Lang rounds on 'repeated abuse of ministers'

The Scott Report
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The Independent Online
Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, pledged that all Sir Richard Scott's recommendations were under "active consideration", but attacked opposition MPs and the media for "repeated abuse" of ministers over the signing of public interest immunity certificates.

He told MPs yesterday that Sir Richard recognised the Government had tried to balance British jobs with foreign policy. "He does, however, make strong criticisms of what he sees as a lack of openness on this."

Turning to why the inquiry was set up, Mr Lang said: "This is the grave allegation that ministers, by signing public interest immunity certificates, conspired in a way which could have sent innocent men to prison. Sir Richard Scott's report demonstrates that this allegation is false . . . As Sir Richard says, and I quote, 'The charges to which I have referred are not, in my opinion, well-founded.'

"This conclusion gives the lie to the many scurrilous comments by honourable members on the benches opposite and by many in the media."

Mr Lang went on: "There was no conspiracy. There was no cover up. Such charges were reckless and malicious . . . The House will now expect to hear them withdrawn." He accepted the report had made "some" criticisms. "Sir Richard criticises the continued use of wartime emergency legislation by both Labour and Conservative administrations over the past 50 years . . . we will wish to consider further the future arrangements in this area."

On the law relating to public interest immunity certificates, Mr Lang said, "Ministers both had a duty to sign PII certificates and that such certificates were applicable in criminal cases". "Sir Richard Scott does not in any way attack the personal integrity of the Attorney General [Sir Nicholas Lyell]. He does, however, express criticism of the adequacy of the instructions to prosecuting counsel conveying the views of the then President of the Board of Trade [Michael Heseltine], and in particular that the Attorney General should personally have supervised them."

Mr Lang added however that: "It must be a matter of opinion whether that was something which the Attorney General could reasonably have been expected to do."

On the question of the changing of the guidelines on arms sales, Mr Lang said Sir Richard had concluded that "following the ceasefire [in the Iran/Iraq war] in 1988, but not before, Government policy towards the export of non-lethal military goods changed in a way which, he believe, should have been drawn to the attention of the House . . . he concludes that a number of ministers' letters and answers to parliamentary questions were inaccurate because they restated what ministers understood to be the policy but which Sir Richard believes, in retrospect, had changed".

The judge accepted, however, that "the ministers believed they were avoiding a formal change to the guidelines" and had "no duplicitous intention". Mr Lang said the inquiry had found "no evidence of impropriety" in the way the Matrix Churchill prosecution was brought, "but as Sir Richard says, with the benefit of hindsight this was a trial which ought never to have commenced".

Mr Lang said there was a "continuing line of criticism" in the report of the "consistent undervaluing by Government of the public interest that full information should be made available to Parliament". This would form an important aspect of parliamentary consideration of the report, Mr Lang said.