UK minister accused of accepting bribe

Culture Secy Tessa Jowell has denied that a mortgage on her home in north London was paid off with an alleged bribe from Italian PM.

india Updated: Mar 03, 2006 19:43 IST

Britain's Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell, a close ally of Prime Minister Tony Blair, faced further speculation Tuesday over her political future amid mounting questions over her private finances.

Jowell has "categorically" denied claims that a mortgage she authorised on her marital home in north London was paid off by her husband David Mills with an alleged bribe from Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Mills, an international lawyer, is himself accused of taking a bribe from the Italian leader for protecting him during a corruption trial -- a charge that Mills denies.

The Daily Mail newspaper, which is hostile to Blair's government, reported Tuesday that five mortgages in total had been taken out on the couple's home in the trendy Islington district.

It said that one of those loans was paid off after just 19 days. It also alleged that Mills had taken out a further four home loans on the couple's home in Warwickshire, central England, in his name.

Blair raised eyebrows Monday when he apparently distanced himself from the beleaguered Jowell, who political observers agree is one of the most "Blairite" members of the cabinet.

As culture secretary, she is responsible for preparations for the London Olympic Games in 2012 as well as broadcasting, museum and tourism policy. The varied portfolio also includes gambling and liquor licencing.

The main opposition Conservatives are calling upon cabinet secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell to investigate any possible conflict of interest involved in the tangle of financial dealings.

Jowell, who represents the well-heeled south London constituency of Dulwich and West Norwood, confirmed Monday that she had agreed to sign a document authorising a mortgage against their north London home for her husband.

"I knew that my husband pays the mortgage, so I was perfectly happy in the division of our finances to sign the charge. It simply wasn't a problem," she said.

"It wasn't unusual, it wasn't improper and it certainly wasn't illegal."

Asked if the money had come from Berlusconi, Jowell replied, "But it didn't. It categorically didn't. If I felt that either I or my husband were harbouring some guilty secret I would be very worried indeed."

Blair and his official spokesman were lukewarm in defending Jowell, who reputedly played a key role in 2004 in encouraging him to lead the Labour Party into what became a third straight election victory in May last year.

"The important thing is Tessa Jowell has said what she said, which is that she does not believe there is a conflict of interest and that she has abided by the ministerial code," Blair's spokesman said.

Later Monday, Blair personally refused to expand on his spokesman's comments. He also refused to comment further when asked if Jowell enjoyed had his full confidence.

A spokesman for Jowell was unavailable for comment late Monday on the latest reports in the Daily Mail.

First Published: Feb 28, 2006 20:20 IST