Hamilton failed to declare payments

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Neil Hamilton, the corporate affairs minister, did not declare in the register of MPs' interests a paid-for consultancy in 1990 with a public relations firm with strong links to political interests in southern Africa.

Mr Hamilton last night insisted through his solicitors that he had not broken any rules. But his ministerial career already hangs in the balance because of his failure to declare a holiday given by Mohammed al-Fayed, chairman of Harrods.

Mr Hamilton's lawyers confirmed that he had received a payment from Strategy Network International, but insisted he had not broken the rules on MPs' financial interests. The arrangement lasted no longer than four weeks because he was appointed an assistant government whip in the July 1990 reshuffle, they said.

The firm's two main clients were the South African Chamber of Mines and Escom, the South African electricity generating board. Campaigning against sanctions, against cheap South African coal in particular, was a major preoccupation. SNI, established by Sean Cleary, a prominent former South African diplomat who worked for the administration set up to run Namibia, also acted as a propagandist for Unita, the Angolan opposition group.

SNI's London arm began operations in 1985 in offices in Storey's Gate, Westminster, run by two men, Patrick Watson, the managing director at the time of Mr Hamilton's involvement, and Steven Govier. It ceased operations in 1993.

Mr Hamilton's connection was not declared in the Register of Members' Interests.

But the minister insisted through the solicitors, Peter Carter-Ruck and Partners, that there had been no breach of the rules because the relationship had lasted less than the four weeks that MPs have to declare interests.

Mr Hamilton maintained through Andrew Stephenson, a partner in the law firm, that he had done no consultancy work as such, nor tabled any parliamentary questions, from 21 June 1990, the date of a letter of appointment from the consultancy, until he relinquished the arrangement a few days before the reshuffle in July. Mr Stephenson argued that the rules had not been breached because the payment had no bearing on the minister's parliamentary duties.

'He has not done anything relating to that,' he said.

A source close to the former firm said that Mr Hamilton was recommended to SNI by Derek Laud, who worked for it. Mr Laud had close links with Margaret Thatcher, who was fiercely opposed to South African sanctions, and Conservative Central Office.

The source said that Mr Hamilton had been present at a number of meetings with members of the lobbying firm. Mr Stephenson said Mr Hamilton had met the firm before 21 June to take a brief. Mr Hamilton said through the lawyer that the disclosure was a 'non-story' and an attempt to 'find a stick to beat me with'. However, his position with regard to his expenses-paid holiday in Mr Fayed's Ritz hotel in Paris was further weakened yesterday when the minister for public service, David Hunt, appeared to distance himself from him.

While refusing to comment specifically on that affair, Mr Hunt said on BBC1's On the Record programme: 'I don't believe that anyone should allow any acceptance of any gift or hospitality to be allowed to colour in the public's mind their ability to stand up for the highest possible standards.'

Two former Tory ministers, Edwina Currie and Alan Clark, said Mr Hamilton should step down from his ministerial post while the 'cash for questions' controversy was investigated. A former Leader of the Commons, John Biffen, meanwhile joined the growing body of calls for a wider, more independent inquiry into MPs' conduct than the Commons Committee of Privileges, which was last night still bogged down in the impasse caused by the boycott by Labour members.

(Photograph omitted)