Official 'told Major Iraq rules unaltered'

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The Independent Online
A CIVIL SERVANT told John Major that guidelines limiting defence exports to Iraq had not been changed and ministers had not misled Parliament and the public without checking with anyone who operated the system in practice.

The Prime Minister used the advice to defend himself and other ministers against opposition accusations that they had deceived Parliament.

Nicolas Bevan told the Scott inquiry into the sale of arms to Iraq yesterday he did not now know if his advice was right. Mr Bevan, a former senior official in the Cabinet Office, now secretary to the Speaker of the House of Commons, headed an emergency investigation to discover how the trial of three businessmen from the Matrix Churchill machine tool company collapsed.

After their acquittal in November 1992, the Government was 'bombarded' by questions from the press and MPs armed with 'highly classified papers' about whether the Government had operated a covert arms supply policy to Iraq, he said. 'A lot of questions were being asked and we didn't know the basis of those questions. We didn't have copies of the same documents and it took three or four days to get them.'

Downing Street ordered a trawl of Whitehall files to discover what documents, if any, the Prime Minister might have seen relating to Iraqi exports. 'We were under a lot of pressure and it took a great deal of time to get a very satisfactory account of what had happened.'

After interviewing the Whitehall departments involved, he advised ministers that guidelines had been amended in 1988, but it had not amounted to a change of substance, making no significant difference to what was exported to Iraq.

Lord Justice Scott said this argument was like saying: 'I wasn't there but if I was, I didn't do it.'

The advice was used by Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, in a parliamentary debate. Mr Bevan said he was still concerned the advice given was not correct. 'I had a niggle in the back of my mind that perhaps what we had said about the guidelines being changed wasn't correct.'

After reading Foreign Office documents he concluded the guidelines had not changed and ministers had not misled anyone. Ministers had considered changing them, but decided against it. Amended guidelines had been used on a trial basis but were never formally approved and later lapsed, he wrote. He admitted ministers achieved the same aim by adopting a more 'flexible interpretation' of the original guidelines which did not need to be announced. He did not talk to the ministers involved, nor to officials who used the amended guidelines - which did not lapse and continued to be used until Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.

Mr Bevan said he only learnt at a later Whitehall meeting that the guidelines had been operated differently in practice. He told the inquiry that information was 'inconsistent' with the assertion there was not any change in the substance of the policy. 'I don't know which was right,' he said.