The Government was accused of being "on the defensive" last night after it announced that the opposition leaders would only be allowed to see the Hutton report into Dr David Kelly's death six hours before its publication.
Lord Hutton has ruled that parties to the inquiry, who include the Government, the BBC and the Kelly family, would receive copies 24 hours before its expected release at noon on 28 January.
The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats had demanded sight of the findings at the same time to enable their leaders to respond to a Commons statement on the report by Tony Blair the same day.
Downing Street yesterday rejected their request, announcing that Michael Howard and Charles Kennedy, each accompanied by one senior colleague, would be able to study the report from 6am on 28 January. They will be admitted to the Cabinet Office and forbidden to pass on the report's contents until it is released.
The Prime Minister's spokesman said the arrangement would give them twice as much time as the three hours' advance notice Labour was given of the Scott report into the arms-to-Iraq scandal.
Mr Blair's spokesman said: "It is the normal convention that parties to an inquiry get advance notice of the report, before other people do. It is also normal convention that the Government gets advance notice before other parties. In this case, we agree with Lord Hutton it is not appropriate and we should get the same advance notice as other people who are parties to the inquiry.
"But we believe it is right the parties to the inquiry have notice before anyone else."
Mr Kennedy sent a letter to Mr Blair last night denouncing the plan as "inadequate".
"It would be unreasonable for the opposition parties to have only a quarter of the time available to the Government to study Lord Hutton's findings," he said.
A senior Liberal Democrat aide said: "You have to ask why the Government is doing this. It makes them look shaky and on the defensive. They were the first to complain about the conditions in which the Scott report was issued. They have simply added three hours to what happened then."
A Tory spokesman said the party would also "have preferred more time and see no reason why we should be given less than the Government". But he added: "We will now be focusing our attention on holding the Government to account when the report is published."
Mr Blair's spokesman denied the timing of a vote on university tuition fees - he day before the Hutton report is published - had been rigged by the Government.
"We heard that the Hutton report would be on the 28th yesterday. Lord Hutton made his own decision. We didn't know that decision until yesterday," he said.
He refused to disclose whether Lord Hutton had been in contact with Downing Street over the report's timing.Reuse content