Letter: Precedents for the procedures of the Scott inquiry

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Sir: Seeking to discredit the judicial inquiry into the Government's conduct on arms sales to Iraq, Lord Howe today accused Lord Justice Scott of acting as 'detective, inquisitor, advocate and judge', and invoked Lord Salmon on tribunals of inquiry.

Lord Howe has resorted to these tactics before. When, as Foreign Secretary, he was the political authority answerable for the conduct of the security forces in Gibraltar, he cited a Salmon report in the course of a last-minute, telephoned attempt to have the Independent Broadcasting Authority cancel the transmission of Death on the Rock. Later, when the scrupulous inquiry by Lord Windlesham and Mr Richard Rampton QC had substantially vindicated the programme, Lord Howe dismissed their report as being 'about television, by television, for television'.

Lord Howe's calculated challenge to the validity of Lord Scott's eventual report is alarming to the extent that it suggests that the executive power continues to resist the principle of lawful accountability which the setting up and conduct of the inquiry seemed to uphold.

There is sure to be public debate about these constitutional issues. We ought to be grateful to Lord Howe if, albeit unintentionally, his latest intervention has the effect of reminding us that this debate should extend to the earlier, and perhaps habit-forming, use of public interest immunity certificates in the inquest into the violent deaths in Gibraltar on 6 March 1988. Those certificates shielded from verification the account of events given by Lord Howe to the House of Commons. It is an account that has come to be widely disbelieved, but it remains the only account given by the responsible British minister to the British parliament about three deaths at the hands of the state in a part of continental Western Europe where Britain exercises sovereign power.

Yours faithfully,