Customs 'told of Clark's Iraq export comments'

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The Independent Online
CUSTOMS were warned two years before the Matrix Churchill prosecution that Alan Clark, the former minister, may have given British businessmen the impression they could breach government export guidelines to Iraq, the Scott inquiry was told yesterday.

Sir Brian Unwin, former chairman of the Board of HM Customs and Excise, was among several senior officials at an emergency meeting to discuss newspaper allegations that the former trade and defence minister gave businessmen 'a nod and a wink' to breach the export guidelines.

The newspaper said businessmen were claiming the Government was fully aware of the exports and Mr Clark actually encouraged them at a meeting at the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI).

The emergency meeting was told by Sir Peter Gregson, the most senior DTI official, that his department's record of the meeting where Mr Clark allegedly made 'nod and wink' comments was open to the interpretation the businessmen put on it.

The claim was strongly denied by Mr Clark. However, Sir Robin Butler, who chaired the emergency meeting, told Lord Justice Scott the official record of Mr Clark's meeting was 'ambiguous'. Sir Robin said: 'The trouble was Mr Clark had left himself open to misunderstanding.' He said Mr Clark's advice was not in his official briefing paper or agreed with other ministers.

The newspaper article clearly indicated that, if the businessmen were put on trial, their defence would be the Government was fully aware of their activities. Despite these warnings, the prosecution went ahead, with Mr Clark as a key witness.

Sir Robin said he never formed a personal opinion about the case. At a later meeting with Sir Brian Unwin to discuss what John Major, the Prime Minister, should be told about the forthcoming trial, Sir Brian said that Customs' lawyers were confident documents relating to Mr Clark's discussions with the businessmen would not be disclosed.

Counsel had been 'very robust' the judge would accept public interest immunity certificates signed by ministers in order to withhold the papers.

In fact, the trial judge ordered the documents to be released. The case collapsed after Mr Clark admitted he had been 'economical with the actualite'.

The inquiry was also told Sir Michael Quinlan, a senior defence official, was unhappy about Mr Clark appearing as a witness. Sir Michael was worried because of Mr Clark's 'well known' views about defence exports to Iraq, his 'idiosyncratic behaviour', and the general principle of a minister appearing as a witness in a criminal trial.

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