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MPs upset at SFO bar on Maxwell inquiry

MPs were blocked from quizzing a key figure in the Robert Maxwell saga yesterday after a warning from the Serious Fraud Office that further public questioning could prejudice future criminal trials.

The Commons Social Security Committee, which was forced to abandon a meeting with Basil Brooks, former finance director of Maxwell Communications Corporation, has demanded talks with the SFO to protest at the move and discuss a possible compromise. George Staple, the SFO director, may attend the talks, expected to take place this week.

If the SFO's request sticks, the committee will have to scrap future meetings at which other parties were to be asked about the Maxwell scandal. Those already scheduled for meetings include Lord Walker, Lord Rippon, Lord Stevens, and representatives from Bank of America, Capel-Cure Myers and Lehman Brothers.

One MP on the select committee said the SFO's move to block its public investigation of the Maxwell scandal was 'very bad news for Maxwell pensioners'.

The MP said Mr Brooks was told 'at the last minute' not to turn up at the Commons after the committee received a letter from the SFO on Monday warning that MPs ran the risk of 'rehearsing' possible future witnesses of criminal trials in the Maxwell affair.

Despite the SFO's letter, MPs on the committee want to keep the search for more than pounds 400m in missing pensions funds as much in the public eye as possible.

But one committee member admitted last night: 'I suspect that the only way ahead is to hold our meetings in private.' The alternative, he said, was to delay the meetings for perhaps another one or two years, 'which won't help the pensioners'.

'While we are worried about things being sub judice, we are also worried about the broader issues of the Maxwell affair.'

He said the committee was concerned about questions of corporate governance and where exactly the missing millions went.