HC Deb 27 July 1998 vol 317 cc19-35 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook)

With permission, I wish to make a statement on the Legg report.

When I appointed Sir Thomas Legg and Sir Robin Ibbs to conduct their inquiry, I asked them to complete their work before the House rose for the recess in order that I might report it to the House. I am publishing their report today, on the first sitting day after I received it.

The inquiry interviewed seven Ministers and 49 officials. Sir Thomas Legg and Sir Robin Ibbs had access to all the relevant official papers. A member of their team conducted a random search of the files at the Foreign Office and found no document of any relevance to the inquiry which had not already been disclosed.

One of the first findings of the report is that Sandline International and its arms played little or no part in the removal of the junta from Sierra Leone. It is therefore not surprising that the citizens of Sierra Leone cannot comprehend why anyone looks for evidence of a political scandal in the restoration of a civilian Government, in place of a brutal and savage military regime.

Nor have Sir Thomas Legg and Sir Robin Ibbs uncovered any political scandal, after a lengthy inquiry and a search through all the files. Their key findings, in their own words, are that No Minister gave encouragement or approval to Sandline's plan to send a shipment of arms into Sierra Leone. Officials of the African department neither encouraged nor approved the Sandline contract". The report concludes: at no time did they advocate or authorise actions in breach of the law. Sir Thomas Legg and Sir Robin Ibbs find no fault with the conduct of the military liaison officers. In the matter of the much publicised repair to the Sandline helicopter by the crew of HMS Cornwall, the report finds that their action was not improper and was sensible in the circumstances", in that it helped HMS Cornwall to carry out its humanitarian mission". The briefings that Ministers received for the debates on 10 and 12 March were "deficient" and did not provide them with the briefing that they should have received on the referral of the allegations of a breach of the arms embargo.

In sum, after an exhaustive trawl of the files and more than 60 hearings of witnesses, the Legg inquiry has concluded that there was no policy by Ministers to breach the arms embargo, and there was no conspiracy among officials to undermine Government policy.

As the Legg report finds, there were a number of misjudgments by officials, largely due to overload. I have therefore asked the permanent secretary to interview each of the relevant officials and to counsel them on the basis of the findings concerning them—[Interruption.] This is a matter of supreme importance to the careers of a large number of officials. It does no credit to those officials to treat it as a matter of levity. Hon. Members may wish to hear that the Legg report notes: the officials concerned were working hard and conscientiously and should not be judged too harshly". I therefore see no case for any further action against officials.

Mr. Penfold, the high commissioner to Sierra Leone, showed great courage and a commitment to staying at his post during the military coup last year. As a result of his consistent support to President Kabbah, he has won high standing for Britain in the country where he represents Britain. However, the Legg report details a number of criticisms of Mr. Penfold. Mr. Penfold should have taken steps to inform himself more fully about the scope of the arms embargo. He showed a lack of caution in his dealings with Colonel Spicer and to that extent gave Sandline a degree of approval for which he had no authority. He should have made more efforts to ensure that the African department had a proper record of his conversations with President Kabbah and Colonel Spicer. I have asked the permanent secretary to write to him drawing his attention to the relevant findings of the Legg report, but in the circumstances I do not think it would be justified, or in the diplomatic interest, to take any further proceedings against him.

Sir Thomas Legg and Sir Robin Ibbs state that they hope that the report will help the Foreign Office to close the chapter for officials. I agree with them. There will be no scapegoats, and this should be the end of the matter as far as individual officials are concerned. However, for the Foreign Office as an institution, the Legg report must provide the opening of a new chapter.

As Foreign Secretary, I am responsible for the Department and I am determined that we should find out why mistakes were made and make sure that they cannot happen again. The Legg report concludes that most of the trouble originated from systemic and cultural factors. I am therefore today announcing a sweeping programme of changes to address those institutional problems.

During the period covered by the inquiry, from October last year, the managerial structures of the Foreign Office remained exactly as we inherited them in May last year. The departmental hierarchies were the same. The working practices were the same. The procedures for the handling of intelligence were the same. The time has come to change them. The final chapter of the Legg report helpfully details the lessons that must be applied in the future management of the Foreign Office. I am pleased to tell the House that we accept every one of the recommendations in the report.

The Legg report finds that there was not "a sufficiently high priority" for the enforcement of sanctions. There was a dedicated sanctions enforcement desk in the Foreign Office, but the previous Government abolished it in 1996. I can tell the House that I have instructed that such a central unit shall be restored. It will be led by an official whose sole function is to make sure that the enforcement of sanctions receives the full priority that it deserves.

The Legg report expresses concern at the handling of defence intelligence reports when they arrive in the Foreign Office. It is not acceptable that even one such report should have been destroyed before being seen by the relevant official. I have therefore strengthened the procedures to ensure that all such reports are properly logged and that there are clear instructions for their distribution.

The Legg report concludes that there should be more explicit guidance on how to manage relations with private military companies. I have issued guidance that there should be no Foreign Office contact with private military firms without permission, and that where such meetings do take place they should recorded in a full, written report.

The Legg report found that the demands on some Foreign Office officials meant that they had to work at or beyond the limits of their capacity and that this was a contributory cause of what went wrong". During the previous Parliament, my two predecessors at the Foreign Office accepted cuts in their budget of 14 per cent. During the period in office of the previous Prime Minister, the number of staff of desk officer grade in London fell by a quarter. Conservative Members have become fond of describing the Foreign Office as a Rolls-Royce. It is a pity that they tried to run it on two-star petrol.

Only one decade ago, there were 430 staff in the African command. Now there are 328—a loss of about 100 posts. That sharp reduction of staff at the time of an increase in crises in Africa was part of the reason why mistakes were made by staff under impossible pressure. The recent spending review provides the first real increase in the Foreign Office budget for half a dozen years. I have given instructions that part of that increase must be used to strengthen the number of staff on the hard-pressed desks dealing with west Africa and Sierra Leone.

The last lesson of the Legg report is that—[Interruption.] It would have been welcome if hon. Members now chattering had taken some of those actions during the 18 years in which they were in office. After those 18 years, the Legg report finds that there is room for improvement in modern management at the Foreign Office and for fewer layers in the hierarchy. The Foreign Office attracts many of the brightest and most energetic recruits to Whitehall. They deserve a management structure that makes full use of their energy and enables them to rise on merit.

I can announce today that we have agreed on a programme of 60 different measures to improve the management of the Foreign Office. We shall recruit professional managers to specialist posts such as administration, personnel and resources to bring to the Foreign Office modern management methods. We shall increase temporary exchanges to and from the private sector, non-governmental organisations and the academic world, to bring the Foreign Office up to date with working practices and policy thinking in the outside world.

We shall introduce assessment centres to evaluate staff performance to make sure that promotion is made on merit. We shall reduce the hierarchy in the Foreign Office to enable officials to take more responsibility sooner. We shall improve the gender and ethnic balance throughout the Foreign Office—[Interruption.] Hon. Members will observe that Opposition Members do not want a Foreign Office that is representative of all the strengths of modern Britain.

In developing this programme, we have drawn on proposals for change from younger officials. I want them also—not only senior management—to have ownership of this project. I shall therefore invite a number of younger officials to form a working group to monitor progress and come up with fresh ideas.

I have addressed those parts of the Legg report that demolish the fantasy of a ministerial or official conspiracy. Before concluding, I want to address the reality of what has happened in Sierra Leone.

Britain was first on the scene with humanitarian aid after the restoration of President Kabbah. Since the last debate in the House, we have provided police officers to help train a new civilian police force, sponsored the United Nations resolution to provide military observers and provided staff to be those military observers. We are providing aid to fund the process of civil reconstruction and military demobilisation.

Britain is, to date, the only donor to the UN trust fund for Sierra Leone. On Wednesday, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), will attend a donors' conference in New York and will urge others in the international community to join us in helping to fund democracy in Sierra Leone.

I have been challenged to produce the report by my hon. Friend the Minister of State after his visit to Sierra Leone in March. I have no difficulty in sharing with the House his key conclusion: It would be hard to find anywhere on the planet at the moment where there is more enthusiasm for Britain. Our moral, financial and practical support really is welcomed and appreciated. That is the reality of Britain's standing in Sierra Leone among the people who know at first hand about our dealings with their country.

I therefore welcome the findings of the Legg inquiry. I shall implement all its recommendations, which will help to give Britain a modern Foreign Office. Now that the report has been published, it is time that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) started to recognise the immense good will for Britain that we have secured in Sierra Leone and tried to understand that that represents a success, not a failure of foreign policy.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for the access to the report that he gave me this morning, and for the slightly less generous access that he gave me to the statement that he has just made.

This report, although no one would ever have guessed it from the complacency of the Foreign Secretary's statement, discloses a dire state of affairs in one of our great Departments of State. It is severely critical both of Ministers and of officials, and Ministers directly bear responsibility for the most serious failures.

When the Foreign Secretary first came to the House to deal with this matter in response to my private notice question on 6 May, he said that it was a serious matter that should be treated "with great gravity". When Sir Richard Wilson, the Cabinet Secretary, was first fully briefed on the matter, he minuted: This could be very serious. Both he and the Foreign Secretary were right, as is made clear by the report. Their attitude is in sharp contrast with that of the Prime Minister, who described it all as "overblown hoo-hah".

The inquiry that led to this report was not the inquiry that we asked for. It should have been held in public. If the Foreign Secretary had meant what he said about the need for an open investigation, it would have been held in public. The notes of evidence taken by the inquiry have not been published. Will the Foreign Secretary now undertake to publish them in the interests of open government, so that everyone can reach his own judgment, and will he publish the documents that are listed in the appendices to the report?

The picture painted by this report is of a Foreign Office in shambles. We already knew that Ministers contradicted each other and themselves, that officials contradicted Ministers and themselves and that telegrams were lost and faxes destroyed, but the detailed evidence in the report is almost beyond belief. Letters from the high commissioner go missing, reports from the military liaison officer in Sierra Leone are destroyed, officials are asked to attend meetings to take a note because they should be on their guard", but no note is taken.

In all, the report contains an amazing 30 specific criticisms of the Foreign Office. It attributes those failures to what it describes as "systemic and cultural factors". We do not have to look very far to identify the source of those factors. In a television programme entitled "How To Be Foreign Secretary", the Foreign Secretary made the following boast: I have found that you can be a successful Foreign Secretary if you focus on the big questions and not necessarily finish the paperwork. If officials know that the Foreign Secretary is not going to finish the paperwork, what incentive do they have to take care of it? The Foreign Secretary has told us about all the things that he intends to do to sort out the Foreign Office. Does he not accept that the cultural factors that are referred to in the report are a direct result of his own attitude and of the approach that he boasts that he takes?

The report is not exhaustive. It does not, for example, comment explicitly on the protestations of the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who has responsibility for Africa, the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), and of the Foreign Secretary on his behalf that the Minister of State saw papers merely for noting in mid-April and was not fully informed of the allegations made by Sandline until 1 May; but is it not crystal clear from paragraphs 9.50 to 9.56 of the report that the Minister of State knew all the essentials of those allegations in mid-April, considered them in detail and did nothing?

The Foreign Secretary told the House that those papers gave rise to no ground for apprehension or concern.—[Official Report, 12 May 1998; Vol. 312, c. 160.] The report describes those same papers as "sensitive and potentially troublesome". Given the complete inconsistency between the account of events in the report and the account given to the House and its Select Committee by the Foreign Secretary and the Minister of State, does the Foreign Secretary now accept that his earlier account was completely inaccurate, and will he now withdraw it?

Most damning of all, the report explains very clearly what in essence went wrong and why. The Foreign Secretary said that the report failed to uncover any political scandal. That is characteristic of the right hon. Gentleman's culture of complacency. In fact, the report concludes that the Foreign Office should have explained both the arms embargo imposed by the United Nations resolution and the Order in Council more widely and effectively. The report states that their failure to do so created a hazard for all who were affected. The nature of that hazard is clear: it is that British citizens might commit a criminal offence under the Order in Council and risk imprisonment for seven years in consequence.

The cause of the failure to explain the arms embargo more effectively is equally clear. Devastatingly, the report concludes that, although the British framers of the United Nations resolution that imposed the arms embargo on Sierra Leone intended that embargo to be comprehensive in its coverage and had no doubt that it was, British officials and Ministers—and Ministers—played the report down, not accidentally but deliberately. That is the report's finding, and the reason, at least in part, was that Ministers knew that there were those on the ground in west Africa who, in the words of the report, explicitly contemplated the use of force. Paragraph 3.29 of the report states: Government has a responsibility to give citizens, and its own officials, reasonable publicity and explanation of the laws it makes under delegated powers, especially laws creating criminal offences. That was not done in this case. Given that failure and the report's finding that it was the result of a deliberate attempt by Ministers to deceive, how can the Foreign Secretary remain in office?

Mr. Cook

I have to report to the House that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe had six hours in which to prepare that response, in the course of which he could find only five questions. That is despite the fact that his six hours to study one volume was twice as long as the time that I had to study the five volumes of the Scott inquiry. I am bound to say that I came back with more than five questions.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman's reading of the report does not seem to have been complete. He quoted paragraph 9.55 as showing that my hon. Friend the Minister of State did not closely consider the documents that were given to him because, as it stated in the paragraph "their allegations were sensitive"—[Interruption.] That is what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said. He read that paragraph. I shall read to the House the rest of the paragraph. It states that the documents: were also misleading, since they appeared to be saying that the FCO had no prior knowledge of any shipment of arms. In the absence of reference to the full facts …they were substantially incomplete. My hon. Friend the Minister of State was entirely justified in coming to the conclusion that he reached in mid-April.

The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe says that the report is severely critical of Ministers. He has the opportunity to speak again at the end of this exchange. I challenge him to find one single paragraph in the hundred-odd pages of the report which is severely critical of Ministers. Of course he complained that this was not a public inquiry, but a private, independent inquiry not held in public. That is a bit rich from a right hon. and learned Member who as Home Secretary never once ordered a public inquiry into the 17 times that he lost cases in the courts. For that matter, he never once ordered an independent Legg-type inquiry either. In reality, he wanted a public inquiry because it would have taken another two years to finish, in the course of which he could have gone around every studio peddling his conspiracy theories without their being knocked on the head as they have been today.

Having found nothing of substance in the report, the right hon. and learned Gentleman fell back on the device of playing the man rather than playing the ball. His attacks on me would be offensive if his own record did not make them comic. After all, he was the Home Secretary who explained that he was not responsible when the IRA escaped from prisons, because that was an operational matter. He was responsible for the policy, which was to keep them inside.

I am glad to have the right hon. and learned Gentleman as a partner and I am glad that events today have confirmed that we will be together for another year. He is very helpful to me. However, in fairness to everybody else, it is time that he started to show some interest in serious foreign policy questions, instead of making mountains out of molehills, as he has done on this issue.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

I thank my right hon. Friend for allowing me to see the Legg report in advance, which I commend to other Ministers as an excellent precedent in dealing with Chairmen of Select Committees. Having read the report over some seven hours this morning, I do not recognise the description given by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard).

Is not the clear message in the report that no Minister encouraged, approved or had knowledge of the sale of arms to Sierra Leone? Although the misunderstandings, accidents and human failings which are detailed clearly in the report need to be seriously addressed, they give no support to those who have consistently tried to pillory Ministers to go for the men and the women and not for the ball, and who tried, unavailingly, to dress up the matter as though it were an arms to Iraq scandal.

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to my hon. Friend both for his statement and for his thanks to me for making the report available to him six hours before this statement. He has plainly considered the report with his usual close attention and diligence. I confirm that he has come to the absolutely correct conclusion—[Interruption.]—as will every other hon. Member who bothers to read his way through the report.

The report makes it clear that there was no ministerial approval, encouragement or prior knowledge of the Sandline contract. I look forward to my exchange tomorrow with the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, when I will be able to demonstrate that to all its members.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

Notwithstanding the constrained language of the report and the Foreign Secretary's characteristic and robust defence, is not the truth that the report reveals an embarrassing catalogue of error and inadequate management, which has no doubt substantially dented the Foreign Office's reputation for effortless superiority?

As the report finds that senior officials in the Foreign Office did not give sanctions enforcement a sufficiently high priority, whose was the responsibility for that? As the report finds that Mr. Penfold acted without authority in some matters and showed a lack of caution in others, whose was the responsibility for that? Who was directing his actions in an area of foreign policy of obvious importance to the Government? Where is the evidence of the ministerial scrutiny which the House was entitled to expect?

Why did the Minister of State persist in giving the impression in the House and elsewhere that the arms embargo was confined to the military junta which had seized power, when it clearly applied to any transfer of arms to anyone in Sierra Leone, as the report has found? If, as the report concludes, misunderstanding of the arms embargo was a significant part of the problem, did not the Minister of State contribute to that misunderstanding?

The Foreign Secretary has made substantial proposals for the restructuring of the Department, but the House would be interested to know what lessons Ministers intend to learn from these matters.

Mr. Cook

I can respond straight away to the hon. and learned Gentleman's last point. We have already issued guidance on the briefing for Ministers, in particular that there should be a clear and highly prominent display of those points that are likely to be sensitive in Parliament and among the public.

To pick up one of the wider points made in the Legg report, it highlights that there has been a lack of sensitivity in the handling of a matter that might be of concern to Parliament and the public. That is why I believe that it is important to press ahead with the commitments that I have given the House to increase exchanges to and from the Foreign Office with the outside world, in order to break down what is possibly too closed a culture within the Foreign Office.

The hon. and learned Gentleman asked about contact and control of the high commissioner to Sierra Leone. In fairness to both sides, it should be borne in mind that he was operating in unique circumstances. He was in an hotel in a country where there was no British mission, and where there was therefore no opportunity for secure communication.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

That is not true.

Mr. Cook

As a matter of fact, it is true. The high commissioner was in an hotel in Conakry, where we have no British mission. Therefore, any secure communication he made had to go via either Germany or Nigeria. In those circumstances, the breakdown in communication is understandable, but it should not have happened.

I should like to pick up the hon. and learned Gentleman's opening remark. There are lessons in the matter for Foreign Office management, and I have outlined to the House how I intend to act on them. I hope that I will be able to work with the Select Committee in seeing through those changes and in discussing how we shall apply them. However, I tell both him and the House that, going into that programme of changes, it will not help us to encourage anyone to believe that there is effortless superiority on the part of anyone. It is important that we frankly examine the things that went wrong, work out why they went wrong, learn from those mistakes and show the humility—all within the Foreign Office—to apply the lessons of those mistakes.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Will the Foreign Secretary reflect on the fact that many people are uncomfortable about firms such as Sandline being able to continue operating from the United Kingdom? I wonder whether Ministers will examine the efficacy of such military outfits working from here, and consider whether, as a matter of principle, they should be regulated or banned from operating in the United Kingdom.

We are overstretched not only in Africa but, for example, in the Caspian region and in the former Soviet Union's Asian republics. As a crisis comparable with that in Sierra Leone could occur in other dangerous spots in the world, is there not serious overstretch which has to be dealt with urgently? The Foreign Secretary has already given the example of Conakry, which has no United Kingdom representation. Does not our level of representation stand in stark contrast to that of the Federal Republic of Germany, which has many more diplomatic missions—diplomats and trade officials—around the world, yet does not have the legacy of modern empire and obligations, as we do? Is it not time that we substantially increased both the number of countries in which we are represented and the number of diplomats representing us there?

Mr. Cook

First—in response to my hon. Friend's question about military firms—the Government will continue to keep the matter under review. I am interested in the regulations for such firms that South Africa has introduced. However, I should tell him that the immediate first step is the one that we were right to have taken: to ensure that any Foreign Office contact with such firms occurs only with permission and with a full report on a written record. That arrangement is now in place and should prevent a recurrence of some of the difficulties that arose from incautious contacts with Sandline over this year.

My hon. Friend made a perfectly reasonable point on overstretch. All the countries in the Caspian basin region became independent new countries at the very time when the previous Government were cutting the Foreign Office budget and there were no spare resources to be redeployed. Consequently, we have 13 diplomats in total among five countries there, compared with more than 80 diplomats from Germany. That is the current situation in a region that will very shortly be producing 10 per cent. of the world's oil production—which is why it is so important that we ensure that we have a more adequate diplomatic representation. I can tell my hon. Friend that one of the priority areas where we will be spending our extra resources will be the Caspian region.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

As a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, my main concern is to know whether the Foreign Secretary has no shame. Does he have no embarrassment at blaming a shortage of officials for his Ministers' failure to read and act on their papers? Does he have absolutely no embarrassment at dumping almost all the blame on Peter Penfold and accepting absolutely none himself? Does he have no embarrassment at publishing the findings of the Legg inquiry while refusing to publish the evidence?

Mr. Cook

It is not I but the Legg report that is pointing out that many of the mistakes that occurred had, as a contributory cause, the fact that, to use the Legg report's words, officials in the Foreign Office had to work at or beyond the limits of their capacity. It was the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported who left us with a Foreign Office in which those officials faced that impossible overload. The hon. Gentleman asks about shame; I am inclined to ask him whether the previous Government have no shame about putting officials in the position of having far too heavy a work load to discharge.

I would perfectly happily accept any criticisms of myself in the report, but there are none. There are some criticisms of Peter Penfold, but I thought that I put them perfectly in perspective to the House. He is a high commissioner who has served Britain well, and I have no intention of taking further formal disciplinary proceedings against him. As I said, there will be no scapegoats. The important thing is that, as an institution, we learn the lessons and make the necessary changes.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the publication of the Legg report has exposed the cynical attempt by Members on the Opposition Front Bench and some members of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee to create something of substance out of something that simply did not exist? The previous Government are responsible for the cuts in budget, staff and the enforcement desk. Instead of allowing the Select Committee to get on with its real work, the Opposition have tried to use it to concoct a conspiracy. Should not those who continually call for the resignation of my hon. Friend the Minister of State start apologising to the House?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West makes his own points in his own way, and it is unnecessary for me to add to them. However, as he refers to the Select Committee, of which he is a member, I should like to say that I hope that the publication of the report will enable us to close a chapter in the relationship between the Foreign Office and the Select Committee. Having gone through the report, I do not believe that there is any further fact left to be chased about what happened. Where I would welcome a constructive engagement with the Select Committee is in making sure that the Foreign Office and I are harried, pursued and kept up to scratch in putting in place the programme of reform that I have announced today.

Sir Raymond Whitney (Wycombe)

The Foreign Secretary has told the House that the Legg report confirms that the Minister of State and the Under-Secretary of State were briefed on 10 and 12 March. Does that not call into question some of the subsequent ministerial statements? What were the alleged deficiencies in those briefings on 10 and 12 March? Finally, will the reforms to the Foreign Office procedures, which the Foreign Secretary has announced today, include an improvement of the procedure whereby the Foreign Secretary signs important authorisations submitted to him by the Director General of GCHQ, so that in future the Foreign Secretary will not incur the wrath of or any rebuke from the security controller?

Mr. Cook

I did indeed say that Ministers were briefed for the debates on 10 and 12 March—it would have been quite extraordinary if they had not been briefed. However, I also told the House that they were not briefed that allegations of a breach of the arms embargo had been passed to Customs and Excise. For the record, the report says that the briefing in relation to Baroness Symons was "inaccurate, incoherent and indigestible".

The hon. Gentleman went on to refer to the question of the signing of warrants. I concede straight away that there was an error at the end of last year, when the wrong form was attached to a submission for a warrant submitted to me. I read the submission and signed the form, unaware that it was the wrong form. I apologise to the House for that error. As the commissioner very fairly acknowledged, I have put in place procedures to make sure that that can never happen again.

The experience has prompted me to read the back numbers of the reports of commissioners. I discovered that in the last three years of the previous Government, there was not one error, not three errors, but 33 errors, including one when the Secretary of State dated the warrant but failed to sign it. I have apologised to the House for that one error. I hope that the Conservatives will apologise for their 33 errors.

Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney)

In the spirit that my right hon. Friend suggests of constructive thoughts as to the future management structure of the Foreign Office, I recall there being a hierarchical, centralised decision-making system. The report describes an alternative structure of autonomous commands, and it seems most extraordinary that information did not come out of the Department, even to senior officials, let alone Ministers. Does that not leave room for thought and reconsideration in the light of the findings of the report?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about one of the key findings of the report—the need to improve communications within the Foreign Office, part of which may be to do with the hierarchy within the Foreign Office. I am anxious that we should consider that very carefully, because I want to minimise the number of steps through which any piece of information must go before it reaches the effective level. I can assure my hon. Friend that I will be pursuing that, I hope in co-operation with the Select Committee.

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey)

Not being a member of the press, who as ever have had days and waves of spin and information, and not being Chairman of the Select Committee, I have only the Secretary of State' s statement. It seemed to be a breathless account of shameless complacency and buck passing by a Foreign Secretary who invested unprecedented amounts in promoting his ethical foreign policy and launching his mission statement—a coffee-table book on human rights, with more photographs than text, including one of himself shaking hands with President Suharto of Indonesia. Does he now think that all that effort on videos, coffee-table books, spin and hype could have been better spent in ensuring that his Department was running better? Is this not another example of the total preoccupation with style over substance that characterises the Government?

Mr. Cook

If I recall rightly, the launch of the mission statement last May cost exactly £6,000. The right hon. Lady's point entirely overlooks everything that I have said about modern management methods and about the fact that no private sector organisation approaching anything like the scale of the Foreign Office would not have a clear, agreed mission statement from the top.

As for publishing a human rights report, that was one of our manifesto commitments. It may surprise the right hon. Lady to hear this, but we believe that it is a priority to carry out our manifesto commitments. The cost of publishing that report was well below the travel budget of the Select Committee in investigating it.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement this afternoon, although it is surprising, if the Legg report found nothing seriously wrong, that it should be the occasion of no fewer than 60 changes to the management of the Foreign Office. Does he agree that one matter of particular interest to those outside the House who have a real interest in Africa is the increased scrutiny and control of officials' relationships with mercenaries? Mercenary forces have played a particularly malign role in the history of Africa post-independence. I hope that, arising from the Legg report, there will be more and better scrutiny of how officials relate to mercenaries.

Mr. Cook

I can give my hon. Friend a categorical assurance that I do not expect any official ever again to meet a private military firm without first seeking senior permission—and I will wish to know whenever such a permission is given—and without submitting a full written record. I am confident that those rules will make sure that we will not end up once again in the position when, quite frankly, officials were taken advantage of.

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling)

The right hon. Gentleman referred to criticisms in the Legg report of the high commissioner apparently failing to inform himself sufficiently of the ambit of the UK sanctions order in relation to Sierra Leone. Does he agree that it would have been fairer to the high commissioner had he not also made it clear that his Department had failed to convey to the high commissioner the complete terms of the UK sanctions order?

Mr. Cook

As I said to the House, there were misjudgments by officials in the African department and that is why they will be interviewed by the permanent secretary. One example was the failure to make sure that the information was properly available to the high commissioner. However, the terms of the resolution are routinely circulated to all posts. In this case, it is likely that there was a problem because of the unique circumstances in which our high commissioner to Sierra Leone was operating—he was not in the post at the time. There is a reason why information did not reach him. However, having considered the matter carefully, the Legg inquiry believed that there was fault on both sides. He should have been informed, but he should also have taken more trouble to make sure that he was informed.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, of all the statements that I have heard in the House about arms sanctions busting, this is the only case in which the end result was the restoration of a democratic Government, not keeping in power tyrannies that we have condemned many times. I do not condone mercenaries in any way—as my right hon. Friend said, Sandline's position was clearly much exaggerated—and I recognise the United Nations Security Council resolution, but is not this country's popularity in Sierra Leone based on the fact that we were associated with the democratic forces, not with those who overthrew a democratically elected Government?

Mr. Cook

President Kabbah—there could be no greater authority on the issue—has written at length to express his appreciation of the moral support, financial support and advice that he received from Britain during his period in exile. Throughout that exile, we were a close friend of President Kabbah and the legitimate Government of Sierra Leone. We pursued that friendship in the United Nations, the Commonwealth and Conakry, where he was in exile. Now that he has been restored, Britain is foremost in leading the international effort to achieve civil reconstruction and an end to the fighting. We can all take some satisfaction from Britain's positive record in Sierra Leone. Now that the Legg inquiry's report has been published, I hope that that can be seen.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Would not the Foreign Secretary's statement have carried more authority if, instead of reciting the mantra about "systemic and cultural" deficiencies in his Department, he had outlined some of the specific examples of mismanagement by Foreign Office officials? Would we not have more confidence that things were going to get better in his Department if he were to say how, for example, the recruitment of more ethnic or female members of staff would have helped the resolution of the crisis, or why, given that Sandline personnel were instrumental in the efficacious distribution of food aid, he is so ready to apportion blame to specialist personnel on whose services Her Majesty's Government clearly had cause to call?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman talks about a mantra of "systemic and cultural" factors. Those words are quoted directly from the Legg report, which I hope that he will find time to study. I have presented the changes to the House clearly as a programme to modernise the Foreign Office and ensure that it is representative of modern Britain. I have a single figure number of women heads of mission out of 140-odd posts. If the hon. Gentleman does not understand why improving that gender balance should be part of a modern programme, I cannot help him any further.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

Does my right hon. Friend believe that, in the light of the report, the attacks made on him and on the Foreign Office by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) can be seen to be full of sound and fury, signifying nothing"? To pursue the quotation, they were a tale told by a right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend makes his point well and with great literary knowledge. I shall not pursue him on that. I used to be a teacher of English and I would give him 100 per cent. for that effort.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

Twice this afternoon, the right hon. Gentleman has quoted the Legg report, saying that the briefing provided to Ministers in advance of the Adjournment debate in March was seriously inadequate. Given that, does it not follow that—perhaps entirely inadvertently—Ministers misled the House? If that is so, should there not be a formal apology?

Mr. Cook

If the House was misled, of course there should be an apology. I have refreshed my memory by re-reading this morning what was said in the relevant passage by the Minister of State, and did not see any point at which he could have been accused of misleading the House. It is to his credit that he raised the issue in a debate in which nobody else raised it. I think that he should have had a full briefing on the allegations, although I should add that I would have been very distressed had he told the House that a Customs and Excise investigation was about to start. We are not going to get many convictions if we start to insist that Ministers should announce such investigations the moment they are set up.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

I was in a minority of one on the Select Committee in arguing for the Committee to investigate the Sierra Leone affair following the publication of the Legg report. I argued that case in the interests of natural justice for those who were to be cross-examined by Sir Thomas Legg. The Foreign Secretary referred to officials needing to obtain permission before they engage in discussions and negotiations with representatives of private military companies. Should the process not be tougher than that? Should there not be a code of practice concerning dealings with these so-called private military companies? Did not my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) get to the heart of the matter, when he said that there should be tougher supervision and regulation of groups of mercenaries that go under the rubric "private military companies"?

Mr. Cook

As I said, we will keep very much under review whether further supervision or regulation is required. I assure my hon. Friend that I have circulated written guidance—it goes under the rubric of "code of conduct"—that will require permission to be sought at head of Department level before any such contact takes place. Nobody should assume that, when sought, such a permission will automatically be given.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

The report offers no criticism of Ministers, yet does the Foreign Secretary not understand that it should have done so—and for the following reason? Speaking as a former civil servant, may I ask whether the Foreign Secretary understands that a strong culture throughout the civil service demands that civil servants direct their efforts towards full and accurate briefing of Ministers? Does he not understand that Ministers might not have received a full and accurate briefing, and, in pursuance of that, neglected or failed to give full, accurate and timely information to Parliament, because of the way in which he and other Ministers conducted themselves in the management of the Department? Before the Foreign Secretary casts out the mote in other's eyes, should he not see whether there is a beam in his own?

Mr. Cook

If the hon. Gentleman wants to bother to take the time to read the Legg report, he will find that the passage on briefing of Ministers is, perhaps, the longest in the report. If he looks at it, he will find that it is not consistent with his description of conventional practice. As for the rest of his comments, I would say only that the idea that I should have sent back the Legg report because it did not criticise me sufficiently has given me the best laugh of the day.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Am I misguided in being rather uneasy about the treatment of a letter to Peter Penfold? On 11 May, the Prime Minister was widely reported as going out of his way to praise Britain's high commissioner in Sierra Leone, Peter Penfold, who was accused of co-operating with a mercenary operation mounted by Sandline International. According to the Prime Minister, Mr. Penfold had done "a superb job" in dealing with the consequences of the military coup and in working closely with the President. How can a man who was told by his Prime Minister in May that he had done "a superb job" receive a career-ruining letter of rebuke—for that is what it is—and be required to attend an interview with the permanent secretary in July? What differed between May and July?

Mr. Cook

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister indeed said that Peter Penfold behaved as a hero during the original coup. In fairness to myself, I repeated that point in my statement when I said that Mr. Penfold showed great courage and commitment during that original coup and that he had since won high standing for Britain in Sierra Leone. He is entirely entitled to have that good record taken into account against the explicit findings of the Legg report on his contacts with Sandline. I announced to the House that I had taken that into account; that is why I do not intend to institute any formal proceedings against him. In the circumstances, a letter drawing the permanent secretary's attention to the report's findings is the least that could be done; indeed, I should expect the House to expect me to make him aware of what was said in the report.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

Do not the "systemic and cultural" problems revealed by the report underline the fact that the Foreign Affairs Committee was entirely correct to take a real interest in the matter? Is not the Foreign Secretary slightly concerned at the lack of intellectual curiosity displayed by senior members of his Department when difficult questions on Sierra Leone were asked in March and April? Does he regret that his decision to change the sanctions regime on arms exports was not highlighted in the report published by the Department of Trade and Industry on 1 July?

Mr. Cook

I plainly could not have expected the Department of Trade and Industry to highlight in its report of 1 July something that I am announcing in response to a report that I received on 24 July, but we shall be in contact with the DTI, with which we work closely on this matter, to ensure that everyone understands our new working procedures. I am not sure that I am entirely aware of the difficult questions that the hon. Gentleman says were raised in March. The Legg report certainly draws attention to the failure in February of senior management to act on information, but that is put in the context of what was then a major military engagement in Sierra Leone and of the substantial demand for humanitarian assistance, which management perhaps rightly regarded at the time as the more important priority.

Mr. Howard

May I again direct the Foreign Secretary's attention to the questions that I posed at the end of my response to his statement? He may not have heard them; he certainly made no attempt to answer them. Is he aware of the criticisms in paragraph 3.19 of the report that Ministers played down the fact that the coverage of the United Nations Security Council resolution was comprehensive? Does he appreciate that the report concludes that that playing down was deliberate, as Ministers knew that people on the ground were contemplating the use of force? Has he read paragraph 3.20, which, together with paragraph 3.19, specifically criticises the Minister of State and his answers to Parliament? Is he aware of the seriousness of those criticisms? Does he have any defence to them? If so, will he now say what it is?

Mr. Cook

The most obvious defence to paragraph 3.20 is that it does not refer to my hon. Friend the Minister of State—[Interruption.] I am merely reading the paragraph to which, after six hours of research, the right hon. and learned Gentleman has directed me. If the most damaging paragraph that he could find was one that contained no reference to my hon. Friend, perhaps I should have given him 12 hours to demonstrate how clean the report was.

On paragraph 3.19, much of the presentation was indeed that the UN resolution was aimed at the military junta. In that, the statements were entirely correct—the embargo applied to the junta. It did not apply only to the junta, however, and we shall take on board the recommendation that we ensure that all press lines give the full legal position. In defence of the news department and my officials, I should say that someone in the outside world who took a news line as an authoritative statement of the legal position would be very odd.

Mr. Howard

On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

I am sorry, but I cannot accept points of order until we have heard all the statements. I will take points of order after the next statement.