Ministers distorting my words, says Scott

Rebuke for Tories over `selective' quotations Scott: `My words were distorted'
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Sir Richard Scott yesterday broke his silence over the Government's increasingly controversial presentation of his arms-to-Iraq report by accusing ministers of quoting him "selectively" in their defence.

Sir Richard's unusually blunt rebuke forced the Government back on to the defensive in the increasingly bitter inter-party row in the run-up to Monday's crucial Commons debate on the report. As two more Tory MPs warned the Government it could not yet count on their support, John Major was making a last-ditch effort to dissuade Peter Thurnham, another potential dissident in the vote, from resigning the party whip.

And it followed an admission by Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, that because of a "drafting error", the comprehensive government press pack issued on the day the report was published had wrongly said in bald terms that Sir Richard had made it clear William Waldegrave, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, had not misled Parliament. Instead, Mr Clarke told Labour's Treasury spokesman, Andrew Smith, the word "intentionally" should have preceded "misled".

The terse letter from Christopher Muttukumaru - authorised by Sir Richard - to Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, protested sharply at ministers' partial repetition at a press conference answer a week ago in which Sir Richard said it was a "fair summary" to say that there had been "no conspiracy and no cover up" over arms-to-Iraq.

The judge - now Vice Chancellor of the Chancery division - asked Mr Muttukumaru to point out to Mr Lang that he immediately added that "any soundbite answer, any summary one-line answer is bound to be a distortion of what I have taken care to express in the report".

The sharpness of the note, sent to Mr Lang's Principal Private Secretary, John Alty, underlines what is believed to be the increasing annoyance felt by Sir Richard and inquiry staff at the aggressively partisan way in which the Government has presented the findings.

Sir Richard's letter was sent soon before John Major again told the Commons in an answer to the senior Liberal Democrat Malcolm Bruce that "Sir Richard has agreed that there was no conspiracy, no cover up". And it follows a string of statements by Cabinet ministers - including Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, last weekend - alluding explicitly to Sir Richard's remark.

The report criticised Sir Nicholas Lyell, saying he was wrong to advise ministers they had a duty to sign Public Interest Immunity Certificates and that he failed to pass on fully the strong reservations of Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, about signing. He also says that there was a deliberate failure to give Parliament information about changes in arms export guidelines, but exempts Mr Waldegrave from "duplicitous intent".

The letter does not challenge the ministers' repeated declarations that the report established that there had been no conspiracy or cover-up. It concludes: "The report has been carefully drafted. The report, and only the report contains Sir Richard's considered views. Out-of-context one-line answers at a press conference are no substitute." Downing Street was dismissive yesterday of the letter, saying it was impossible for Mr Major or other ministers to quote the 1,800-page report every time they answered questions.

And one senior Cabinet minister said: "If you don't like what is quoted from what you say at press conferences, the answer is not go to press conferences."

After fierce clashes between Tony Blair and John Major in the Commons, Robin Cook, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman added that "the government's distortion of the Scott report is starting to unravel" as a result of the inquiry team's letter and Mr Clarke's admission of error.

Two more Tory MPs were considering how to vote. John Marshall, (Hendon South), says in today's Jewish Chronicle that he has not yet made up his mind. And Quentin Davies (Stamford and Spalding), met Alastair Goodlad, the Tory Chief Whip, last night to discuss his concerns.

Inside Parliament, page 7

The text of the Scott inquiry letter

Dear Mr Alty,

It has come to the Vice-Chancellor's attention that a number of Ministers are relying on part of an answer given by the Vice-Chancellor at his press conference on February 15. The question was:

"Sir, is it a fair summary to say that there was no conspiracy and no cover-up?"

Only the first few words of the Vice-Chancellor's answer are being quoted with the result that his words are being selectively used.

The Vice-Chancellor went on in the same answer to make clear that "any soundbite answer, an summary one line answer is bound to be a distortion of what I have taken care to express in the Report." I attach a copy of the relevant page from the transcript of the press conference.

Throughout the press conference, Sir Richard invited questioners to read the Report if they wanted to know his view on the subjects put to him. The Government commissioned the Report; the Report has been carefully drafted; the Report, and only the Report, contains Sir Richard's considered views. Out of context one line answers at a Press Conference are no substitute.

Yours Sincerely Christopher Muttukumaru

The press conference exchange

Member of the press: Sir, do you think anybody should resign as a result of your report?

Sir Richard Scott: That is not a question for me.

Member of press: Sir, is it a fair summary to say that there was no conspiracy and no cover-up?

Sir Richard: I think that is a fair summary.

Member of press: Because that is what the Government is saying and therefore your report ...

Sir Richard: I think that's a fair summary but it is such a very express way of putting it.

Perhaps I should say inregard to that and I am repeating now a remark I made when giving the reason why there is no executive summary, I have prepared in the report, very carefully, my conclusions on such matters as are summarised by the question you just put to me, and I have expressed in the report in a considered way my view on that topic.

Any soundbite answer, any summary one-line answer is bound to be a distortion of what I have taken care to express in the report.