Labour suspends ex-ministers in lobbying row

LONDON: The Labour Party has suspended three ex-ministers over claims they were prepared to influence policy in exchange for cash, in a scandal that has erupted just weeks before an election.

Former Cabinet minister Stephen Byers -- who has been at the centre of the row -- was suspended late Monday hours after a documentary was aired in which he was secretly filmed apparently offering his lobbying services for payment.

Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt, also ex-Cabinet ministers, were suspended along with Byers after featuring in the programme.

In the undercover sting, by the Sunday Times newspaper and Channel Four television, the lawmakers were filmed apparently making an offer to a reporter posing as a lobbyist to use their government connections in exchange for money.

Byers described himself as a "cab for hire", charging up to 5,000 pounds (7,500 dollars, 5,500 euros) a day for his services.

Hewitt and Hoon were filmed suggesting they would charge 3,000 pounds a day for their services. All three deny wrongdoing.

"The Labour Party expects the highest standards of its representatives and believes that they have a duty to be transparent and accountable servants to their constituents at all times," a spokesman said after the suspensions.

Labour lawmaker Margaret Moran was also suspended Monday after featuring in the programme, said the party.

Conservative lawmaker John Butterfill and another former Labour minister Sally Morgan, who sits in parliament's upper house, said they had referred themselves to parliamentary authorities. Both featured in Monday's programme.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has rejected opposition calls for an inquiry into the lobbying scandal as he fights to contain the damaging row in the run-up to an election expected on May 6.

David Cameron, leader of the main opposition Conservatives, has described the allegations as "shocking" and demanded a government investigation.

Byers, a former transport minister boasted to the undercover journalist he had made a secret deal with Transport Secretary Andrew Adonis over the termination of a rail franchise contract.

Both the rail firm, National Express, and Adonis denied this.

He also claimed Business Secretary Peter Mandelson had amended food labelling regulations after he intervened on behalf of a supermarket giant.

Mandelson said he had "no recollection" of having talked to Byers about the issue.

Byers, who is standing down at the election, has since insisted he "exaggerated" his influence and has retracted his claims, adding that he had "never lobbied ministers on behalf of commercial interests."

He has vowed to clear his name.

Hewitt and Hoon have denied any wrongdoing over the secret filming and insist they have not breached rules.

The pair led a failed attempt to challenge Brown's leadership of the Labour Party in January, calling for a ballot of lawmakers on whether he should remain in charge.

The lobbying row is just the latest scandal to tarnish the reputation of Britain's lawmakers after damaging revelations that many of them were abusing the parliamentary expenses system.

In a separate development Monday, the BBC said it had uncovered widespread abuse of parliamentary rules by lawmakers who had accepted free overseas trips from foreign governments.

More than 20 members of parliament (MPs) from all the major parties breached guidelines on declaring hospitality in questions or debates after visiting places including the Maldives, Cyprus and Gibraltar, said the broadcaster.