Labour attacks pounds 86,000 costs in Heseltine libel case

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The Independent Online

Political Editor

Labour yesterday renewed its attack on Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, after the disclosure by John Major that the total costs of the successful libel action brought against him by a television programme maker, Martyn Gregory, amounted to pounds 86,000.

The action was brought after Mr Heseltine and junior ministers at the Department of Trade and Industry described allegations in The Torture Trial, an award-winning Channel Four programme by Mr Gregory about the supply of instruments of torture by British companies, as "contrived" and "scaremongering".

In a letter to John Prescott, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, the Prime Minister disclosed that the estimated costs in civil servants time' of the action was estimated at pounds 31,000. This is over and above the total of pounds 55,000 damages and legal costs awarded against the ministers. Mr Major acknowledged in his letter that actions against ministers and officials for defamation were "extremely rare."

He said the last "faintly comparable" case was a libel action taken by a pirate radio station against the then Labour Postmaster General, Edward Short. The action was eventually withdrawn by the plaintiffs but the Post Office Solicitor and subsequently the Treasury Solicitor took responsibility for the defence of Mr Short, now Lord Glenamara.

But the Prime Minister insisted that the use of taxpayers' money to pay for the action was "entirely proper" and fully in accordance with rules which give departments "discretion to grant officials and Ministers all or some of their legal representation in proceedings arising as a consequence of their employment".

But last night Mr Prescott complained that Mr Major's disclosure was "yet another example of the soaring costs of Michael Heseltine to the taxpayer". He added: "First we have to foot the bill for his salary as a full-time Tory party propagandist. Then we have to pay for his massive staff and office. And now it emerges that his inability to tell the truth in this case has cost the taxpayer almost pounds 100,000, when the bill for his libel ought to be paid from his own pocket."