Leading Article: The quest for truth in jeopardy

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THE SCOTT inquiry into the arms-to-Iraq scandal is in trouble. Its difficulties may mean we will never know for sure whether the Government covered up supposedly banned defence sales to Saddam Hussein that continued until days before Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait.

There are two problems. First, and most important, the inquiry is not calling the right witnesses. Second, those that have given evidence complain that they have had insufficient opportunity to challenge accusations made against them. Lord Justice Scott could find that his final report satisfies no one and annoys everyone. It may neither be accepted as fair by ministers nor respected by the Government's critics as a thorough search for truth. This could leave the public bemused by an affair which, though arcane, appears to represent serious abuse of government power.

Lord Howe's outburst yesterday is a taste of condemnation to come. The former Foreign Secretary claimed that Lord Justice Scott was acting as 'detective, inquisitor, advocate and judge' by not allowing witnesses to be legally represented.

Such protests are encouraging in so far as they indicate the inquiry's success in unnerving politicians. But they also suggest that the relative speed of this investigation, unencumbered as it is by the customary rustle of Silks, may have been achieved at the price of unfairness to certain witnesses and the credibility of the inquiry.

The decision to ban counsel from the hearings was bold. It recognised how their loquacity had hijacked similar investigations. But Lord Justice Scott would have been wiser to have allowed some legal representation, while strictly limiting counsels' opportunities to cross-examine witnesses. Halfway through the proceedings, that option is no longer open, but there is a solution that takes the steam out of Lord Howe's allegations. He should feel reassured that the inquiry will allow its provisional findings to be seen by those criticised, giving them a chance to suggest corrections. This should prevent a biased report.

Far more worrying is the tardiness of the inquiry in calling potentially the most telling evidence. It has relied on fastidiously questioning Establishment figures. But they have in general been careful not to break ranks.

If Lord Justice Scott wants to find out what ministers really knew about the flouting of government guidelines, he should ask the business people who arranged the Iraqi deals and organised exports indirectly via Jordan. Bankers who underwrote the sales should give evidence. US government officials who knew a great deal about British arms sales could also offer valuable insights.

There is no sign the inquiry will hear from these sources. Such an omission would be a serious flaw. Lord Justice Scott has to a great extent met the complaints of Lord Howe. If he does not also call a better mix of witnesses, he will lose the credibility that his important quest for the truth has so far enjoyed.