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
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: ...no 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
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
HUMPHRYS: Tim Collins, many thanks.