Mates defends help to Nadir: Minister issues statement but fails to silence Commons critics

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MICHAEL MATES insisted yesterday that he had done nothing wrong in taking up the case of Asil Nadir, the fugitive businessman, with the Attorney General, Sir Nicholas Lyell.

Speaking from Ulster yesterday, the Northern Ireland security minister said that a constituent claiming to be one of Nadir's advisers contacted him about 18 months ago 'raising certain matters' concerning the handling of the case against Nadir by the Serious Fraud Office and the delay in bringing it to court.

'I therefore had a meeting with the Attorney General and made clear to him the reason for my interest. There was an exchange of correspondence. Some months after I had been appointed to the Government further matters were brought to my notice which seemed again to merit examination.

'Having obtained advice that it was still proper for me to do so, I again met the Attorney General. There followed further exchanges of correspondence, all of which took place well before Mr Nadir left the country. Throughout, I consulted and was advised by Mr Anthony Scrivener QC, Mr Nadir's defence counsel.'

It was true that he had given Nadir a watch last month, but added that 'it was intended and accepted as a light-hearted gesture.' The watch was inscribed: 'Don't let the buggers get you down'.

But Mr Mates stressed: 'I had no idea whatsoever of Mr Nadir's intention to leave England, an action of which I strongly disapprove.'

Last month the bankrupt former head of Polly Peck jumped his pounds 3.5m bail and fled to northern Cyprus, allegedly after a plot to try to bribe the trial judge was uncovered. He faces 13 charges of false accounting involving more than pounds 30m.

A senior Tory backbencher suggested last night that the outlook for Mr Mates was bleak, with pressure on the embattled minister likely to mount next week when the Commons returns from recess. 'The criticism of Mates is that as a minister he has behaved in an ill-judged manner.'

Alistair Darling, Labour's City spokesman, said that Mr Mates's statement had not changed anything and that he would be pressing the Prime Minister to act: 'John Major must find out why Michael Mates made representations on behalf of Mr Nadir when he wasn't a constituent. As for the watch with that curious inscription on it, many people will regard that as an error of judgement. It is not what you would expect from a government minister.'

A Downing Street spokesman said there was nothing to add to Mr Mates's statement, since he had acted 'in his personal capacity as a constituency MP'.

Nadir issued a statement in Cyprus: 'On my behalf, Mr Mates referred certain wrong doings of the Serious Fraud Office and others to the Attorney General. I thank God that there are people in Britain who are prepared to see justice prevail, in particular, Mr Michael Mates MP.'

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