Scott reveals unique insight into Whitehall

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A unique insight into the conduct of government was published yesterday by Sir Richard Scott, the High Court judge who carried out the damning investigation into the export of defence-related equipment to Iraq.

The quantity of material was so great - 20,000 pages - that it had to be published on CD-ROM; two discs and a booklet priced at pounds 176.25. But the discs gave access to "secret", "confidential" and other Whitehall papers which underlined Sir Richard's judgements - that while Margaret Thatcher, John Major, and William Waldegrave were honourable people, they had conducted a policy that allowed arms-related equipment to go to a regime that had, among other things, used chemical warfare against its own Kurdish minority.

In addition, because of the political outcry that would have followed an open announcement of the change, it was not only kept secret but many MPs, and Parliament as a whole, were misled. All were told that there had been no change.

Yesterday, while Mr Waldegrave, now Chief Secretary to the Treasury, was presenting plans to Cabinet on which tax cuts and Tory hopes for the next election rest, material was being prepared that would underline Sir Richard's verdict on him.

The heart of the matter was the decision on December 1988, by Mr Waldegrave, then a Foreign Office minister, and two colleagues - Alan Clark and Lord Trefgarne - to relax guidelines under which defence-related equipment could be sent to Iraq.

Although Sir Richard uncovered minutes, files and other evidence showing that the export guidelines had been changed, Mr Waldegrave and others insisted they had not. That prompted Sir Richard to condemn "the duplicitous nature of the flexibility claimed for the guidelines".

He said that those who argued the change could not have taken place because Baroness Thatcher had not endorsed it were guilty of "sophistry".

But the files also get tantalisingly close to Mr Major, who was Foreign Secretary in July 1989 when the Cabinet Defence and Overseas Policy Committee was sent a minute on the sale of Hawk aircraft to Iraq. That minute said that while the export guidelines stipulated that nothing lethal should be sold either to Iran or Iraq, "Ministers have agreed to interpret them in a more flexible fashion". Mr Major subsequently wrote letters, as Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister, insisting that the policy remained impartial, and he told Sir Richard he continued to stand by that judgement.

Sir Richard replied: "I do not doubt Mr Major's evidence that he signed the letters believing the statements they contained to be accurate, but I do not accept that they were in fact accurate."

In a foreword to the publication, the judge says: "I am sure that this material will provide the public with a valuable insight into the way in which the Government has conducted itself."