Scott on defensive over inquiry delay

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Sir Richard Scott last night defended his arms to Iraq inquiry against criticism of slowness and delay - as speculation grew that his long-awaited report will not now appear until November.

Sir Richard told the Chancery Bar Association that his inquiry must be seen to be fair. There was, he said, an "inevitable tension" between the need for fairness and the need to be efficient.

In a thinly-veiled attack on his critics, who argue his inquiry should have adopted the same procedures as the courts - with witnesses being represented by lawyers armed with powers of cross-examination - Sir Richard said that would only have delayed its findings even further. "The golden rule . . . is that there should be procedural flexibility."

The scope for lawyers in his inquiry, where even the simplest issue affected three government departments, intelligence agencies and units within those organisations, would have been enormous.

Sir Richard did not comment on the likely date for finishing his report but two former Tory ministers, both of whom were key witnesses, have said they do not expect it before November.

Sources close to the inquiry have confirmed that the crucial section of the draft, dealing with the use of public interest immunity certificates preventing the defence in the Matrix Churchill case being able to draw upon Government documents, has still to be sent out.

Because Sir Richard wants to be fair, witnesses are being allowed to comment on his draft. This has resulted in a blitz of new written evidence as Whitehall engages in an enormous damage limitation exercise. Based on the amount of new evidence sent in so far, those close to the inquiry are bracing themselves for an onslaught when the most potentially devastating PII material is circulated.

That will make the deadline of the report being completed in time for publication before the July parliamentary recess well nigh impossible. Sir Richard must then look to November as the next date for publication.