Politics: Appeal row rocks `sleaze' body

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The Independent Online
Parliament's official sleaze investigator was yesterday accused of exerting improper influence to block an appeal for Neil Hamilton.

Anthony Bevins, Political Editor, reports on the Westminster row.

Ann Widdecombe yesterday resigned from the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee after denouncing its investigation into the cash-for-question affair as a "shambles", and claiming a breakdown of trust within the committee.

But her protest resignation was later capped by a sensational charge made by Quentin Davies, another Conservative member of the committee. Disclosing the committee's private deliberations, he alleged that Sir Gordon Downey, the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, had intervened to block any appeal for Mr Hamilton, the former Tory MP accused of accepting cash from Mohamed Al Fayed, the owner of Harrods.

The lack of appeal for Mr Hamilton was widely denounced as a denial of his fundamental rights of natural justice in a Commons debate on Monday. Mr Davies told BBC radio's World at One yesterday: "The Commissioner played an unfortunate role in this, because, though I think it was a very good report, he then got very upset when it looked as though there was a possibility of appeal, and his verdict might be opened up again.

"When it came to the crunch, he tried to use his influence to stop that happening. That was quite wrong."

Miss Widdecombe told The Independent she would not criticise a public official, but she was scathing in her condemnation of Robert Sheldon, Labour chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, who said after it issued its report on 6 November that the committee had voted nine-nil and that there was compelling evidence that Mr Hamilton had taken Mr Fayed's money. She said in her resignation letter that that was "a gross misrepresentation" of her view - that the case against Mr Hamilton was not proven.

She told Mr Sheldon: "What is at issue is that this experience means that in future I would be most unwilling to work towards compromise or unanimity, were I to entertain doubts or reservations about any matter, because I could never be sure of the formal construction which would later be put on my position ..."