Scott inquiry looks at Iraq arms deal
John Major yesterday announced that the Iraqi arms inquiry will not be limited to the Matrix Churchill affair, but will examine all British arms sales to Iraq, including the Supergun, from 1984 to the start of the Gulf War in August 1990. Lord Justice Scott will also study the attempts by ministers to block vital evidence to the Matrix Churchill trial and the decision by Customs to prosecute the company and other exporters to Iraq.
The inquiry will cover the prosecution of other businessmen by Customs, including Stuart Blackledge, a former director of the Ordtech military engineering firm, who was given a suspended sentence this year for evading export controls. Two machine tool companies – Contractors 600 and Wickman Bennett – agreed an out-of-court settlement in the summer. Downing Street has confirmed that the Government changed the guidelines covering arms exports to Iraq without announcement in late 1988 five months after the Iran-Iraq ceasefire.
Before that exports were banned if they would “significantly enhance the capability of either side to prolong or exacerbate the conflict”. Afterwards exports were banned if they were of “direct and significant assistance to either country in the conduct of offensive operations in breach of the ceasefire”. Mr Major made clear that any attempt by former ministers to avoid giving evidence to the inquiry would be countered by giving the judge powers to subpoena witnesses.
However, Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, said: “If he has to go back to Downing Street for more powers, we will end up setting up a new and very different inquiry from the one the Government has established.” The Labour leader, John Smith, argued: “By referring to the possibility of extending the powers of the inquiry, the Government is conceding from the very beginning the central weakness of their own proposals – the inability to require evidence in public and on oath.”
But the Attorney General, Nicholas Lyell, stressed that a more powerful inquiry under the 1921 Tribunal Act would make all issues sub-judice. He gave assurances that independent prosecutors would “without fear or favour” lay charges against anyone. Patrick Wintour and Richard Norton-Taylor