Sleaze inquiry slides into disarray

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The Independent Online
The powerful Commons committee investigating ``cash for questions'' complaints against MPs broke up in disarray last night over the pledge by its senior member, Tony Benn, to make the proceedings public.

The latest setback to Commons self-regulation came after John Major had joined an increasingly aggressive Conservative effort to divert attention from accusations of Tory impropriety and on to the press and the Government's opponents.

An orchestrated series of Tory protests against the Guardian newspaper's use of Commons stationery came as Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker, cleared the way for an investigation of the newspaper's methods by the Privileges Committee. Peter Preston, the newspaper's editor, yesterday resigned from the Press Complaints Commission. Although his resignation was publicly demanded by Tory MPs yesterday afternoon, he had proffered it in the morning.

Despite strenuous efforts to break the deadlock on the committee over whether hearings should be held in public, its members last night agreed not to reconvene even for its present inquiry, let alone the mounting agenda of other issues being pressed on it, until after the Queen's Speech in more than fortnight.

A statement issued on behalf of Tony Newton, the Leader of the Commons, after two hours of private wrangling said the committee had agreed that David Tredinnick and Graham Riddick, the two Tory MPs under investigation for taking cash to ask parliamentary questions, should not be interviewed last night. Mr Newton said they should have the opportunity ``to consider and if necessary take advice'' on their testimony in the light of Mr Benn's pledge to report the proceedings of the committee to the outside world if it met in private.

Mr Benn lived up to his promise last night and risked expulsion from the committee - possibly as early as today - by producing a closely typed six-page minute of the meeting, which shows that it was Mr Newton who urged most forcefully that the witnesses should not be interviewed.

Earlier, the Speaker announced that after a preliminary inquiry into the Guardian's conduct by the Serjeant at Arms, Sir Alan Urwick, she had decided that there would be a Commons debate today.

The orginal complainant about the Guardian, David Wilshire, MP for Spelthorne, is expected to urge that Mr Preston should be interviewed by the committee. The complaint is over the use by the paper of a fax on what appeared to be Commons writing paper and from Jonathan Aitken's office in order to secure details of the bill for the Treasury Chief Secretary's stay at the Paris Ritz hotel last September.

Mohamed al-Fayed, owner of the hotel and the orginator of the spate of allegations that have already led to two ministerial resignations, said he had written to Barbara Mills QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, urging that she clear his name of blackmail accusations ``with the utmost urgency''.

The most highly charged moment at Question Time came when the Liberal Democrat leader, Paddy Ashdown, asked Mr Major if he was ``satisfied with the promptness, accuracy and frankness'' with which Mr Aitken had responded to questions. Mr Major began his reply with an apparent reference to Mr Ashdown's two-year-old admission of a brief affair five years earlier with his then secretary: ``You and some other MPs may be wholly satisfied with your own blameless pasts in every respect . . .''

Benn's report, page 3

Leading article, page 13

Tory wives, page 23