A year on, arms-to-Iraq report gathers dust

Generals call for world curb on trade that puts British troops' lives at risk
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The Independent Online
An international pressure group warned yesterday that in the 12 months since the publication of Scott Report the Government had failed to "institute any changes which would prevent another arms-to-Iraq affair".

And three senior armed forces officers, General Sir Hugh Beach, Field Marshal Lord Carver and Admiral Sir James Eberle, called for stronger international controls on arms sales, which they said could endanger the lives of British troops.

The group, Saferworld, representing 130 cross-party MPs, trades union leaders, generals and bishops, claimed many of the key conclusions of Sir Richard Scott's three-year inquiry, such as the need for open government, the parliamentary scrutiny of arms exports and the need for clarity in public standards to oversee export decisions, had "gone unaddressed".

In a letter in today's Independent General Beach, Lord Carver, a former Chief of the Defence Staff, and Admiral Eberle, a former naval Commander- in-Chief, argue there are now "compelling military reasons for tightly regulated arms sales to regions of tension and instability". They say a "boomerang effect" had recently resulted in European troops facing weapons supplied by their own governments in Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia.

Whitehall's walls of secrecy were supposed to begin breaking down a year ago with the publication of the Scott Report. However, with increasing calls for a more open system of government, the barriers appear as impenetrable as ever.

On the first anniversary of the Scott Report, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman Robin Cook, will say today that there is now "an urgent need" for a Freedom of Information Act to end secrecy in government. Mr Cook, speaking in the Hague, will claim that Sir Richard's legal examination had provided "an alarming glimpse" of the arrogance of government ministers who he says have "been in power too long to tell the difference between the national interest and the party [Tory] interest".

The Commons statement 12 months ago by Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, said there was "no conspiracy and no cover-up" and that charges against ministers were "reckless and malicious". This has since been rigidly adhered to by the Government. The headline cast of the Scott Report drama are essentially still centre-stage. If government secrecy had been in the dock, it walked free - undeterred, and seemingly unfettered by Scott's recommendations for the future.

When Sir Richard - Vice Chancellor of the High Court Chancery Division - was asked yesterday whether his report had initiated change, he replied that he "hadn't actually read the report for some time now", and said he had "pointed to areas that needed to be looked at".

These included ministerial accountability, public control of Britain's export system, and public interest immunity certificates (PIIs), all central features that were under the microscope during examination of 200 witnesses, 430 hours of evidence and, eventually, 200,000 pages of documentation.

So had his report changed the political arena that seemingly allowed ministers to modify guidelines on arms exports to Iraq without any formal announcement to Parliament and insist it was was merely a "reinterpretation"?

Had the impact of the report changed the arena which brought allegations that ministers were prepared to see the directors of the Matrix-Churchill, tool firm face imprisonment rather than allow the "reinterpretation" to be made public? Sir Richard, guardedly, said "It may be to close to judge that." Diplomatically he used the words "excellent" and "encouraging" to describe the Government's response, continually emphasising his was "not a political role".

Saferworld has been less far less guarded. Its representatives urged the European Union's current Inter-Governmental Conference to introduce an EU Code of Conduct on arms.

Although the report criticised outdated export controls as "an unfettered power to impose whatever export control it thinks fit", Britain's overall exports structure remains intact.

Since the report was published, the Ministry of Defence has reviewed its disclosure of information. However information on arms is still not disclosed automatically. Many believe the UK should adopt a system similar to the US, where exports over a certain value are subject to review.

The Scott Report also criticised the "absence of any indication of purpose for which export controls can legitimately be used". Sir Richard said this "created a dangerous confusion between the law on export and the government policy". Although both the DTI and the MoD have their own internal guidelines, there is still no legal obligation to ensure guidelines are followed. A European code, now official Labour and Liberal Democrat policy, would end such grey areas.

In another letter echoing the call for a European code, the bishops of Coventry, Liverpool and Oxford said the Dunblane tragedy had forced politicians to confront the link between gun availability and firearms death. But the bishops say: "The acceptance of this link sits uneasily alongside a willingness to export vastly more destructive weapons to some of the poorest countries in the world."

Whatever happened to the key protagonists?

ALAN CLARK started the process when he told a court he had been "economical with the actualite". As Minister of Trade, then Defence, he encouraged exporters to stress civilian uses of products in export applications. He was criticised in the report for misleading Parliament. He is the Tory candidate for Kensington and Chelsea.

DAVID-GORE BOOTH, Assistant Under-Secretary of the Middle East Department of the Foreign Office should, according to Sir Richard, have been concerned that "misleading" submissions had been prepared by junior Foreign Office officials. Mr Gore-Booth is now British High Commissioner in India. He was knighted this year.

SIR ROBIN BUTLER, Cabinet Secretary, invented the idea that ministers are accountable but not responsible for the actions of civil servants. Said in evidence that ministers had a right to withhold information from Parliament, and orchestrated the Government's "misleading" response to the report. Still heads the Civil Service.

SIR NICHOLAS LYELL, Attorney-General, was perhaps the most heavily criticised figure in the report, for advising ministers to sign Public Interest Immunity Certificates and for failing to act on Mr Heseltine's belief that justice might not be done. Sir Richard said: "I do not accept that he was not personally at fault." Has retained his post.

WILLIAM WALDEGRAVE, then a Foreign Office minister, was attacked for "untrue statements". "Uncomfortable" at the prospect of British tools aiding Iraq's atom programme, he wrote on a memo "screwdrivers can also be required to make H-bombs". Retained post as Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

STEPHEN WALL, former private secretary to John Major, was censured for failing to give full picture of policy changes on arms exports: "The failure to consult was a regrettable omission on Mr Wall's part." After being ambassador in Portugal, became UK Permanent Representative in Brussels. Has since been knighted.

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