Furious Scott takes on Tory 'smear campaign'

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As the 2,000-page Scott report into the arms-for-Iraq affair landed on ministers' desks yesterday, the lines were drawn for a battle that will go to the heart of the integrity of the Government.

John Major faced a political row after an angry Sir Richard Scott was forced to mount a public defence of his report, and went on to make it clear he had been pressured by the Government into giving ministers advance copies.

Sir Richard's disclosure came ahead of the Prime Minister facing pressure in the Commons today to distance himself from what the Opposition claimed yesterday was a deliberate campaign led by two former Foreign Secretaries, Lord Howe and Douglas Hurd, to undermine the three-year inquiry.

In an interview on BBC Newsnight last night Sir Richard said he would have preferred no one to have prior access to the report, delivered to the Cabinet Office yesterday eight days ahead of publication. "The report should simply have been presented to Parliament and then made available to government, Opposition, media, to interested members of the public and so on, but it was represented to me very strongly by the Government that that was impracticable," he said.

The row over the intervention by Mr Hurd and Lord Howe was sparked by the long-awaited delivery of 24 named and numbered copies of the report as Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker of the Commons, reinforced Opposition demands that they receive an advance copy in time to give a full response to publication next Thursday.

Mr Hurd had infuriated Labour and Liberal Democrats by joining Lord Howe, saying in a series of interviews that there was "an element of unfairness" in the inquiry because full legal representation of witnesses was prohibited and they were not allowed to cross-examine other witnesses. Lord Howe had also said in a BBC interview that people who were criticised were bound to feel a "burning, smouldering sense of injustice".

Sir Richard said that fairness had been the overriding consideration. He condemned as "ludicrous" suggestions that questioning at his public hearings had been aggressive. He said witnesses had received notice of questions in advance, lawyers were available to advise clients at hearings. If lawyers had been allowed to cross examine the inquiry would never have been completed and "it would have been a circus both in the Roman sense and in the Bertram Mills sense".

Asked if his report was going to wreck careers, he said: "I don't know. I've investigated the matters which I've been asked to investigate. I've come to some conclusions of the matters which I've expressed. What will follow from that is not for me."

Robin Cook, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, and Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrats' foreign affairs spokesman, both pointed out that the Government had rejected explicit Opposition demands after the collapse of the Matrix Churchill trial in November 1992 to set up an inquiry under the Tribunals of Inquiry(Evidence) Act 1921. Such an inquiry would have allowed full representation by counsel for each witness.

Mr Cook said: "The Conservatives rejected that format three years ago. It is too late in the game for the Government to complain about the rules because the inquiry has been scoring too many goals." Mr Campbell said: "Their antagonism to the inquiry is entirely related to the fact they expect the criticisms to be adverse."

Labour's determination to press for advance publication was further fuelled last night by the growing possibility that civil servants criticised in the report will receive copies six hours before publication to prepare their public defences. Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, said last night that no final decision had yet been made. Mr Cook said he was not opposed to the Government receiving advance copies of the report, but the Opposition also needed time to prepare their defence.

Liz Symons, general secretary of the First Division Association which represents senior Whitehall officials, said it was not fair that ministers would have eight days to prepare their defence while civil servants had only a few hours. Mr Cook said he supported the right of civil servants to defend themselves and said they should be free to blame ministers if they believed them responsible.

Sir Robin confirmed that civil servants would be able to defend themselves publicly against criticisms in the report, adding: "I do feel powerfully about fairness to individuals."

Mr Cook challenged Mr Major to repeat his confidence in Sir Richard, promise to implement the findings in full, and "stop the Tory campaign to undermine the inquiry.

However, in a written Commons answer last night Mr Major promised only to "consider carefully any recommendations" made by Sir Richard.

The terms of the answer reinforced speculation among some ministers and senior Tories that Mr Major intends to protect both William Waldegrave and Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General, who advised ministers to sign Public Interest Immunity Certificates withholding defence evidence in the Matrix Churchill trial.

Inside Parliament, page 11

Leading article, page 18

The first to get the report

Ministers and officials believed to have received the report yesterday include:

John Major, Prime Minister

Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade

Sir Nicholas Lyell, Attorney-General

Kenneth Clarke, Chancellor of the Exchequer

Michael Heseltine, Deputy Prime Minister

Sir Robin Butler, Cabinet Secretary and Head of Home Civil Service

Malcolm Rifkind, Foreign Secretary

Sir Patrick Mayhew, Northern Ireland Secretary

Valerie Strachan, Chairman, Customs and Excise

David Spedding, director, Secret Intelligence Service (MI6)

Sir Peter Gregson, Permanent Secretary, Department of Trade and Industry

Richard Mottram, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Defence

Sir John Cole, Head of Diplomatic Service

Michael Saunders, Treasury Solicitor

Cabinet Office officials