Scott and Lady Olga: shame on them

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NICHOLAS SCOTT is a pleasant man who has served the Government long and conscientiously and who is widely liked at Westminster. And he should certainly have resigned yesterday as Minister for Disabled People. He blatantly misled the House of Commons but, more important than that, he was party to one of the shabbiest acts of parliamentary sabotage we have seen for years.

I urge people to get hold of the full Hansard record of the debate on the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill on 6 May covering the three- and-a-half hours during which it was killed by Conservative MPs who spoke on some of the 80 amendments produced at the last minute. It is impossible to read this unadorned narrative without feeling fury and disgust.

This was a Bill that was first published in December 1991 and was intended to make it illegal to prevent millions of disabled people from getting proper access to buildings and to work. There was a serious case against it, that it would be too bureaucratic and too costly for employers. But its backbench sponsors (from all parties) had been looking for compromises during four weeks of committee-stage debate. There has been very wide consultation, including 15 hours of debate on the floor of the Commons. The Government made benign-sounding noises but kept its counsel. In fact, the Government was determined to destroy it while lacking the courage to admit the fact. Sneakily, ministers decided to plant large numbers of amendments on tame Tory backbenchers during the final Commons debate, ensuring that the measure was talked out and so fell. It is a not uncommon technique. This time, though, leaks from inside government revealed what was happening. The plot was uncovered even as it was sprung, though those involved denied the obvious.

Mr Scott was asked by Labour's Alf Morris whether the 'huge number of amendments' put down by five Tory MPs had been drafted for them by the Government's Parliamentary Counsel. Even as MPs were voting at the close of the debate, a written answer arrived from the Leader of the Commons, Tony Newton, admitting that this was so. But what did Mr Scott say during the debate? 'To the best of my knowledge' neither he nor his department had been involved in the drafting of any amendments. This seemed incredible. MPs spotted the hesitation. They kept probing. Eventually the Liberal Democrat Liz Lynne asked whether Mr Scott would check with his officials (who were sitting near by in the chamber) whether anyone in his department had any knowledge of tabling the amendments on behalf of the Government. If Mr Scott had a clear conscience, here was his chance to confirm what he had said. Ms Lynne called for an answer. He replied: 'The Honourable Lady will not get one. In my view, she and other Honourable Members are embarking on a fruitless quest.'

Hardly. On Tuesday, Mr Scott told the House that his department 'with my authority' had been involved in preparing the wrecking amendments. They hadn't actually written them out, but they had helped to prepare them. He admitted that what he had said earlier had been misleading and apologised fulsomely. But had he intended to mislead the Commons? If he had authorised his department to do what it did, then presumably he knew about what was done. Or had he forgotten? 'To the best of my knowledge.' Whether it was because he panicked or was trying to protect the backbenchers also involved in this sabotage, I find it hard to think of a way to excuse him of the charge of deliberately deceiving the House of Commons. The Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, did excuse him. But having listened to her intently, I cannot see why. I repeat, Mr Scott is likeable and has worked hard in a thankless job. But he should go.

Not all those involved in destroying the Bill are equally culpable. Michael Stern had tried to get on the committee to amend it there. Another, Edward Leigh, made an unambiguous attack on it on free market, anti-bureaucracy lines. They were part of the sabotage team, attacked by their Conservative colleague Terry Dicks as 'narks', but they can make a case for their action.

But there is one other villain in the piece. The actions of Lady Olga Maitland, Conservative MP for Sutton and Cheam, were a disgrace. She denied she was trying to wreck the Bill when she clearly was. Seeming to be ignorant of much of the long committee-stage debate, she spoke of 'rushing headlong into legislation'. She claimed to have consulted organisations of disabled people about her amendments but, despite repeated requests, failed to name a single one.

And how, crucially, did she react to the charge that she was destroying the Bill with amendments fashioned for her by the Government? She dodged and dodged and, finally cornered, said: 'I have always and consistently said that the amendments are mine.' Later she added: 'The new clause and amendments are mine, and mine only.'

They weren't. Lady Olga is currently in Malawi. I tried to contact her there and ask for her reaction to the charge that she lied to the House of Commons while destroying a Bill intended to make life a little less tough for disabled people. She was unavailable. On the evidence of the past few days, it seems to me that her behaviour was despicable. I sincerely hope the voters of Sutton and Cheam eject her at the next election.

The final words go to Roger Berry, the Labour MP who introduced the Bill in the first place. They are, in the circumstances, moderate: 'As a new MP, I am beginning to understand why so many people hold this place and its members in something less than total respect.'

Dear Nicholas Scott, page 23