LEADING ARTICLE:The blind eye of government

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The Independent Online
Yesterday, we were offered an astonishing picture of how the Thatcher government deceived us again and again about the export of weapons. For years, ministers reassured us about strict controls. Lord Howe, when Foreign Secretary, said that applications for export licences were rigorously examined. We were told that particular care was taken to prevent British weapons reaching either Iran or Iraq, locked as they were in an attritional war until 1988.

Now, after hearing Michael Heseltine's statement, we know that these assurances counted for nothing. The real policy seems to have been to export as much weaponry as possible, with scant concern about the niceties of undertakings given to Parliament. Civil servants must have been simply waving through most weapons contracts: Mr Heseltine said that 74 per cent of such applications were submitted without the required documentation declaring their final destination. And when the intelligence services discovered that rules were being violated, little was done.

Mr Heseltine told the Commons that in 1988 the Department of Trade and Industry knew that a company called Oerlikon had sold naval guns secretly to Iran, via Singapore. Yet the DTI continued to sanction the export of similar guns to Singapore by BMARC, Oerlikon's subsidiary, which was sold off in 1988. The go-ahead was given even though more than a third of BMARC's applications did not have the necessary documentation proving where they were heading.

Only a government determined to turn a blind eye to serious potential abuses of the law could have let this situation continue. Yet such behaviour should not surprise us. The Scott inquiry has painted a picture of ministers apparently prepared to risk letting directors of Matrix Churchill go to jail rather than reveal documents showing that the security services knew that the company was selling arms to Iraq. Yesterday's revelations only confirm our need for Sir Richard Scott to complete his report, free from the sniping of some of those who conducted policy in the period.

There is an added twist. Jonathan Aitken, now Chief Secretary to the Treasury, was a non-executive director of BMARC between September 1988 and March 1990. Mr Aitken has repeatedly said that he knew nothing of Project Lisi, a BMARC contract involving the supply of weapons to Iran, via Singapore. He has remained adamant about his ignorance even though fellow directors have said that they heard at least rumours that Iran was the real buyer of 140 naval guns. Gerald James, BMARC's former chairman, admits that he knew where the weapons were heading.

Now Mr Heseltine has revealed that security services and Whitehall knew about the arms traffic to Iran: anyone with any sense at the DTI would have been suspicious of BMARC. In this light, Mr Aitken's claim of ignorance is all the more remarkable. Mr Heseltine has placed the matter in the hands of an all-party Commons committee, which on past form may struggle to rise to the occasion. If Parliament's own supervisory mechanisms are not to be completely overshadowed by the judicial figures of Scott and Nolan, then MPs will need to play the game of their lives.