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Sunday, October 25, 1998 Published at 15:29 GMT

UK Politics

Minister denies cronyism allegation

Alan Meale denies acting improperly over the deal

A government environment minister has denied acting improperly after being accused of lobbying on behalf of a friend who wants to develop a 14m sports complex on greenbelt land.

Conservative Party Chairman Micheal Ancram: "Mr Meale is not an ordinary football fan"
Alan Meale, MP for Mansfield, wrote several letters in support of a planning application in Hendon, north London, 140 miles from his Nottinghamshire constituency.

The proposal includes a new stadium for Barnet Football Club, whose chairman Tony Kleanthous met Mr Meale three years ago.

Mr Meale, a keen Mansfield Town follower, has denied anything improper and said he was simply acting in his capacity as a football fan.

But Conservative Party chairman Michael Ancram has accused the minister of "unacceptable cronyism" and "extraordinary and outrageous" conduct.

He called for Mr Meale to step down if he could not provide an "immediate, full and credible" explanation for his activities.

Liberal Democrat Chief Whip Paul Tyler says that the allegations are sleazy
The Liberal Democrats' Chief Whip, Paul Tyler, said he would be reporting the matter to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Sir Gordon Downey.

'Football fan'

The original allegations were printed in the Sunday Times newspaper. It said Barnet's chairman, a millionaire Greek-Cypriot businessman, struck up a friendship with Mr Meale after a game between Barnet and Mansfield in 1995.

Barnet have been told by the Football League they must find a new ground to replace their current Underhill stadium, because of crowd capacity problems.

[ image: Local MP Andrew Dismore is opposed to the scheme]
Local MP Andrew Dismore is opposed to the scheme
The club submitted the application to build on greenbelt land but it is opposed by local residents and the area's Labour MP, Andrew Dismore.

The paper said Mr Meale began lobbying for the scheme earlier this year when he was parliamentary private secretary to Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.

He was later promoted to minister in Mr Prescott's Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, which is ultimately responsible for all planning applications.

[ image: Richard Caborn: Urged by Mr Meale to support scheme]
Richard Caborn: Urged by Mr Meale to support scheme
During the planning inquiry, which ended three months ago, Mr Meale allegedly wrote a series of letters to senior civil servants and the planning minister Richard Caborn urging them to back the scheme.

The inspector's report on the application is now due to go to Mr Prescott for a decision.

The Sunday Times said Mr Meale had links with Britain's Greek-Cypriot community which, it said, had paid for him and his wife to go on trips to Cyprus. It said Greek-Cypriot lobbying groups have donated thousands of pounds to Labour.

Tony Kleanthous, Chairman of Barnet FC: "I have never improperly lobbied anyone"
Mr Kleanthous says he has never made any donations to Labour and denies he is a representative of the Greek-Cypriot cause.

He said: "This is just a classic character assassination based on innuendo. There is nothing to support the implied accusations other than the fact that my parents were born in Cyprus."

Mr Kleanthous said the planning application was for a community stadium and he said Mr Meale had simply acted out of sympathy for Barnet's plight.

The Barnet chairman denied he had improperly lobbied anyone.

'Unacceptable cronyism'

Mr Ancram said: "This story discloses the most disturbing evidence of unacceptable cronyism that we have seen so far."

John Turtle of the Mill Hill Preservation Society: "We can't imagine why he got involved"
He said it was "quite extraordinary and outrageous" for a minister to seek to intervene in a planning decision in this way.

"The public are owed an immediate and full explanation, including full details of what Mr Meale has done, what his relationship with Mr Kleanthous is, whether he has personally received any generosity from him and, if so, when.

"This story raises the most serious doubts about the integrity of the government. We must either have an immediate, full and credible explanation or Mr Meale must resign."

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