Leading Article: Major must respond to Scott

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John Major is today likely to commit so grave a disservice to Parliament and the people that his administration deserves to fall as a result. The Scott report sets out in great detail how his ministers repeatedly and systematically misled Parliament over the Government's decision to change its policy on arms exports to Iraq, as our itemisation of Scott's 100 main criticisms (on page 3) makes glacially clear. The criticisms also show how the Government's most senior law officer gave ill-judged advice to his colleagues which almost saw innocent men go to jail in the Matrix Churchill case.

As must now be obvious to our readers, these amount to the most sustained expose we have had of the culture of secrecy and arrogance which dominates the upper echelons of Westminster and Whitehall. They threaten to stain permanently not just the reputation of this administration but the whole system of government in this country.

Yet the response to Sir Richard Scott's criticisms has been utterly brazen. Ministers have claimed, in the face of growing public disbelief and Sir Richard's annoyance, that the report cleared them. They have engaged in the most cynical of propaganda exercises to present the report as exonerating the Government. They have refused to listen to reasoned criticisms, or admit that there is a problem with the way they conducted their affairs. When Parliament has pressed for answers, Tory ministers have adopted the most arrogant of postures that a politician can adopt in a democracy, declaring: "I will not budge; I will not resign; I will cling on to office for as long as I like." No contrition. No acceptance of blame. No acknowledgement even of lessons to be learnt. It has left the public wondering what scale of incompetence and misconduct would be needed for a minister to resign for failing in his duty.

Mr Major has led this dreadful display of contempt for the electorate. To understand how far short he has fallen from the kind of response needed, it is worth contrasting his conduct of the Irish peace process with his handling of the Scott report. On Ireland he managed to stand above party politics, seeking to represent instead the national interest in pursuing peace. By taking the high ground he was rewarded with admiration and cross- party support in the House of Commons. On Scott he has taken the low ground with alacrity. Mr Major has put his own narrow, short-term interest in preserving his government and his ministers above the wider, long-term interests of the country as a whole in having a system of government that is more open and more professional. Mr Major is prepared to put the survival of his government above its discrediting - and above the damage that will be done to public trust in the political process.

By responding in such an unyielding way, Mr Major has only compounded the criticisms in the report itself. In the process he has made the vote today a judgement not just upon the report but on his own handling of the affair. Yet even now it is not too late for him to retrieve at least some of the ground he has lost in public opinion in the 10 days since the report's publication.

Two steps are central to Mr Major having any chance of redeeming his public standing on this issue. The first is that he must clear the way for the resignations of William Waldegrave, the Foreign Office minister, and Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney-General. Mr Waldegrave has been found to have systematically misled Parliament and MPs over the change of policy on Iraq. His defence that he acted in good faith and without duplicitous intentions is not good enough. Scott says he had all the facts he needed to know he was misleading people. To give Mr Waldegrave the full benefit of the doubt, perhaps his failure was honest but it was failure, nevertheless. The case against Sir Nicholas is one of incompetence and misjudgement. He made serious mistakes in advising ministers that they had to sign unprecedentedly sweeping orders denying documents to the defence in the Matrix Churchill trial. Sir Nicholas failed to alert the court to the misgivings Michael Heseltine had in signing the orders and so seemed to be happy with the thought that innocent men might go to jail to save the Government from political embarrassment. The Prime Minister should procure the resignations of both men.

The second necessary step is for Mr Major to announce plans for a series of measures to make government more open and accountable. And here we come to one of the main villains of the piece - a man who is yet to be unmasked, let alone held to account. He is Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary. The spider at the heart of Whitehall's web of unaccountable power, Sir Robin is the most energetic and unapologetic defender of the corrupting concentration of power that the Scott inquiry has uncovered.

It was Sir Robin who stated, during his evidence to the inquiry, that ministers had a right to withhold information from Parliament. It was Sir Robin who orchestrated the Government's response to the report which was such a calculated insult to the public. It was Sir Robin who invented the idea that ministers are accountable but not responsible for the actions of civil servants, a device which is a licence for unfettered Whitehall power. For it means that while ministers might answer to Parliament for policies, they are not responsible for how they are enacted and so should not take any blame. The civil servants who enact the policies are accountable to no one other than the ministers. There is a deep dark hole at the heart of our system of government and Sir Robin lives in it - accountable, it seems, only to himself.

It is to break up the culture of secrecy embodied by Sir Robin that reforms are needed. The agenda that Mr Major should pursue is already clear. A statutory code of coduct for civil servants should enshrine their duty to blow the whistle on ministers who they believe are misleading Parliament. An ombudsman should be created to allow civil servants to raise their concerns. Ministers should be put under a duty to tell Parliament of all important shifts in policy, including those covering arms sales. The use of public interest immunity certificates should be severely restricted and the decision about whether they should be used should be taken out of the hands of politicians.

The Attorney-General should become a non-political appointment and the Government's chief legal adviser should not sit in the Cabinet. A Freedom of Information Act should make it clear that the Government has to justify the case for keeping documents secret rather than simply assuming it can.

A set of measures such as this, combined with the resignations of the two discredited ministers, might possibly restore public faith in the institutions of British government. As for the Government, these reforms may salvage part of its reputation, if not save the administration from electoral defeat.

If, however, Mr Major does not respond to the mounting public disquiet over the Scott report's findings, he will deserve to fall from office - and to fall without much credit.