Labour anger as Scott escapes

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NICHOLAS SCOTT was still in his ministerial job last night after the Speaker dismayed Labour MPs by ruling in his favour despite his admission that he had given a 'misleading' answer in the Commons.

John Smith, the Labour leader, last night again called for Mr Scott to resign over his earlier denial that his department had covertly fed Tory backbenchers with amendments designed to wreck a private member's Bill outlawing discrimination against disabled people.

Mr Scott told the Commons on Tuesday in a rare personal statement that his department 'with my authority' had been involved in preparing amendments. He offered 'unreserved apologies' for not giving a 'fuller explanation' when the issue had been raised on Friday.

The ruling by Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker, coupled with the Prime Minister's strong backing, appeared to have given Mr Scott a reprieve intended to ensure he remains in office at least until the expected summer reshuffle.

However, the full-scale inter- party row continued unabated last night with an angry exchange of letters between John Major and Mr Smith after the Speaker's decision that she would not initiate parliamentary privilege proceedings against Mr Scott. Labour MPs claimed the ruling set a precedent under which ministers would be able to mislead MPs and then evade the consequences by subsequently apologising if found out.

Although the Speaker denied that, Dale Campbell-Savours, MP for Workington, took the rare step of openly questioning a ruling by declaring: 'I find your ruling, with all the respect in the world, utterly astonishing. It is of grave concern to many of my colleagues.'

Earlier, Mr Scott's embarrassment had intensified when his daughter, Victoria, a campaigner for the disabled, had strongly criticised the Government for blocking the Bill. 'We are very, very angry. Disabled people are furious with what the Government have done to their Bill,' she said.

Labour promised to make Mr Major's decision to back again an embattled minister a central issue in the coming European election campaign, but the Prime Minister insisted in a letter to Mr Smith that the issue of Mr Scott's future was now 'closed'. He challenged Mr Smith to say how Labour would enact a radical anti-discrimination law that would, according to ministers, cost pounds 17bn.

With the row threatening to resurface in the Commons today at Prime Minister's Question Time, Mr Smith replied by saying Mr Major had 'totally' missed the point, adding: 'If you and your government did not want this Bill, you should have had the courage openly to oppose it rather than resorting to underhand and deceitful tactics.'

Opposition MPs also turned their fire on Lady Olga Maitland who, with four other backbench MPs, had been involved last Friday in tabling 80 amendments to the Bill which led to its running out of time. Lady Olga, the MP for Sutton and Cheam, who is visiting Malawi, had earlier insisted she was the sole author of amendments tabled in her name.

Liz Lynne, Liberal Democrat spokeswoman on health, asked whether 'it is in order for Lady Olga to have been able to mislead the House without coming to make a statement. I think it was disgraceful.' The Speaker said since the original complaint by Mr Campbell-Savours of a breach of privilege had been made, there had been subsequent 'developments' and Mr Scott had made an apology. She, therefore, did not intend to give pursuit of the matter 'precedence'.

Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, strongly defended his ministerial colleague, but conceded in a BBC radio interview that amendments had been drawn up originally for the Government but then were 'made, as it is clear, available to backbenchers who put them down'.

Ann Clwyd, a Labour front- bencher, said last night: 'Mr Scott had three opportunities to correct the position last Friday . . . He was pressed by members on three occasions. Each time he passed the opportunity by.'

How the Bill was wrecked, page 3

Inside Parliament, page 10

Leading article, page 19

Andrew Marr, page 21