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September 17, 2015updated 18 Sep 2015 1:29pm

Commons watchdog clears Straw and Rifkind over ‘cash for access’ and instead criticises reporters for exposé

By William Turvill and Dominic Ponsford

Parliament's standards watchdog has cleared two MPs of wrongdoing after a 'cash for access' sting and accused reporters of unfairly tarnishing their reputations.

The report by Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards  Kathryn Hudson comes after a documentary by Channel 4 Dispatches and a front-page story in The Daily Telegraph about the actions of MPs Jack Straw (Labour) and Malcolm Rifkind (Conservative).

The Telegraph has responded to today's criticism by defending its investigation, saying: "We suspect voters will find it remarkable that, despite the scandal of MPs' expenses, Parliament still sees fit for MPs to be both judge and jury on their own conduct."

The Telegraph story from February alleged that Straw and  Rifkind offered to use their positions as MPs "on behalf of a fictitious Chinese company in return for payments of at least £5,000 per day".

At the time of the expose Straw said: "I am mortified that I fell into this trap, despite my best efforts to avoid this, and my previous public criticism of colleagues of all parties who have done so in the past. Of course I am kicking myself. However, I am clear that there was nothing that I said in the meetings which was improper."

But Hudson has found "there was no breach of the rules on paid lobbying" from the pair.

Both denied wrongdoing and referred themselves to the parliamentary standards commissioner.

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Hudson said the only wrongdoing was "a minor misuse of parliamentary resources" by Straw.

On the reporting behind the story, she said: "If in their coverage of this story, the reporters for Dispatches and The Daily Telegraph had accurately reported what was said by the two members in their interviews, and measured their words against the rules of the House, it would have been possible to avoid the damage that has been done to the lives of two individuals and those around them, and to the reputation of the House."

A report by the House of Commons Committee on Standards, also published today,  claimed the former cabinet ministers had been "presumed guilty" before any investigation had taken place.

Committee chairman Kevin Barron said: "The committee has not hesitated to take action in the past when a media investigation has revealed the rules have been broken.

"The debate about whether or not MPs should have outside interests is a legitimate subject for media scrutiny, but the rules currently permit it provided that these are registered in the register of members' financial interests, and the lobbying rules are not breached.

"Everything Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind said about their earnings was already published online in the register of members' interests.

"What was said in the interviews should have been reported accurately and measured against the rules of the House. Jack Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind were presumed guilty before any authoritative investigation had taken place."

Rifkind, who stepped aside as chair of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee and stood down at the election following the claims, said the months after the sting had been a "painful period" for him and his family.

He said: "I thank the Standards Commissioner and the Standards Committee for their very full examination of the allegations by Channel 4 Dispatches and The Daily Telegraph, and their conclusion that these allegations had no substance and were unjustified."

He added: "Channel 4 Dispatches and The Daily Telegraph must recognise the judgment of the Standards Commissioner and the Standards Committee that they were responsible for 'distortion' and for misleading the public in making these allegations.

"It has been for me, for my family and for my former parliamentary staff a painful period which we can now put behind us.

"My public life has continued over the last seven months with the support of colleagues. I am looking forward to the years ahead in very good spirits."

Straw said: "I am naturally delighted that the independent Commons' standards commissioner has cleared me of all wrongdoing."

He added: "Throughout my 36 years' parliamentary career I took great care to act with probity and to treat the rules of the House of Commons with the greatest respect.

"I am most grateful to the Committee on Standards for confirming this. They say that I had been 'particularly at pains to keep his business work separate from his Parliamentary resources', and that I had 'made declarations even when such declarations were not technically required'."

Straw said he regretted "ever having fallen into the trap" and had made serious efforts to check on the bogus company before the meeting "but these checks were not enough to expose what was a deliberate and meticulously planned deception".

He added: "At the time of this sting I said that I felt mortified that I had fallen into this trap but that I had not acted improperly in the meetings, nor more widely in respect of my Parliamentary duties and the rules of the House.

"I have been fully vindicated in this. The commissioner's report gives the full context of what happened, which was not available to the public at the time.

"It has been very sad that the final chapter of my long period in the Commons has been overshadowed in this way.

"The whole episode has taken a huge toll on my family, my friends, and on me, but the commissioner's conclusions and the committee's findings will now enable me to get on with my life."

Jouurnalists working for Channel 4 Dispatches made approaches were to 12 Members to ask whether they would be interested in joining the advisory board of a fictitious Chinese company named PMR. 

Straw was asked by reporters about his expectations of payment if he became a member of the company's advisory board. He told them that he received £5,000 for preparing and delivering a speech, and that he was already paid £60,000 pa for his work for ED&F Man."

Hudson said in her report: "the rules of the House permit Members, subject to certain conditions, to take on external employment. Having outside interests was not a breach of the rules and the rate of payment was a matter for him and the company concerned."

She said: "The rules of the House permit Members, subject to certain conditions, to take on external employment. Having outside interests was not a breach of the rules and the rate of payment was a matter for him and the company concerned. 

"The House has on several occasions considered restricting the outside employment of Members, and has not done so. In this context it is not unusual for Members to be approached and asked to consider positions such as the one described on this occasion. It is Sir Malcolm and Mr Straw’s misfortune that on this occasion the company making the offer was a bogus one and they have paid a heavy price for that…

"…it is not for me to investigate or make any judgement on the actions of the reporters or programme makers. This is for others to consider.

"It must also concern all those who value the reputations of the House and of its Members generally that those reputations proved so easy to tarnish. For the truth was that in this situation, there was no breach of the rules on paid lobbying, although it is clear that many people thought that there had been."

A Telegraph spokesman said: "The Daily Telegraph conducted an investigation that was in the public interest and accurately revealed matters which were of concern to millions of voters. We raised a number of serious questions about the conduct of Members of Parliament. We suspect voters will find it remarkable that, despite the scandal of MPs' expenses, Parliament still sees fit for MPs to be both judge and jury on their own conduct." 

A Channel 4 spokesperson said: "Channel 4 Dispatches stands by its journalism; this was a fair and accurate account of what the two MPs said. This investigation was in the public interest and revealed matters which were of serious public concern."

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