Scott attacks evidence gag

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The Independent Online
SIR RICHARD SCOTT yesterday signalled the legal reforms he is likely to urge on the Government once his long-delayed report into the arms-for-Iraq affair is published.

But in a speech to a legal conference on the withholding of evidence in criminal cases, he steered diplomatically clear of references to the behaviour of Cabinet members over the embarrassing affair.

The Scott inquiry was launched by John Major after the collapse of the Matrix Churchill trial, in which three businessmen were charged with breaching restrictions on the sale of arms production equipment to Iraq.

The trial foundered in 1992 when it emerged that ministers had signed public interest immunity (PII) certificates to prevent the disclosure of evidence that showed the Government knew and approved of the exports, and that one of the defendants, Paul Henderson, was an MI6 informant.

Recent leaks have fuelled speculation that Sir Richard's report - delayed until the autumn - will be highly critical of a number of ministers, including William Waldegrave, the present agriculture minister.

However, in his speech to Justice, the law reform group, yesterday, Sir Richard avoided the political hot potato of ministerial involvement, although he was critical of the legal basis for the use of PII certificates.

He particularly questioned whether the certificates should be used in criminal trials - where defendants, denied access to Government documents, could face imprisonment - in the same way as in civil cases.

Other legal tools governing such matters as disclosure and admissibility of evidence were used differently in civil trials than in criminal ones, he said.

Sir Richard has already made it clear he is concerned that innocent people could be jailed because of Government gagging orders on evidence which could prove their innocence, with the effect that his report is likely to recommend tough restrictions on the use of PII certificates in criminal cases. "It's a problem that I believe needs to be addressed."