Whitehall chief carpeted at Iraq inquiry

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The Independent Online
SIR ROBIN BUTLER, Cabinet Secretary, was rebuked by Lord Justice Scott yesterday over his office's failure to release documents revealing the true extent of Whitehall's knowledge of the Matrix Churchill prosecution.

The judge said he was 'dismayed' and 'sad' that vital documents were not being disclosed to his inquiry by the Cabinet Office. His comments came after it was revealed that the Scott inquiry had only just obtained from the Cabinet Office a document which the Ministry of Defence claimed months earlier had been lost.

The papers related to meetings involving Sir Robin, who is head of the home civil service; the Prime Minister, John Major, and a former trade and defence minister, Alan Clark, over allegations that Mr Clark gave 'a nod and a wink' to British firms selling equipment to Iraq's defence industry.

When questioned as to whether there were 'lots of other documents like this we haven't seen in Cabinet Office files with handwritten comments on', Sir Robin said he 'very much hoped not' and promised to check. He emphasised that documents were not being withheld deliberately.

Moments later, Sir Robin produced a further document of which Lord Justice Scott's team were unaware. The document, his former secretary's 'rough' notes of a meeting between officials to discuss the 'nod and wink' allegations, was described as 'highly pertinent' to the inquiry, which adjourned so the judge and his staff could study the notes.

When he returned, the judge expressed his 'dismay' it had not been provided earlier and sought Sir Robin's personal assurance that all relevant documents would be made available after the judge complained that a similar request for assurance had been ignored.

In an exchange which echoed his predecessor Sir Robert Armstrong's notorious 'economical with the truth' admission, Sir Robin said that half an answer could be accurate when replying to parliamentary questions.

He cited a government statement last year that negotiations were not being held with the IRA. It was later revealed there had been meetings between officials and Sinn Fein. Sir Robin said it was an 'incomplete' answer but denied it was misleading.

'This was an answer which was true but not complete. It was not designed to mislead,' he said.

Presiley Baxendale QC, counsel for the inquiry, said: 'It was calculated not to allow the listener to know the whole picture.'

Sir Robin: 'But that is not the same as misleading. They got the right impression. There had been no negotiations.' He added: 'These are difficult lines to draw. It is not justified to mislead but very often one is finding oneself in a position where one has to give an answer which falls short of the whole truth.'

Misleading answers were justified in 'exceptional circumstances' or when a question was part of 'adversarial, political debate,' he said.

Earlier, Sir Robin stated that ministers should not have to resign for civil servants' mistakes of which they were unaware. Ministers were always accountable to Parliament but were not always responsible for mistakes.

Press rebuke, page 2