Leading Article: The flight from hypocrisy

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THE LARGEST single contract for British arms is the so-called Al Yamamah deal with Saudi Arabia. Margaret Thatcher signed it in 1985 under conditions of considerable secrecy. The contract, for Tornado aircraft and other equipment, is said to be worth pounds 20bn and to secure the employment of thousands of workers at Britain's arms and aerospace factories for another 11 years. A contract not to be sniffed at, then. Despite this, a good deal of sniffing - not at but around - has been going on.

Corruption is suspected, and with reason. The phenomenon may be new to many areas of British life, but in the arms industry it is as old as the business itself. No country is immune - moralising Sweden came a cropper with its Bofors gun sales to India - and evidence continues to accumulate in the Pergau dam affair. Now the question is: if the British government would grease palms for an order worth pounds 1.3bn, what would it do to win one worth pounds 20bn? Five years ago the Commons Public Accounts Committee looked into claims that commissions totalling up to

30 per cent of the contract's value had been paid to middlemen. Later a team from the National Audit Office, led by Sir John Bourn, submitted what is said to be a detailed report on Al Yamamah to Robert Sheldon, the Accounts Committee chairman. Mr Sheldon supressed wider dissemination on the grounds, he said last week, that 'Saudi Arabia is rather sensitive' and that disclosure could jeopardise British industry and jobs. None the less, he insists, the report found that the Ministry of Defence had committed no impropriety.

That still leaves a very open field. Arms manufacture is an important part of British industry; we may need to live with bribery. In which case, some of our politicians need to pipe down about the singularly moral qualities of our national culture.

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