Tory peers told to come clean about Russia links

Peers across parties are on Russian payroll

The security minister has turned down a meeting with a Tory peer who has financial links to Moscow amid fears about Russian influence and lobbying in parliament, The Times can reveal.

Ben Wallace said in a letter to the Commons foreign affairs committee that he had been contacted by two Conservative peers “requesting government assistance for Russian associates” since he took up his post in 2016.

He said he did not take up the offer to meet and discuss sanctions with Lord Barker of Battle. Lord Barker, 52, is chairman of En+, the Russian energy giant majority-owned by the oligarch Oleg Deripaska, a close ally of President Putin. En+ and Mr Deripaska have been subject to sanctions since the Salisbury nerve agent attack in March.

A ministerial meeting did go ahead with the Conservative peer Lord Fairfax of Cameron. Mr Wallace said in the letter, which was leaked to this newspaper, that Lord Fairfax “wished to discuss his experiences working for Sovcomflot”, the state-owned Russian shipping company.

Lord Fairfax, 62, is director of Sovcomflot UK, a direct subsidiary of PAO Sovcomflot. Russia and “countries of former Soviet Union” are listed among his focuses on his page on the parliament website.

Lord Barker rejected any suggestion that he had attempted to lobby Mr Wallace. “I have never lobbied the UK government or requested assistance from any member of either of the Houses of Parliament,” he said yesterday.

The disclosures come amid concerns among senior members of the Commons that members of the Lords are seeking to lobby on behalf of Russian companies with links to the country’s government and doing “the Kremlin’s bidding”. A Times analysis has uncovered peers with financial interests linked to Russia, prompting calls for all Lords to divest themselves of these unless they can prove the interests are free from potential Kremlin influence.

An overhaul of the Lords code of conduct to tighten the rules around transparency and links to foreign nations has also been proposed by MPs and campaigners for transparency. Their calls come after a nerve agent attack by Russian spies in Salisbury in March.

Peers from all sides have been found to have links to Russia. Lord Skidelsky, 79, a crossbencher, is a non-executive director of Russneft, the Russian oil refining company that is 47 per cent owned by Mikhail Gutseriev, a businessman named on a US “oligarch” list this January of people close to President Putin. He declined yesterday to address the calls for peers to divest themselves of Russian interests.

In 2014 in the House, Lord Skidelsky spoke out against sanctions on Russia in response to its illegal annexation of Crimea. He said the West had “actively sought to prise those countries [which in the past formed part of the Russian state] from Russia’s orbit, using as its instruments Nato expansion and financial and logistical support for Russophobe movements in newly independent adjacent territories”.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, 59, a Labour peer, declares in the members’ register that he is a director of RNG Joint Stock Company, a Russian oil and gas company, and of its direct owner, Eastsib, a company registered in Cyprus that operates in Russia. He has not referred to Russia in parliament.

Lord Truscott, 59, an independent Labour peer, receives remunerated employment as chairman of the advisory board of Russian Gold Fund, a private equity investment fund, according to the register of interests. He has spoken about Russia in the Lords, in January declaring the idea that the Kremlin could order a conventional attack against a Nato member a “fantasy” and urging the British government to improve relations with Russia.

More than a dozen parliamentary questions have been tabled by the peer in the past year that touch on themes of interest to Russia, including defence policy, strategy in Syria, and the White Helmets, the rescue volunteers in Syria who have allegedly been targeted by Russia.

In 2013, Lord Truscott nominated Mr Putin for the Nobel peace prize. He is married to Svetlana Chernikov, who is understood to be the daughter of a Red Army colonel. Yesterday Lord Truscott told The Times that Russian Gold Fund was “not a Russian company. There is no Russian money in it. Plenty of British funds invest in Russia and other emerging markets, as do a number of major British companies.” He said he had no financial interests in Russia and no links to the Russian government.

“I believe that we should engage and work with Russia on many issues, including Syria,” he said. He declined to say whether Russian Gold Fund, which does not appear in Companies House or in other international open company registers, invested money in Russia, or why it was so named if it did not.

All the peers declared these interests in the members’ register, as the Lords’ code of conduct requires. The code and the official guide to it say : “A member . . . must not seek by parliamentary means to confer exclusive benefit on an outside body or person from which he or she receives payment or reward.

“Members are not otherwise debarred from participating in proceedings in regard to which they possess relevant interests, financial or non-financial; but such interests should be declared fully. In participating in such proceedings they should ensure that there is no conflict between their declared interests and the public interest.”

In light of Russia’s hostility, MPs are demanding that peers give up interests potentially linked to the Russian state.

Bob Seely, a Tory MP and member of the foreign affairs committee, said: “Should parliamentarians be ‘on the books’ of authoritarian states and their supposed proxies? Of course not. It must be noted that proxies can be formal or informal.

“Those peers who work for adversarial foreign powers should give up their right to sit in parliament. Will they? Of course not.”

Tom Brake, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said: “Now is the time for those peers to divest themselves of interests in Russian companies unless they can prove their independence of the Russian state.

“It’s clear that the rules around transparency and lobbying in the Lords must be brought into the 21st century so that it is clear whether peers are speaking on behalf of the UK or representing interests linked to foreign powers.”

Duncan Hames, policy director at Transparency International UK, said: “Parliament needs to improve transparency about members’ financial interests to provide a greater deterrent against corrupt regimes using our representatives to influence friends in high places.”

The Times tried to reach Lord Ponsonby for comment. A House of Lords spokesman said the code was designed to ensure transparency and openness and was “kept under constant review to ensure it remains effective and appropriate, but there are no current plans to ban members from holding financial interests in Russia”.