Guinness documents show Thatcher link

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Lady Thatcher's involvement in the Guinness prosecution was detailed among thousands of documents withheld from the defence, according to a government lawyer's affidavit and a Public Interest Immunity Certificate obtained by the Independent.

Details of discussions at Downing Street and of meetings and conversations between Michael Howard, then a trade minister, the deputy Director of Public Prosecutions, Crown Prosecution Service officials and Trade and Industry inspectors were covered by the PII certificate "gagging order'', and a threat to issue a second.

Defendants in the Guinness affair have complained that they were refused access to minutes showing that a decision was taken at the highest level to exclude police from the early stages of the fraud investigation.

They say the DTI control of vital evidence before the police, and later the Serious Fraud Office, took over and they believe the minutes covered by the gagging order may prove that the police were kept out. DTI inspectors have the right to compel witnesses to give possibly incriminating evidence whereas a police inquiry would have afforded them the right of silence.

Ernest Saunders, 58, the former Guinness chief executive, the entrepreneur Gerald Ronson, 55, the stockbroker Anthony Parnes, 48, and the financier Jack Lyons, 78, were told on Thursday that their convictions for fraud and false accounting in the 1987 takeover of Distillers were being referred by the Home Office to the Court of Appeal following allegations that the SFO had withheld evidence from the defence.

The PII certificate - the ministerial device preventing evidence from being disclosed in court that failed so spectacularly in the Matrix Churchill trial - was signed by John Redwood, Secretary of State for Wales, when he was minister for corporate affairs in November 1990. It was used in the first of two Guinness trials and requested the non-disclosure of three notes, dated 13, 19 and 30 January 1987.

In the second trial, of Lord Spens, former corporate finance chief at the merchant bank Henry Ansbacher, and Roger Seelig, finance director of Morgan Grenfell, an affidavit was handed to the judge, Mr Justice Henry, which led to the exclusion of a further raft of evidence.

The affidavit sworn by Bryan Welch, barrister for the DTI, warned that much of the evidence would stray into the area covered by public interest immunity. They included : "Documents passing between, and records of, meetings between Ministers of the DTI and senior or very senior officials of the DTI and between such officials themselves ... communications with the Prime Minister's office, Law Officers and Home Office."

Guinness seeks £100m, page 12