For nine months, important details of policy changes aimed at restricting weapons and equipment supplied to either country were kept secret from MPs asking questions in Parliament.
But a senior civil servant who answered MPs' questions about Britain's arms export policy to both countries denied the guidelines created in 1984 were deliberately kept secret.
The Scott inquiry, set up to investigate British military exports to Iraq from 1984 up to the invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, began taking oral evidence yesterday. It is likely to be one of the widest-ranging judicial inquiries undertaken in Britain. John Major, Baroness Thatcher and senior government ministers are due to give evidence. The inquiry is expected to report by the end of the year.
The first witness, Sir Richard Luce, Foreign Office Minister of State from 1983 to 1985, described how it became increasingly difficult to defend government policy that only 'non-lethal' equipment could be sold. 'We wanted to get a sensible posture because the position of the last two or three years and the distinction between lethal and non-lethal had got increasingly difficult to defend.'
He told Presiley Baxendale, the inquiry counsel, that as pressure grew in Parliament and the press for tighter restrictions, he pushed for a more 'robust' policy to help 'beef up' the Government's line.
Sir Richard said that tighter guidelines were introduced. The key factor in approving exports was determined by whether the equipment prolonged or exacerbated the Iran-Iraq war. The policy was approved in December 1984 but not announced until October 1985. MPs asking questions during this time were not told the new guidelines fully. Sir Richard added that he could not recall why full answers were not given.
He had previously argued that it was 'essential' the guidelines were known. He had called for a public announcement and confidential briefings of selected MPs, press and allies.
Stephen Day, former head of the Foreign Office Middle East desk, told the inquiry that he understood the policy change would be allowed to 'trickle out in order to minimise controversy', instead of by public announcement. He claimed the controversy feared was that among Britain's Gulf allies angry with our stance.
He denied there was any intention to keep the change secret to avoid difficult parliamentary problems. He said MPs asking questions at Westminster were not told the full guidelines but were given a key phrase suggesting that policy had changed.
Mr Day denied the full guidelines were given out in October 1985 because it was 'politically expedient' as ministers expected a series of detailed questions about arms sales from the former Liberal leader Sir David Steel.
Sir Richard said that Britain was under enormous pressure to support Iraq against Iran, but took a neutral approach, 'just about the only country to do so'. That background 'led to the posture that we should sell non- lethal equipment to Iran and Iraq, but not lethal equipment'. There was a need for flexibility in interpreting the policy because of contractual obligations Britain had with Iran concerning the supply of weapons to the Shah's armed forces, he said. 'Were we not to fulfil those obligations we would be liable to compensate British industry to many millions of pounds,' he added.
The inquiry continues today.
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