Minister `threatened protesters with pick'

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Police were yesterday investigating an incident involving a Scottish Office minister and anti-motorway campaigners in which the minister grabbed a pick-axe and was said to be waving it around in "a threatening manner". Allan Stewart, the Minister for Industry at the Scottish Office, denied that he had threatened the protesters with a pick-axe. He admitted grabbing the axe, but said he was acting in self-defence. Strathclyde police confirmed last night that they were investigating allegations of assault against Mr Stewart.

Labour called for an inquiry into his "loutish and bizarre actions" which were "unbecoming of a minister of the Crown".

The incident happened when Mr Stewart was visiting the site of the proposed M77 motorway development at Pollok Castle Estate in his Eastwood constituency, near Glasgow, on Sunday. He was inspecting tree-felling work with representatives from the contractors, Wimpey.

Halfway through the inspection, Mr Stewart said, a group of around 12 protesters "rushed towards" him. "There was a pick-axe lying there," he said. "I picked up the pick-axe - first of all to avoid anybody else picking it up and secondly in possible self-defence. There was then a robust discussion ... I felt scared. The situation was extremely unpleasant. I am entirely content with what I did, and I will reassert my right to walk anywhere in my constituency legally without hindrance."

Mr Stewart's account was rejected by Lindsay Keenan, a member of the environmental group Earth First, who claims the MP lunged at him. Mr Keenan said: "He picked up a pick-axe and went towards our caravan as if to start smashing up the caravan. We walkedbehind him and he turned around and started waving the pick-axe in a very threatening manner."

Mr Stewart denied suggestions he had acted illegally, and dismissed claims made in the House of Commons by Mike Watson, Labour MP for Glasgow Central, that his behaviour was "loutish and inflammatory".

Mr Watson said: "This is behaviour unbecoming of a government minister and I wonder if we are entitled to a statement in the Commons." The Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, replied: "I have not had any instructions from the Government that they are seeking to make a statement of that nature."

Toby Jessel, Tory MP for Twickenham, accused Mr Watson of seeking to "attack the reputation of Mr Stewart" when he was not in the House to defend it. He said the minister had stated in radio interviews that he had "picked up the pick-axe to defend himself". But the Speaker told him: "It is nothing to do with me as to who says what on radio. I have enough to contend with what goes on in the Commons."

Last night, George Robertson, Labour's spokesman on Scottish affairs, wrote to Ian Lang, the Secretary of State for Scotland, demanding an "urgent and thorough inquiry" into Mr Stewart's actions.

n Mr Stewart's 16-year-old son was last night the subject of a police report in connection with an alleged firearms offence. Jack Stewart and David Clow, also 16, were reported to the procurator fiscal for allegedly having loaded air pistols in contravention of the Firearms Act following an incident at Pollok Castle on Sunday.