Scott legal advice could cost pounds 1m

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The Independent Online
THE taxpayer faces a bill for up to pounds 1m for private legal advice for ministers caught up in the Scott arms-to-Iraq inquiry.

At least one member of the Cabinet, the Minister of Agriculture, William Waldegrave, has already gone outside the government legal service for help, and four other ministers are thought to be similarly countenancing such advice.

Two ex-ministers could also avail themselves of the privilege, as well as an unknown number of civil servants.

The total could could run to hundreds of thousands of pounds, and one legal source said it could rise to pounds 1m.

Gerry Bermingham, Labour MP for St Helens's South, has tabled two parliamentary questions to John Major, asking which of his ministers or former ministers have sought legal advice from solicitors or barristers (in private practice) in respect of extracts from the Scott Inquiry which have been forwarded to them for comment, and what has been the cost to the public purse of these legal moves. The Prime Minister has promised to reply "shortly".

Mr Bermingham, himself a practising lawyer, said yesterday: "I am awaiting his response with considerable interest. I think the principles involved raise constitutional questions."

In line with normal Whitehall practice, draft versions of the Scott report have been sent to ministers who are named and criticised, and some - particularly Mr Waldegrave - have taken strong exception to references to their conduct.

Ministers normally use their own departmental lawyers, but the Government's own law officers are directly involved in the Scott Inquiry.

A Cabinet spokeswoman yesterday defended the unusual move to take private legal advice, saying that it related to their conduct as ministers rather than as individuals. "If they weren't in government, they wouldn't need the advice," she said. "It is a matter for departments to decide."

However, Labour back-benchers take a less charitable view. "Why should the taxpayer pick up the bill for legal advice for ministers who have goofed?" asked one.

When Norman Lamont, then Chancellor, charged the taxpayer for legal advice to evict a sex therapist who had been renting the basement of his London home two years ago, there was an outcry.

Furore hits Major, page 6