Leading Article: Uncovering the arms deception

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The Independent Online
THE INQUIRY by Lord Justice Scott into the scandal surrounding arms sales to Iraq bears a responsibility for the quality of democracy in this country. It falls to him to unravel a tale of deception, concealment and perversion of justice that could have sent innocent men to jail. It is a story of cocksure government officials and ministers who made law on the hoof and kept their arms policy secret from the public, from Parliament and even, it is claimed, from the Prime Minister, John Major. The scandal promises to demonstrate how democratic accountability has been eroded in Britain. What has emerged so far is not cabinet government with the Prime Minister primus inter pares, but government by pipsqueaks who believed they were a law unto themselves.

These people will do everything in their power to frustrate and contain investigations by Lord Justice Scott, who yesterday announced details of his inquiry. The British establishment, for all its courtly manners, defends itself with the viciousness of a cornered ferret. His Lordship should empty his mind of any belief that the state is pleasant in such a situation. As a native of South Africa and a judge in the first Spycatcher hearing, he should have no such naive


The inquiry already faces plenty of obstacles, such as a deluge of documents - 70,000 pages so far - that its small staff will be hard-pressed to deal with. There are also allegations that vital documents have been destroyed. More seriously, it is not possible to subpoena witnesses, and evidence will not be given under oath. Additionally, since the process is inquisitorial, witnesses are unlikely to be challenged as critically as under an adversarial system.

Lord Denning summed up the problems when he criticised his own inquiry into the Profumo affair. 'I have had to be detective, inquisitor, advocate and judge,' he said. 'My inquiry is not a suitable body to determine guilt or innocence. I have not the means at my disposal. No witness has given evidence on oath. None has been cross-examined. No charge has been preferred.'

As if this is not enough, the methodical Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, took a belt-and-braces approach in one of those chummy letters officials send to such inquiries. Obviously, intoned the letter, when the public interest is threatened by disclosure, evidence will have to be heard in private. Lord Justice Scott stood his ground in his reply. He would close the doors on evidence only if the public interest in an open hearing were likely to be outweighed by the damage caused by disclosure. The inquiry will have to be equally robust when, behind the scenes, witnesses say they will provide evidence only if the public is excluded.

It is to be hoped that past members of the Government, such as Baroness Thatcher, will feel duty-bound to appear and explain publicly their roles in this shabby affair. They and their successors, required by Mr Major to give evidence, must be questioned with rigour and vigour. The British public is entitled to know how far the poison of conspiracy and deception reaches. Did cabinet ministers, for example, cover up the sanctioning of arms sales to Iraq, even as three men faced imprisonment last November for breaking an arms embargo?

The Scott inquiry must act courageously and ensure that heads roll. Otherwise the culprits will know that they are indeed a law unto themselves.