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BBC political correspondent, Mark Mardell
"Ministers said there were serious issues to talk about"
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The BBC's John Andrew
"The passport affair which led to Peter Mandelson's resignation continues to haunt the government"
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Shadow Home Secretary Ann Widdecombe
"Were there reports from the intelligence services?"
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Tuesday, 30 January, 2001, 10:10 GMT
Tories draw MI6 into passport saga
MI6 headquarters London
MI6 headquarters on the Thames
The Conservative Party has demanded that the official inquiry into Peter Mandelson's resignation examines any possible MI6 role in the Hinduja passport saga.

I must ask if there were adverse reports which should have been taken into consideration

Ann Widdecombe
The party drew the secret intelligence service into the row over the former Northern Ireland secretary's downfall with claims that agents in India may have investigated the billionaire Hinduja brothers following their UK citizenship applications.

But a spokesman for the prime minister said: "It's the easiest thing to do, the oldest trick in the book to lob in the security services to keep this going, because people know we [the government] don't comment on intelligence matters'.

Although officials did add that Sir Anthony Hammond, who is conducting the inquiry into the passport affair will have access to all relevant papers on the matter.

The spokesman's remarks follow calls from shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe who wants ministers to reveal whether MI6 also played any role in the application - and if so, whether the intelligence agency's advice was ignored.

Srichand Hinduja
Srichand Hinduja: His passport application lies at the heart of the saga
It was Mr Mandelson's role in Srichand Hinduja's 1998 application that led to Prime Minister Tony Blair losing his onetime closest confidant from the cabinet - for the second time in two years.

The new twist to the Mandelson resignation fall-out came as Labour once again sought to shift attention to the general election expected in May, with Mr Blair presiding over a political meeting of the cabinet to discuss the manifesto.

A Labour party source said only a "glancing" reference was made to the past week's events as ministers concentrated on discussing policy and strategy.

The Tories, however, have proved determined to keep the spotlight firmly on the Hinduja affair.

Miss Widdecombe suggested that MI6 agents were instructed to investigate S P Hinduja and his brother Gopichand by the British High Commission in New Delhi.

Agents allegedly looked into whether the brothers' passport applications and their desire to change nationality was the result of a wish to avert prosecution in India for alleged corruption over the huge Bofors arms deal between a Swedish firm and the Indian government.

'Speedy' application

She told the BBC she wanted to know what information about the brothers had been sought in India and whether reports were prepared as a result.

"The question is were they taken fully into account in assessing the application and were they adverse?

"If so, I think we have to ask how is it that this application got through so speedily."

Miss Widdecombe has written to Sir Anthony Hammond QC, the man charged by the prime minister with heading the Mandelson inquiry, and called on him to investigate:

  • whether there was communication with Indian intelligence officers over the passport application
  • whether the British High Commissioner knew of any MI6 inquiry
  • whether MI6 passed information to the Foreign Office, the Home Office and the Cabinet Office
  • whether any MI6 reports opposed the application.

Home Secretary Jack Straw declined to comment on the Tory claims as he entered Number 10 before the start of Tuesday's special cabinet meeting.

But Miss Widdecombe insisted it should be possible for Sir Anthony to consider any MI6 reports during his inquiry without breaching security.

"Intelligence reports are not usually published, but that doesn't stop the Hammond Inquiry asking whether there was anything prejudicial in those reports received," she said.

"There must be part of the inquiry which says in assessing the suitability of Mr Hinduja for citizenship did they take reports from his home country and what did those reports indicate?

"In SIS terms, we are perhaps going to have to take a broad overview," she added.

Questions allowed

Conservative hopes of keeping the issue live received a boost in the Commons on Monday when speaker Michael Martin confirmed the inquiry does not stop MPs "persevering" and asking ministers questions about it - or ministers giving answers.

The government is unwilling to discuss the case further until the Hammond inquiry is concluded.

Minister for Europe Keith Vaz, the other government member embroiled in the Hinduja saga and hoping to be cleared of impropriety by Sir Anthony, is also facing new questions about a party for him hosted by the Hinduja Foundation in September 1999.

In a Commons written reply Jane Kennedy, junior minister in the Lord Chancellor's department, said the reception was to mark Mr Vaz becoming "the first Asian minister in recent times".

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See also:

30 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Hague attended Hinduja party
30 Jan 01 | South Asia
Hindujas seek to leave India
28 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Feuding erupts in Mandelson affair
28 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Mandelson vows to clear his name
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