Aitken claims cheque proves hotel bill 'mistake'

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The Independent Online
Jonathan Aitken, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, sought last night to prove he had acted properly over his payment for a two-day stay in the Paris Ritz last year by producing a cheque and supporting document showing that he and his wife had paid the bill in full.

In a dramatic statement admitting that there had been a 'mistake' over billing for his stay in the hotel last September, Mr Aitken said he had paid the outstanding amount as soon as it came to light 'several months later'.

In the statement, issued from the Treasury, the Chief Secretary said: 'I hope it is now clear that my bill was paid in full by my wife and myself in the circumstances I have described, and that I made the full documentation available to the Cabinet Secretary, as he has confirmed.'

Earlier published evidence of payment for Mr Aitken's stay at the hotel - owned by Mohamed al-Fayed, the originator of the allegations about four ministers put to John Major nearly four weeks ago - had shown only that 4,257 francs of the 8,010 total cost had been paid by Mrs Aitken.

The photocopy of the cheque produced by Mr Aitken last night shows that the balance was paid personally by him, though not until 21 February, well after the Guardian newspaper had opened its inquiries into Mr Aitken's stay at the Ritz. Mr Aitken said last night that he paid the remainder of the bill when 'it emerged that a mistake had occurred'. The cheque was made out to Abdul Rahman, nephew of Said Ayas, who made Mr Aitken's original booking.

But there was a continuing puzzle over why, in a letter sent to Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, on 3 March, Mr Aitken not only omitted any mention of the orginal amount paid by his wife but also did not refer at any point to the cheque for the balance of pounds 426.88 which the release of documents last night shows he had paid 10 days earlier.

Whitehall sources would only say last night that the 3 March letter refers to earlier correspondence between Sir Robin and Mr Aitken and said that Sir Robin was satisfied with Mr Aitken's explanation.

Mr Aitken said last night that, without his knowledge, the bills both of Mr Aitken himself and of 'certain relatives of my friend Mr Ayas . . . were all put by the Ritz in the name of Mr Ayas who booked the rooms.' These bills were all paid on the afternoon of 19 September. 'But when the bills were sorted out my wife was asked to pay FF4257.' When 'several months later . .

. it emerged that a mistake had occurred' it turned out that Mr Rahman had apparently paid FF3753 too much and his wife had underpaid by the same amount. He immediately sent a cheque for the right amount to Mr Rahman. Mr Aitken said that all the corrrespondence, including a copy of the cheque and the full letter from Mr Frank Klein, the hotel's manager - which he had only partly quoted in his letter to Sir Robin - had been made available to the Cabinet Secretary 'more than six months ago.'

Mr Aitken's statement came at the end of a day on which an irritated John Major coupled another public defence of the Chief Secretary with a sharp attack on what called media preoccupation with 'day-to-day trivia' and 'tittle-tattle'.

Mr Major declared in an occasionally heated BBC interview: 'Jonathan has made it absolutely clear that these charges are nonsense.'

The Prime Minister said during a trip to Wales that he would be prepared if necessary to speak to Barbara Mills, the Director of Public Prosecutions, if she wished. Mrs Mills has referred to Metropolitan Police claims that Mr Fayed the owner of Harrods, had tried to blackmail the Government when allegations about ministers were put to Mr Major through an 'intermediary' at the beginning of October.

The Prime Minister added that 'politicians are there to be lobbied' - although he conceded that Dame Angela Rumbold had 'very probably' made the right decision in quitting her executive directorship of the lobbying firm Decision Makers.

He went on to emphasise that Dame Angela was not a member of the Government.

'Lobbying is a fact of life,' he said. 'It has always happened.'

However, Mr Major's remarks yesterday appeared to conflict with a Harris/ITN News at Ten telephone poll suggesting that 85 per cent of people believe that MPs should be banned from receiving money from lobbying groups or companies.

Rumbold's defence, page 3 Leading article, page 12