Whitehall fears Scott fall-out

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The Independent Online

Westminster Correspondent

Ministers yesterday refused to rule-out disciplinary action against civil servants criticised in the Scott report on arms to Iraq and provoked a bitter Commons row.

They ignored repeated calls from the Opposition to make a statement on yesterday's disclosure in the Independent that officials are not in the clear over Scott. Labour MPs were incensed by a Government source saying that while ministers had had their trial and been acquitted - a reference to last Monday's narrow Commons victory in the Scott vote - civil servants had not.

The row erupted as John Marshall, the Tory MP Hendon South, disclosed he had threatened to rebel over Scott in the vote after last Monday's debate but saved the Government from a humiliating defeat because the Prime Minister had told him the Ulster Unionists were "putting a pistol to his head".

In the Commons yesterday, Labour's public service spokesman, Derek Foster, challenged the junior trade and industry minister John Taylor, who was sitting opposite him in the chamber for a debate on the whistle-blowers' Bill, to explain the Government's position.

Mr Foster said Mr Taylor was from "one of the departments where civil servants are under threat of disciplinary action, and indeed dismissal".

He added: "With no minister taking responsibility, it would be shameful for the Government to try to off-load all responsibility for the Scott report on to civil servants." Mr Taylor said he would report Mr Foster's concerns to Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade.

Mr Foster later wrote to Roger Freeman, the public service minister, accusing the Government of "moral cowardice".

Downing Street said it was up to individual departments if they thought action was necessary. Those departments affected would only say that inquiries were still continuing.

Civil service unions are bracing themselves for a full-scale row with the Government if officials are punished and ministers walk away scot-free.