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Friday, January 23, 1998 Published at 17:04 GMT

UK: Politics

Parliament's 'Mr Clean' defends himself
image: [ Martin Bell defends his position at a news conference in his Tatton constituency ]
Martin Bell defends his position at a news conference in his Tatton constituency

Independent MP Martin Bell has remained defiant in the face of sleaze allegations as the man he defeated in the General Election, disgraced former Tory MP Neil Hamilton, urged the Parliamentary watchdog to investigate.

Mr Bell defended his position against allegations that he failed to declare a £9,400 bill for legal advice during his fight against Mr Hamilton.

At a news conference in Knutsford, Cheshire, in his Tatton constituency, the former war correspondent said he would repay the bill if his constituents asked him to.

He also said he would "reconsider his position" if he found the voters who elected him last year had lost confidence in him, but insisted that he intended to carry on as an MP. "I have no regrets whatsoever," he said.

Sir Gordon Downey, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, has not received formal notification of claims that Mr Bell benefited from undeclared payments of legal fees from Labour and the Liberal Democrats during last year's election campaign.

Sir Gordon's office indicated he may look into the matter once he is aware in writing of the "full details of the complaint".

Mr Bell's action of defiance arose from attacks made by Neil Hamilton who has accused Parliament's 'Mr Clean' of corruption.

Mr Hamilton, who was disgraced in the "cash for questions" affair, claims that Mr Bell accepted the £9,400 as a secret donation during last year's election.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats reportedly split Mr Bell's legal bill between them after he consulted lawyers about whether to stand as an "anti-corruption" candidate against the sitting MP, Mr Hamilton.

City lawyer Piers Coleman - who is used regularly by the Liberal Democrats - told Mr Bell that he should stand on an independent ticket because Mr Hamilton had not been convicted of corruption. Mr Coleman charged £8,000 plus VAT for the consultation.

Possible prosecution

According to the Daily Mail newspaper, which broke the story on Friday, Mr Bell could be prosecuted under the Representation of the People Act and fined up to £5,000.

[ image: The Mirror claims that Mr Bell could be fined up to £5,000]
The Mirror claims that Mr Bell could be fined up to £5,000
Mr Hamilton, who has called for Mr Bell's resignation, now wants a re-run of the election in the Tatton constituency that he lost.

However, an expert on electoral law, Joe Jacob, thought it highly unlikely that a prosecution or ballot could take place.

"At the end of the day, I'd be gob-smacked if the election court was to find he had done anything wrong," he said. "If taking legal advice is to be deemed to be an election expense it would be perfectly possible to stop any candidate from standing in any election and that doesn't seem to me what the election court will be looking at."

[ image: Neil Hamilton: Bell is a fraud]
Neil Hamilton: Bell is a fraud
However, Mr Hamilton remained defiant. He said: "Mr Bell's election campaign was a fraud. At the same time he was accusing me of covering things up he was being bank-rolled by the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties while pretending to be an independent and denying that he was receiving any donation of more than £100."

"This image of a poor and innocent Mr Bell is the biggest load of hypocrisy and nonsense you could discover."

Mr Bell launched a counter-attack against his former rival, saying that legal advice given to him had not appeared on his election expenses either.

While accepting that he had a £8,000 campaign budget at his disposal, Mr Hamilton said that he had little or no legal expenses during the election compared to Mr Bell, who took advice on billing himself as an anti-corruption candidate on the ballot paper.

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