'I faced sleaze inquiry' - Aitken

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The Independent Online
Jonathan Aitken, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, last night became the second minister to confirm he had been investigated and cleared by Sir Robin Butler's inquiry into allegations of impropriety by members of the Government.

Mr Aitken admitted he was the fourth man named in allegations furnished to John Major more than three weeks ago. Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, disclosed he too had been interviewed and exonerated by Sir Robin's inquiry.

Mr Aitken, Minister of State for defence procurement until his promotion to the Cabinet in the July reshuffle, made it clear in a short statement that he did not know Mohamed al- Fayed, the owner of Harrods and the man who, according to Mr Major, made the original allegations that led to Sir Robin's inquiry.

Last night, Downing Street said no other ministers had been investigated by Sir Robin. The other two were Tim Smith and Neil Hamilton.

Mr Aitken said: 'I confirm that I am one of the ministers referred to by Sir Robin Butler in his report. Sir Robin's report makes clear the outcome of his investigation. I would like to take this opportunity to emphasise that I have never been guilty of any impropriety in the conduct of my responsibilities as a minister or Member of Parliament. I have never met Mohamed al-Fayed or had any dealings with him or anyone else acting on his behalf.'

Mr Aitken had a wide range of declared business interests during his 18 years as a Tory backbencher, including ones with Middle Eastern connections such as a directorship of Al Bihad (UK). A Guardian report in May suggested that the name on the bill for a September 1993 stay by Mr Aitken at the Ritz in Paris - the Fayed-owned hotel where Mr Hamilton stayed for free in 1987 - was that of Mohammed Ayas, an Al Bihad director. Mr Aitken told the newspaper, however, that the bill had been paid 'in cash by my wife with money given to her by me for that purpose'.

Mr Aitken later made it clear that, after consulting Sir Robin, he was 'confident' that no breach of the Procedure for Ministers had occurred.

Downing Street would not confirm that Mr Aitken's Ritz stay had been re-examined, but Sir Robin said some allegations put to Mr Major had been 'previously investigated and strongly denied'.

Mr Aitken's statement last night came as the Prime Minister had a meeting with Lord Nolan, the law lord who will head the standing committee on standards in public life.

The aftermath of Mr Hamilton's resignation took a further twist yesterday when David Hunt, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, repeatedly referred in a radio interview to the new 'allegations' which sunk Mr Hamilton as 'unfounded'. This fuelled anger among Mr Hamilton's allies about his fall and the apparent thinness of the charges with which he was confronted on Tuesday, compounding an impression that his defiant statement earlier that morning had provoked his dismissal.

Anonymous calls to some newspapers had drawn attention to Mr Hamilton's directorship of the Plateau Mining company when he was a backbencher. By mid-1993, the firm had losses of pounds 11m. But friends of Mr Hamilton pointed out that, since he had registered his interest in the firm, it was impossible to see how it could form the basis of any substantive complaint against him.

Meanwhile, Mr Fayed yesterday issued a statement again strongly denying what he called the 'very serious charge of blackmail'.