Select Committee on Standards and Privileges Third Report


2.  Article in The Sunday Times, 29 August 2004

Coining it at the Commons with Tory tours

For the American visitor it was an impressive experience. He had a senior Tory MP acting as his personal guide on a tour of parliament which took in Westminster Hall, a private chapel and a visit to the Commons chamber to see Tony Blair in action.

The MP, Jonathan Sayeed gave knowledgeable descriptions of the architectural and historical points of interest. But this was not what most impressed Bob Morris, the American who later wrote up an account of his visit.

"It isn't the information that its intriguing," he noted. "It is the access. The members' dining room overlooking the Thames, where we have lunch is so exclusive that it makes me nervous."

Sayeed, described by his guest as a "fastidiously groomed … superbly well mannered, self-assured Englishman", was not simply acting as a tour guide.

He also owns 30% of the shares in The English Manner, the company that organised Morris's trip. The firm's website makes no mention of Sayeed's stake in the company although he does declare it in the register of members' interests. In the register, however, he makes no mention of his Commons tours.

It is this business involvement that may open the member for Mid-Bedfordshire to a parliamentary inquiry. By taking paying clients of a company that he jointly owns on guided tours, he risks breaching a long-held Commons principle that MPs must not use the Palace of Westminster for commercial purposes.

Last week the company's representative in America made it clear to an undercover reporter posing as a customer that a key selling point of the $1,500 (£800) that it was charging for a day's tour of parliament was the behind-the-scenes access offered by Sayeed.

Since 2002 The English Manner, which has a wholly owned American subsidiary, has provided clients with an expensive slice of upmarket "olde England" in bespoke holiday packages. Its chairman and majority shareholder is Alexandra Messervy, who is deputy chairman of Sayeed's local Conservative association. As his constituency assistant she is entitled to a Commons pass which gives her access to areas normally off limits to the public.

A former member of the Queen's household, she offers clients private tours of Kensington Palace and trips around Buckingham Palace as well as stays in stately homes.

The English Manner's website describes in glowing terms the kind of reception that American clients can expect in stately homes including Somerley House, seat of the Earl of Normanton in Hampshire; and Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire, home of the Duke and Duchess of Rutland.

Sayeed's role features in enthusiastic accounts in the firm's literature. One, posted on the website, says: "Off to parliament and an evening with a House of Commons MP! Jonathan Sayeed led us through both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. We travelled through halls filled with exquisite art and enough English history that we were ready for a quiz!"

Last week a reporter working for The Sunday Times posed as a prospective client. Bambi Duvall, American agent for The English Manner, was keen to point out the identity of the company's man on the inside: "He is a member of parliament, Jonathan Sayeed." She said that although $1,500 for a single day seemed a little high, the kind of access she was offering never came cheap: "You've got to know the people in order to make it happen," she cooed in her soft Virginian accent.

When asked whether it would be possible to "go behind the scenes" at the Commons, Duvall replied: "That's a definite. That is something you can't find anywhere else. We have a great contact. He is a member of parliament. Jonathan Sayeed. And if his schedule allows it, then … you can have lunch there."

In a second conversation Duvall seemed embarrassed at the $1,500 cost, saying: "Depending on how much time they are spending with our clients, [it] depends on how big the docent's [guide's] fee is. You know how the Brits are."

Other Commons events available to the company's clients have included a choral concert marking the Queen's golden jubilee in 2003. It was followed by a champagne reception hosted by Sayeed, chairman of the parliament choir.

Commons authorities have previously carried out at least one extensive investigation into a peer suspected of conducting tours for a fee. They also followed up allegations that paid tours were being offered through websites. So far there has been insufficient evidence to link financially any of the visits to a particular member.

Sayeed, 56, a keen yachtsman and motorcyclist, was an officer in the Royal Navy before he became an MP and has homes in Pimlico, central London, and in the village of Houghton Conquest in his constituency, where he was elected in 2001 with an 8,066 majority.

A spokesman for Sayeed said yesterday that he advises the company and assists with travel programmes, but is not always involved when clients take tours around parliament. Despite repeated attempts through the firm's American agent and Sayeed's office, the MP and Messervy were unavailable for comment. Tory Central Office also refused to comment.

The Sunday Times, 29 August 2004

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