After three years, one month, 18 days and pounds 1.7m, the Scott inquir y prepares to deliver its damning report

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The long-awaited report of the Scott inquiry into the arms-to- Iraq scandal, which could threaten the careers of some ministers and senior Whitehall officials, goes to the printers next week.

More than three years since the inquiry was set up, after the collapse of the Matrix Churchill trial in which government ministers were found to have withheld evidence helpful to the defendants' case, it is finally drawing to a close.

The report will mark a watershed in British politics, opening the Government and Whitehall to unprecedented scrutiny and is likely to dominate the political arena formonths.

It will soon be rolling off the presses at the HMSO printing plant in Bermondsey, south London. Produced in four volumes, with appendices, the mammoth document will run to 2,000 pages.

So confident is HMSO of having a best-seller on its hands that it has ordered thousands of copies. It will go on sale in HMSO's shops when the report is officially released.

That decision rests with Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, to whom, technically, the inquiry is reporting. He will receive an advance copy and must then decide, with the Prime Minister and government managers, when it should be published.

The likeliest date is some time in the last week in January, or possibly in the first week of February. The report will be presented to Parliament and will be accompanied by a statement, most probably from Mr Lang.

Once the report is out, the inquiry will start winding down its operation. The background papers will be filed at the Public Records Office at Kew for future generations to pore over, and the Scott inquiry premises in Victoria will be returned to the Department of Trade and Industry, while the 13 staff will go their separate ways.

Whether some of them will be welcomed back, after three years away, by their old colleagues remains to be seen. Few realised back in November 1992 that they were about to become immersed in something quite so politically sensitive or, at times, so acrimonious.

Strangely, though, while attacks on the inquiry and its methods, notably from Lord Howe, raised the temperature - and led to soul-searching on the part of some members of the inquiry - there has been a marked cooling- down in the past few months.

From mid-October onwards, say those close to the inquiry, there was a change of mood, on both sides. Sir Richard and his staff suddenly seemed much more positive and definite as to when their report would appear; hostility towards the inquiry in some Government quarters appeared to soften.

Soon afterwards, reports appeared, saying that in the end only two current senior ministers - Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General and William Waldegrave, Chief Secretary to the Treasury - would be directly criticised, Sir Nicholas for proffering the advice to other ministers to sign the public interest immunity certificates that denied the Matrix Churchill defendants a fair trial and Mr Waldegrave for agreeing with two former ministers, Alan Clark and Lord Trefgarne, to change the guidelines on exports to Iraq and then failing to tell Parliament.

If true - and nobody has offered any irrefutable evidence, and certainly no direct quotes from the report have been produced to support the case - there would be a collective sigh of relief on the government benches.

Compared with some predictions of what Sir Richard's 2,000 pages could contain, criticism of only Sir Nicholas and Mr Waldegrave is small beer. It would mean that three other Cabinet ministers, each of whom carry more political weight and would be more prized targets for the Opposition, have avoided blame. They are Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Malcolm Rifkind, Foreign Secretary and Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security.

At times during the inquiry, such has been the vehemence of attacks on Sir Richard - accusing him of not understanding the way Whitehall works and needs to work, of not giving people a fair hearing, of not allowing their lawyers to cross-examine others - that it appeared the future of the Government itself was at stake. That feeling has been heightened by tough talk. The Prime Minister has intimated he may not necessarily accept the report's conclusions. Senior government sources have claimed that Mr Clarke, who once said he would resign if he was criticised by Scott, may find his resignation, if offered, was not accepted.

After all that, two ministers in the frame would be seen as a damp squib. But Scott is about much more than ministers signing gagging orders. Around 60 officials are possible targets for criticism, for not communicating with each other or for giving ministers incorrect or inaccurate information.

If that happens, and most senior ministers walk free or, are criticised but turn on their own officials, the top civil servants' union, the First Division Association, promises a battle.

For the inquiry team and the Opposition - and most Tories desperate to put the whole thing behind them - Sir Richard's report cannot come soon enough.

Sir Nicholas Lyell, Attorney General, could be criticised for asking Ministers to sign orders withholding documents from the Matrix Churchill defendants

William Waldegrave, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, faces charges that he was involved in changing arms control guidelines without Parliament being informed

Kenneth Clarke, Chancellor of the Exchequer, signed "gagging" order and has said he would resign if criticised by report - though this is unlikely.

Malcom Rifkind, Foreign Secretary, signed Public Interest Immunity certificates, but is likely to be put in the clear by the inquiry report

Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security,signed the Public Interest Immunity certificates but is not expected to be criticised by the report

Michael Heseltine, Deputy Prime Minister, is certain to be cleared by Scott, after initially resisting Sir Nicholas Lyell's request to sign the certificates

Scott inquiry: For the record

Duration: 3 years, 1 month, 18 days (so far)

Evidence: 200,000 pages of written material

Witnesses: 270 submitted written evidence

82 gave oral evidence

61 gave evidence in public, 21 in private

Cost: pounds 1.7m

Staff: 13 full-time, including the judge

Report: 4 volumes with appendices, totalling 2,000 pages plus 10,000 pages of evidence to be published later

The key players

Christopher Muttukumaru, secretary to the inquiry, formerly worked in the Treasury Solicitor's Department. Understood to want to return, which may be difficult if report criticises colleagues.

Sir Richard Scott, the Vice-Chancellor of the High Court Chancery Division. Bicycles to work daily; wants to get back to full-time judging

Presiley Baxendale QC, chief interrogator for the inquiry, wants to return to practising at the Bar. She is member of the chambers of Colin Ross-Munro, which specialises in commercial law and also includes Lord Lester

David Price, press officer to the inquiry, formerly at the Department of Health. He hopes to return to another press job in the government service. Close to retirement age.