Michael Howard's spokesman on defence has given a House of Commons pass to a lobbyist working for leading weapons firms, an Independent on Sunday investigation into MPs' staff has found.
Gerald Howarth, a Tory shadow minister for defence, gave the pass to Michael Wood, the managing director of Whitehall Advisers, last year. Its clients, who include BAE, Airbus and MBDA, are together responsible for UK defence contracts worth billions of pounds.
The arrangement, which allows Mr Wood to enter the House of Commons at will, runs counter to the voluntary code of conduct that regulates political consultants. It will also fuel fears that the current pass regime is too lax in the wake of repeated breaches of Westminster security.
Mr Howarth lists Mr Wood as a member of his staff on the official register. Callers to the MP's Commons office, however, are directed to the offices of Whitehall Advisers.
Contacted there, Mr Wood, a former RAF officer, vigorously defended his relationship with Mr Howarth. "Gerald Howarth and I have shared an interest in aerospace and defence for close on 25 years," he said. "I advise him informally without any payment on air force matters because I still retain close links with the Royal Air Force."
Whitehall Advisers was set up in December last year and has yet to file a full set of accounts with Companies House. However, another firm of which Mr Wood is the sole director, European Business Strategies Ltd, made a post-tax profit of £259,700 last year.
Mr Wood declined to say why he had not listed the second firm in a Commons register of interests. The lobbyist asserts there is no impropriety in his business affairs and says he derives little benefit other than convenience from his Commons pass. "If I want to meet a Member of Parliament I call him up and we meet in Central Lobby - the only difference is that I don't go through the security system. More importantly I very rarely exercise that particular pass. More often I meet MPs or others for lunch or dinner or a drink after work."
Mr Howarth, MP for Aldershot, defended giving his "long-standing" friend the pass. "He never lobbies me about BAE. I have the benefit of his considerable experience. I am comfortable with the arrangement," he said.
Mr Howarth has told his immediate boss, Nicholas Soames, Shadow Defence Secretary, but not the party leader, Michael Howard, about his relationship with Mr Wood. Mr Howarth is a long-standing supporter of BAE. For instance he spoke out against a decision by the Government to award a recent £800m contract to supply spy planes to a competitor.
Challenged that his relationship with Mr Wood might be open to misinterpretation he said: "Have you noticed where BAE has its headquarters? It's in my constituency. Am I not already open to that accusation?"
More than 80 per cent of lobbyists working in Britain belong to the Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC), although Whitehall Advisers is not listed among its members. The body forbids lobbyists from holding Commons passes.
Warwick Smith, the chairman, said: "The main reason is to prevent any confusion about in what capacity people are meeting each other in Parliament."
Staff passes are overseen by the Serjeant at Arms, one of the so-called "men in tights" who administer the Houses of Parliament. Martin Bell, the anti-corruption campaigner, last night called for the rules to expressly forbid lobbyists from holding passes. "I think there is a strong case for the rules to be tightened by the Serjeant at Arms," he said.
A number of Cabinet ministers are pressing for the pass regime to be overhauled. A Cabinet member told the Independent on Sunday: "We need to make sure MPs are held directly accountable for the actions of those to whom they give passes."
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