Cook blames culture of secrecy

The Scott Report
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The Independent Online
Robin Cook, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, said the Scott report revealed the price Britain paid for a culture of secrecy in government and he challenged the right of William Waldegrave and Sir Nicholas Lyell to remain in ministerial office.

Over five "damning volumes" the report demonstrated how the Government misjudged Saddam Hussein, misled MPs and misdirected the prosecution of Matrix Churchill, Mr Cook told the Commons after spending his permitted three hours studying the 2,000 pages. Was no one going to take responsibility for getting it wrong, he demanded.

Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, responded with a fierce attack on Mr Cook's conduct during the three years of the inquiry, accusing him of producing a "sour stream of invective, innuendo and invention".

It had been one of the "most odious campaigns" in memory, Mr Lang said. "Mr Cook has repeatedly and, as we now know, without a shred of justification charged ministers with secretly plotting to arm a foreign dictator and conspiring to pervert the course of justice."

In a reversal of resignation demands pouring from the Labour benches, Mr Lang said it was the Labour spokesman who should go, for his failure to apologise to ministers. "He will never be trusted in the House again."

Virtually the only questioning voice on the Tory benches was that of Richard Shepherd, MP for Aldridge Brownhills, who quoted Scott's criticism of ministers for a "deliberate" failure to inform MPs of the current state of government policy on the sale of non-lethal arms to Iraq. Their fear was "strong public opposition" to a loosening of restrictions.

"Does that not really go to the very heart of democratic and accountable government within a democracy?" asked Mr Shepherd. But Mr Lang said Sir Richard believed the ministers acted "in good faith".

Opening the heated exchanges, Mr Cook said the President of the Board of Trade's statement blamed the Opposition, blamed official advice, blamed the system, but accepted no blame for ministers.

"I have to say the public outside will not find that a credible response to such a serious report ... It fully vindicates our two central charges: that ministers changed the guidelines on the defence sales to Saddam Hussein; and that they repeatedly refused to admit that either to Parliament or to the courts.

"I did not recognise the report I read, in the statement the House has just heard."

Mr Cook said Mr Lang had accepted what witness after witness from the Government at the Scott inquiry tried to deny: that the guidelines on defence sales were changed and that the Government failed to inform Parliament of the change.

"Now Mr Lang has accepted that conclusion, will he accept Sir Richard's conclusion that this was deliberate and the result of three ministers agreeing to give it no publicity?"

He charged: "The reason they gave it no publicity was because they didn't want the public outrage that would greet it."

Mr Cook taunted Mr Lang for making no mention of the Iraqi "Supergun" affair, which he said was the subject of the longest chapter in the Scott report. It found there was "clear evidence" that the Government knew about the Supergun a full year before parts for it were seized by Customs, and that Parliament "could and should have been told".

He highlighted the report's dismissal of the "risible" defence by Tristan Garel-Jones, then a Foreign Office minister, that release of documents would cause unquantifiable damage to the public interest.

Did Mr Lang accept that Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General, was personally at fault in the failure of the Government law officers to instruct the prosecution to tell the trial judge that Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, had signed his certificate with reservations?

Mr Cook went on: "Does the Government accept these conclusions? It takes only one word for Mr Lang to say it - yes or no ... He has had plenty of time to work it out. He has had eight days to study a report that MPs have had eight minutes to read.

"Mr Lang's difficulty is answering the question is that his colleagues could not survive him accepting these conclusions." Was the Government really going to accept a report which showed Mr Waldegrave signed 27 misleading letters to MPs and that Sir Nicholas wrongly advised ministers?

"This report reveals the price Britain pays for a culture of secrecy in government. It documents how ministers changed the guidelines but were more worried that MPs and the public might find out, than about what Saddam Hussein might do with those weapons.

"This report weighs the standard of integrity in our government and the quality of justice in our courts, and finds them wanting in the balance."

Menzies Campbell, for the Liberal Democrats, said it was "blindingly clear" from the report that the Government stood condemned of "deliberately failing to inform MPs, of Parliament and Parliament itself. Of a fundamental change in policy and a consistent failure to discharge its constitutional responsibilities."

How could the House and the public have confidence in an Attorney General who had given "wrong legal advice" on 'gagging' orders, Mr Campbell asked. "How can anyone have confidence in the present Chief Secretary to the Treasury when in these paragraphs his views are rejected by Sir Richard Scott as 'misleading', 'not corresponding with reality' and 'sophistry'?"

In parallel proceedings in the House of Lords, Lord Richard, the Labour peers' leader, said the Government had put a gloss on Sir Richard's conclusions that was "totally misleading and a travesty of what the report says".

Lord Richard warned that the Government had wanted to create an "impression" of the report. It was "terribly important" that they should read it for themselves and not rely on the statement. "This is a murky and disreputable affair in which Parliament was misled and defendants were put at risk."

Lord Jenkins, the Liberal Democrat leader in the Lords, said the report had exposed the Government to be operating a culture of excessive secrecy. There was a "miasma of half truths".

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