Danger: democracy at work

The Scott inquiry will so damage politicians that we may never see its like again, says Chris Blackhurst
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There are 10 days to go before publication, at long last, of the Scott report into arms for Iraq, and critics of the inquiry, notably Lord Howe, former Foreign Secretary, are making pre-emptive strikes, accusing Sir Richard Scott, the senior judge who heads the inquiry, of being out of his depth, of not understanding Whitehall, of simply not playing fair. Yesterday, a detailed leak of draft criticism by Sir Richard of William Waldegrave, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, once a junior foreign office minister dealing with the Middle East, was repeated, providing another reminder of his vulnerability.

Significantly, none of this is new. Howe has made his attacks before, most famously at a public hearing of the inquiry itself 12 months ago, and in off-the-record briefings ever since, and Scott's projected comments on Waldegrave have been rehearsed ad nauseam.

Nevertheless, as the marathon inquiry - 200 witnesses, more than 400 hours of evidence and 200,000 pages of documents - draws to a close, the spectres of Howe and Waldegrave loom large. Howe was the senior statesman, former head of foreign policy, the chief puppeteer. Waldegrave was his faithful hang-dog lieutenant who, to this day, defiantly maintains the guidelines on exports to Iraq did not change because, while they were relaxed by ministers meeting in secret, their decision was not announced to Parliament.

It will be a pity, though, if Scott becomes ensnared in Howe's criticism and Waldegrave's efforts to extricate himself, or even in questions of which ministers and officials are to go or to stay in the wake of the report's criticism. The inquiry is about much more than Howe's claim that Scott should have allowed witnesses to be represented by their lawyers, Waldegrave's blustering protestations, and the Opposition's political point-scoring.

Unlike any inquiry in living memory, this one goes to the heart of government, combining policy as it was being declared in public with policy as it was being practised in private, particularly in the case of a small group of businessmen wanting to trade with Iraq. DTI inquiries deal with suspected business malpractice and rarely stray into the corridors of power, and planning inquiries rarely bring the two worlds of politics and business together. But Scott has all of these themes, in abundance.

Putting on one side the increasingly anachronistic issue of arms to Iraq, Scott is about ministers saying one thing and doing another. They changed the rules but did not tell anyone; and, worse, when people, including fellow MPs, sought guidance, they told them nothing had changed.

When executives at Matrix Churchill, the machine tool company, were prosecuted for assisting the Iraqi war effort despite having told the security service what they were doing, ministers blithely signed public interest immunity (PII) certificates that they knew would prevent them from being given a fair trial. Here Scott's criticism is likely to be at its most savage. Ministers did not just sign an order banning production of one document, but a whole class of documents. Laws intended to protect the public interest were surely never designed for this.

It is this wholesale contempt for the public enjoyed by ministers and their officials - their belief that they are operating with higher issues which do not concern the rest of us - that should come out of the Scott report.

For the Government, which set up the inquiry over three years ago amid the furore over the Matrix Churchill acquittals, probably in the hope that the whole affair would die quietly, it has been a shattering experience. For officials caught in the headlights it has been equally unnerving. For the rest of us, it has been eye-opening.

One of the key witnesses exposed our governors' attitude graphically. Under questioning, Andrew Leithead, assistant Treasury solicitor, admitted PII certificates were an "administrative convenience". It was, he claimed, "damaging to the public interest to have any decision making process exposed" (my italics).

Next week, in 2,000-plus pages, we will be given a glimpse of another world. For once everyone will be able to see what really goes on in Whitehall. We may never, not even under a new Labour government, be afforded such an opportunity again. After all, Labour politicians, too, have seen what happens to ministers and their advisers, when the shutters are opened.