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Hutton inquiry into scientist's death to start this week

Lord Hutton's inquiry into the death of David Kelly will begin on Friday after the weapons expert's widow agreed it could get under way before his funeral.

The preliminary hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice will see Lord Hutton set out his approach to the inquiry and hear applications from inter-ested parties such as the Government and the BBC.

As the date of the hearing was announced, former ministers stepped up their attack on the Government after claims by Clare Short that an "abuse of power" drove Dr Kelly to suicide.

Downing Street sought to dismiss Ms Short's accusation, made in an interview with The Independent yesterday that Tony Blair was a "neo-conservative" whose "obsession with spin" played a role in Dr Kelly's death but Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary, accused No 10 of "conning" the public into going to war on Iraq.

Similarly, Glenda Jackson, a former transport minister and MP for Hampstead and High-gate, backed up the former international development secretary and told The Independent:"The reason this phoney war was created was to deflect attention away from the fact that they are finding it harder and harder to justify the war against Iraq.

"The people who are implicated in the death of Dr Kelly should resign, and I mean ministers. They are quick enough to take up office; they should admit responsibility."

Meanwhile, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee will meet formally today to discuss when it might release transcripts of evidence given in private by Andrew Gilligan, the BBC reporter at the centre of the affair. Some MPs on the committee believe they were pressured unfairly by the BBC into not publishing the transcripts in the wake of Dr Kelly's death and now want to release them as soon as possible. Mr Gilligan was denounced as an "unreliable" witness by the committee.

Lord Hutton decided to go ahead with a preliminary hearing after meeting Dr Kelly's widow, Janice, at her home in Southmoor, Oxfordshire, on Saturday.

After Friday's preliminary hearing, the inquiry will be adjourned until after Dr Kelly's funeral (expected to be some time next week) the Department for Constitutional Affairs said in a statement.

The department said that Lord Hutton had originally intended not to start Friday's sitting until after Dr Kelly's funeral. "However, as the funeral will not take place for some time, Mrs Kelly has told Lord Hutton that she would have no objection to a preliminary sitting of the inquiry before the funeral," the statement said.

The 59-year-old government scientist died after slitting his left wrist a few miles from his home, just over a week after being named as the source of a BBC report that Downing Street "sexed up" its dossier on Iraq's banned weapons.

Mr Cook intensified his criticism of the Government yesterday, saying its claim that Iraq sought uranium from Niger was believed "by nobody else in the world". He said: "I do think that the Government is digging itself deeper and deeper into a hole so long as it continues to persist in claiming that everything it said was right when plainly quite a lot of it was wrong. The central issue is that everyone can see that the information on which we were conned into going into war has turned out not to be correct.

"I don't see how Hutton can do the job he has been given without also looking into David Kelly's doubts about the September dossier and the threat posed by Saddam Hussein."

Doug Henderson, a former armed forces minister, said: "None of [the good the Government has done] is going to be understood if the Govern-ment is seen as being one which cannot tell the truth. The test of that is Iraq.

"To get the public's mind back to the real agenda there has to be clarity on Iraq, which means a judicial inquiry so the public has confidence in who is questioning what happened." Another former minister said: "Tony Blair has a few months to do two things: he has to establish a degree of peace with the party and he has to re-establish public trust in him."