Politics: Nolan reign ends on sour note

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A row over the Government's decision to exempt Formula One from its tobacco sponsorship ban escalated yesterday amid revelations that the husband of the health minister, Tessa Jowell, had links with the sport. And, Fran Abrams reports, Lord Nolan became embroiled in the controversy.

Lord Nolan's spell as anti-sleaze watchdog ended in controversy yesterday after he told MPs that newspaper claims that he had been consulted on the best way forward for Tessa Jowell was untrue.

Lord Nolan, who was at a valedictory meeting with the Commons Public Administration Committee before his retirement this week, said he had not received any letters from the minister or her office. If he had, he would have sent a standard reply saying he did not deal with individual cases.

"I have asked our secretary to get on to Ms Jowell's office and find out what the source of this is. If the story is that she sought my advice ... she certainly hasn't received it," he said.

He added that the issue of guidance for ministers should be looked at by the Committee on Standards in Public Life under his successor, Sir Patrick Neill.

Later the Department of Health clarified its earlier statement by saying that Ms Jowell had written to the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robin Butler, in June explaining what action she had taken to ensure there was no conflict of interest. That correspondence had been copied to Lord Nolan, it said.

The row blew up after the Financial Times reported that Ms Jowell's husband, David Mills, had been a non-executive director of Benetton Formula, which takes tobacco sponsorship. He resigned shortly after the general election because he recognised the potential conflict of interest with his wife's role as minister for health. Although he still takes legal work from the company, he now refuses to act in any cases relating to tobacco sponsorship.

The Tories' health spokesman, John Maples, seized on the revelation, saying he felt that in this case there had been a hint of impropriety.

But Ms Jowell said: "I have taken the greatest possible care to make sure that at every stage there is no possible conflict of interest. I have taken advice and I have acted on that advice. I think that any suggestion of any impropriety is deeply offensive."