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Last Updated: Friday, 20 August, 2004, 14:38 GMT 15:38 UK
Hain libel threat shown in papers
Peter Hain, today and back in the early 1970s
Peter Hain, today as Leader of the Commons and in the early 1970s
Welsh Secretary Peter Hain could have been the subject of criminal libel proceedings more than 30 years ago, Government documents have revealed.

Possible legal action against the now Neath MP was discussed in letters between the Attorney General's office and Downing Street in 1973.

Mr Hain named Geoffrey Rippon MP in the Liberator magazine as a third minister involved in a prostitution scandal.

The documents were released by the National Archives in London.

The scandal revolved around Norma Levy whose revelations prompted the resignations of the defence minister Lord Lambton and the Lord Privy Seal, Lord Jellicoe.

The first letter on the subject is written by Sir Robert Armstrong, principal private secretary to Prime Minister Edward Heath, to the Attorney General's office in September 1973.

In it Mr Hain refers to an unnamed lawyer's view that "... no one in his senses would sue somebody like Peter Hain for libel, because people like that had no resources with which to pay costs, let alone damages.

"Anybody suing them would probably find himself having to pay his own costs, even if he won the case".

One of the letters from 1973
One of the archive letters from 1973, which have been released

Sir Robert moots the possibility of invoking little-used criminal libel proceedings given the "...disreputable behaviour not only of the gutter press like the Liberator but of some organs which one would have hoped might have behaved more responsibly".

Replying on 17 October, 1973, Tony Hetherington in the attorney general's office outlines the difficulties of bringing such a case against Mr Hain.

He said criminal proceedings should only be brought if the libel was likely to "disturb the peace of the community".

In addition such legal action was so rare that it risked attracting a lot of public attention, turning the case into a "state trial" which the victim may want to avoid.

Ending the correspondence the following day, Sir Robert says resorting to criminal libel action in cases such as that of Mr Hain "... would be a recognition by the authorities that civil proceedings were likely to be ineffective (because of the lack of means of the libeller) and that the purpose of the libel was not just to defame an individual but to bring institutions into disrepute and thus, in the end, disturb the peace of the community".

But he concludes: "All that having been said, I agree that a first case would need to be carefully chosen."

Peter Hain in the early 1970s
Peter Hain was a leading anti-apartheid activist in the 1970s

Lord Rippon of Hexham, who died in 1997, was a member of the Heath government from 1970 to 1974.

Historian with the National Archive Dr Stephen Twigge said: "The sex scandal had already led to the resignation of two ministers and the government was concerned that Peter Hain would get away with printing what they saw as spurious rumour."

Mr Hain, now Leader of the Commons as well as Welsh Secretary, was a prominent anti-apartheid activist in the early 1970s, taking a leading role in opposing a tour by the all-white South African rugby team.

He joined the Labour party in 1977 and entered the Commons following a 1991 by-election.

As Leader of the Commons, he has led efforts to quell rebellion in Labour ranks to the Iraq war.

Hanif Bhamjee, who was secretary of the Welsh Anti-Apartheid movement and a campaigner alongside Mr Hain, said there was a difference between Mr Hain's radical years and his position now:

"Some of the things Mr Hain has done, for example in terms of support for the Iraq war he would never have done in those days - and I've very angry with him for that, and I've told him that."

Others claim it is his tactics which have changed, not his principles.

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