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The BBC's John Pienaar
"Senior colleagues want little more than silence"
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The BBC's Shaun Ley
"Peter Mandelson had been anxious to put his side of the story"
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Tuesday, 13 February, 2001, 09:45 GMT
Mandelson gives passport evidence

Peter Mandelson wants to clear his name
A day earlier than expected, former Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson has given his side of the Hinduja passport saga to the official inquiry looking into the affair.

Mr Mandelson gave evidence which he hopes will clear his name to Sir Anthony Hammond, heading the inquiry, on Monday.

Srichand Hinduja: Was his passport application helped along?
But the ex-cabinet minister refused to give details of what he put before Sir Anthony, saying only: "I'm not making any comment at all."

News of Mr Mandelson's meeting with Sir Anthony emerged on the same day Europe Minister Keith Vaz, in the spotlight due to his own links with the billionaire Hinduja brothers, gave evidence to MPs investigating a complaint about his financial affairs.

Downing Street fury

Mr Mandelson was forced to quit the government last month following charges that he misled colleagues over his role in the passport application of Millennium Dome sponsor Srichand Hinduja.

The Hartlepool MP had denied suggestions that he intervened in the application by telephoning Home Office Minister Mike O'Brien about it - a denial contradicted by Home Secretary Jack Straw.

Mr Mandelson has since declared he intends to clear his name and is understood to have written "hundreds of pages" in his defence for the Hammond inquiry, set up by Prime Minister Tony Blair in the wake of his onetime closest ally's downfall.

The former cabinet minister has gone to great lengths to give his version of events, insisting it will throw into serious doubt the circumstances that led to his departure.

But his efforts to do so - including briefing the newspapers, leading to Mr Mandelson dominating the headlines at the expense of stories about the government's second-term plans - have infuriated Downing Street.

Lawyers for Mandelson

Mr Hinduja was part of the Hinduja Foundation, which gave 1m towards the Dome's faith zone while Mr Mandelson had ministerial responsibility for the project.

Europe Minister Keith Vaz
Keith Vaz: Facing a barrage of accusations
Although the Hammond inquiry has no legal status, the former Northern Ireland secretary hired a leading firm of lawyers to scrutinise documents which he believes will show he did not lie.

Mr Mandelson is understood to have told Sir Anthony that he has no recollection of speaking with Mr O'Brien about the Hinduja application.

He has said that as far as he can recall, the issue was dealt with by officials.

The complaint against Mr Vaz relating to financial impropriety in his local Labour party pre-dates the passport controversy, but the Leicester East MP has since faced a torrent of further allegations.

Report due this month

Sir Anthony has told Cabinet Secretary Sir Richard Wilson he should be able to deliver his report by the end of February.

But the timing has fuelled expectation at Westminster that the inquiry may not be able to give a categorical assessment of what actually happened.

Sir Richard has himself become embroiled in the affair after it emerged he lunched with the Hindujas at their London home - although the civil service head insists the issue of passports was not discussed.

Part of Mr Mandelson's defence is thought to be a memo from his former personal secretary which he claims proves he did not lie about his involvement in the passport episode.

Newspapers have quoted the memo as saying: "I am told you raised the issue with Mike O'Brien in a telephone call or personal note. Mike O'Brien doesn't remember how you raised it."

Hartlepool disapproval

Meanwhile, voters in Mr Mandelson's Hartlepool constituency are not convinced of their MP's innocence and do not want him to stand at the next election, according to local newspaper reports.

His resignation last month was the second time in two years he has been forced out of the cabinet amid scandal.

The first occasion followed the revelation that he had taken a secret 373,000 loan from former Paymaster General Geoffrey Robinson.

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See also:

12 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Cabinet secretary met Hindujas
05 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Vaz pressured to go
28 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Mandelson aims to clear his name
04 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Mandelson 'not seeking revenge'
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