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Withers LLP (Privilege)

Volume 503: debated on Wednesday 13 January 2010

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) has drawn my attention to an e-mail he received from Withers LLP, a firm of solicitors, which could in his view amount to a contempt of the House by seeking to intimidate a Member in his parliamentary conduct.

I have decided that this is a matter to which I should allow precedence. Therefore, under the rules set out at pages 167 to 168 of “Erskine May”, the hon. Gentleman may table a motion for debate at the commencement of public business tomorrow. It will appear on the Order Paper after any statements and before the topical debate on Afghanistan.

I shall arrange for the text of the e-mail to be published in the Official Report.

Following is the text of the e-mail:

[Sent: Tuesday, August 04, 2009 5:51 PM

Subject: Private and Confidential

Dear Mr Hemming

Thank you for your various e-mails yesterday. My client’s response to the points which you have raised in these and earlier correspondence is as follows.

1. The original leaflet and offending text

It is abundantly clear that the offending text referred to, and would have been understood by those reading it to refer to, our client. You have alleged that the compulsory purchase order (CPO) proceedings involve other parties. However, it is clear from Councillor David Osborne’s evidence given to the public inquiry on 14 July 2009 that he was not aware of any other parties who owned plots or who were objecting to Tesco’s proposals and presenting alternative proposals other than our client. Asda and Sainsburys had already sold their land to Tesco. It is clear from the context of the offending text that you were only referring to plots of land which are part of the CPO and only the plots owned by our client. Even though he was not specifically named, he was clearly identifiable to the thousands of people to whom you distributed your defamatory and maliciously false leaflet.

You were clearly wrong to say that our client purchased his plots with the intention of delaying the Tesco development, as you now admit. Moreover, we do not agree that a landowner objecting to a CPO of his land and who has made very serious alternative proposals for redevelopment can he be guilty of “spoiling tactics” and this defamatory and maliciously false allegation is strongly objected to by our client.

In order to settle this matter we, therefore, require an apology in respect of both the 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 were fully appraised of the true situation and not misled.

We deny that our client has been involved in any “spoiling tactics” at the Swan, Maypole or in Worcester. He certainly does not have, as you claim, a track record of “spoiling tactics”. By making such allegations you are clearly aggravating the damages which you will now have to pay to a charity of our client’s choice.

You say that you have spent time meeting my client and talking about the Swan development. Notwithstanding, it seems that you have failed to understand what my client is trying to achieve.

All that my client wants is to vindicate his reputation as swiftly as possible. However, if a suitable correction and apology, costs, damages and an undertaking not to repeat these or any similar defamatory and maliciously false allegations cannot swiftly be agreed, he will have no alternative but to issue proceedings.

We obviously also need to discuss how quickly you can circulate your apology around the constituency. Clearly this will have to be done much more quickly than your usual six weekly cycle in order to alleviate the continuing harm to our client’s reputation.

Meanwhile, could you please inform us, as we requested in our original letter of 29 July 2009, how many copies of the offending text were distributed; who wrote the offending text; who authorised its publication; who published it; and the date of issue.

2. Alternative wording to those to whom the original leaflet was not delivered

As previously indicated today, our client has no objection to replace the offending text with the new text set out in your e-mail of yesterday’s date sent at 12.32 pm.

Yours sincerely,

Withers LLP]