Politics: Standards body racked by Hamilton squabbles

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Neil Hamilton's bid to clear himself of `cash for questions' allegations ended in disarray yesterday when a committee of MPs failed to agree on the charge. Thus a new system of self-regulation for Parliament fell at its first big hurdle. Fran Abrams and Kim Sengupta examine the details.

Two members of Parliament's standards committee went on the offensive last night as they dissociated themselves from its findings on the Neil Hamilton case. The committee's response to Sir Gordon Downey's corruption inquiry was the first big test of the commissioner's new role in tackling sleaze.

Despite the rift, the committee agreed Mr Hamilton's conduct "adds up to a casualness bordering on indifference or contempt towards the rules of the House on disclosure of interests". But Tory MPs Ann Widdecombe and Quentin Davies said Mr Hamilton had been left in limbo, neither guilty nor innocent, after a row over whether he should have had a right of appeal. Mr Davies said the public would now never know the truth.

In July, Sir Gordon reported that he believed the former minister took money from Mohamed Al Fayed without declaring it in the register of members' interests. Mr Davies said MPs should be able to regulate their own affairs but in this case had failed to do so. The whole process had been "shambolic".

"This is an appalling abdication of the fundamental responsibility of the committee to hear an appeal properly and to come to a conclusion," he said. Miss Widdecombe abstained in a final vote on the report, while Mr Davies voted against it. She said Mr Hamilton should have been given a right of appeal. "What we have actually done is to leave the man on the crucial issue, the one on which he has suffered the most public vilification, without any verdict at all and with no right of appeal. I think that is not compatible with natural justice."

The committee's report revealed how hopelessly split the MPs had been on how to respond to Sir Gordon's findings.

Four out of the 10 agreed that the committee's own procedures were "unsatisfactory". Almost the only issue on which there was not a split vote was a crucial sentence stating that they could not find a way to judge Sir Gordon's finding on the cash- for-questions allegation.

But Mr Hamilton claimed that he had been cleared of the most serious charges. It was, he said, akin to "the difference between murder and a parking offence".

"There is an awfully big difference between corruption and a failure to declare interests. I do acknowledge there have been some errors of judgement on my part and misunderstanding of the rules. But I refuse to accept allegations of dishonesty."

The former Tory MP continued: "It is a gross dereliction for the committee to brush this matter under the carpet on the grounds that they have neither the time nor the inclination, nor perhaps the ability, to resolve these unresolved matters."

Lord Nolan, whose report on standards in public life led to the setting up of the committee three years ago, said in a radio interview that he had recommended a right of appeal. "They have devolved more responsibility on Sir Gordon Downey for the purposes of the Neil Hamilton case than we envisaged. Why they did that, I do not know," he said.

Charles Kennedy, the only Liberal Democrat member of the committee, said he believed the system of parliamentary self-regulation did not work, and that there should either be a form of judicial inquiry or a process similar to the criminal courts.

"The report is a damning indictment of an individual, although the issue itself remains frustratingly unresolved to my own satisfaction," he said.

the official verdict

The committee's crucial finding was on the issue of whether Neil Hamilton took pounds 28,000 in cash and Harrods vouchers from Mohamed Al Fayed in return for asking parliamentary questions - on which Sir Gordon Downey found "compelling" evidence of guilt.

The MPs could not agree on this, and reported that they "did not arrive at a practicable way of reaching a judgement which adds to or subtracts from the Commissioner's findings." They did agree that "Mr Hamilton's conduct fell seriously and persistently below" standards expected of MPs. Had he not lost his seat in May he would have been suspended for a substantial period.

Allegations admitted by Mr Hamilton, including undeclared hospitality at The Ritz Hotel and at Balnagown Castle - both owned by Mr Fayed - would have been sufficient to warrant this.

The committee disagreed on whether there should be a right of appeal, and will examine the matter further.