HOW to make sure that ministers are telling Parliament the truth about government policy has become the central issue in Britain's long-running inquiry into the supply of arms to Iraq in the run-up to President Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait.
The question was brought to center-stage on Dec. 8 when Lady Thatcher, the former prime minister, told the arms-for-Iraq inquiry that she was never informed officially that equipment that could be used to make nuclear weapons was being sold to the Baghdad regime. It is the first time a former or sitting prime minister has been asked to appear before a public inquiry. Prime Minister John Major has also been asked to testify.
Lady Thatcher's denial came under swift attack. Robin Cook, the Labour opposition trade spokesman, charged that Lady Thatcher had ``deceived parliament'' about the operation of government guidelines on the sale of arms. Mr. Cook also accused Mr. Major of failing to inform Parliament that weaponsmaking equipment was being sold to Iraq before the Kuwait invasion.
``I was interested in the big issues,'' Thatcher said.
``To me making it possible for Saddam Hussein to try to build the bomb is a big issue,'' Cook responded.
The inquiry, convened under Lord Justice Scott last year, is not about whether armsmaking equipment was made available to the Saddam regime - a fact that has been fully verified. A stream of ministers, former ministers, and civil servants have been required to explain why this happened when guidelines forbidding such sales were in operation.
The Scott inquiry followed a case against three businessmen accused of selling armsmaking equipment to Iraq collapsed when it emerged that government ministers had approved their part in the arms trade but were willing to let the businessmen go to prison.
During her testimony, Thatcher told Lord Scott that the guidelines on arms trading with Iraq had been changed during her term in office. But she insisted that although the relaxation had been approved by three ministers, she had not been informed. Nobody had told her the policy change made it possible for Britain to sell machine tools that could be used to build nuclear weapons.
Under the British system, ministers are directly accountable to Parliament for their conduct of policy. They are regularly questioned in the House of Commons and are required to tell the truth. If they are found to have knowingly misled Parliament, they are usually expected to resign.
Influential sections of the British media are asking whether the format in which prime ministers answer questions is strict enough to ensure that truthful answers are obtained.