Scott may be called to 'clarify' findings

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The Independent Online
Sir Richard Scott is to receive a second opportunity to expound his views on ministers' and officials' behaviour over arms to Iraq and ministerial responsibility, under the protection of parliamentary privilege, in a development that will cause tremors among Government news managers.

The new Commons Public Service Select Committee will today be asked to approve the calling of Sir Richard to give evidence in the next few weeks. Giles Radice, MP for Durham North, the committee chairman, said yesterday that he considered it imperative Sir Richard appeared as part of its inquiry into his report. Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister and Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, are already scheduled to appear.

Mr Radice said there were parts of the Scott report, notably the section covering ministerial responsibility, which required "filling out" by Sir Richard. The conduct of officials, reporting lines within Whitehall, the way in which his report changed between the draft and final, published version, and the Government's involvement of civil servants in drawing up selective press releases on the report's findings, are areas the committee may wish to put to Sir Richard.

There was no reason he could think of, said Mr Radice, why Sir Richard, previously reluctant to voice his opinions in public, outside his report, could not be called.

The prospect of Sir Richard being able to speak without fear of legal comeback will cause acute anxiety among ministers anxious to downplay his inquiry and maintain the position that he found nothing seriously untoward. The Government remains hopeful that after next Monday's Commons debate, the whole affair will fade away.

There was little sign of that yesterday as Tony Blair, the Labour leader, put himself at the head of a fresh onslaught on William Waldegrave, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, by pressing his view that the Scott report showed that he was in conflict with ministerial rules by failing to inform Parliament of the state of arms export policy.

In fierce exchanges with the Prime Minister, Mr Blair said the Government would remain "knee-deep in dishonour" until Mr Major was prepared to say whether he agreed that the failure by ministers was deliberate and "in breach of their duty of ministerial accountability".

Labour will continue to press the charge that the "deliberate" failure to inform Parliament identified by Sir Richard was in breach of the written requirement in Paragraph 27 of the published Questions of Procedure for Ministers that ministers give "as full information as possible ... and not ... deceive or mislead Parliament".

Sir Robin Butler, the country's most senior civil servant, is likely to be questioned by the Public Service Committee about a crucial change in Questions of Procedure which affords them some protection if they mislead Parliament. The code was suddenly amended in 1994 to include the word "knowingly" before mislead, as in "Ministers must not knowingly mislead Parliament".

The Government has strenuously argued that Sir Richard's report clears Mr Waldegrave of "knowingly misleading Parliament."

Government hopes of avoiding a humiliating defeat in Monday's debate were boosted by informal indications yesterday that the Ulster Unionists may go no further than abstaining. The party's nine MPs will discuss their stance at a meeting today.

Labour sources, however, were not ruling out the possibility of a back- bench motion to cut Mr Waldegrave's salary - seen as a procedural ruse for censuring an individual minister.