Mayhew to give evidence to Iraq supergun inquiry: Former Attorney General to answer allegations over export of defence-related equipment

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The Independent Online
The fierce determination of Customs and Excise to prosecute two businessmen for allegedly trying to export supergun barrel parts to Iraq was broken by Sir Patrick Mayhew, then Attorney General, at an angry meeting in the House of Commons.

Sir Patrick, now Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, returned to Westminster yesterday to tell MPs that he would give evidence tomorrow to an emergency session of the Scott inquiry into the export of defence-related equipment to Iraq after Monday's allegations by Sir Hal Miller, a former Tory MP, that he had tried to prevent crucial evidence getting to court.

Paddy Ashdown, Liberal Democrat leader, told Channel 4 News: 'The trail of gunpowder runs right to the heart of government itself - to the basic questions about its integrity.'

The decision that Customs should not prosecute was taken at a private meeting in the Commons in November 1990. Sir Patrick arbitrated between Julian Bevan, First Senior Treasury Counsel, who had advised Customs that about 4,000 pages of evidence offered no reasonable prospect of securing a conviction. Customs Commissioners wanted to make a public example of Walter Somers, the West Midlands steel forging company that had made the barrel parts, on grounds of public interest.

But after Sir Patrick told Customs he did not think there was sufficient evidence to prosecute, Customs dropped the charges against Peter Mitchell, managing director of Walter Somers, and Christopher Cowley, a metallurgist involved in the design of the tubes.

At the 1990 meeting, Sir Patrick was accompanied by Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Solicitor General who replaced Sir Patrick as the most senior Commons law officer, while with Mr Bevan was Alexander Russell, a Commissioner, and Michael Saunders, Solicitor to Customs and Excise. One of those present said yesterday that the two sides 'clashed' during a 'stormy' meeting because Customs was so 'anxious to prosecute'.

Sir Patrick yesterday repeated in a statement, first issued on Monday night: 'My advice was asked by Customs as to whether the case should continue because Customs' leading Counsel (Mr Bevan) had advised that on the evidence, there was not a realistic prospect of a conviction.'

He then added: 'Customs made it clear they did not challenge that opinion.' Two sources from the 1990 meeting told the Independent yesterday that while Customs might not have challenged Mr Bevan's judgement as to the weight of evidence, they had sought Sir Patrick's advice because of their determination to go ahead with the prosecution.

However, having read Mr Bevan's advice - based on two months' examination of the documentation - Sir Patrick reminded Customs that the statute-backed Code for Crown Prosecutors required that not only should a prosecution be in the public interest, but there should also be sufficient evidence to deliver 'a realistic prospect of conviction'.

Sir Patrick advised that a prosecution could not be justified on public interest grounds alone. As an independent prosecuting authority, Customs could have proceeded regardless of Sir Patrick's advice, but it withdrew the proceedings.

Yesterday, Mr Ashdown asked Tony Newton, Leader of the Commons, about another of Sir Hal's allegations - that witnesses to a Commons select committee investigation into the supergun affair, Project Babylon, had been coached by the intelligence services. Mr Newton provoked protest when he said that was a matter for the Scott inquiry.

Sir Patrick told the House that he would 'very gladly avail' himself of the opportunity to give evidence to Lord Justice Scott. Sir Patrick's friends said they had the utmost respect for Sir Hal, a man of honesty and integrity. But they believed he had become 'muddled' and 'upset' by the affair, and it was alleged that the transcript of his evidence to the inquiry was not quite as 'crystal clear' as the media has made out.

Alan Clark, a former defence minister, said on BBC radio yesterday: 'The (former) Attorney General is a very honourable man. I entirely accept what he says. I think it is very peculiar that someone can just give evidence like Sir Hal Miller and not be cross-examined on it'.

Responding to Sir Hal's accusation that Mr Clark had claimed to have by- passed the government committee vetting defence exports to Iraq, he said: 'That is so preposterous that it is laughable. The idea that junior ministers can by-pass government committees simply does not make any sense at all. You can't'.