Leaders slug it out over Scott report preview

Inside Parliament Stephen Goodwin
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Two former heads of the Civil Service yesterday voted against the Government in a move in the Lords to allow Opposition spokesmen more time to study the Scott "arms to Iraq" report before tomorrow's statement.

Government whips mounted a major exercise to bring in loyal supporters, but still only defeated an openness motion from Lord Richard, leader of the Labour peers, by 152 votes to 133 - a majority of 19.

As John Major slugged it out with Tony Blair in the Commons over an early sight of Sir Richard's report, former Cabinet minister Lord Jenkins said the Government seemed "determined to make everyone concerned with the long-delayed publication of the Scott report as awkward as possible".

Lord Richard and Lord Jenkins, leader of the Liberal Democrat peers, had wanted an embargoed copy of the report at least 24 hours in advance. Instead they have been offered three hours to read the report "in a controlled environment".

Among those voting with the Opposition peers were Lord Bancroft, head of the Civil Service 1978-81, his predecessor Lord Croham, 1974-77, and former law lords Roskill and Ackner. All four are cross-benchers.

Lord Richard said the time being offered was not enough even to turn the 1,800 pages. It was a bad precedent, and one that would be remembered, he warned. "There has to be some basic trust and understanding between the parties. Otherwise the system breaks down."

Lord Jenkins said what was without precedent was "the barrage of semi- official denigration" to which Sir Richard Scott had been subjected. "All this, together with the other signs of an attempt at a massive news management campaign, point to extreme nervousness on the part of the Government."

On the defensive at Question Time, Mr Major insisted he was following parliamentary precedent by not allowing MPs to see the report until Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, makes his statement.

But Tony Blair, calling in aid Sir Richard's request for his report to be published at 2.30pm to give backbenchers an hour to study it before commenting, said that to refuse "effectively disables MPs from holding the executive to account".

But the Prime Minister said it was precisely so MPs had time to absorb the report that the Government had arranged a debate on 26 February.

Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health, again found himself short of a convincing rebuttal to the charge of allowing a "two-tier" NHS to develop, as Labour initiated a debate on the low morale of health service staff.

A week ago, Mr Dorrell sought to explain away figures from Central Sheffield University Hospitals Trust showing wide disparities, asserting improvements secured by fundholding GPs applied to improve services for all patients.

Among the waiting times cited by Harriet Harman, Labour's health spokeswoman, was one of 52 weeks for patients of non-fundholding doctors wanting a hip replacement compared to less than three months for those of fundholders.

Mr Dorrell defended himself with a letter to The Independent from Kevan Taylor, head of contracting for the trust, saying there were "no marked differences in access times". But Ms Harman said her assistant had contacted the deputy chief executive of the trust, Chris Linacre, that morning and he had confirmed the differentials were "absolutely right".