Furious Blair will boycott Scott preview

Tories 'are managing the news'
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The Independent Online
Ministerial nerves over today's long-awaited and highly sensitive Scott report were exposed in a pre-publication row over news management, in which the Opposition accused the Government of treating them like "common criminals".

Tony Blair brusquely turned down an invitation to study the report in advance within the strict confines of "insulting" DTI conditions. Opposition leaders will not be allowed to communicate with anyone outside the Department of Trade and Industry, where the viewing will take place, and will be barred from using mobile, or other, telephones.

The row over Government news management, evoking parallels with the 1983 Franks inquiry into the Falklands war, came as the former Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, launched a pre-emptive defence in today's Independent of William Waldegrave, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and the Attorney General, Sir Nicholas Lyell - the two ministers Labour intends to target when the report is published this afternoon.

It was confirmed that Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders would only be allowed to study the report three-and-a-half hours before public release, and with Whitehall "minders" in attendance.

An invitation to Mr Blair from John Alty, Principal Private Secretary to Ian Lang, the President of the Board of Trade, which offered advance access to the report within the strict confines of the DTI, was firmly turned down.

"Dear Alty", wrote Jonathan Powell, the Labour leader's chief of staff. "Mr Blair has no intention of coming to the DTI to read the Scott report under the extraordinary and insulting conditions you propose."

A furious Lord Jenkins, the Liberal Democrat leader in the Lords, announced he would boycott the "opportunity" for Opposition spokesmen to read its 1,800 pages. Lord Richard, Labour Leader in the Lords, likewise spurned his invitation.

Sir Richard Scott told Channel 4 News last night that after being invited to Number 10 yesterday, John Major had thanked him for conducting a "thorough and fair" inquiry. A Downing Street spokesman earlier said Mr Major had described it as "thorough and comprehensive."

As Robin Cook, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, accused the Government of treating Opposition privy councillors like "common criminals", Lord Jenkins declared that he would not be locked up in a "padded cell".

The Government did make a small concession yesterday, in the face of a barrage of complaints that the 24 ministers and officials already in possession of the report would have had eight days to prepare for an onslaught. Civil servants censured in the report will now receive copies at 2.30pm.

But the one-hour period was bitterly attacked by the First Division Association, the union representing Whitehall's senior mandarins. There will also be stringent restrictions on the ability of civil servants to make public responses to the report.

The Government ignored Sir Richard's earlier suggestion that MPs be given an hour to try to digest part of the report before Mr Lang begins his statement at 3.30pm. The Commons will be suspended for 10 minutes this afternoon, so MPs can leave their seats to collect copies.

Sir Richard has been concerned to ensure as informed a debate as possible. The judge said in his latest letter to Mr Lang, signed by the secretary to the inquiry, Christopher Muttukumaru: "You seem to be apprehensive about most MPs, most members of the House of Lords and the media having access to the report at the same time as access is given to those criticised in it."

Sir Richard firmly slapped down a Government request to let Lord Howe, a former foreign secretary and strident Scott Inquiry critic, have a copy at midday today, along with Lord Trefgarne, the former defence and trade minister.

"It is surprising to find the Government inviting the Vice-Chancellor [Sir Richard] to differentiate between individuals in this manner," the letter says. "Sir Richard is not prepared to countenance it."

Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said the Government's "cloak and dagger" tactics led to the suspicion that it must have something to hide.

In his article for the Independent, Mr Hurd becomes the first senior minister to propose legislation to clarify ministerial use of the Public Interest Immunity Certificates that led to the establishment of the Scott inquiry. But he adds: "I do not fear for the Chief Secretary or the Attorney General. I know them both well and, indeed, have known William Waldegrave just about all his life.

"You have to live far from reality to suppose that either of these two was a party to dishonourable conspiracy to deceive Parliament or imprison innocent men."

Letters in full, page 2

News Analysis, page 17

Douglas Hurd, page 19