BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 12.05.02

Interview: TIM COLLINS, Shadow Cabinet Office Minister

calls for an inquiry into the donation of one hundred thousand pounds to the Labour Party by the proprieter of the Daily and Sunday Express newspapers and the setting up of a body to investigate large political donations.

JOHN HUMPHRYS: And now to this week's scandal over donations to the Labour Party from big business. Scandal? Well, that's how it's being presented by the opposition. Labour says it's rubbish. But there does seem to be an endless series of stories involving rich businessmen giving money to Labour and, one way or another, seeming to benefit from their generosity. Today's installment features Richard Desmond, who made a fortune from pornography and wanted to buy the Express group of newspapers. He gave a hundred thousand pounds to Labour at almost exactly the same time as the decision to allow the takeover to proceed unhindered. Coincidence or conspiracy? Tim Collins is the Shadow Cabinet Office Minister. The Labour Party says pure coincidence, absolutely no link whatsoever, Mr Collins, and you've no evidence to the contrary have you? TIM COLLINS: Well, John, like you and I suspect quite a few people watching this programme, I saw Stephen Byers, who's put up of course, by the government to talk about this on the Frost Programme this morning. HUMPHRYS: I suspect he wasn't put up to talk about that actually, but about other things and it happens... COLLINS: He was asked about it and of course his line of defence is to say, oh well I've made it clear, some months in advance that I would automatically rubber stamp the judgement of the Director General of Fair Trading and in fact Stephen Byers read out a quote this morning and I think if you'll permit John, it's quite important to pin him down on this because what he read out this morning, was what he'd denounced in October of 2000 and he said, and I quote "my policy from today will be to accept the advice I receive from the Director General of Fair Trading on whether or not to refer merger cases to the Competition Commission". Now, this morning Stephen Byers stopped at that point in the quote, but in fact it actually went on because it said "save in exceptional circumstances" and it then went on to talk about in circumstances in which it might be appropriate for him to intervene including national security or unusual circumstances. Now, the point about this John, of course, is a take-over of a national newspaper group doesn't happen every day or every week, it's quite a rare event and it's even more unusual that you have a string of Labour MPs, including the chairman of two Select Committees, calling on a Labour government at that time, to refer it to the Competition Commission, one would have thought Stephen Byers could have intervened, he chose not to and the issue is was this donation a relevant factor. HUMPHRYS: Well, but if the Director General of the Office of Fair Trading had said to him, Secretary of State I don't see a problem with this at all, he was quite right, based on what he had said, to accept that advice surely. COLLINS: Well it wasn't automatic, this was the DTI line that we were hearing overnight and this is what Stephen Byers was trying to imply this morning, that his hands were tied, he had no opportunity to intervene, he'd made it impossible for him to intervene... HUMPHRYS: reason to intervene... COLLINS: The point is that there were circumstances in which he retained a power to intervene, one would have thought that the take-over of a national newspaper group is certainly circumstances in which he should have considered it. Once again, we find I'm afraid Stephen Byers being less than truthful. HUMPHRYS: Well let's be fair about it, he could have intervened, there's no question about that, but he had voluntarily, more or less, given up that option in a sense and that's the point he was making this morning, which is a fair point isn't it. COLLINS: Well, less rather than more John. He hadn't actually given up the power entirely, he had that power, he had that discretion, he chose not to use it. HUMPHRYS: So, are you suggesting that the Labour Party said, oh right, here's a bloke who's prepared to give us a hundred thousand quid, we'll take that hundred thousand then we'll give him his string of newspapers. Are you saying that? COLLINS: No, what I am saying John is I don't actually believe the government are guilty in all the instances that have come up, whether it be the Mittal affair or the Powderject affair. I am saying however I think it unlikely they are innocent in all of them, and I do think now we must have an independent investigation, a procedure set up, a non-partisan one, I fully accept that they wouldn't accept Conservatives going and reaching this judgement but I'm afraid that they have forfeited the right to expect the public just to take it on trust. HUMPHRYS: But that's a bit lose isn't it. I mean you can't say, that particular magistrate courts or crown court has acquitted a hundred defendants this week, what's going on there, some of them must have been guilty, let's have the trials again. COLLINS: Well, I think the parallel, the rather close parallel if you forgive me John, is what happened when the Committee on Standards in Public Life, took the view some years ago that the public were no longer prepared to allow Members of Parliament to sit as judge and jury in their own trials if you like, and that we set up the system of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Now, I've written to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, drawn that parallel, invited them to recommend the setting up of some independent, non-partisan investigatory mechanism, maybe a person, maybe a committee of cross-party privy councillors who can look into all these instances, look at the papers, satisfy the public that nothing untoward has happened. HUMPHRYS: But the reason we are having all these instances is because the Labour Party decided to do something that you yourselves should have done and didn't do, which was effectively say we must open up the books so that people can see if a rich businessman is giving us a load of money, they should know about that. Now, had they not taken that some would say very brave and very transparent and open decision, we wouldn't have known about these things in the first place. That's why we know about them, because they did something you should have done? COLLINS: Well, as one of the newspaper columnists reported recently, that rather is though the Labour Party are saying, well it's alright we're shafting you in public. I don't actually think this is a very good defence from the Labour Party, bearing in mind this Richard Desmond donation was made in the months before the last General Election. But for the investigative journalism that we've seen this morning, we wouldn't have known about it until this autumn... HUMPHRYS: ...yes we would.. COLLINS: ..eighteen months later. We would have known that a donation of more than five thousand pounds had been made. One has to ask the question, why was this donation smuggled in, a very few days before Labour's own legislation would have required it to be published and known before the election, why did they not want the electorate to know about this at the time they went to vote in June last year. HUMPHRYS: Tim Collins, many thanks.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.