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Concerns over 'backroom' Brexit talks as think-tank faces claims over MP access

MPs in the House of Commons, London, where the Government has suffered its first defeat over the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill after MPs supported a Tory rebel amendment for a "meaningful vote" on any Brexit deal by 309 votes to 305, majority four. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Wednesday December 13, 2017. See PA story COMMONS Brexit. Photo credit should read: PA Wire

By Richard Wheeler, Press Association Parliamentary Editor

Fears have been raised of "unaccountable backroom discussions" on Brexit after a think-tank was accused of offering potential donors access to senior politicians.

Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) director-general Mark Littlewood was filmed by an undercover reporter making a series of claims, including that the organisation helped two US visitors meet four peers and have lunch with five MPs while they were also speakers at a European Research Group event involving 50 Tory MPs.

Mr Littlewood also told the reporter, who posed as a representative of a US hormone beef investor, that a donor could not influence conclusions of IEA reports but suggested "substantial content" covering their areas of interest would be included if they funded it.

He added that a donor would be "guest of honour" at the report launch and also attend a private dinner with the author and potentially a Government minister, noting that the IEA could not guarantee one would be there but they would try to secure someone from one of three departments.

Mr Littlewood defended his actions when challenged in a BBC interview, arguing that it was part of his job to secure investment for reports, he has no power over ministers and access cannot be promised.

The Charity Commission said the allegations were of a "serious nature" and it would assess any evidence given to it as part of its ongoing IEA investigation.

Shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Trickett also voiced concerns over the allegations, which followed a six-month Greenpeace investigation and were published in the Guardian.

He said: "When big money uses underhand ways to influence political decisions it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that democracy is being severely undermined.

"The system is clearly not working if a registered charity, supposedly prohibited in law from having a political purpose, uses foreign money to lobby politicians to support its extreme political agenda.

"It is deeply worrying that senior Conservative politicians appear willing to engage in unaccountable backroom discussions on issues that are critical to the British people."

Mr Littlewood, appearing on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, said: "You rightly say we're a free-market think-tank. My job is to meet other free-market people to try and persuade them to give me some money so my institute can conduct research so that we can influence debate and opinion in society. That's what think-tanks do."

On claims that they promised access to influential figures including ministers in return for the money, Mr Littlewood replied: "Well, no, let's be clear about that - I have no power over ministers, I'm not a chief whip or leader of a party or a party chairman.

"We can't promise people any access at all. The IEA has done spectacularly well at engaging with politicians and, my God, I think more and more politicians need engagement - particularly over issues around free trade.

"But any politician who engages with us does so purely because they want us to listen to their ideas - I can't sack them or promote them, I have no carrot, no stick.

"If any politician of any stripe wants to engage with IEA it's because they consider our ideas to be innovative, engaging or challenging and we do pretty well on that score."

Pushed on claims that he was offering donors access to minister, Mr Littlewood said: "Hang on, we run a Christmas party every year in which there is often a senior minister who gives a speech and some Christmas cheer.

"It's not open to the public. The people we invite are donors, benefactors, writers and people who support the IEA - what is remotely extraordinary about that?

"Every think-tank operates on that basis - of course we run roundtables."

A Charity Commission spokeswoman said: "We have been assessing concerns about the Institute of Economic Affairs in recent weeks and can confirm we have an open regulatory compliance case into the charity.

"Educational charities can play an important role in informing the public. The law is clear however that they must do so in a balanced and neutral way. There are clear rules for charities regarding political activity that form a key part of both charity law and public expectations.

"The allegations reported today are of a serious nature but we are yet to receive evidence from Greenpeace or the Guardian.

"We look forward to receiving the evidence, which will be assessed carefully in line with our usual processes and considered as part of our ongoing case."

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