`I'm prepared to give evidence on oath'

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Neil Hamilton said yesterday that he was prepared to give evidence on oath to the Commons committee which will consider whether the former MPs in the cash-for-questions affair should be punished.

Although Mr Hamilton has little faith that the 11-strong Commons Standards and Privileges Committee will reject the findings by the Parliamentary Commissioner, Sir Gordon Downey, he is preparing a reply to the report in which Sir Gordon said the evidence that Mr Hamilton had accepted undeclared cash payments from the owner of Harrods, Mohamed al Fayed, "compelling".

Mr Hamilton has 14 days in which to submit a response and then the committee will decide whether to hold oral hearings before ruling on Sir Gordon's report.

Mr Hamilton said yesterday: "I wanted all Sir Gordon's evidence to be on oath but he rejected that suggestion. I've always been prepared to say anything that I put to the inquiry on oath and I don't resile from that." If the committee decides to hear from Mr Hamilton, it will probably mean that its final verdict will not be delivered until the autumn.

Mr Hamilton added even further to Tory embarrassment yesterday when he revealed that he could not be expelled from the party - because his membership had automatically lapsed when he lost his Tatton seat in the May election. The revelation that he had not been a member of his own constituency party association shocked some MPs, and gave extra impetus to William Hague's demand for party reform.

Tony Blair said in his Sedgefield constituency: "MPs, whether they're Conservative or Labour, want to do a good job, and we should make sure that those are the people that are running things rather than the few rotten apples."

The power to put his own side of the House in order will be taken by Mr Hague as part of a broader party reform - setting up a national membership register, suspension of MPs and others charged with offences that could bring the party into disrepute, and greater control over the selection of party candidates.

Confusion over Tory membership was evident yesterday at Westminster, where some MPs said they had two membership cards and others said they did not have a membership card.