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Tories may agree to open up sleaze inquiry

The Government has left room for a possible compromise on whether the Commons Privileges Committee can hold some public sessions despite the strong preference of senior Tories that investigations should be held in private.

Ministers are resisting a Labour motion, to be debated today, calling for the committee, which starts its ``cash for questions'' inquiry into three backbenchers today, to meet in public normally.

But a carefully worded government amendment simply reinforces ``the long-established principle that the details of how a select committee once established should proceed are for the committee itself''. Tory members are under pressure at least to sanction the regular publication of evidence before the inquiry is complete.

Ministers stressed that, so far, the committee - whose chairman, Tony Newton, the Leader of the Commons, has acted in accordance with precedent by ruling that the initial inquiry into Graham Riddick, David Tredinnick and Bill Walker should be in private - has taken no firm view how further investigations should be handled.

Meanwhile, John Major was standing fully behind Jonathan Aitken, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, after he admitted failing to declare a directorship with a company called Fadace Ltd while a backbencher. Friends of Mr Aitken said last night that he had made no money from the company and that it was only an associate company of the trading company al-Bilad UK, which he had registered. Mr Aitken was said to be happy to discuss the issue with the Commons Committee on Members' Interests.

Tory MPs seized on the revelation that the Guardian newspaper, which first reported a discrepancy in the billing for Mr Aitken's two-day stay at the Paris Ritz last year, had sent a counterfeit letter, purporting to be from Mr Aitken, asking for a copy of the bill.

The Labour MP Peter Hain last night claimed that the Exchequer had forfeited pounds 9m in tax write-offs to Tory MPs who were members of loss-making Lloyd's syndicates out of a total of pounds 1.3bn written off by the Treasury since 1988 as a result of the Lloyd's crisis.

New allegations, page 3

Leading article, page 15

James Fenton, page 16

End this shambles, page 17