Defiant Blair hits back with new sleaze law

By Andy McSmith,Sophie Goodchild
Sunday 15 December 2002 01:00

New anti-sleaze laws are to be introduced to clean up political life, reflecting Tony Blair's growing concern over public mistrust of politicians, made worse by a fortnight's intense scrutiny of his wife's dealings with a convicted conman.

Cherie Blair's friend and lifestyle adviser, Carole Caplin, has threatened to "tell all" tomorrow, as details of the affair to continue to drip out.

But Mr Foster will face troubles of his own this week, when a group of his former business associates, including the former Liverpool and England footballer, Paul Walsh, plan to hand the Metropolitan police a dossier alleging that Mr Foster defrauded them.

Downing Street also stepped up its invective against Mrs Blair's former friend, who has been trying to sell the story of his links with Mrs Blair for £100,000. A Downing Street spokeswoman described him as a "fantasist", while another member of the Blair circle accused of being "evil" and "vicious".

Mr Blair's answer to criticism of his wife's behaviour is that they should put up or shut up – taking any evidence of wrongdoing to the proper authorities.

The same reply is likely to be heard in future whenever sleaze allegations are levelled at anyone connected to the Labour government.

Mr Blair and the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, believe that their case will be strengthened if MPs are made subject to the same anti-corruption laws as other public officials.

MPs will no longer be protected by the right of parliamentary privilege, a centuries-old rule which gives them immunity from allegations that they acted corruptly in the Houses of Parliament.

The rule was amended by John Major to enable the Tory MP Neil Hamilton to sue The Guardian for alleging that he was corrupt.

The courts originally ruled that they could not hear the libel case because it would involve them in making a ruling on whether Mr Hamilton had or had not broken Commons rules, which was a matter purely for Parliament.

Mr Hamilton subsequently ducked out of going to court, but another Tory MP, the former Cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken, sued The Guardian and World in Action for alleging that he received commissions from arms sales. The case failed and Mr Aitken was jailed for perjury. There was no law that would have enabled the police to investigate allegations that Mr Aitken or Mr Hamilton was corrupt.

Two Tory MPs who were caught accepting £1,000 from an undercover journalist were punished with suspension from the Commons, but were immune from prosecution.

The new proposals, being drawn up by Mr Blunkett, are expected to be included in a new Bill presented to Parliament next year. There would also be a separate offence of corruption, punishable by up to seven years in jail, covering MPs as well as public officials.

A senior Home Office source said that the Home Secretary was looking to revive these proposals in the next year. "These anti-corruption measures would stop Aitken-type offences where officials abuse parliamentary privilege," the source added.

Jack Straw, the former home secretary, published a White Paper pledging to reform Britain's corruption laws more than two years ago but the measures were never introduced. He was responding to demands from the Law Commission, the Government's official legal advisors, for new measures aimed at clamping down on corruption among public officials.

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