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Sussex peer accused of misusing her position
A SUSSEX peer was yesterday accused of misusing her position in Parliament to promote her own business.
Baroness Julia Cumberlege of Newick, a former minister in John Major’s government, was reported to have used a Lords email address to recruit people to commercial courses organised by her political networking consultancy, Cumberlege Connections.
She is also accused of giving her business partner a Lords access pass without declaring the partner’s financial interests in an official register.
The allegations follow a series of Lords “cash-for-influence” claims, which prompted Parliamentary bosses to launch two investigations into whether four Labour peers broke the rules by allegedly offering to alter legislation in return for fees of up to £120,000.
Lady Cumberlege, defending herself against the claims in a national newspaper, said her firm was not involved in lobbying.
She said of Cumberlege Connections: “This is not a lobbying company. It puts on training courses, for example, for young doctors, to tell them about Parliament and politicians. Many people in the NHS are naive about politics, not realising that the boards of their heath trusts are run by politicians.
“When I realised that the business was taking off I took special measures to separate it from the House of Lords, setting up its own website and employing staff outside. I have never claimed money from the public authorities, not even telephone charges. I have nothing to hide.”
But the peer, who is a member of the local Conservative party in Newick, accepted that she had not been “punctilious” in declaring her financial interests during House of Lords debates, explaining: “It is such a long list and most of it is pro bono work.”
Pressure group Spinwatch, which campaigns for openness among lobbyists, said it was lodging a complaint against Lady Cumberlege with a committee of peers responsible for investigating breaches of the Lords’ code of conduct.
Spinwatch’s spokesman, David Miller, said: “No peer should be treating parliament as an office from which to do commercial business, and we will be making a complaint to the relevant authority. The fact that we don't know who Cumberlege’s clients are – especially commercial health companies – is also a concern and underlines the fundamental need for greater transparency.”
Lady Cumberlege chaired an independent panel which, in 2005, called for large rises in the personal allowances of West Sussex County Councillors.
The peer was unavailable for comment yesterday.