Speaker criticises ministers' 8-day breather on Scott

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The Independent Online
Government efforts to deny the Opposition an early sight of the Scott arms-for-Iraq report were criticised yesterday by the Speaker of the Commons, Betty Boothroyd.

While ministers involved in the saga received their advance copies of Sir Richard Scott's report, Labour faces the prospect of having to digest its 1,800 pages in just 30 minutes before Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, makes a statement to MPs next Thursday.

Appealing to Miss Booth- royd on a point of order, Ann Taylor, Shadow Leader of the House, said the Government had "amassed a vast machinery to interpret the report in the way ministers wish, at the public expense of course". Ministers had "eight days to find ways of shifting the blame" while civil servants involved would only have six hours sight of the report, despite the fact that if affected their careers.

Miss Boothroyd said it was entirely for Mr Lang to decide what arrangements, if any, should be made to allow interested parties to see embargoed copies of the report. But she went on: "All I would say is that in my experience the questioning on any statement is much better focused when some steps have been taken to enable Opposition spokesmen and minority party spokesmen to have access some time in advance to the text of complicated reports provided steps are taken to maintain confidentiality."

Clare Short, Labour's transport spokesperson, accused the journalists and others who keep asking how the party would retake control of Railtrack of letting the Government off the hook. It was a question that "cannot be answered by a serious political party preparing for government", Ms Short insisted as she opened a debate on rail privatisation.

Railtrack is due to be floated on the Stock Exchange in May, but Ms Short pointed out that the Government had not yet said whether it would sell 51 per cent or 100 per cent of the company. "We don't know the timing of the sale, or the price. No party can say exactly what it would do in conditions of such uncertainty."

Labour could not stop the sale, Ms Short said, but warned anyone thinking of buying shares not to do so. "The structures proposed by the Government cannot be left in place."

Though Sir George Young, Secretary of State for Transport, prodded at Labour's "policy vacuum" on rail privatisation and said its "empty threats" had not deterred bidders, neither he nor Tory backbenchers fully exploited the weakness.

Sir Edward Heath last night warned ministers against the electoral consequences of believing that everything can privatised - particularly those with the "Royal" imprimatur. While ministers accused Labour of dogma, "the real dogma lies in believing that privatisation can be extended to everything", he said during a Labour-initiated debate on Post Office privatisation. The former prime minister suggested that selling off the Royal Mail, which John Major has hinted might be revived in the Tory general election manifesto, would cost the party votes. Linking the Royal Mail with the possibility of a private replacement for the Royal Yacht, franchising the Royal Train to Americans, and advertising the Royal Naval College at Greenwich, Sir Edward said people would trust the Conservatives more if they appeared "proud" of Britain's heritage rather than wanting to put it on the market.

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