Leading Article: Principles for a public hearing

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The Independent Online
THE GREATEST danger that faces Sir Richard Scott, the Court of Appeal judge whose inquiry into the arms- to-Iraq scandal heard its first public witness yesterday, is boredom. Not Lord Justice Scott's own boredom: the unravelling of the web of concealment and half-truths woven by ministers and civil servants around the Government's policy on the export of arms to Iraq would make fascinating work for a lawyer even half as talented as he.

Rather, it is the risk of wearying the public that the judge needs to fear. Even if he discovers unequivocal evidence of wrongdoing in government, his inquiry by its very nature is likely to release that evidence in dribs and drabs - first in claims made at public hearings by business people, then in half-hearted rebuttals by civil servants and ministers, and finally in the text of his report. That report may not appear until next year, if talking to the witnesses takes a little longer than expected; by then, readers of newspapers and viewers of television may be so heartily fed up with the affair that Lord Justice Scott's conclusions will not receive the attention they deserve. That was the fate that befell Lord Justice Bingham's report late last year on the BCCI affair.

If what the judge's small staff say is right, he is already aware of the importance of this issue. The paradox, however, is that the public sessions of the inquiry are merely the tip of the iceberg. Lord Justice Scott has already received much of the evidence he needs: 85,000 pages of documents from different government departments and companies, which will keep him busy for almost nine months even if he glances at each page only for a minute. The readiness with which the Government has granted his requests for written information suggests a tactic worthy of Yes, Minister's Sir Humphrey: having failed to starve Lord Justice Scott of information with a tight definition of the public interest, it now seems determined to give him indigestion by sending too much.

In less experienced hands, that might be a danger. But the judge has already made a promising start on the job. He has won a preliminary skirmish with the Cabinet Secretary over what evidence should be given secretly, and what in public; he can reassure witnesses who fear prosecution by showing them the formal immunity offered to them at his prompting by the Attorney-General; and he has at least a fair chance of receiving straight answers from civil servants, now that they have been told by the Government that they may tell him the truth - even if by doing so, they will tarnish the reputations of ministers.

On one point - the question of what evidence to hear in public - Lord Justice Scott will have to be particularly sensitive. Because part of the scandal that he has been called in to analyse is about the apparent misuse of 'public interest' as a reason for withholding information on the Matrix Churchill affair, it would be absurd if his inquiry were to allow senior civil servants or ministers to perform the same trick when they are called to give evidence. The judge should follow a clear principle: except where lives would be put at risk by disclosure, all evidence - written and oral - should be made public.