Kelly inquiry 'mostly public' says law lord

Click to follow
Indy Politics

The law lord appointed to conduct an inquiry into the death of Government scientist Dr David Kelly made clear today that he will decide how wide-ranging his investigations should be.

Senior judge Lord Hutton said that the terms of reference given to him by the Government were to look into "the circumstances surrounding the death of David Kelly".

But he said it would be for him to decide "as I see fit within my terms of reference" what matters he should take evidence on.

Dr Kelly's body was found in woods near his Oxfordshire home on Friday, days after he gave evidence to a Commons committee about an unauthorised briefing he gave to a BBC journalist on the Government's Iraq dossiers. He had apparently committed suicide by slashing his wrist and taking powerful painkillers the previous day.

There were calls today for Lord Hutton to extend his inquiry beyond the immediate pressures which might have prompted the weapons expert to take his life and to look into the question of the Government's handling of intelligence information on Iraq.

Shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin said: "While there certainly does need to be an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Dr Kelly's death, there are very large numbers of questions which all centre on the issue of whether the public can trust what the Government tells it and which relate to the information given to Parliament and the public during the lead–up to war in Iraq.

"We have enormous respect for the judge who is going to hold this inquiry. But I take it that he will view his role as being one which has been set for him by the Government.

"We don't think the Government should be using this inquiry to limit the scope of inquiry into the Government's actions."

Mr Letwin said he regretted Mr Blair's decision not to recall Parliament.

Only a vote of Parliament could give Lord Hutton the powers set out in the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921 to summon witnesses, take testimony under oath and rule unco–operative witnesses in contempt, he said.

In a short statement read out at the Department for Constitutional Affairs in central London, Lord Hutton said he would sit mostly in public and report on his findings as soon as possible.

Describing the scientist's death as a tragedy which had "brought such great sorrow to his wife and children", he said the Government had promised its "fullest co–operation" and it expected "all other authorities and parties to do the same".

Lord Hutton said: "I make it clear that it will be for me to decide as I think right within my terms of reference the matters which will be the subject of my investigation.

"I intend to sit in public in the near future to state how I intend to conduct the inquiry and to consider the extent to which interested parties and bodies should be represented by counsel or solicitors.

"In deciding on the date when I will sit I will obviously wish to take into account the date of Dr Kelly's funeral and the timing of the inquest into his death.

"After that preliminary sitting I intend to conduct the inquiry with expedition and to report as soon as possible. It is also my intention to conduct the inquiry mostly in public."

Earlier Clare Short – who quit the Cabinet claiming she was misled by Tony Blair over the war in Iraq – said the row between the Government and the BBC was a "smokescreen".

While Dr Kelly's death was a tragedy, the former International Development Secretary said, the continuing battle with the BBC was a "complete distraction" from the bigger picture.

"This assault on the BBC is just a complete distraction from the main questions about how we got to war in Iraq."

The Commons Foreign Affairs Committee had allowed itself to be distracted "no doubt by pressures brought by Downing Street upon the Labour members", she said, adding that the episode was "bringing our political system into disrepute".

"Of course it's a complete tragedy that Dr Kelly was put under such pressure that he felt the need to take his life, and that question needs to be looked into but that is a separate question, that is a question of potentially the abuse of power, the role of the Downing Street machine and bringing a public servant to this position."

She had been responding to accusations from another former Cabinet minister, Peter Mandelson, that the BBC board of governors made a "crass error" in giving defence correspondent Andrew Gilligan its firm backing before the report of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

MPs on the committee later described the journalist as an "unsatisfactory witness".

Mr Mandelson said Mr Gilligan's claims were "directly repudiated" by Dr Kelly when he gave evidence to the committee last week.

"I think you have to draw the conclusion that Gavyn Davies, the chairman, and (director general) Greg Dyke in fact wanted to rally the governors on that Sunday evening for the sake of a wider battle that was being fought by the BBC with the Government," he told the Today programme.

"In the process the governors failed to do justice to themselves, or to the BBC."

Mr Gilligan last night defended his report, insisting: "I did not misquote or misrepresent Dr David Kelly."

Downing Street said today it would be a matter for Lord Hutton whether Mr Blair, other ministers and director of communications Alastair Campbell should give evidence to his inquiry in public and whether they should be legally represented.

Mr Blair's official spokesman said: "It's up to Lord Hutton to decide who he wants to talk to, when he wants to talk to them and in what conditions he wants to talk to them."

He declined to say precisely how wide–ranging Downing Street thought the law lord's investigations should be or whether they should include policy issues about the handling of intelligence on Iraq.

"We have asked Lord Hutton to do a job. I think we should let Lord Hutton get on and do that job.

"I am not going to speculate about how he is going to do that job, but the terms of reference are there and the terms of reference, as he says, are urgently to conduct an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr David Kelly.

"I am sure he will want to consider all the relevant material to that but it is up to him how to conduct the inquiry."

Asked whether Lord Hutton was right to say that he would decide how the investigation was conducted, the spokesman said: "I have no argument with what he says in his statement."

He said it seemed unlikely that Lord Hutton would need to be granted the power to order witnesses to attend as most of the key players had already indicated their willingness to co–operate.

"The important point is that we have said that he will have whatever papers and people he needs. I believe the BBC have said something similar. Therefore, I don't think that situation will arise."