What the report destroys is the idea that "ministerial accountability to Parliament" - the tradition repeatedly invoked by Prime Ministers Thatcher and Major to resist freedom of information legislation - has any meaning when ministers and mandarins are concerned to save face. It concludes that in the two years before Saddam invaded Kuwait, "Government statements about policy on defence exports to Iraq consistently failed to discharge the obligations imposed by the constitutional principle of Ministerial accountability."
The Matrix Churchill trial, in 1992, is merely the tip of the iceberg of evasion now charted by the Scott report. It confirms that documents relevant to the defence were denied, and that the prosecution should never have been brought. The Attorney-General, Sir Nicholas Lyell, is criticised on two grounds. Firstly, he was fundamentally wrong in law, both for advising ministers they had a duty to sign Public Interest Immunity certificates, and then for advising them to sign certificates which were improperly broad.
Second, and more seriously, the Attorney-General is found to be personally at fault over his failure to act when informed of Mr Heseltine's belief that justice might not be done. His responsibility was to recognise that this was an appalling prospect, and to take immediate steps to ensure it did not occur. His failure was an abdication of the highest duty of the office. Scott's finding, however delicately expressed, ("I do not accept that he was not personally at fault") should in my view leave Sir Nicholas no alternative but to resign.
It is, of course, the consistent misleading of Parliament - now established beyond any doubt - which gives most cause for concern. It is no answer for the Government to protest that other countries sold more weaponry to Saddam than Britain - they did not pretend to comply with "Howe guidelines". Nor is it relevant (or even true) that we at least sold no "lethal" arms - ie guns or tanks or fighter planes. The machine-tool exports, as the Government knew, went to establish an entire bomb-making industry in Iraq. (It is true that no British arms were found after the war - but many of the Iraqi arms had been made by British industrial exports.)
Hundreds of millions of pounds' worth of military radar, telecommunications systems, night-vision equipment and so on were exported under the changed guidelines.
Scott finds that the Howe guidelines were secretly changed, or "liberalised" or "relaxed", in December 1988 to permit more arms-related exports to Iraq. By this stage William Waldegrave was at the Foreign Office, which soon became alarmed at the consequences. By February 1987, internal documents were recording both the Foreign Office's belief that Saddam was developing a nuclear capacity, and its knowledge that the type of machine tools that ministers were licensing were "essential for the production of nuclear weapons".
David Gore-Booth, then a senior official at the Foreign Office, sent a memo to Mr Waldegrave, stating that he was "distinctly uncomfortable" at the prospect of British machine tools contributing to Iraq's nuclear programme. But Waldegrave agreed to licence them for export, scrawling on the memo "screwdrivers can also be required to make H-bombs".
This childish logic was immediately circulated by Waldegrave's private secretary to other ministers and officials, as if it were a comment of enormous wisdom, a pearl of moral absolution. In the knowledge that Saddam was developing a nuclear weapons capability to threaten Israel with extinction, the clever Mr Waldegrave would apparently provide him with the machine tools needed for the process of assembling the uranium, and screwdrivers to tighten the last bolts on the bomb.
But Mr Waldegrave was not prepared to share his thinking with Parliament or public. He insisted that the changes to the guidelines should be kept secret, and even devised a "form of words to use if we are now pressed in Parliament over the guidelines".
Scott concludes that there was a "deliberate failure" to tell Parliament the truth about arms sales policy, and that the "overriding and determinative reason was fear of strong public opposition". The answers, to Parliament and the public, he finds were "by design incomplete and in certain respects misleading". The claims now being made by ministers - that evasiveness could be justified on strategic or diplomatic grounds - he specifically rejects.
What the report reveals is the Singaporisation of British democracy. Behind the polished facade of "ministerial accountability" there is a culture within which decisions likely to provoke public criticism must be kept hidden from the public.
There are only two remedies for this. One is to sack ministers who connive in withholding such information, in order to deter the same behaviour in future. The other is to legislate for freedom of information, so that ministers and mandarins tempted to lock skeletons in departmental cupboards will realise that the ghosts will come back to haunt them while they are still in power.
The writer defended Paul Henderson at the Matrix Churchill trial. He is the author of 'Freedom, the Individual and the Law'.Reuse content