Minister faces debate on conduct

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The Independent Online
David Willetts, a Treasury minister, faces an emergency debate in the Commons today on allegations that he tried to influence a select committee inquiry into the cash-for-questions scandal.

Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker, yesterday announced that the allegations were serious enough to warrant discussion on the floor of the House. MPs are expected to agree.

Just before the Speaker's surprise statement, the Prime Minister had been forced on to the defensive over allegations by Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, who demanded: "Is it right for the Government to seek to interfere in or manipulate the outcome of a select committee of Parliament?" John Major replied: "There is nobody in this House more concerned than I am that the matter should be properly investigated."

Mr Willetts, the Paymaster General, is said to have canvassed ways of playing down the cash-for-questions affair with the chairman of the Committee on Members' Interests, Sir Geoffrey Johnson-Smith. According to a note obtained by The Guardian in the preparation of its defence against a now- abandoned libel action brought by Neil Hamilton, the former trade minister, Mr Willetts floated the possibility of "exploiting the good Tory majority" on the committee to ensure the issue was dealt with quickly.

Or, it was apparently suggested, the committee could decide to defer any investigation citing Mr Hamilton's pending libel action - which is what the committee's Tory majority decided.

Mr Willetts said the note has been taken out of context, and last night issued a statement welcoming Ms Boothroyd's decision. She told the Commons that Andrew Miller, Labour MP for Ellesmere Port and Neston, had written to her about allegations that "improper pressure was brought to bear on the Select Committee on Members' Interests in 1994". A motion was being drafted last night by Mr Miller - a backbencher acting in concert with the whips' office. The motion is likely simply to suggest that Mr Willetts has a case to answer, and that the issue should be referred to the Standards Committee.

The committee met last night to discuss the remit of a separate inquiry into the cash-for-questions affair, which will focus on charges against Mr Hamilton.

Andrew Marr, page 17

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