Ex-Welsh Tory leader may sue Whitbread over bankruptcy debt.
FORMER Welsh Tory leader Rod Richards may sue brewery giant Whitbread amid confusion over the bankruptcy case he says drove him to drink and wrecked his political career. The one-time Minister last night revealed that he had asked his solicitor to investigate the possibility of making a claim against the company after challenging its right to receive payments from him that date back to when a South Wales pub that he ran went out of business. Mr Richards, a self-confessed alcoholic forced to quit politics last month because of ill health, vowed to win satisfaction from the company. If successful he would not only see an end to the financial problems that have hung over him for years - but he said he could also be in line for a substantial compensation package.
Coming in the middle of the Tory Conference and Iain Duncan Smith delivering his make-orbreak conference speech, the new claims from Mr Richards will be an unwanted distraction to his former party. Mr Richards believes he has a case after a High Court hearing, called after he was accused of failing on bankrupcy payments, was adjourned last week.
Proceedings came to a dramatic halt last Thursday when Mr Richards questioned whether Whitbread still ``owned'' his debt, following the sale of the group's brewery division in May 2000 to Belgian-owned firm Interbrew.
Whitbread subsequently confirmed that it was no longer involved in any action against the former MP for Clwyd North West. But staff at Interbrew said they were unaware of any outstanding claim that the parent company had against Mr Richards, with one spokeswoman insisting these were matters for Whitbread.
Mr Richards is demanding an explanation as to why, if Whitbread does not have a claim against him, he has been paying out around pounds 500 a month to pay off debts totalling pounds 75,000 since August 2000 after a bankruptcy hearing.
He said, ``This is going to be a game of two halves. The first is to clarify just what the position is relating to these debts after the case had to be adjourned last week.
``The second will be to seek compensation for what, in legal terms, I believe is called the pain and suffering that I have had to go through these past two years.''
Of the action, he said, ``It's taken away my livelihood and my health. When this action was brought against me there were nights when I would be up until four in the morning smoking.''
Friends of Mr Richards say that events may have taken a completely different course if it hadn't been for the bankruptcy case against him, claiming it was a major factor in him hitting the bottle.
Peter Davies, a former regional chairman, said, ``Those of us who were his friends on the Welsh party board that had to decide whether he should be allowed to stand as a candidate next May believe that he could have been given the go-ahead until the unfortunate incident when he was found asleep in the park under the effect of drink earlier in the year.''
Whitbread has already denied suggestions that it was involved in a pact with Tory leaders to write off Rod Richards's debts if he agreed to quit politics.
The Tory politician claims he was approached just months ahead of the 1997 election with an offer that the debts would be wiped out if he stood down from his Clwyd North West seat.
A spokesman for the company has said that no one at the company was aware of any such offer and ``it doesn't sound like the sort of thing we would have done''.
Asked why the company had turned down an offer from a friend of Mr Richards to write off pounds 20,000 of the debts arising from the Ystradgynlais pub earlier this year, the spokesman said that Whitbread was not involved then.
BURDEN: Rod Richards yesterday. He has been paying off debts of pounds 75,000 to Whitbread Picture: Nick Treharne