Sir Hal Miller, a former senior Tory backbench MP, said he had been urged by Sir Patrick, now Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, not to produce documentary evidence which could have cleared businessmen accused of illegally exporting weapons to Iraq. Charges against two businessmen were dropped soon after the MP insisted he would give evidence on their behalf.
In a personal statement last night, Sir Patrick denied ever trying to prevent crucial evidence coming to court. He denied urging Sir Hal to withhold evidence. Sir Patrick, who said he would be happy to give evidence to the inquiry, said Customs withdrew the prosecution after being advised by their own counsel that there was not a 'realistic prospect of a conviction'.
Sir Hal also alleged that key witnesses appearing before a parliamentary committee investigating the supergun affair were 'coached' by intelligence services to mislead it.
His allegations were immediately referred to the Speaker of the House of Commons, who described them as 'very serious matters'. The Commons Privileges Committee is expected to investigate a possible contempt of the House.
Robin Cook, the Labour spokesman on trade and industry, said: 'Sir Hal Miller has blown open the cover-up. . . . Ministers were prepared to see businessmen wrongly convicted rather than tell how much they knew about our arms trade with Iraq.'
This is the first detailed account of Sir Hal's involvement in the supergun affair, which erupted in April 1990 when Customs officers in Teesport seized eight huge pieces of steel tubing destined for Iraq. The supergun barrel parts were supposed to be destined for an Iraqi petro-chemical plant. A number of businessmen involved were arrested by Customs after the seizure of the tubes.
Sir Hal said he alerted the Department of Trade and Industry, the Ministry of Defence and the intelligence services about the supergun in June 1988, much earlier than the Government claimed it was first aware of the situation.
Sir Hal said he was approached by Dr Rex Bayliss, of the Halesowen company Walter Somers Ltd, which was involved in the gun's construction. The company was suspicious and wanted the project cleared with the MoD. Sir Hal told the inquiry he 'bullied civil servants' and ended up speaking to an intelligence officer.
The officer, whom Sir Hal described as very 'jolly hockey sticks, old boy,' was 'obviously extremely well informed'. After being told Dr Bayliss's concerns the officer said: 'This confirms everything we know.'
Labour members of the Commons Trade and Industry Select Committee, whose report was published last year, accused British intelligence of 'misleading' Parliament over knowledge of the weapon. The committee concluded that inadequate procedures and misjudgements by civil servants were to blame for failing to stop the manufacture of the gun parts in Britain.
Former members of the committee said last night the conclusions would have been different if they had heard from Sir Hal, who refused to give evidence. Menzies Campbell, a Liberal Democrat MP, said Sir Hal would have damaged the Government before the 1992 general election.
Jim Cousins, Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, said: 'The committee was lied to in a quite contemptible and disgraceful fashion. We would have reached the conclusion that the Government had known about this all along and the Government had been conspiring to enable Iraq to win the Iran-Iraq War.'
He said Sir Hal's evidence had a 'ring of truth' and went to the very heart of accountable government and the integrity of the select committee system.
Sir Hal said he warned Sir Patrick Mayhew of his intentions to give evidence on behalf of the arrested businessmen in the lobby of the House of Commons. 'I was seriously concerned about these people. To my knowledge they had given co-operation and every assistance and done nothing wrong at all. People were just washing their hands of the whole matter.'
He said Sir Patrick tried to persuade him not to give evidence. 'He said: 'You wouldn't do that would you?' to which I replied: 'Just watch me.' '
Sir Hal said he was later told by the former managing director of Walter Somers, Peter Mitchell, that there had been 'coaching of the Somers people by intelligence as to how they should answer questions in the select committee.' Mr Mitchell declined to comment last night.
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