Foreign Office excellence threatened by criticism

The Scott Report
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The Independent Online
Sir Richard Scott levelled severe criticism at senior officials in the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Treasury over a range of issues, including inadequate briefings of ministers and the preparation of evidence for the Matrix Churchill trial.

In a piece of analysis that will make Whitehall squirm, Sir Richard said that civil servants failed to keep the Prime Minister, then Margaret Thatcher, informed on the line agreed by junior ministers on arms sales to Iraq and Iran.

Sir Richard said he found explanations of this by Lord Howe and William Waldegrave "unconvincing". He believed that the information had never got beyond the desk of Sir Charles Powell, the senior Foreign Office diplomat serving as adviser to Mrs Thatcher. Sir Richard said Sir Charles "acted as an effective filter, placing before her only the material that he believed she would need or want to see."

The Middle East Department of the Foreign Office was singled out by Sir Richard for censure in a sequence of references so damaging that it is hard to see how its reputation for assured excellence can recover.

Its former head, Rob Young, was held responsible by Sir Richard for the preparation of parliamentary answers whose draft was "blatantly" misleading. Sir Richard said the Assistant Under-Secretary at the time, David Gore- Booth, failed to face up to the possibility that deficiencies in the department might have contributed to "the lamentable fact that a misleading submission had been placed before Mr Waldegrave."

Mr Young is now in the senior position of Chief Clerk at the Foreign Office and Mr Gore-Booth is ending a term as ambassador to Saudi Arabia before moving to India as High Commissioner.

In a sharp riposte to Mr Gore-Booth's combative performance before the inquiry, Sir Richard wrote that the diplomat should have have been concerned that "misleading" submissions had been prepared by junior Foreign Office officials. "If Mr Gore-Booth was concerned about this, his written and oral evidence to the Inquiry managed to conceal it.

"I found it a matter of regret that the impatience with the Inquiry evinced by Mr Gore-Booth throughout his oral evidence seemed to prevent him from facing up to the possibility that deficiencies in Middle East Department procedures or errors by MED personnel might have contributed to the lamentable fact that a misleading submission had been placed before Mr Waldegrave."

Another politically well-connected senior diplomat, Stephen Wall, was criticised by Sir Richard for his "regrettable omission" in failing to consult on an important letter he placed before John Major for signature while serving as private secretary to the Prime Minister.

At the Ministry of Defence, Sir Richard has left in tatters the management career of Ian McDonald, the official best known for his opaque pronouncements as spokesman during the Falklands War. The report said Mr McDonald, who was head of the Defences Export Services Secretariat, neglected to give a proper briefing to the then Secretary of State, Sir George Younger, on the changed guidelines for arms exports. In dealing with a key submission on Matrix Churchill to Lord Trefgarne, then Minister of State, Sir Richard said Mr McDonald showed "inattention ... consistent with his general approach to line management". He also showed himself unable to make input into key policy decisions.

The handling of the Matrix Churchill prosecution provided Sir Richard with ammunition for a serious rebuke to Eric Beston, the senior DTI official then responsible for export controls. Sir Richard said his witness statement for the trial "contained passages which, either expressly or by implication, did not accord with and served to conceal the true position".

The official is sharply censured for his attitude to the statement, described as "the sort of statement which HM Customs would like him to make.

"Mr Beston's approach to the question of what he should say, or refrain from saying, might have been appropriate to some audiences and some venues but was not in my opinion, appropriate to the giving of evidence for the purposes of a criminal prosecution," wrote Sir Richard. Referring to a statement by Tony Steadman, the DTI official under Mr Beston, Sir Richard said "as the signatory ... [he] cannot escape responsibility for the misleading character of part of its contents. This was by no means the first witness statement he had signed." In the same case, Sir Richard castigates the Assistant Treasury Solicitor, Andrew Leithead, for adopting a legally "dangerous" approach to witness statements with whose contents he was unfamiliar. Mr Leithead gave evidence at the inquiry about the propriety of his altering or drafting witness statements to be signed by officials, saying his role was "suggesting ... what the correct position would be."

Sir Richard wrote of this approach: "The practice under which witness statements of fact are drafted or amended by officials without having before them a proof of evidence ... and with no personal knowledge of the facts is a practice to be deprecated."

Turning to the general quality of advice provided by the Treasury Solicitors over the controversial Public Interest Immunity certificates, Sir Richard was scathing. He said ministers had not been aware that in criminal trials the practice being recommended was "unusual and had not been underwritten by any judicial dicta". He noted that ministers had also not been made aware that the case law on which the PII claim was being made did not refer to criminal cases. These were, he inferred, serious omissions. Sir Richard concluded: "In my opinion, the view of the law on which the making of the PII class claims in the Matrix Churchill case was based was unsound."

Britain's most senior civil servant, the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robin Butler, emerged relatively unscathed from the report although a series of feline references to his equivocal performance at the inquiry leaves no doubt that Sir Richard is extending to him the benefit of the doubt.

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