'Discrepancies' over hotel bill keep the pressure on Aitken

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The Independent Online
LABOUR yesterday said the explanation offered by Jonathan Aitken, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, over his Ritz hotel bill was 'unacceptable', and called into question the conduct of Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary.

With the row showing no signs of abating, the opposition highlighted discrepancies between what Mr Aitken told the House of Commons about his bill and what he said in a statement on Friday.

The party's deputy leader, John Prescott said that 'the assumption that the Cabinet Secretary could deal with these matters satisfactorily has been exposed by these events'.

Mr Aitken's difficulties have been compounded by revelations that he did not declare his directoriship of a company, Fadace Limited, one of whose co-directors was Said Mohammed Ayas - the man at the heart of the row over the Ritz bill. Mr Aitken admitted breaching Commons guidelines by not disclosing his interest but told today's Mail on Sunday that he had earned no money from the company.

Peter Preston, the editor of the Guardian, which first printed details of Mr Aitken's hotel bill, wrote once more to Sir Robin yesterday. He asked why the Cabinet Secretary had been able to clear Mr Aitken in an inquiry which ended on 18 February. At that stage, Mr Aitken had not told him that there had been an error in the bill, which explained why he (through his wife) had seemed only to pay a part of it. He had later paid the money in full, Mr Aitken said.

Mr Preston said in his letter yesterday: 'Jonathan Aitken says he did not discover this discrepancy, or rectify it, until three days after your inquiry concluded. Please: how was it possible for you to clear Mr Aitken before he, you or anyone else realised what had gone wrong?'

Mr Aitken was asked in the Commons on Thursday by Gordon Brown, Shadow Chancellor, to confirm that 'at no time was any part of his bill last year at the Ritz hotel in Paris paid for by a Mr Ayas'. Mr Aitken replied: 'I simply say to the honorable gentleman that, first, I completely deny the allegation that he has made.'

On Friday, however, Mr Aitken said that, due to an error made by the hotel, Abdul Rahman, one of Mr Ayas's nephews, had been charged for some of Mr Aitken's bill.

Mr Aitken said he paid the money he owed to Mr Rahman on 21 February. But no mention of the payment is made in a letter from Mr Aitken sent to Sir Robin on 3 March.

Yesterday Andrew Smith, shadow Chief Secretary, said: 'The public will find it unacceptable that crucial information has had to be forced out in dribs and drabs and that important questions on the application of the Question of Procedure for ministers, remain unanswered.'

Alastair Darling, Treasury spokesman, said Mr Aitken 'would have to square the difference between what he said on Thursday in the Commons and what he said on Friday'.

The Guardian confirmed it had sent a forged fax to the hotel with a House of Commons letterhead. But this was not how it had obtained the information about the Aitken bill. It had sent the fax, a crude and easily detectable forgery, only to protect a source. It had hoped the hotel would conclude that it had been tricked by the fax - to which it replied with details of the bill - rather than launch an investigation to find the source. 'This was a device between two people who knew precisely what was going on,' Mr Preston said.

Despite the continuing questions, right-wing Conservative MPs rallied round the Chief Secretary. Some argued that the Prime Minister could not lose another right-wing minister without creating speculation about a leadership challenge.

Labour front benchers are concerned whether Sir Robin is, as one put it, 'acting as judge of propriety or as lawyer for the defence'. They believe that the matter may only have been straightened out when Mr Aitken knew he was under investigation.

Mr Aitken's allies insist that the Prime Minister will stand by him. One said that 'there was no intention to deceive or mislead' in the Commons last week but he was simply a victim of 'the pressures of the dispatch box'. The same day, he had been giving a full explanation to colleagues in private.

Further reports, page 2 Leading article, page 20 (Photograph omitted)