LEADING ARTICLE: Publish quickly, Sir Richard

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The Independent Online
The heart of any government's credibility lies in its commitment to justice. Yet who, after yesterday's events, can still have faith in the honour of this administration? It is increasingly difficult to dispel the suspicion that ministers were prepared to go to any lengths, even perverting the legal system, to save their own skins.

In 1992 the Government allowed four businessmen to be convicted over arms sales to Iraq which had been approved by ministers. For three years, until yesterday, that miscarriage of justice was allowed to stand, though there was documentary evidence, to which the Government was privy, that ministers had condoned the sales.

These revelations are more serious even than those that led to the collapse of the Matrix Churchill trial in 1992. In that instance, the defendants were also tried over arms sales to Iraq. But at least that case did not result in convictions: a former minister, Alan Clark, played a key role in destroying the prosecution case when he revealed in court the extent of government knowledge about what had gone on. This time, ministers seem to have done their best to keep the truth hidden.

It becomes ever clearer that through the late Eighties Britain had a secret foreign policy to allow Saddam Hussein's regime to be supplied with weapons via Jordan. Parliament was not told. As far as MPs were aware, the 1984 guidelines still applied: that neither Iraq nor Iran should be supplied with lethal equipment. The public was not informed that the rules were slightly relaxed in 1988, and in any case were being widely flouted. And when the secret seemed likely to slip out during trials of the arms salesmen, documents demonstrating government duplicity were suppressed using public interest immunity certificates (PIICs)

It is not difficult to understand why officials and ministers would be keen to hush up this scandal. If the country involved had been different, governed by any old tinpot dictatorship, perhaps the public would not have cared so much about a breach of guidelines. Most people would have turned a blind eye to the cavalier way in which British foreign policy was formulated. But Iraq is different. In 1991 Britain went to war with Saddam Hussein. British servicemen risked their lives against an enemy who was believed to have chemical and biological weapons and was ready to use them. Selling arms to Baghdad was not only duplicitous. It was also a strategic blunder.

The last time the Foreign Office made a big mistake and Britain ended up at war was over the Falklands. On that occasion, heads rolled: Lord Carrington, the Foreign Secretary, resigned. This time, those who allowed Saddam to arm himself hid behind PIICs and were prepared to let innocent men face conviction and personal ruin.

The authoritative account of how we were misled, and how errors and half- truths were covered up, has yet to be published. We still await the report of Sir Richard Scott, whose inquiry was set up three years ago. Only he can now clear up the atmosphere of deceit and subterfuge that has tarnished Britain's legal system and sullied the reputation of government. Every month that he delays his report does further damage. Publish quickly, Sir Richard.