Whitehall fears Scott 'witch hunt'

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The Independent Online
Civil servants criticised in the Scott report on arms to Iraq have been warned that they could face disciplinary action despite the refusal of Government ministers to accept any blame themselves.

In his report, Sir Richard Scott criticised dozens of civil servants across Whitehall for drafting misleading parliamentary answers and letters; not reading vital intelligence reports; not taking sufficient care over Public Interest Immunity Certificates, the so-called "gagging" orders; giving poor advice to ministers; and not paying enough attention to export licence applications.

Among those on the receiving end from Scott were Eric Beston, now the Department of Trade and Industry's director in the East Midlands but then the senior official responsible for export controls. Scott said his witness statement in the Matrix Churchill case was inaccurate and he knew that to be so.

Another official heavily slated in the report was Ian McDonald, best known for keeping the press informed about the progress of the Falklands war but head of the Ministry of Defence's export services section during the arms to Iraq affair. Mr McDonald is accused by Scott of showing "inattention ... consistent with his general approach to management".

At the Foreign Office, David Gore-Booth, soon to be High Commissioner in India, is criticised for failing to face up to the fact that deficiencies in his department might have contributed to "the lamentable fact that a misleading submission had been placed before [William Waldegrave, then Foreign Office minister]."

Whitehall unions - including the First Division Association, which represents top officials,and the new PTC union, which covers the middle-ranking grades, fear a witch-hunt against these and other, less senior officials criticised in the report.

Their fears have been raised by indications from senior government officials that some civil servants could be disciplined. Referring to Monday's victory in the Scott debate by just one vote, one Government source said that ministers had had their trial and had been acquitted - civil servants had not.

A Cabinet Office spokeswoman said yesterday that "in the light of the report, departments will be looking to see if there is any reason for disciplinary action".

This followed a parliamentary answer from John Major in which he did not rule out punishing officials. "If there are cases where disciplinary action is considered appropriate, this would be carried out under normal departmental disciplinary procedures," he said.

So concerned are the unions that they are urgently seeking reassurances from the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robin Butler, and Roger Freeman, the civil service minister, that officials will not be disciplined. The unions plan to discuss the threat and any possible retaliatory action at their joint council meeting next week.

Clive Brook, joint general secretary of the PTC union, said: "If civil servants are involved and our members are affected we are outraged."

Another Whitehall union general secretary said he understood that senior officials in the Department of Trade and Industry, Ministry of Defence and Customs and Excise were in the firing line. "This is double standards of the highest order if they pursue hapless civil servants and ministers get off scot-free." He claimed it was "cock-eyed logic" for the Government to discipline officials.

Unions fear those criticised may be punished in less overt ways, being overlooked for promotion, marked down for performance pay and transferred to dead-end postings.