Page last updated at 09:00 GMT, Tuesday, 14 October 2008 10:00 UK

Speaker 'to probe' Blair F1 claim

Bernie Ecclestone
Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone gave Labour 1m

Commons speaker Michael Martin has said he is "deeply concerned" at claims Tony Blair misled MPs over exempting Formula One from a tobacco advertising ban.

The government has said the decision was not made straight after a 1997 meeting between Mr Blair and F1 owner, the Labour donor Bernie Ecclestone.

But documents suggest the then PM ordered that ministers find a way to create an exemption.

Mr Martin said he would look into two Tory MPs' claims of wrongdoing.

Mr Ecclestone gave a 1m donation to Labour in 1997, which the party later handed back amid negative newspaper coverage.

'Right to truth'

Documents obtained under the Freedom Of Information Act - and reported in newspapers at the weekend - suggest Mr Blair ordered ministers to find a way of exempting F1 from the tobacco advertising ban after the meeting with Mr Ecclestone on 16 October of that year.

But at the time the prime minister denied personal involvement, and appeared on a BBC programme to insist he was a "pretty straight kind of guy".

In the Commons on Monday, Conservative MP John Maples said of Mr Blair: "In his [previous] answer to us, he stated that no decision had been made on October 16th."

He told the speaker: "This House must assert its right to truth from ministers and I wonder... how we can change our rules to achieve this.

"I urge you to give a lead in this so we can insist on full and truthful answers from ministers and a sanction against those who mislead us."

January 1997: Bernie Ecclestone donates 1m to Labour
May: Ban on sports sponsorship by tobacco firms announced
October 16: Tony Blair meets Bernie Ecclestone; Official papers suggest later that day his aide Jonathan Powell calls health minister Tessa Jowell to signal support for an exemption for some sports including F1
October 17: No 10 writes to Ms Jowell to the same effect
October 24: In a letter to No 10, Ms Jowell sets out possible options including an exemption
October 29: No 10 replies, backing a "permanent exemption" for F1
November 5: Ministers announce proposals to exempt F1 from sponsorship ban
November 7: Labour seeks advice from standards watchdog about Ecclestone donation
November 11: Labour returns Eccelstone's donation
November 12: Tony Blair tells MPs the decision to exempt F1 was taken on November 5
November 16: In a BBC interview, Tony Blair defends his conduct as a "pretty straight kind of guy"

Speaking before the Speaker's comments on the issue, Mr Maples said he was "sorry" to say he believed Mr Blair had misled Parliament.

"From these documents, it is now clear that the decision was made by the Prime Minister on 16th October and the answers he gave to Parliamentary questions were completely and totally misleading," he told the BBC's PM programme.

"This government's habit of using parliamentary questions to mislead or provide half the information started very early in its life."

Parliament had to "come to grips" with holding ministers to account or else it would completely lose its authority, he added.

In the Commons, another Tory, Peter Luff, said: "Can you please... review the rules to make sure that errors of this kind made by former members of this House - probably deliberately - can be corrected."

Mr Martin replied: "I am deeply concerned that two MPs have said they were deliberately misled."

He told the MPs to write to him and added that he would ask his officials to investigate the contents of their letter.

A spokesman for Tony Blair said later: "There is nothing new here. All these issues were known and debated at the time, and the documents released are entirely consistent with his answers at the time."

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