Minister refuses to absolve civil servants criticised by Scott report

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Westminster Correspondent

The Government is still refusing to rule out disciplinary action against civil servants criticised in the Scott report, despite mounting trade union and opposition anger.

Derek Foster, Labour's shadow civil service spokesman, yesterday received a letter from Roger Freeman, the civil service minister, in which the Government reaffirmed its intention to punish officials singled out by Scott. Mr Freeman wrote: "Where there is prima facie evidence that an official criticised by Scott fell outside the category of acting conscientiously, in good faith and in accordance with government policy, it would clearly be unreasonable to rule out the possibility of disciplinary action."

Such cases, wrote Mr Freeman, "will be investigated by the department concerned and any disciplinary action which arises as a result will be dealt with under the normal departmental procedures".

His letter will further inflame the civil service unions, already furious at the disclosure in the Independent that ministers were considering moving against their own officials, despite absolving themselves of any blame for criticisms in the Scott report. The unions will meet this week to consider a united response.

"Clearly, they are refusing to rule out disciplinary action even though ministers, according to them, have been acquitted of all responsibility," said Mr Foster.

Mr Freeman's letter will not appear in Hansard, the official parliamentary record - something Mr Foster intends to counter. He is tabling parliamentary questions on the issue to force Mr Freeman to put on the record the Government's intentions. "These civil servants deserve to have in the public domain how the Government proposes to deal with them," said Mr Foster.

Meanwhile, the post-Scott fallout continued yesterday with the news that writs have been issued against senior Customs officers and diplomats rebuked by Scott for their handling of the case of three men charged with attempting to sell sub-machine guns to Iraq. One of the three has brought proceedings but the main defendant, Reginald Dunk, an arms dealer, is still considering his position. Defendants in other arms-to-Iraq trials, including Matrix Churchill and Ordtech, have yet to make up their minds whether to pursue claims against the Government.