Sacking urged after minister's misleading reply

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NICHOLAS SCOTT'S future as Minister of State for Social Security was in growing doubt last night after he admitted in a rare personal statement that he had given a 'misleading' reply in the House of Commons last week.

The Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, is investigating claims that Mr Scott committed contempt of the Commons when he denied that his department had been involved in drafting amendments to block a Private Member's Bill on disabled people.

As senior Cabinet ministers rallied to his defence, John Smith, the Labour leader, last night called on John Major to sack Mr Scott after the minister's 'wholly unsatisfactory statement'. Mr Smith cited a letter written by Mr Major to Giles Radice, a senior Labour member of the Treasury and Civil Service committee last month, saying that it was 'of paramount importance that ministers give truthful information to the House'.

The row blew up over 80 amendments nominally promoted by backbenchers which resulted in the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill running out of time last Friday. The Bill, which the Government says would have cost pounds 17bn, would have outlawed discrimination against disabled people.

Mr Scott, the minister responsible for disabled people, told MPs on Friday 'to the best of my knowledge, nobody in my department has been involved in the drafting of any amendments in the area'.

Mr Scott said in his statement yesterday that his answer that the department had not drafted any of the amendments was true, but referred to a written reply from Tony Newton, Leader of the Commons, that amendments tabled on 3 May had been drafted by Parliamentary Counsel.

Mr Scott said that as he had explained in a letter to Dale Campbell-Savours, Labour MP for Workington, who raised the issue in the House on Friday, 'the department with my authority had been involved in the drafting'.

He added: 'I very much regret that by not giving a fuller explanation at the time the effect of my reply was misleading and I offer my unreserved apologies to the House.'

The sponsor of the Bill - which had all-party support - Roger Berry, Labour MP for Kingswood, concentrated on Lady Olga Maitland, Tory MP for Sutton and Cheam, who tabled some of the amendments and had subsequently insisted that they were hers alone. Mr Berry said: 'It is clear that, along with the minister, Lady Olga has misled the House.'

With Downing Street making it clear Mr Major stood by Mr Scott, Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, said on Channel 4 News yesterday that Mr Scott was one of the most popular members of the Commons, one of the best ministers of the disabled in memory, and as 'straight as a dye'. He had made a slip for which he had frankly apologised and certainly should not go.

Mr Major's letter, cited last night by Mr Smith and written after the row over the assertion by William Waldegrave that there were certain limited circumstances in which it was permissible to mislead Parliament, added: 'If they knowingly fail to do (give accurate and truthful information) then they should relinquish their positions except in the quite exceptional circumstances of which a devaluation or time of war or other danger to national security have been quoted as examples.'