Filing 'weaknesses' blamed as export licence forms found

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More official documents relating to BMARC, the company which sent arms to Iran and once counted Jonathan Aitken MP among its directors, have turned up - after earlier government searches appeared to suggest they had all been found.

Phillip Oppenheim, a junior trade minister, admitted yesterday that there were a further 43 export licence applications than had been thought. Another five applications had been found but the documents were missing. In a Parliamentary answer to David Nicholson, Conservative MP for Taunton, Mr Oppenheim blamed "weaknesses" in the indexing systems for the new material not being found until now.

BMARC is the subject of two inquiries, one by Customs and Excise and the other by the Commons Trade and Industry Select Committee, into its trade with Iran. They were set up after the Independent revealed, and Michael Heseltine, the then President of the Board of Trade, admitted in the Commons last June, that it was supplying arms to Iran. The company avoided export controls by sending the weapons - 140 naval guns - via Singapore.

Officially, during the period of the Iran-Iraq war, Britain joined a United Nations embargo, banning the sale of weapons to either side. Government guidelines issued in 1984 stated: "We should not in future approve orders for any defence equipment which in our view would significantly enhance the capability of either side to prolong or exacerbate the conflict." That was changed in 1988 to: "We should not approve orders in future for any defence equipment which in our view would be of direct and significant assistance to either country in the conduct of offensive operations."

The guidelines were backed by legislation - the Export Control Act. Several directors, including Mr Aitken, have denied knowing Iran was the ultimate destination while others, led by Gerald James, the former chairman, have claimed all the directors knew. One of the difficulties facing the committee has been the trickle of official documentary material.

Early in its investigation, officials admitted they had been unable to secure papers seized from Mr James and other directors by Ministry of Defence police. Mr Oppenheim said that following the discovery of the "weaknesses" in the filing system towards the end of last year, "a wider search was then put in hand" which "led to the discovery of an additional batch of applications". This brought the total of BMARC licence applications now uncovered for the period 1985 to 1990, to 880.