Heseltine lifts Guinness gag

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The Independent Online

Westminster Correspondent

Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, has lifted a government "gagging order" preventing disclosure of evidence in the appeals of defendants in the Guinness case.

In an act which raised some eyebrows at Westminster as a calculated political act, Mr Heseltine decided to waive the order which had been signed in 1989 by John Redwood, his rival for the Tory party leadership.

The public interest immunity certificate was signed by Mr Redwood while a Department of Trade and Industry junior minister, during the build-up to the first "Guinness I" trial.

Last night, the DTI confirmed that Mr Redwood's office was "duly advised at 3.55pm last Thursday" of Mr Heseltine's decision - that was one hour before John Major announced his resignation as Tory leader.

The appeals of the four Guinness I defendants, Ernest Saunders, Gerald Ronson, Tony Parnes and Jack Lyons, will, their lawyers argue, centre on the evidence withheld by the Government. They are due to be heard by the Appeal Court in October.

Lawyers say that the documents covered by the certificate, detailing meetings between ministers and DTI inspectors, will form part of their case that the Government decided to avoid using the police at an early stage of the investigation into share dealings during the Guinness takeover in 1986 of Distillers.

They claim that the Government relied on the inspectors, who were not subject to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. This denied the defendants the right to silence allowed under police questioning.

Mr Redwood said in the PIIC which he signed: "I have personally read what I understand to be true copies of the documents . . . and am of the opinion that it is necessary in the public interest that they should be withheld from production."

Claims for damages that would arise from a successful appeal could be substantial. All four defendants saw successful careers ruined.

An adviser to Saunders said the evidence withheld by Mr Redwood's certificate was "absolutely crucial" to the defence. Mr Redwood's order covered notes of a telephone conversation in 1987 between a DTI solicitor and department inspectors and discussions involving officials and Michael Howard, then a junior DTI minister. It also prevents the contents of notes taken of meetings in 1987 between the inspectors and the DTI, and the Director of Public Prosecutions, from being handed to the defence.

Lord Spens, a defendant in the second, Guinness II, trial, who is campaigning for compensation after the charges against him were dropped, said yesterday: "We have been trying for nearly six years to get the certificate lifted."

He did not know why Mr Heseltine had decided late last week to sanction disclosure. "As you know there are two theories in life, coincidence and conspiracy. My guess is that it is just coincidence but it may not be."

He said that the Guinness appeal would make "Matrix Churchill look amateurish. In Matrix Churchill three men did not go to prison; in Guinness I, they did".

A DTI spokesman said last night that "the principal role" in deciding whether to lift the PIIC had been taken by Jonathan Evans, a junior minister. "As early as 8 June, he agreed it should be lifted. Counsel was then consulted."

Guinness background, page 6