Waldegrave in 'Wonderland', Clark says: Arms-to-Iraq inquiry told minister failed to disclose rule change to Commons. David Connett reports

ALAN CLARK, the maverick former trade and defence minister, said Parliament should have been told about a ministerial decision to relax government guidelines permitting the export of defence equipment to Iraq.

In characteristically frank evidence to the Scott inquiry, he blamed his former ministerial colleague William Waldegrave, currently minister for open government, for failing to make any announcement. He described Mr Waldegrave's position as a 'slightly Alice in Wonderland situation'.

Mr Clark claimed the guidelines were so 'elastically drafted' as to make them 'fair game' for wide interpretation. He described them as 'presentational packaging to wrap round different decisions'.

He also claimed he was not told of the existence of the inter-departmental committee which vetted exports to Iraq while he was a minister at the Department of Trade and Industry. He found this 'unsatisfactory and incomprehensible'.

It was the former minister's admission he had been 'economical with the actualite' at an Old Bailey trial last year which led to three Matrix Churchill executives charged with illegally breaching export policy being acquitted.

The collapse of the trial, after ministers tried unsuccessfully to suppress evidence that the Government knew all along what the firm was doing, led to the setting up of the Scott inquiry.

Mr Clark said his approach while in office was to push through as many exports to Iraq as possible. He did not believe the 1984 guidelines limiting UK defence related exports to Iraq and Iran restricted him.

Describing them as a 'brilliant, magnificent piece of drafting', he likened them to the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland - 'high sounding' but drawn up imprecisely and 'as elastic as the English language would tolerate'.

This flexibility meant ministers were able to use them to support almost any decision they chose to take on exports to Iraq, he claimed.

His evidence contradicted Mr Waldegrave's statement to the inquiry last September when he said there had been no announcement because there was no change in policy, only a change in the way the guidelines were interpreted.

'I certainly don't want to land former colleagues in it, Mr Waldegrave least of all,' he said. 'I suppose by stretching the meaning of words you could say they hadn't changed. One is back to a slightly Alice in Wonderland situation where I remember Mr Waldegrave was saying because something hadn't been announced it hadn't happened.' He insisted the revision of the guidelines, though 'slight', was significant and should have been announced to Parliament.

Mr Clark said there had been a reluctance to 'stir up' MPs at a time of concern about Saddam Hussein's gassing of Kurds. The House of Commons was a 'volatile place, full of rows and scenes' and MPs were seen as a 'bit of a nuisance', he said. 'You have to respond to get the machinery going and ministers had an aversion to this unless they are very exhibitionist.'

He said confrontation between the Commons and the Government had been recognised for centuries. 'It is the duty of MPs to probe and seek information and there is a kind of corporate - conspiracy is too strong a word - convention to engage in duelling and try not to invite too much intrusion.' He said ministers should not lie, and if caught, should resign.

Mr Clark claimed a few MPs were 'very good' at probing but most were not. Nevertheless, ministers could not do their work for them. 'Spoon feeding' MPs by giving them information about the guidelines would remove the incentive to probe and 'diminish the effectiveness of the House of Commons'.

He said he volunteered to take the issue 'by the throat' on several occasions and announce the change. 'I was quite ready to detonate this once and for all and get it out of the way.'

MPs were 'trailed a clue' change had taken place in the way answers to parliamentary written questions about the guidelines were altered. They were told they were now being 'kept under review'. This clue meant an experienced observer should have spotted something was happening, Mr Clark claimed.

He also accused the intelligence services of 'obsessional possessiveness' and said they appeared more concerned with competing and keeping information from each other. 'Things were even kept from the Secretary of State, I am pretty sure,' he said.

He was criticised last night by Robin Cook, Labour trade and industry spokesman. 'Alan Clark has now admitted that the guidelines on arms to Iraq were relaxed. Perhaps he can now tell us why two prime ministers kept telling Parliament that the guidelines had not changed and why three businessmen were put on trial for breaking the original guidelines.'

The inquiry continues today.

(Photograph omitted)

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