Labour feels the sting of Scott's criticism

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Sir Richard Scott last night accused Labour and the Opposition of not doing enough to question the Government's continued use of the export laws which were applied in the Matrix Churchill case and other illegal- arms prosecutions.

In his first public speech since publication of his arms-to- Iraq report, he told Essex University's Law Society that "the story of the use of export control powers since the end of the war is a story not only of an abuse of executive power but also of a failure by Parliament". He added: "That last failure was underlined by the unopposed passage of the 1990 Act."

Avoiding mention of the political aftermath of his report and the non- resignation of William Waldegrave and Sir Nicholas Lyell, the ministers most heavily criticised, he concentrated his attack on the laws which propped up the Government's actions, calling his lecture: "Export control powers - 40 years of abuse of power."

His words will have done little to appease Labour, sensitive to suggestions that it effectively waved through the legislation that later formed the basis of the Matrix Churchill trial.

From 1945 to 1990 the Government continued to rely on laws brought in during wartime, in 1939, to control the export of goods helpful to the enemy. The laws were draconian and allowed officials to introduce whatever specific export controls they saw fit. They were never intended to apply in peacetime but, said Sir Richard, they were rigidly enforced for 45 years after the end of the war.

This policy "justifies strong criticism". Failure to put the code on a firm legal footing was "deliberate, not a matter of inadvertence or oversight. It was prompted by considerations of administrative convenience and political expediency".

Sir Richard said it could not sensibly have been argued "that the emergency which had occasioned the passing of the 1939 Act had not come to an end". This continued reliance on powers conferred in 1939 was "a continuing abuse of power."

In 1990 the collapse of the Berlin Wall and ending of the Cold War forced Whitehall officials to think again about the export laws and make them permanent. But instead of taking the opportunity to force a discussion on the whole issue, the Opposition did nothing.

The 1990 Act in effect repeated the 1939 emergency powers.

The Opposition, persuaded by the Government to wave the bill through, should have done more, said Sir Richard.