In January 2009 the Sunday Times published details of an eight-month-long undercover investigation in which reporters posed as lobbyists representing a foreign retail company. The 'lobbyists' aimed to have their 'company' gain exemption from business rates through a series of meetings with peers. What became know as erminegate, ermine being the heraldic red fur robe sometimes seen in the Lords, raised fresh concerns over 'cash for influence'.
The Sunday Times reporters secretly recorded their conversations with four peers who suggested that they were willing to amend legislation in return for money. The four peers in question were Lord Taylor of Blackburn, Lord Truscott, Lord Moonie and Lord Snape.
Cash for influence
In a transcript of the meeting between Lord Taylor and the undercover reporters payment for amending legislation was discussed:
- Sunday Times: Obviously, from our point of view, this would be something we would remunerate you for. And I don't think money is an object. But [what] I would ask you to do, I think, is to give us some idea of what a fee structure would be.
- Taylor: This is absolutely difficult, this is very difficult for me because some companies that I work with will pay me £100,000 a year.
- Sunday Times: £100,000?
- Taylor: Oh yes. That's cheap for what I do for them. And other companies will pay me £25,000. It all depends on what you are trying to do and how much time I think I am going to spend on it.
- Sunday Times: Those fees are not impossible. They are all fine.
- Taylor: Yes, but these are the sort of fees I get. I am being absolutely honest with you. I am not exaggerating. It's whether I want to do it or not. You've got to whet my appetite, to get me to come on board.
The Guardian reports on the findings of the Sunday Times investigation:
- Lord Taylor of Blackburn, a former BAE consultant, allegedly admitted that he had once helped to change the law on behalf of a client. The peer allegedly offered to conduct a "behind the scenes" campaign on behalf of the fictitious businessman to persuade ministers and officials. A £120,000 retainer was discussed. Taylor allegedly said: "I will work within the rules, but the rules are meant to be bent sometimes."
- Lord Truscott, a former energy minister, allegedly said he had helped an energy client worried about the energy bill. Truscott, who discussed a £72,000 fee, said he had to be a "bit careful" and could not table any amendments himself. He told the undercover reporters: "I can work with you over it ... identifying people and following it ... meeting people, talking to people to facilitate the amendment and making sure the thing is granted."
No Police Investigation
The Liberal Democrats referred the matter to the police to see if bribery and misconduct in public office offences had been committed. The Metropolitan Police decided not to investigate the allegations stating "The application of the criminal law to members of the House of Lords in the circumstances that have arisen here is far from clear. In addition, there are very clear difficulties in gathering and adducing evidence in these circumstances in the context of parliamentary privilege."
Lords Privileges Committee Findings
Although neither Lord Taylor of Blackburn and Lord Truscott ever received any money they were both found to have been willing to amend new laws in exchange for money by the Lords Committee for Privileges and Conduct. The Committee recommended that that the two peers be suspended from the House of Lords for up to six months. Lord Moonie and Lord Snape were cleared by the committee but were invited to apologise for their "inappropriate attitudes".
- 'Erminegate', BBC.
- Hélène Mulholland, 'What Lord Taylor allegedly said', The Guardian, 27 January 2009.
- Nicholas Watt, 'Erminegate: police called to examine corruption allegations in House of Lords', The Guardian, 26 January 2009.
- 'Police decide against peers probe', BBC, 11 February 2009.
- 'Two Labour peers face suspension', BBC, 14 May 2009.
- 'Lords vote to suspend two peers', BBC, 21 May 2009.