MPs critical of Treasury over Lamont payment

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TREASURY officials should have 'highlighted' their pounds 4,700 payment to Norman Lamont for having a top libel lawyer handle press inquiries over the letting of his London home to a sex therapist, the Commons Public Accounts Committee said yesterday.

And in future, the cross-party committee recommended, where there is doubt about such payments there should 'always be a strong presumption that . . . there will be no use of public funds'.

Demanding new guidance for officials and ministers on payments in the 'grey area' where 'private affairs impact on public duties', the MPs criticised Sir Terence Burns, the Permanent Secretary at the Treasury, for not drawing the payment to the attention of the Comptroller and Auditor General.

Given the 'exceptionally rigorous high-level consideration' of the payment - Sir Terence and his predecessor Sir Peter Middleton had both consulted Sir Robin Butler, head of the Home Civil Service, over the payment - and that Sir Terence 'acknowledged that others may have made a different decision, suggests that to follow Treasury guidance to err on the side of notation rather than of omission would have been the wiser course of action'.

In the nearest the committee came to criticism of the Chancellor - it is empowered to look at the actions of officials, not ministers - it noted that while the Treasury offered the payment, 'it does, however, remain for ministers to decide whether or not to allow such payments to be made'.

Mr Lamont's case was 'without precedent'. But 'the use of public funds or resources to overcome difficulties in such circumstances may . . . confer some benefits to individuals in addition to the intended objective of helping the conduct of official business'. That meant there would be 'legitimate public and Parliament interest in such cases'.

Seeking new guidelines, the MPs said there must always be the 'clearest possible distinction' between meeting expenses for official duties, and the use of public funds for 'other expenses incurred in relation to the activities of ministers'.

In future 'the circumstances and grounds for decisions should be made available to the Comptroller and Auditor General at the earliest occasion'.

Payment of Legal Expenses incurred by the Chancellor of the Exchequer; 25th Report Session 1992- 93; Committee of Public Accounts; HMSO pounds 3.90.