Monday, 12 April 2010

Sir John Chilcot in MoD lobbying row

Jonathan Leake and Chris Hastings

SIR John Chilcot, chairman of the Iraq war inquiry, successfully lobbied the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to drop its opposition to a lucrative £150m wind farm project of which he is a director.
Chilcot was among a group of three of the company’s directors who met MoD officials in a private home in London in January 2009. The MoD was blocking the whole scheme because it said the 410ft high turbines would interfere with military radar.
Chilcot, who is a non-executive director of the company, was appointed chairman of the Iraq inquiry on June 15, 2009. Two weeks later, on July 1, the MoD formally dropped its opposition. A public inquiry is due to reopen on Tuesday in Duns in the Scottish Borders.
The disclosure that Chilcot — who has a 1.1% shareholding in the company — has benefited from a policy U-turn by the MoD leaves him vulnerable to accusations of a potential conflict of interest. He has not declared his business links.

An MoD spokesman said: “The MoD has withdrawn its planning objection on the condition that North British Windpower provides a technical solution to interference affecting local air defence radar.”
Nick Harvey, the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, said he would write to the cabinet secretary, asking him if Chilcot should have flagged up his connection with the firm at the start of the inquiry.
As head of the inquiry, Chilcot is responsible for investigating the conduct of senior military and political leaders in the run-up to the war, as well as during the conflict and its aftermath.
Chilcot’s inquiry was intended to settle controversies surrounding the conduct of the Iraq war after previous inquiries were bedevilled by acrimony. The Hutton inquiry, which reported in 2004 on the circumstances surrounding the death of David Kelly, the biological weapons expert, was dismissed as an “Establishment whitewash” after its findings exonerated the government.
In July of that year, the Butler inquiry, whose members included Chilcot, found there were serious flaws in the way the government used intelligence to justify its case for war.
Chilcot’s company, North British Windpower, wants to erect 48 turbines up to 410ft tall on a grouse moor belonging to the Duke of Roxburghe’s estate in the Lammermuir hills, southeast of Edinburgh. It would generate revenues of about £30m per year.
It would be one of the biggest such developments in Britain, but the changing stance of the MoD could be decisive in whether it goes ahead or not.
The scheme was recommended for rejection by a planning inspector in February 2008 because of MoD concerns that many of the turbines would interfere with radar systems at nearby Brizlee Wood air defence radar.
The report was not made public at this stage, but the results were given to the company, which then began lobbying the MoD to change its stance.
In 2009 there were “around half a dozen” meetings between North British Windpower and the MoD, according to Andrew Shaw, the firm’s managing director.
In January 2009, Chilcot, Shaw and Christopher Wilkins, its chairman, met with three officials at Wilkins’s London home.
Shaw confirmed Chilcot was present but said: “Sir John acted largely as an observer at the meeting he attended. He raised one or two points for the sake of clarification, but as far as the company was concerned I was the driving force at the meeting.”
“I had previously found the stance of the MoD bewildering and I wanted someone at the meeting like John who had not been involved in our previous dealings with them and who could provide a fresh perspective.”
The meetings achieved their goal. On July 22, 2009, it emerged that the MoD had formally withdrawn its opposition to the proposal.
The disclosure of Chilcot’s outside business dealings is the second potential embarrassment for the inquiry. In January it emerged that the military historian, Sir Lawrence Freedman, who sits on the Iraq war inquiry with Chilcot, had helped Tony Blair write a speech justifying military interventions.
Freedman wrote to Chilcot to make him aware of the potential conflict of interest on the day Jonathan Powell, Blair’s former chief of staff, was due to give evidence.
A spokesman for the Cabinet Office, which oversees the inquiry, said: “When appointed, panel members were required to disclose any conflict of interest with their appointment to the cabinet secretary. No such conflicts were reported.” He confirmed Chilcot had not declared his links with North British Windpower to his fellow committee members.
Chilcot declined to comment. His wife, Rosalind, said her husband was a sleeping member of the board, who had been in wind farms since they were “a very small egg”.
“John doesn’t use influence. He will not pull strings for anybody, not even me or his mother.”