THE SCOTT DEBATE : Lang admits `mistakes' but promises little

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The Independent Online

Political Correspondent

Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, told MPs at the start of the debate on the Scott report that "Mistakes were made. There are lessons to be learnt."

He repeated his declaration of 10 days ago that the Government had accepted many of Sir Richard Scott's recommendations and declared he wanted to "look forward".

He promised to examine the key issues of disclosure of information on parliamentary questions on defence-related equipment, and ministerial accountability and responsibility, pledging "public debate", to include opposition MPs "in particular", on the former.

In relation to the latter, he suggested the Public Service Select Committee should consider the question of accountability and responsibility more widely, in which case "the Government would propose to submit its views on this issue to them".

That approach was in "marked contrast" with that of previous governments, Mr Lang insisted. Of the series of announcements aimed at buying off a looming Tory rebellion, the most concrete was the acceptance that in future the Attorney General should exercise greater supervision of Customs & Excise prosecutions over export controls. There would also be a review of the relationship between the Customs Solicitors' Office and the Customs Investigation Department.

Mr Lang went on to invite the views from MPs and others on future developments in the use of public interest immunity certificates. He also reiterated action the Government has already taken or pledged to take: the improvement of the distribution of intelligence material; a consultation paper about export controls and licensing procedures; and a promise to consider "further and very carefully" Sir Richard's criticism of the use of wartime export control legislation.

Robin Cook, the shadow Foreign Secretary, spotlighted the "shortness of specifics" on the question of more openness on questions about arms and ministerial accountability.

But Mr Lang insisted: "The Government is willing to play its part in public debate about the issues raised and would welcome the views of honourable members and others, including in particular those of the opposition parties. In the light of these comments we will consider what changes might be made, and bring forward any specific proposals for discussion in this House ... The Government is also willing to consider positively Sir Richard Scott's wider views about ministerial accountability and responsibility."

Mr Lang's speech ruled out the abandonment of public interest immunity altogether, arguing that this "would result in cases against serious criminals and terrorists having to be dropped. This would be necessary, for example, to protect the sources of information".

He likewise firmly rejected calls for a Freedom of Information Act, saying that this was "not the right way towards a fundamental opening up of government". Recent events had not changed the Government's mind.

The Private Member's Bill unsuccessfully promoted by the Labour MP Mark Fisher, and all overseas freedom of information regimes, exempted a number of classes of material from disclosure. "And all of them tend to impose a legalistic approach which is more inflexible in its application, much more expensive to those who use it and which risks undermining the role of Parliament and accountability to this House," he said and added that the "debate over the alternatives" should continue.

The Government aimed to get its message across to Tory backbenchers with a copious "government press pack" available from the members' lobby, fuelling the controversy over selective "briefing" along party political lines.

Giles Radice, the Labour chairman of the Public Service Select Committee, roundly condemned the move as a disgrace.

The motion

The Government's technical motion for an adjournment of the House rather than a substantive vote on the Scott report was intended to dampen political heat.

But last night this called for a degree of mental agility on the part of MPs to ensure they entered the correct voting lobby. While the Commons Order paper showed the Prime Minister moving "that this House do now adjourn", Tory MPs were in fact expected to vote No and opposition MPs Yes - even though opposition MPs would normally oppose a Government motion and Tory MPs would support it.

The reason was that the Government had further minor business to get through and did not want the House to adjourn for the day at 10pm.