LEADING ARTICLE:Dirty tricks must not stop Scott

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The Independent Online
The Scott inquiry has scrupulously researched the arms-to-Iraq scandal. It has taken so long that many people are vague about what it is investigating. It has heard from 200 witnesses, taken 430 hours of evidence and dealt with 200,000 pages of documentation. Most of it has been private interrogation. Last year Sir Richard produced a provisional report, circulated to all those subject to criticism, so that they could suggest corrections. Ministers possibly subject to criticism have had lawyers working on their evidence. The taxpayer has footed substantial legal fees. Each department has had a little team working on its responses to the report. Yesterday, Sir Richard delivered copies of the final report to ministers and officials, eight days before everyone else, so that they could prepare themselves.

This is completely unfair. At least that is what Lord Howe, Douglas Hurd and other senior Tories would now have us believe. They are attempting to rubbish the Scott report in advance by alleging that the way it has conducted its business invalidates its conclusions.

Lord Howe, as Foreign Secretary in 1988, secretly relaxed the rules on arms sales to Iraq. For more than a year, he has attacked Sir Richard, alleging that a poor simpleton much like the rest of us is out of his depth, does not understand Whitehall's mysterious ways, is meddling in an area where he has no place.

Lord Howe is an eminent figure, respected for his sound judgement and latterly admired for his courage in challenging Margaret Thatcher. But on this he is completely wrong. The investigation did not allow witnesses to be represented by lawyers: that would have made the inquiry never-ending and unnecessarily adversarial. Yet witnesses have been well protected. They were advised by counsel (several, including Lord Howe, are lawyers). Each witness was granted immunity from prosecution and civil servants were promised that they would face neither disciplinary action nor damage to their careers. Sir Richard has stuck carefully to the terms of the inquiry, set out by the Government, which Lord Howe supports.

The other claim - that Sir Richard is out of his depth - is just arrogant. We do not want an insider regulating Whitehall's business. The charge is that ministers and officials secretly ran one foreign policy - involving the sale of arms to Iraq - while telling Parliament and the people they were following another, with strict controls in place. When those who traded the weapons (the Matrix Churchill employees, for instance) were tried for breaking the law, ministers are said to have suppressed documents showing that they knew about the sales. In this, the security services encouraged them. Innocent men were almost sent to jail.

Lord Howe appreciates the dangers of the Scott investigation. Foreign Office papers submitted to the inquiry noted that "it could look very cynical if, so soon after expressing outrage over the Iraqi treatment of the Kurds, we adopt a more flexible approach to arms sales". That advice was right. The Tories may have had a field day two weeks ago over the apparent hypocrisy of the Labour front-bencher Harriet Harman in deciding to send her son to a selective school. Tony Blair must be wetting his lips in anticipation at the report, published next week, which is almost certain to detail a sustained government hypocrisy, cynically practised on the entire population over a very long time. Lord Howe, his former colleagues and officials all wish that this scandal had been hushed up. Thanks to Sir Richard Scott, we should at last get at the truth. His inquiry will be a blow for accountability and openness of the kind Lord Howe clearly abhors. We should ignore the smokescreens put up by Conservatives. Sir Richard is about to tell us in intimate detail how the state works and we should listen to what he has to say, for if the Tories stay in power it will be the only chance we get.