Policy changes over Iraq 'not revealed'

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MINISTERS did not reveal changes in government guidelines limiting defence exports to Iraq because they feared a public outcry, the Scott inquiry was told yesterday, writes David Connett.

Alan Barrett, a senior Ministry of Defence official, said ministers agreed to relax guidelines permitting more exports to Iraq but did not want to announce the policy publicly because it would 'restrict the Government's freedom to manoeuvre'. 'Government wanted to be able to change policy with the least amount of trouble,' he said.

Ministers feared public, press and parliamentary criticism. They also feared the loss of lucrative defence contracts with Saudi Arabia and were concerned about British exporters 'misunderstanding' their intentions.

Mr Barrett's evidence contradicted earlier evidence from William Waldegrave, a former Foreign Office minister, who denied policy was changed, claiming it was not announced because it amounted to 'an increased flexibility' in interpretation.

Mr Barrett said the changes agreed in December 1988 by Mr Waldegrave, Alan Clark and Lord Trefgarne, then trade and defence ministers, in effect revised the guidelines and resulted in a more liberal policy. It permitted the export of more equipment than previously allowed.

The guidelines were never intended to be a 'strait-jacket', Mr Barrett said. The ceasefire in the Iran-Iraq war meant that a change in the guidelines was 'semantically essential'.

He agreed with Lord Justice Scott's suggestion that the guidelines were used to stop exports without saying the policy had been changed, and admitted that the guidelines became a 'convenient tool'.

The inquiry continues today.