Whitehall braced for arms-to-Iraq report

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The Independent Online

Westminster Correspondent

Ministers will learn next week the politically explosive findings of the Scott arms-to-Iraq inquiry, it was announced yesterday.

Ian Lang, the President of the Board of Trade, said in a written Parliamentary answer that he expected Sir Richard Scott's long-awaited report to be published on 15 February. Ministers will receive copies a week in advance of what promises to be one of the most sensitive documents to have crossed their desks in years.

It will be then, after three years of speculation, that they will finally learn the consequences of the inquiry.

To safeguard the judge and his team against any legal action - and to prevent advance copies being released to the press - the Government is wheeling out an infrequently used but powerful 156-year old statute to cover the publication process.

Copies of the report are unlikely to be released to the press until the Government, in the shape of Mr Lang, who heads the commissioning department, begins its initial response in the Commons on 15 February. Sir Richard is expected to hold a press conference later that afternoon.

The report was originally earmarked for St Valentine's Day, 14 February, but publication has been put back a day to allow the Cabinet to discuss its implications. At least two Cabinet ministers, Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General, and William Waldegrave, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, are expected to be heavily criticised by Sir Richard.

Publication is to be made under the powers conferred by the Parliamentary Papers Act of 1840, a statute that tends to be reserved for the most sensitive and potentially litigious reports.

The Act, which confers a higher degree of privilege and legal protection for their authors, was used for the BCCI and Guildford bombing inquiries. While the Act affords greater protection, it effectively rules out the issue of any advance copies.

In the meantime, Sir Richard and his inquiry continue to be on the receiving end of ferocious attacks from Government supporters. Last week, Lord Howe, the former Foreign Secretary, and Sir Bernard Ingham, Mrs Thatcher's former press secretary, joined the fray. Yesterday, it was the turn of Sir Bernard again, with another blast in the Daily Express.

On a key plank of their objections, that by denying legal representation and cross-examination by lawyers, Sir Richard's procedures were unfair, his supporters claim they are misguided. The inquiry was set up by the Prime Minister, the procedures - notably the lack of legal representation for witnesses and no cross-examination of one witness by another - were only established after consultation between the inquiry and Downing Street.

Sir Richard's allies also claim that at no stage during the public sessions did anyone, apart from Lord Howe, really question its methods.

"The judge said, 'This is what I propose' and gave the Government the opportunity to comment," an inquiry insider said yesterday. "The Government had the opportunity to make representations." He pointed out that early in the inquiry, one of the witnesses, Paul Henderson, had asked for and received, the right to cross-examine in public witnesses who made allegations about him. That right was extended to all witnesses. In the end, though, nobody took it up.