In his strongest public onslaught since his resignation speech in the Commons in November 1990, Lord Howe warned the findings of the Scott inquiry may be compromised because of the unfair way witnesses were being treated.
Before giving evidence, he accused Lord Justice Scott and Presiley Baxendale QC, inquiry counsel, of being 'detective, inquisitor, advocate and judge'. Witnesses were being denied 'habitual safeguards' such as legal representation and prior notice of allegations.
Lord Howe's outburst provoked Lord Justice Scott into the unprecedented step of issuing a statement calling his criticisms 'ludicrous'.
It also ignited an immediate political row. John Smith, the Labour leader, accused the Government of a 'deliberate and premeditated' attempt to undermine the inquiry's findings. His accusation came after Downing Street sidestepped his demand for an 'immediate statement' from John Major reaffirming his confidence in Lord Justice Scott and rejecting Lord Howe's comments.
Mr Smith said the lack of support from the Prime Minister indicated Lord Howe had been speaking with Mr Major's 'blessing'. 'It was a deliberate and clearly premeditated attempt to undermine the Scott inquiry findings, which is likely to be criticial of Tory governments and ministers, and protect the Prime Minister from the further huge embarrassment this will cause him and his beleaguered government.'
Downing Street sources insisted Lord Howe had not discussed his remarks with Mr Major before making them. Mr Major set up the inquiry but the procedures adopted were decided by Lord Justice Scott, sources emphasised.
In evidence to the inquiry yesterday, Lord Howe strongly defended the government policy of limiting defence-related exports to Iraq. Guidelines drawn up in 1984 were intended to help the Government's 'presentational problems'. He said there was no evidence of a 'conspiracy' or of officials acting corruptly. It was not an arms-to-Iraq scandal, more a British trade controls dilemma.
He said concern about 'widespread misunderstanding around the rest of the world' about the decision to relax the guidelines was justified. Delay in telling Parliament about changes was 'perfectly legitimate management of news'.
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