the company, Decision Makers, had been asked to explain to the inquiry its role in the successful campaign to persuade the Government to locate the station for the Channel tunnel high-speed link at Ebbsfleet, Kent, instead of Stratford in east London.

Decision Makers was retained by a consortium led by Blue Circle, owner of the Ebbsfleet site. After details of the campaign were leaked, Dame Angela resigned from the firm.

Dame Angela defended her role with Decision Makers. She advised the firm's staff, went to lunches and talked to clients, she said. On a "couple of occasions" she had a meal with a minister present, but she never advised the firm on which ministers to approach.

According to the leaked papers, the campaign also included a dinner with the Prime Minister and a reception at 11 Downing Street, the Chancellor of the Exchequer's residence. Ms Tomison said her client had been given the "opportunity" to attend a dinner with 400 other people at which Mr Major was present and it had also paid to attend a party at Number 11.

It was not the case, she said, that lobbyists could hire 10 and 11 Downing Street for parties. There was, though, nothing wrong with them providing access to ministers, "provided the client had no expectation".

Lord Nolan asked if clients were not influenced in choosing her firm by the presence of a senior MP.

"It is more useful than having a plumber on the board," Ms Tomison agreed. Asked if her staff held researcher passes to gain entry to the Commons, she replied that one did, because he helped produce a constituency news- letter for a Tory MP, whom she di d not name. "We should have a register so this silly problem [getting through security] does not occur," she said. Ms Tomison said she spoke to ministers and their political advisers about Ebbsfleet, as well as MPs. In all, 360 MPs were approached.

She added that she believed political lobbyists should have their own dining room in the House of Commons and the same level of access to MPs as lobby journalists. Provided lobbyists were registered, she could see no reason why they should not have similar privileges to the press and a "dining room set aside" where they could meet MPs and ministers.

Her plea for lobbyists to be put on a firmer footing was echoed by her former colleague. Dame Angela called for a code of conduct governing MPs' dealings with them.

It would distinguish between "advocacy", which would be forbidden, and "consultancy", which would not. MPs would also have to declare how much they were paid - which in her case, until she resigned from the board of Decision Makers last year, had been £1

2,000 a year, she said.

Stewart Steven, editor of the Evening Standard, which revealed Decision Makers' Ebbsfleet activities, warned the inquiry that lobbyists or "hidden persuaders" were a threat to parliamentary democracy.