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Commons committee to investigate Withers after MP alleges "intimidation"

19 January 2010

City law firm Withers has been referred to the House of Commons standards and privileges committee after an MP claimed that an email sent by the law firm sought to “intimidate” him.

John Hemming, Liberal Democrat MP for Birmingham Yardley, claimed the email, which was printed in full in Hansard, amounted to a “contempt of the House”.

It concerned plans for a new Tesco in his constituency, with Withers acting for a local landowner. In it, the law firm said the MP was “clearly wrong” to claim that the landowner purchased the plots with the intention of delaying the development.

Withers went on: “In order to settle this matter we, therefore, require an apology in respect of both serious allegations plus payment of our client’s costs, a substantial payment to a charity of his choice and an undertaking not to repeat the allegations or any similar allegations, particularly in Parliament.

“Your threat to make a statement in the House of Commons referring to our client’s alleged ‘spoiling tactics’ in this and other situations and that our client’s threatened proceedings amount to ‘bullying and an attempt to gag opponents’ is tantamount to blackmail.

“These allegations are untrue as our client is only trying to put right a serious wrong to his reputation. We note that you would only make these allegations under the cover of parliamentary privilege. My client objects very strongly to you doing this and would ensure, via other sources, that the House of Commons was fully appraised of the true situation and not misled.”

In an emergency debate in the Commons last week, Hemming said that the standards and privileges committee should examine the “full context of the way in which attempts are being made to intimidate a member of this house.”

The committee is due to begin hearing the case today. A spokesman for Withers said: “In defending our client’s reputation, at no stage did we attempt to limit Mr Hemming’s parliamentary privilege, as correspondence provided to the speaker makes quite explicit. In attempting to settle our client’s defamation case, we acted in accordance with standard legal practice – namely seeking an undertaking that Mr Hemming would not repeat the defamatory remarks about which our client complained.

“Our email of 4 August 2009 was sent in this context. Subsequent to this email, an unreserved apology was issued by Mr Hemming.

“So far as we are concerned, this firm’s straightforward offer to end our client’s dispute with Mr Hemming was a private matter between two disagreeing parties which Mr Hemming has now unfortunately attempted to widen into a political issue of so-called intimidation and infringement of parliamentary privilege. It is a wholly different matter to that of super-injunctions, as debated last year.”

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