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Wednesday, 24 January, 2001, 00:32 GMT
Mandelson hits back in passport row
Peter Mandelson has gone on the offensive after allegations he helped to secure a UK passport for a controversial Indian tycoon who gave money towards the Millennium Dome.

The Northern Ireland secretary said he did nothing wrong when he made inquiries over whether Srichand Hinduja would be eligible for British citizenship.


There was no wink or nudge in this matter at all

Peter Mandelson
Mr Mandelson said there was "no wink or nudge" involved in the "innocent inquiry" he made on Mr Hinduja's behalf.

His comments came after Downing Street said that, contrary to previous reports, Mr Mandelson himself had contacted a Home Office minister about the passport application.

But a Downing Street spokesman said: "Peter Mandelson has done nothing wrong and nothing improper."

Prime Minister Tony Blair saw nothing wrong in Mr Mandelson's actions, he added.

Blair backs Mandelson

Mr Hinduja had previously been denied a UK passport. With his brother Gopichand, he later donated 1m towards the Dome's faith zone.

The millionaire and two of his brothers are at the centre of a corruption scandal in India over alleged kickbacks of more than 6m in a 1986 arms deal.

On Monday it was maintained that the Northern Ireland secretary had made no direct approach to the Home Office and the matter had been dealt with by his office.


We want to be convinced that nothing improper took place

Michael Ancram Conservative Party Chairman
But on Tuesday the prime minister's official spokesman revealed Mr Mandelson had discussed the issue over the telephone with Immigration Minister Mike O'Brien.

In a statement and series of media appearances, Mr Mandelson said the conversation lasted two minutes.

He said he was simply seeking information asked for by Mr Hinduja on a change in government policy concerning passport applications.

Mr Mandelson stressed that on no occasion did he support or endorse the passport application and he denied Conservative Party claims he pulled strings to get them a passport.

Innuendo?

In an interview with BBC Political Editor Andrew Marr he said: "There is no question of their asking me for some help to do with a future prospective passport application in return for their money... absolutely no question of that at all.

"They asked me whether I could obtain the information and having done that I did not return to the issue again.

"There was no wink or nudge in this matter at all... I treated them with courtesy but above all with strict propriety."

Srichand Hinduja
Mr Hinduja is said to have approached Mr Mandelson
Earlier, the prime minister's official spokesman said: "Mike O'Brien has confirmed that Peter Mandelson did not make representations on behalf of the brothers or make representations on any potential application and did not support or endorse it."

"The end result is precisely the same," added the spokesman.

Conservative Party Chairman Michael Ancram called on all the records relating to the affair to be made public.

"Mr Mandelson is a past master at shifting his ground and having the truth dragged out of him inch by inch," he told BBC News 24.

"We want to be convinced that nothing improper took place."

People now wanted to know how long Tony Blair was going to "stand alongside his slippery friend", Mr Ancram added.

'Common sense bypass'

Liberal Democrat Norman Baker said that the matter was looking "increasingly murky for Mr Mandelson" adding that the government appeared to be backtracking.

"Clearly Mr Mandelson is in this deeper than first admitted. He has clearly behaved improperly for a minister.

"The prime minister should reflect on whether he merits a Cabinet post if Labour is re-elected."

Independent MP Martin Bell said Mr Mandelson had suffered a common sense bypass.

"There is no suggestion that Peter Mandelson enriched himself, I am sure there is no mortgage, there is no loan," he told BBC Two's Newsnight programme.

"But there is the appearance of wrongdoing which is so damaging to public confidence, it is what we thought we had left behind.

"He has had a common sense bypass, that's what I think he has had."

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Andrew Marr
"Mandelson has been fighting hard to stop a second fall from grace"
Peter Mandelson MP, Northern Ireland Secretary
"Home Office ministers receive enquiries from MPs all the time"
The BBC's Nicholas Jones
"You can see how difficult this is for the government to explain"
Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat MP
"It is quite clear, I was misled"
See also:

22 Jan 01 | South Asia
18 Jan 01 | Business
22 Jan 01 | UK Politics
23 Jan 01 | UK Politics
23 Jan 01 | UK Politics
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