Government did not probe `sleaze' claims

Cabinet Secretary admits there was no investigation of ministers' conduct
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Indy Politics
Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, yesterday admitted he had not carried out a full investigation into last year's "sleaze" allegations levelled against three ministers, Jonathan Aitken, Neil Hamilton and Tim Smith.

When the furore over the ministers' conduct was at its height last year - prompted by evidence from Mohamed Fayed, the owner of Harrods and the Ritz Hotel in Paris - the Prime Minister deflected criticism by maintaining that Sir Robin had carried out an investigation.

Appearing before the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee yesterday, Sir Robin said his role had never been intended to be published. He had been "landed in it" by "cruel circumstances", he said.

Under a barrage of questions about his position as the traditionally impartial head of the Home Civil Service, Sir Robin claimed he had not been "used" to extricate the Government from an embarrassing situation.

The Prime Minister, argued Sir Robin, had asked him to get involved for two reasons: the allegations centred on something that was not a party political matter but Government business, namely the Department of Trade and Industry inquiry into Mr Fayed's takeover of House of Fraser, Harrods' former parent; and, it "needed to be shown that the Prime Minister had not ignored them."

Mr Major did not want to be seen to be sitting on his hands, he said.

Repeatedly challenged that he should have refused Mr Major's request and stayed out of the affair - a view put by Lord Armstrong, the former Cabinet Secretary, to the Nolan committee's inquiry into standards in public life - Sir Robin said he would do the same again.

He acknowledged, though, that despite the belief touted by the Government that he had carried out an investigation, his powers had been limited.

He did not cross-examine anyone, did not call witnesses and did not interview Mr Fayed.

Asked by Brian Sedgemore, MP for Hackney South, how he could establish the facts by looking at only one side of the argument, Sir Robin explained, "I made clear the limits to what I could do."

He had been able to rely upon the authority of the Prime Minister and had access to "a good deal" of Government information. Even though he did not quiz Mr Fayed, he was able to glean his evidence from details the Harrods boss supplied to the media. It was no use, said Sir Robin, anyone expecting him to behave like the Spanish Inquisition.

Mr Aitken had asked him early last year for advice about a newspaper claim that he had stayed at the Ritz in Paris, had his bill paid by a former business colleague and failed to declare it.

Later in the year, when accusations about Mr Hamilton and Mr Smith surfaced, Mr Aitken's stay at the Ritz cropped up again. Sir Robin had not conducted an inquiry but heard Mr Aitken's account, which he found convincing. "One, of course, can never be absolutely sure, but I was convinced," he said.

Challenged that his "advice" to Mr Aitken had been interpreted as a verdict in the minister's favour, Sir Robin said "not by me. It was used by the Prime Minister".

In defence of his limited investigations, Sir Robin pointed out "I took it as far as I could, nothing further has emerged."