Legal expenses for ministers, ex-ministers and civil servants who gave evidence to the Scott inquiry into arms to Iraq totalled pounds 568,000, the Prime Minister told MPs last night.
The size of the bill paid by the taxpayer is likely to renew the controversy over the role of ministers in the inquiry. Leaks of the draft report show William Waldegrave and the Attorney General, Sir Nicholas Lyell, are likely to be severely criticised.
John Major's Commons answer failed to make clear how much of the bill for legal costs was attributed to legal advice for individual ministers. He said it could only be provided "at disproportionate cost".
Mr Major added: "It would not be right to identify the nature of the advice given to particular individuals. This is a matter of confidence between them and their legal advisers."
Sir Nicholas and Mr Waldegrave were among the key witnesses who included five members of the Cabinet and Baroness Thatcher, the former Prime Minister. Mr Major said legal advice was made available to ministers, ex-ministers and civil servants who gave evidence, providing it was sanctioned as reasonable by their departmental legal adviser or the Treasury Solicitor's Department.
"The total cost to public funds of providing legal services to witness to date is approximately pounds 568,000. This figure includes the costs of legal services provided by the Treasury Solicitor's Department and by external lawyers," he said.
Mr Major appeared to rule out a Government source for the leak of the draft report, which angered Sir Richard Scott. There has been speculation that the source was a former civil servant in the Foreign Office who wrote some of the letters at the centre of the inquiry.
"Enquiries have been undertaken to establish whether there is any prima- facie evidence that there has been an unauthorised disclosure ... on the basis of these enquiries, there is no reason to suppose the leak came from within government," he said.
Mr Major said.