Safeguards that must follow Scott: Abuse of power calls for more than sacrificial lambs, says Michael Meacher

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The Scott inquiry will not end when Sir Nicholas Lyell's head rolls as Attorney General. As mastermind of the Public Interest Immunity gagging orders, the necessity for which he was later forced to retract, he cannot remain in office. But he must not be made the scapegoat.

At least seven other members of the Cabinet - Clarke, Heseltine and Rifkind, who signed Matrix Churchill PIIs, Lilley and Baker, who signed PIIs in the case of another company, Ordtech, Waldegrave, who in effect concealed the change in the export guidelines from Parliament, and John Major, who successively as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Foreign Secretary and Chancellor was certainly briefed on arms to Iraq - were all involved in the matter. One third of the Cabinet was therefore directly involved. Moreover the policy was one for which the whole Cabinet bears collective responsibility. Blaming Sir Nicholas and Waldegrave will not free them from this wider liability.

But will all those responsible be held to account? Almost certainly not. The first lesson then is that we urgently need a new procedure to hold ministers to account. When Lord Justice Scott reports in the autumn, the Prime Minister will assess the political furore and determine the degree of blood-letting necessary to allow it to subside. The media will hound named ministers, the Prime Minister will try to minimise political damage until the heat becomes too much and sacrifices have to be made. Parliament will not decide the matter.

Yet it ought to. What is needed is a much strengthened procedure under which departmental select committees can hold ministers to account where there is prima facie evidence they have lied to Parliament or broken the law (eg using aid monies to promote arms sales) or acted corruptly. The 1966 Salmon Report on standards of conduct in public life did not propose effective sanctions in such cases. And the device occasionally used by the Opposition - to put down a Motion to reduce a minister's salary - hardly makes an errant minister quake.

The Marconi Scandal of 1912 brought Select Committees into disrepute when first the committee and then the whole House voted on strict party lines in respect of allegations of ministerial corruption. But broadcast or televised hearings, plus improved research back- up facilities, would make a parti pris procedure much less likely. And the conclusions of such committee hearings, which could range from no case to answer, through public reprimand, to recommended disqualification from office (a penalty already used against errant company directors and local councillors) would offer the central parliamentary role that is now lacking.

A second lesson from Scott is that the use of PIIs should now be severely restricted. Lord Justice Scott will very likely rule that immunity should no longer be accorded, irrespective of content, to a whole class of documents, in this case officials' advice to ministers. In other words, ministers have a discretion whether to sign, and it is not an automatic procedure subject only, as the Attorney General claimed, to exceptions on counsel's advice in a 'clear case'.

But that is not enough. Sir Nicholas Lyell's claim was that ministers, the first line of safeguard, did not have to do a 'balancing act', weighing one aspect of the public interest (protection of official advice) with another (disclosure that would prevent innocent men being sent to prison). That could, and should, he said, be left to the judge in court, the second line of safeguard. The Guidelines for Ministers should be amended to make plain that Ministers should sign PIIs only where they contend that the national interest is genuinely involved. Signing them under the influence of party political considerations, (eg, to cover up being less than frank with Parliament), would then become a serious offence.

A third lesson is that a new Code of Ethics is needed governing relations between ministers and civil servants. One of the many disquieting revelations of the Scott inquiry is the stream of officials testifying to their collusion with ministers both in the 'nods and winks' policy towards companies exporting arms-related equipment to Iraq and Iran and in not keeping Parliament fully informed about the change in the guidelines.

To help to restore a politically neutral officialdom, we need a Code of Conduct, which later should be installed as a schedule to a new Civil Service Act, setting out a complaints procedure for aggrieved civil servants where they believe ministers have abused the trust of Parliament and the public, whether by dishonesty to the Commons or by using the civil service for party political purposes. They should be able to make known their complaint to an independent body or Ombudsman. The latter could then seek redress from the minister or, if need be, make public the cause of complaint so that the deceit or misconduct is brought to an end.

There are several other important issues arising out of Scott. The trigger for the chain of events that led to the inquiry was purely accidental - the discovery of Supergun parts on the quayside, which precipitated a Customs and Excise prosecution. In the absence of such a fortuitous event, how can the legislature more closely monitor and stop government malfeasance? What should be done to limit, if not eliminate, the bribery widely acknowledged to be paid to secure big export orders?

The inquiry has concentrated on Iraq and ignored Iran, though the latter was included in its term of reference. Were there similar examples, as is now being alleged, where men were sent to prison for illegal arms trading with Iran, even though Whitehall had knowledge of their missile deal? And if so, how extensive was the arms dealing network that ministers connived at? And so on.

There is one other key conclusion from the Scott inquiry which deserves attention. In terms of calling ministers to account, the inquiry demonstrated dramatically the feebleness of current parliamentary procedures. The difference between Margaret Thatcher's triumphalist dominance at Prime Minister's Questions in the House and her evasiveness and defensiveness when pinned down by lengthy cross-examination at the inquiry had to be seen to be believed. If we are to prevent a recurrence of the late-Eighties excesses of over-mighty government, something more is needed than current parliamentary procedures.

The author is Labour spokesman on public service and citizens' rights.

(Photograph omitted)