Tories reel in double Scott attack

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown kept up a furious joint attack on the Prime Minister yesterday over the findings of the Scott report as they sought to persuade dissident Conservative MPs to vote with the Opposition in Monday's debate. And in a sign of a determined defensive operation, John Major's press secretary lodged two complaints against the BBC as ministers prepared to tough out intense opposition criticism.

Meanwhile, Cardinal Basil Hume, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, called yesterday for further curbs on arms sales and greater openness about the degree to which they are subsidised by the taxpayer.

On the BBC Radio 4 Today programme Mr Blair said that if he were in power he would "not hesitate for an instant" from sacking a Labour minister who "misled" Parliament in the way William Waldegrave, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, had done.

The Labour leader said he was "appealing to Conservative members who care about the rules of Parliament to take a different view from Tory whips".

Jonathan Haslam, the Prime Minister's press secretary, is understood to have contacted the BBC before Mr Blair's interview to complain about bias. BBC sources say Mr Haslam did not offer to make a minister available for interview.

Mr Haslam also lodged a formal complaint about Monday's Newsnight programme, which claimed that the Scott report had criticised Mr Major, who was responsible for export credit guarantees at the time of the arms-to-Iraq affair.

The intervention of Mr Haslam, a civil servant, is unusual, and marks a sharp departure from the low-key style of Christopher Meyer, who he replaced last month.

Meanwhile, in a speech at the start of an ecumenical campaign to get local churches involved in lobbying MPs against the arms trade, Cardinal Hume said that a reduction in the arms trade was worth the "economic disruption and human cost involved in restructuring the defence industry. Such difficulties, real as they are, surely cannot justify continuing to sell arms to countries guilty of serious human rights abuses, or which are acting in breach of international law".

In a reference to the Scott report, he said: "Recent events have once again highlighted the moral questions involved. Arms sales or transfers cannot and should not be treated like any other commercial transaction. No transfer of arms is morally neutral." All arms sales were morally wrong, "unless they were necessary to provide those with a legitimate responsibility for the lives of others with the means necessary to ensure the state's legitimate defence."