Major blocks Hamilton inquiry

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The Prime Minister last night rejected a joint call from Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown for a judicial public inquiry into the Hamilton cash- for-questions affair.

The two party leaders had joined forces to demand that the cash-for-questions allegations involving the Tory MP Neil Hamilton, and any further revelations should be investigated at a public inquiry headed by a judge. The Labour and Liberal Democrat party leaders said they did not doubt the integrity or competence of the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, Sir Gordon Downey, who has been given the task of investigating the affair, but said only a statutory inquiry could secure public confidence.

But Mr Major insisted Sir Gordon was the best man to head the investigation which was already under way.

The Prime Minister sent a short reply to the two leaders last night in which he said: "The Commons has only just set up new machinery, following the recommendations of the Nolan committee, to handle matters such as these . . . I believe that the Commons is perfectly capable of dealing with its own affairs."

In normal circumstances, Sir Gordon operates in co-operation with the all-party Select Committee on Standards and Privileges: he is a parliamentary commissioner and does not operate at the Prime Minister's instigation. The fact that the Leader of the Opposition and Mr Ashdown have disputed the Mr Major's request puts Sir Gordon in a difficult position.

The Commons is in recess until next week, and it is possible that an early meeting of the Standards and Privileges Committee will now divide on party lines. Mr Blair and Mr Ashdown question Sir Gordon's power of investigation.

In a letter to Mr Major yesterday, they also said that the row over the Hamilton allegations had been broadened by the weekend revelation that a Government whip, David Willetts, had attempted in 1994 "to undermine" a previous investigation into the Hamilton allegations. They said that a document written by Mr Willetts, now a Treasury Minister, "suggests political interference in a committee which has a quasi-judicial role." On Sunday, Mr Major rejected calls for a tribunal of inquiry, saying those who wanted it wanted the matter to drag on for years. It would be "kicking it into the long grass", the Prime Minister said.

Mr Major said he wanted the matter "settled" as quickly as possible, within two or three weeks, although there is no question of Sir Gordon's inquiry being able to meet that timetable.