Mayhew denies intervention in supergun case: Any attempt to deter witness over weapon for Iraq is 'inconceivable'

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The Independent Online
THE FORMER Attorney General Sir Patrick Mayhew firmly denied trying to prevent crucial evidence about the 1990 Iraqi supergun case coming to court. Any such attempt would have been 'wholly wrongful' and 'inconceivable' he said.

Sir Patrick, now Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, was giving evidence at an emergency session of the Scott inquiry into defence sales to Iraq. It followed the appearance of Sir Hal Miller, a former Tory backbench MP, who accused Sir Patrick of trying to dissuade him from producing evidence which could have cleared businessmen charged with illegally exporting supergun parts to Iraq.

At the start of the hearing Lord Justice Scott read out a letter from Sir Hal Miller reaffirming his evidence last Monday that a conversation took place between him and Sir Patrick in the House of Commons lobby during which Sir Patrick urged him not to help the businessmen.

In a prepared statement which he read out, Sir Patrick agreed with most of Sir Hal's account. He recalled talking to Sir Hal late at night in the 'crowded and noisy' Commons lobby as they queued to vote.

He said he disagreed in 'one crucial respect'. 'I assert my absolute confidence that I never attempted, as he alleges, to persuade him not to go into court and produce documents if (the steel forgers, Walter) Somers were charged.'

Sir Patrick was accused of saying: 'You would not do that, would you?' after being told Sir Hal would help the defence. Sir Patrick said he could not recall the words of his response but was confident they were 'so be it' or 'that is up to you'. 'It would have been inconceivable to me, both as a private person and as a member of the Bar, let alone as its leader, the Attorney General. I have never done such a thing. If I had done so, whether in this perfunctory conversation in a crowded lobby or at all, the memory of it would, I am sure, remain vividly with me,' he said.

Sir Patrick was not asked to explain the contradiction between his and Sir Hal's evidence, but said: 'I have known Sir Hal for many years and I am sure it represents what is now his honest recollection.'

Law officers were 'deeply jealous' of their reputation for political impartiality, he said. There was 'a 'touch at your peril' label around the whole subject of the supergun affair' and it had been crucial to avoid allegations of political partisanship.

A report briefing Sir Patrick about the case said Customs was 'bullish' about the prosecution. The report, by Stephen Wooler, a member of the Law Officers Legal Secretariat, referred to a 'lamentable investigation' by Customs. Sir Patrick said Customs was anxious to prosecute 11 men and three companies involved in the manufacture of the supergun, parts of which Customs seized in April 1990, despite being told the chance of success was 'less than 50 per cent'.

It wanted to proceed on the grounds of public interest. Failure would deal a 'hammer blow' to the policy of enforcing the arms embargo against Iraq, Customs told him.

Sir Patrick said this was insufficient justification and advised it to withdraw. The final decision was made by Customs, he said. He insisted he was not motivated by desire to spare his ministerial colleagues embarrassment. 'I advised solely on the assessment of the evidence by counsel that it would not be proper.'