Abject Riddick admits he was wrong

SENIOR CONSERVATIVE MPs including former ministers were given preferential treatment to avoid heavy losses on Lloyd's syndicates, it was alleged in the Commons in a fresh attack on Tory MPs over their private financial interests.

There were furious Tory protests in the House early today (THUR) when Peter Hain, a left-wing Labour MP, named a group of senior Tory MPs who, he claimed, had benefited by being removed from syndicates before they incurred heavy losses.

Mr Hain said: 'I believe some members of this House - not necessarily with their knowledge - have been removed from syndicates before large liability was involved. . . .

'Those responsible have deliberately ensured that no member of Parliament has gone bankrupt. They were put on preferential syndicates and given preferential treatment in order to do that,' he said.

Tory MPs were kept on syndicates until 1988 before catastrophic losses were incurred in the following three years. 'Suddenly, they have been withdrawn from those loss-making three years. What a surprise,' Mr Hain said.

His allegations were made as Tory MPs backed changes in the rules on Members' Interests to drop the listing of synidcates, which could be used to estimate their personal losses.

GRAHAM RIDDICK, one of the Tory MPs at the centre of the 'questions for cash' affair made an abject apology in the House of Commons last night as MPs gave the go-ahead for a wide-ranging inquiry. Appearing to cast himself at the mercy of the House, Mr Riddick admitted that his error of judgement 'may have undermined the general standing of MPs and even perhaps have damaged the reputation of this Parliament.'

Amid angry recriminations from the Conservative benches over the subterfuge employed by the Sunday Times, other Tories were understood to be seeking legal advice over whether they could sue the paper. They are among a total of 20 MPs offered cash for tabling Commons questions by a Sunday Times reporter, Jonathan Calvert, posing as a businessman. Sunday Times transcripts of tape recorded conversations revealed that Mr Riddick, the MP for Colne Valley, and David Tredinnick, the MP for Bosworth, were each willing to accept pounds 1,000 for invoking the publicly-funded procedure.

In his fulsome apology, Mr Riddick said he had returned his cheque, after reflection, by return of post. Mr Tredinnick remained silent during yesterday's emergency debate, but had earlier said he had 'refused' a cheque. Some of the other MPs are said to be considering action against the paper for 'conspiracy to injure and defame by unlawful means'.

The inquiry was approved by MPs without a vote. Government and opposition whips will now discuss the selection of 17 senior MPs to sit on the Committee of Privileges, which will investigate the two cases, the newspaper's conduct and the wider question of paid consultancies enjoyed by MPs. At the heart of the issue is the risk that financial inducements to take particular courses of action could constitute bribes, contravening the laws of Parliament.

John Witherow, acting editor of the Sunday Times, yesterday insisted the paper's actions were 'entirely justified journalistically'. A key issue for the newspaper could be the extent, if any, of any 'public interest' defence. An amendment by Labour MP Joe Ashton for the proceedings to be taken in public and published was rejected.

Alongside Conservative anger over journalists' use of concealed tape-recorders within Westminster, there were private criticisms from Tory MPs that their two colleagues had acted foolishly, 'not knowing wrong from right'.

Clare Short, the MP for Birmingham Ladywood and a Labour front-bencher, said the paper had 'done British democracy a favour in this investigation, exposing such gross behaviour'. A senior officer of the backbench broadcasting committee said afterwards that MPs would press for the committee to insist on the production of all transcripts of conversations.

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