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Monday, 12 February, 2001, 08:54 GMT
Cabinet secretary met Hindujas
Gopichand, Prakash and Srichand Hinduja leave a courtroom in New Delhi
The three Hinduja brothers face corruption charges
Britain's most senior civil servant has been drawn into the row over the passport applications of the wealthy Hinduja brothers.

In a new twist to the affair, it has emerged that the Cabinet Secretary Sir Richard Wilson had lunch at the London home of the billionaire brothers in July 1998.

Europe Minister Keith Vaz was also at the meal.

A spokeswoman for Sir Richard insisted that the issue of passports - which prompted the resignation of Peter Mandelson as Northern Ireland secretary - was "not discussed at all".

Cabinet Secretary Sir Richard Wilson
Sir Richard discussed "diversity in the civil service"
The meeting was about "diversity in the civil service" and public sector modernisation issues.

Meanwhile Mr Mandelson himself could give evidence to Sir Anthony Hammond's inquiry into the Hinduja passport affair as early as this week, according to the Financial Times.

Questions surround whether Mr Mandelson intervened in Srichand Hinduja's behalf when he applied for a UK passport.

But the spokeswoman for Sir Richard could not comment on suggestions that he might have to give evidence to Sir Anthony's review of the way the Hinduja passport applications were handled.

The three brothers - Srichand, Gopichand and Prakash -are being investigated in India for corruption.

A hearing on Wednesday will decide whether they are allowed to leave the country.

Passport application

The British passport row involves Srichand and Gopichand.

At the time of Sir Richard's meeting with the brothers, Gopichand had been granted a UK passport at the second attempt.

Srichand Hinduja's application had not yet been accepted.

On Sunday, shadow foreign secretary Francis Maude called on Mr Vaz, who has also become mired in the affair because of his links to the Hinduja brothers, to "sensibly stand aside".

'Murky questions'

He told BBC Radio 4's The Westminster Hour programme: "There are a lot of murky questions hanging over Keith Vaz.

"There seem to be more coming out as every day passes and these questions need to be answered. These allegations need to be answered.

"It is quite clear that he is not able to carry out his ministerial duties because of all these unanswered questions: therefore he should sensibly stand aside."

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See also:

12 Feb 01 | Talking Politics
Profile: Sir Richard Wilson
10 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Vaz rejects property claims
06 Feb 01 | Talking Politics
Vaz: Is the coverage racist?
06 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Asians rally to embattled Vaz
06 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Blair's test of strength over Vaz
05 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Downing Street moves to bolster Vaz
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