Jury still out on Hutton's verdict

THE court of public opinion seems unconvinced. As Tony Blair and his ministers try to bask in Lord Hutton's verdict that they are in the clear over the circumstances leading up to the suicide of Dr David Kelly, the voters are less forgiving,An NOP poll for yesterday's London Evening Standard found that 49% of those questioned branded the inquiry a "whitewash.

THE court of public opinion seems unconvinced. As Tony Blair and his ministers try to bask in Lord Hutton's verdict that they are in the clear over the circumstances leading up to the suicide of Dr David Kelly, the voters are less forgiving,

An NOP poll for yesterday's London Evening Standard found that 49% of those questioned branded the inquiry a "whitewash." More than half said the law lord was wrong to lay all the blame at the door of Broadcasting House and 27% still want the Prime Minister to quit over the affair.

The row seems to have damaged Tony Blair's electoral chances, with 33% of those asked saying they are less likely to vote Labour.

Former BBC Radio 4 Today programme editor Rod Liddle – who hired Andrew Gilligan but left the BBC before his controversial report was broadcast – claimed that "pretty much most of the country" thought the Hutton report was a whitewash. "There is no doubt about it, the people of this country still believe we were misled about the nature of the threat from Iraq to the west."


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Unfortunately for Mr Liddle and millions of others who believed military action was wrong, Lord Hutton was not asked to investigate the reasons for war. The Prime Minister, setting up the inquiry immediately Dr Kelly's body was found, issued a narrow remit to the law lord, asking him to investigate the Today programme report alleging the sexing up of the Government's document on weapons of mass destruction, the row between Downing Street and the BBC, and the subsequent naming of Dr Kelly as Gilligan's main source for his offending broadcast.

Because the Government needed a quick tourniquet for its wounded pride over the BBC's allegations, the inquiry was not judicial. The witnesses were not on oath. But 70% of those questioned for the Evening Standard poll want a full, independent inquiry into the reason Britain went to war with Iraq.

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Yesterday, the Government rejected such a demand. In the House of Lord, Foreign Office minister Baroness Symonds of Vernham Dean said there had been three – Hutton, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and the Intelligence and Security Committee.

She was replying to Tory former Chancellor Lord Lamont of Lerwick who said that as 20,000 people may have died in the war, with a similar number maimed or injured, "it is reasonable for people to want an answer to the question that Lord Hutton quite understandably declined to enter into."

Lord Hutton's report made unwelcome reading in the office of the leader of the opposition. Michael Howard, convinced blame would be attached to the Government, had pumped up the volume in advance of the publication.

He's refused Mr Blair's demand for an apology – and as the Tory front bench backed the war 100%, he's been left looking very exposed with little or no ammunition to fire at the Prime Minister in the upcoming Parliamentary debate on the report.

Only Charles Kennedy can assume the moral high ground – he opposed military action and can without shame back the calls for a full inquiry.

GERMANY has scuppered a massive pay rise for most members of the European Parliament, that would have seen euro-MPs from new member states in eastern Europe earn more than their prime ministers.

At a meeting of EU foreign ministers this week, Germany – backed by Austria, France and Sweden – criticised the package for being too generous.

With Germany facing massive budget cuts, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said it was the wrong time to implement any change.

However, the downside of Berlin's opposition is that the obscene current expenses system for MEPs remains unaltered. Tax free ravel perks will continue – travelling by the cheapest form of transport available and legitimately claiming the most expensive because receipts are not needed.

Explaining the practice, Michiel van Hulten – a Dutch socialist MEP – "Let's say you fly from Ireland to Brussels and you take Ryanair. You pay very little, but you get refunded the full economy class fare, which can be often as high as a business class ticket.

"And MEPs pocket the difference. This has to change because there is clearly no justification for it."

Inequalities of pay for the 626 MEPs and 162 observers from the future 10 member states arise because wages are pegged to the rate of national MPs. Italians are the best paid at around £84,00 a year compared while the Spaniards pick up around £21,000. British MEPs are paid £56,000 and under the new proposals, all MEPs would receive £72,000 a year.

THE East of England is currently represented by eight Euro MPs – four Conservative, two Labour, and one each from the Liberal Democrats and the UK Independence Party. They were elected for five years under the closed list system of proportional representation, where voters chose a party slate rather than a candidate to represent them.

But how do these people actually spend their time? What do they do on your behalf? As they emerge from the European shadows to seek you vote in June, four MEPs will be writing in this newspaper in the next couple of weeks about their work in Strasbourg and Brussels.

We will then be seeking your views on the worth of the European Parliament and whether you will be voting. Interest in the elections in 1999 was so low that only 24% of voters in the East of England bothered to go to the polls.

QUOTES OF THE WEEK

"The allegation that I, or anyone else, lied to this House or deliberately misled the country by falsifying evidence on weapons of mass destruction is itself the real lie" – Tony Blair, after being exonerated by the Hutton Inquiry.

"You get the impression that if war was declared he would only be told about it afterwards" – William Hague, the former Conservative leader, speaking of Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, before Lord Hutton reported

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