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Thursday, 9 December, 1999, 17:55 GMT
Hamilton admits Ritz 'shame'
Neil Hamilton has admitted that he is ashamed about going "over the top a bit" during a stay with his wife Christine at the Paris Ritz.
His remarks came at the High Court during his libel trial against the hotel's owner Mohamed al-Fayed.
The former Tory minister is suing Mr al-Fayed over allegations that he demanded and accepted cash payments, gift vouchers and a free holiday at the Paris Ritz in return for asking parliamentary questions.
Mr al-Fayed, who made the allegations in a Channel 4 programme in 1997, denies libel and has pleaded justification.
Mr al-Fayed's QC, George Carman said: "Looking back at what you and your wife spent there and consumed there on a nightly basis, is it unfair to say that you were somewhat greedy?"
Mr Hamilton replied: "Well obviously I don't like the use of the word `greedy' in this context but we certainly enjoyed very lavish hospitality and a very lavish time.
"I know this can now be presented in a way which is very embarrassing to me but I will say that after what we have been through in recent years, we've had to revisit all sorts of things that were in our past and when you've gone through the devastating trauma that we've had to endure, one thing that you do learn is perhaps a little more humility than you had before."
Mr Carman asked if it was true Mrs Hamilton had a bad back and a virus during their stay.
Mr Hamilton said his wife was not able to walk around all day and had a "long-term complaint which induced lassitude and weariness on an unpredictable basis".
Mr Carman asked: "Did they affect her capacity to eat and drink every evening?"
Mr Hamilton hit back angrily: "I think you had better save your insults for my wife.
"I'm not going to answer for my wife, Mr Carman - as you know she's more than able to answer for herself."
Mr Carman repeated: "Was she able to consume her four courses every night and share the wine and champagne with you?"
Mr Hamilton said: "It's a rhetorical question. Yes, of course we ate in the restaurant, as you know."
Mr Carman said: "When you look at the fact that dinner with wine and champagne every single night never cost less than £200 in 1987, to call it a `bit over the top' is a violent understatement, isn't it?"
Mr Hamilton replied: "I know you can have your fun with this and I don't blame you."
He continued: "It is of course an embarrassment.
"Looking back on it now from the perspective that we have today, of course we wish we hadn't done it. But what's done is done."
Mr Carman asked why Mr Hamilton had done it.
Mr Hamilton replied: "Because we received what I thought was a very kindly and well meant invitation from Mr al-Fayed who was very expansive about The Ritz - his business but also his personal plaything."
Mr Carman asked: "Have you any element of shame over it?"
Mr Hamilton replied: "Well, of course we do."
'Error of judgement'
The court also heard Mr Hamilton admit an "error of judgement" over his failure to enter into Parliament's Register of Members' Interests payments from US Tobacco.
The jury was told that Mr Hamilton and a colleague were each paid £6,000 commission by lobbying company Ian Greer Associates in respect of the US Tobacco company.
Mr Carman said that in 1988 the UK government had proposed to ban or restrict the sale of a product, oral snuff, made by US Tobacco and that Mr Hamilton was part of a delegation which went to see the then junior health minister Edwina Currie on that topic.
Counsel asked Mr Hamilton: "When you go and see a minister like this advocating a cause of a tobacco company, did you not think it responsible as a Member of Parliament to disclose to the minister that you were expecting to be paid thousands of pounds commission by the lobbying organisation that was retained by the tobacco company?"
Mr Hamilton replied: "Well, at the time I did not think it was a registerable payment and it followed that it wasn't a declarable payment."
Mr Justice Morland then intervened: "Did you not think it was the honourable thing to do to declare it?"
Mr Hamilton: "My lord, there wasn't a connection between the representation we were making because we weren't being paid by the tobacco company. I accept in retrospect ... that I was mistaken in this respect.
"With hindsight it certainly would have been better declared and registered even though the question at that time was in doubt. So, I'm quite happy to acknowledge there was a error of judgement on my part."
'Lied and lied seriously'
Mr Carman said that he hoped that he had not left Mr Hamilton in any doubt that he was accusing him of "lying on a number of occasions in covering your tracks in your relationship with Mr al-Fayed".
He added that the first occasion on which Mr Hamilton "had lied and lied seriously" was at a time of crisis just after The Guardian newspaper had published its cash for questions allegations in October 1994.
Mr Carman said in a telephone conversation with his then secretary of state, Michael Heseltine, on 21 October Mr Hamilton had not mentioned the two commission payments he had received from Mr Greer for the introduction of two companies.
Mr Hamilton said there was no opportunity to do so during what was a hugely stressful and traumatic time at the centre of "grotesque" allegations by Mr al-Fayed.
"I consider that this is a rather minor indiscretion, not dishonesty. I did not tell a lie. The only thing I can be accused of is a lack of candour in extreme circumstances which I hope no-one else will have to endure."
The hearing was adjourned to Friday.
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