Leading Article: Scott's competence is no defence

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The Independent Online
NICHOLAS SCOTT is a conscientious and competent minister. His hostility to right- wing Thatcherism, rather than any lack of ability, has denied him a cabinet job. In Stormont Castle, he distinguished himself for almost six years as cool and diplomatic, but tough enough to face down loyalist opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Since 1987, he has toiled as a middle-ranking minister in the equally unglamorous Department of Social Security. He is regarded as compassionate and can claim responsibility for introducing improved disability benefits.

Although Mr Scott has remained silent about harsh policies such as cuts in benefits to young people, there is general agreement that his heart is in the right place. Few would accuse him of being motivated by ambition. At 60, he cannot expect to continue his laborious ascent much farther. Add to that his affability, and it is difficult not to like this plump and genial survivor of Ted Heath's government.

Yet no eulogy should obscure the fact that Mr Scott deceived the House of Commons. He told MPs that his department had nothing to do with a conspiracy among Tory backbenchers to kill off a popular Bill that would prohibit discrimination against disabled people. Now he admits he knew all along that his officials were up to their necks in the secret scheming. They supplied the pro forma amendments that blocked passage of the Private Member's Bill last Friday.

He sanctioned a dark and dubious practice that Government ministers too often indulge in. If they oppose legislation, they should be plain about it, offer their arguments, whip MPs to vote against it and take the political consequences. This was an option open to Mr Scott. Coming from him, the Government's case would have been credible. Campaigners for the disabled could have taken comfort in his reassurances that he would subsequently sponsor some compromise legislation.

But instead of opting for honesty and transparency, Mr Scott chose an insidious method of killing the Bill and then disclaimed responsibility for those actions. His own daughter, Vicki, has highlighted the dishonourable nature of this hypocritical exercise.

The Prime Minister's guidelines, set out last month, detail what should happen to ministers who knowingly fail to give accurate and truthful information to Parliament. They 'should relinquish their posts' unless there are over- riding reasons of national interest. The Prime Minister has no alternative. Despite Mr Scott's many virtues, Mr Major should ask him to consider his position.