Labour keeps up pressure over Scott report

Inside Parliament
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Opposition parties yesterday allowed no let-up in their harrying of the Government over Sir Richard Scott's arms-to-Iraq report in advance of next Monday's crucial debate. Tony Blair, the Labour leader, accused the Prime Minister of "walking away" from the truth, while John Major again insisted no ministers had "intentionally misled Parliament".

Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, had handed the Labour leader extra ammunition by having to issue an apology for a Treasury press release and admitting Scott found Parliament was misled.

"Does the Prime Minister now accept Scott found Parliament was misled?" Mr Blair demanded. This is hardly in dispute - only whether the misleading was deliberate - but Mr Major was reluctant to concede even that. He said Sir Richard had found in the Government's favour on the substantive issues of whether Saddam Hussein was illegally supplied with arms and whether there was a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice by improper use of Public Interest Immunity certificates in the Matrix Churchill trial.

"As far as whether Parliament was misled; none of my ministers intentionally misled Parliament," he asserted over Opposition protests. "They did not." If Mr Blair had read the Scott report he would know that William Waldegrave, the Chief Secretary, was "cleared of duplicitous intent, nor was he accused of deliberately misleading Parliament".

As the exchanges grew increasingly testy, he said the Labour leader kept changing his ground, trying to "impute deceit where there was none".

But Mr Blair said the Prime Minister was not prepared to answer the basic question. "How has he come to the position where he commissioned this report to get at the truth - three years, millions of pounds later, he then walks away from the findings he does not like.

"Just like Nolan [on MPs' extra earnings], just like Greenbury [on top executives' pay and perks]. It's a text-book definition of Majorism.

"Can the Prime Minister please tell us whether he accepts these key findings: one, that Parliament was misled; two, that they deliberately withheld information in breach of the rules of ministerial accountability.

"If he cannot answer, we will conclude that he and his government are unable to distinguish between what is true and what is false."

The Liberal Democrat Malcolm Bruce turned to Monday's debate and asked why, when it was the reputation of Cabinet members at stake and when he personally commissioned the report, Mr Major was denying the House a vote on a substantive motion and was not taking part in the debate himself.

Mr Major said if the main charges against the Government had been proved by Scott, he would have defended them. "But they weren't. Sir Richard agreed there was no conspiracy, no cover-up."

Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, will open the debate. A vote is likely, though it will only be on a technical motion to adjourn the House. But should Mr Major lose, it will have serious repercussions, particularly for Mr Waldegrave.