Civil servants 'ran exports policy under the table'

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The Independent Online
CIVIL servants distrusted the public and conducted government policy 'under the table' to avoid opposition, Lord Justice Scott, who is leading an inquiry into the sale of arms to Iraq, said yesterday.

His accusation came after hearing that a senior Foreign Office official recommended British companies supplying machine tools destined for Iraq's munitions industry in breach of government guidelines, to 'ship them as fast as possible'.

Ian Blackley, the official in question, had also warned that an impending United Nations arms embargo could ban export of the machines. He added that if the exports became 'public knowledge the shipments would have to stop at once'.

Mr Blackley, a former assistant head of the Foreign Office Middle East department until October 1988, was giving evidence to the Scott inquiry, which is investigating ministers' and officials' knowledge of, and complicity in, the breaching of defence export guidelines to Iraq.

Lord Justice Scott said Mr Blackley's memorandum revealed a 'sort of mistrust of the public'. Mr Blackley defended his action saying: 'I don't think one can conduct a referendum every time one gets a difficult export licence application.'

Lord Justice Scott suggested civil servants did not want to deal with the public because the opposition to government proposals may be so intense it was better to take decisions 'under the table'.

Mr Blackley asked whether the judge was suggesting the entire machinery of government was conducted under the table. Lord Justice Scott responded: 'Under the table so far as the public is concerned.'

Mr Blackley retorted: 'That does not necessarily mean that what goes on under the table is negative.'

Machine tools destined for Iraqi munitions factories were sent despite intelligence warnings and the advice of Ministry of Defence experts who said the exports would 'significantly enhance' Baghdad's military capability and would therefore be in breach of government guidelines. Mr Blackley said the commercial and industrial interests overode the views of the military.

Mr Blackley earlier admitted that he had no knowledge of the Restricted Enforcement Unit, whose function was to vet all sensitive exports. He blamed a failure of Whitehall's liaison mechanism. He also said he never saw guidelines on the export of nuclear, biological and chemical warfare equipment.