MPs to question Aitken over BMARC arms allegations

CHRIS BLACKHURST

Westminster Correspondent

Jonathan Aitken, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, will be grilled by a powerful Commons select committee on his directorship of BMARC, the arms company that made allegedly illegal arms shipments to Iran via Singapore.

Mr Aitken's unprecedented appearance - believed to be the first by a serving Cabinet minister to answer questions on his former private business interests - will be made in the autumn.

Richard Caborn MP, chairman of the Trade and Industry Select Committee, said yesterday that other directors of BMARC, which collapsed in 1990, will be interviewed. These will include Gerald James, the former chairman, who alleged directors knew weapons were going to Iran; Stephan Kock, a banker with strong connections to the intelligence services; and Major- General Donald Isles, ex-military attache to the British embassy in Washington.

Mr Caborn said his committee will begin its inquiry immediately. MPs met yesterday to draw up a list of documents they will require from the Department of Trade and Industry. Once they have examined the written evidence they will begin calling witnesses.

After a successful meeting with Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, who promised them his full co-operation - "he went beyond the normal remit", said Mr Caborn - the MPs drew up the terms of reference for the BMARC investigation. These are: "To examine the role of the DTI in granting licences to BMARC for the export of naval guns to Singapore and whether past failings in the export licensing system have now been corrected."

Having been invited by Mr Heseltine to launch an inquiry during his dramatic BMARC statement to the Commons two weeks ago, Mr Caborn said the committee was "not going to go on a fishing expedition". He felt confident it would be given all the information it needed, including summaries of key intelligence reports on BMARC. If needs be, the committee will request evidence from Singapore. "It depends on the intelligence reports," Mr Caborn said.

The investigation will not eat into its other work. When MPs return in the autumn the committee will begin sitting twice a week, once on BMARC and once on another inquiry, likely to be the Government's sell-off of the nuclear industry.

Mr Caborn said he thought the BMARC report would be ready early next year. "We will get the written evidence in during the summer recess and set-off in earnest when MPs return. We will get all the oral evidence by Christmas or just after."

It also emerged yesterday that much of the evidence on BMARC resides with the DTI and not with the company's receivers. In a parliamentary answer to Labour MP, Stephen Byers, the junior trade minister, Jonathan Evans, said inspectors examining the collapse of Astra, BMARC's parent, had collected documents on BMARC.

"From this reply," Mr Byers said, "it is now clear that Michael Heseltine's department has in its possession documents which could well be potentially damaging to Jonathan Aitken, in that they could reveal the precise extent of his knowledge of arms exports to Iran in breach of the embargo."

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