London: Tony Blair and former ministers have been banned from staying for free at British embassies and using diplomats to help carry out their private commercial work, the Telegraph can disclose.
The Foreign Office said it wanted to prevent the “inappropriate use” of government staff and resources and avoid the perception abroad that such figures were representing the UK Government.
Instead, ex-ministers will only be able to make use of embassies and staff if they are working on official business.
The disclosure comes as the Telegraph reveals how Mr Blair – who has made millions of pounds since standing down as prime minister in 2007 – stayed rent-free in British embassies in France and the US at the taxpayers expense on several occasions.
The Telegraph has previously revealed how Mr Blair was given the run of the British ambassador’s official residence in Manila on a trip during which he was paid almost £400,000 for two speeches.
He also stayed at the UK embassy in Tripoli when meeting Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi on private business.
It can also be revealed today how Jack Straw, who was foreign secretary under Mr Blair, asked the British ambassador in Ukraine to set up a series of meetings with senior government figures there on behalf of a client that pays him around £60,000 per year.
Under the new guidance there will be a general ban on embassies arranging meetings for former ministers or putting them up in official residences.
One source said ministers wanted to stop ex-ministers using state property overseas “for their own financial gain”.
According to a Freedom of Information (FoI) request, submitted by Tory MP Andrew Bridgen, Mr Blair stayed twice at the British ambassador’s Washington DC residence in 2010 and on seven occasions at our ambassador’s residence in Paris from January 2008 to July 2011, although some of these dates are disputed by Mr Blair’s office.
On each occasion he was accompanied by up to six people, excluding his security team. The Foreign Office and the former prime minister’s office declined to say if Mr Blair’s wife Cherie was accompanying him.
Mr Blair – whose fortune has been estimated at £60million – and his party were not charged for their stays.
The actual number of visits could be much higher because the Government only gave an answer for 20 countries, rather than for all countries, as Mr Bridgen had originally requested.
The figures do not include stays that the Telegraph disclosed in Manila and Tripoli.
Government sources confirmed that “a number of former prime ministers/ministers have been using missions to host or assist in arranging visits abroad that are associated with their private commercial interests, rather than HMG visits. This has included asking ambassadors to set up meetings”.
FoI request by the Telegraph reveals that in 2011 Mr Straw – foreign secretary from 2001 to 2006 – asked Leigh Turner, the British ambassador to Ukraine, to set up meetings with the Ukrainian premier, agriculture minister, and speaker of the parliament.
Mr Straw, the then MP for Blackburn, was visiting with representatives of his client, ED&F Man, a commodities firm which was seeking changes to laws governing sugar production.
In an email to Mr Turner on September 7, 2011, Mr Straw set out how he was seeking meetings with the senior Ukrainian figures and asked: “Would you or your colleagues now please be able to facilitate these meetings?”.
Mr Turner passed the email to another FCO official to set up the meetings.
A Foreign Office source said: “It isn’t the job of British diplomats to help former ministers with their own private financial interests by arranging meetings and programmes with foreign governments.
“Ministers have tightened up the guidance to overseas posts, to make it clear that this is not acceptable.
“If a UK firm wants help in making contacts and accessing new markets, the FCO will always be on hand to do this, but it should be through usual
official channels, not through ex-ministers acting as a paid go-between.”
A Whitehall source added: “It isn’t right that taxpayers should foot the bill for former prime ministers staying in ambassadors’ residences when they are visiting on private business.”
According to the FoI answer, the new FCO guidance states: “Former prime ministers and former ministers who seek logistical support as representatives of UK business must now submit requests through official UK Trade & Investment channels to ensure equal support is provided to UK companies.”
Government sources said officials would still provide assistance to a former prime minister on security grounds but these were on a “case by case basis” and were only “rare”.
Mr Bridgen welcomed the new guidance. The MP for North West Leicestershire added: “I made this FoI request as I had concerns that Mr Blair, his friends and family were continuing to enjoy UK Government hospitality at the taxpayers’ expense while partaking in activities which were of a personal rather than a governmental nature. “
Mr Bridgen also called for new laws restricting the commercial activities of former prime ministers, expressing concerns that Mr Blair’s work abroad included acting as a paid advisor to foreign governments.
Mr Blair’s enjoyment of government resources abroad has also extended to seeking embassy briefings on countries including Canada, Albania and Macedonia.
He has also been provided with government documents, including diplomatic cables, to help him on private business trips to China.
Documents found by the Telegraph in Libya showed how Mr Blair had stayed overnight at the British ambassador’s residence in Tripoli in 2009 during one of several trips to the country to see Gaddafi.
Victoria Gould, who was Mr Blair’s events organiser, had written to the ambassador, Sir Vincent Fean, saying: “If we were able to stay at the Residence I know TB would be really grateful (as would we all).”
The previous month Mr Blair had travelled to the Philippines where he was given the run of the British ambassador’s official residence in Manila.
Foreign Office emails, also obtained under the FOI Act, revealed how Mr Blair’s aides arranged the trip with then ambassador Peter Beckingham, who was given the posting in 2005 when Mr Blair was still in power.
In a response to a Blair staff member, Mr Beckingham offered up to four bedrooms for Mr Blair and his team, including protection officers, saying: “You would be most welcome to stay.”
On Saturday a spokesman for Mr Blair, who ceased to be an MP in 2007, said of his travels around the world: “As with other former prime ministers, Mr Blair has been invited to stay at embassies, though for the majority of visits he would stay in a hotel.
He was usually accompanied by one or two members of staff although when on visits related to his role as Quartet Representative, and where appropriate, FCO secondees to the OQR would be invited.
“Tony Blair has been treated no differently from any other former PM and the notion that he has used these invitations for business reasons is absurd.
“He stays only at the express invitation of the ambassador.
“In the case of both Paris and Washington DC he will have had political meetings as it is useful both for him and the embassy to compare notes.”
Mr Straw said: “Man had been in touch with this embassy for some time – well before I became a consultant to Man in April 2011.”
The firm “would have been in touch again even if I had not been a member of the delegation from Man to the Ukraine”.
Mr Straw said his approach was approved by the Advisory Committee on the Business Appointments of Former Ministers.
He added: “Whenever I have represented Man, my role has been crystal clear to all concerned.”