HC Deb 06 May 1998 vol 311 cc721-31 3.31 pm
Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs whether he will make a statement on reports concerning British arms sales to Sierra Leone in breach of the United Nations arms embargo.

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook)

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his question and I welcome the opportunity to inform the House of the action being pursued by the Government to ensure that the allegations to which he refers are fully investigated.

At the request of the Foreign Office, Customs and Excise is conducting an investigation into whether arms were supplied to Sierra Leone in breach of the UN embargo. The chairman of Customs and Excise has requested that while that investigation proceeds, nothing should be said that could prejudice it. I have made it clear throughout my Department that I want every assistance provided to the investigation, and I have no intention of saying anything that could prejudice its successful completion. Nor would I wish to say anything that might prejudice the rights of defendants in any future court case.

Those constraints are necessary and every Member of the House will recognise that I have a duty to observe them. But I am able, within that limitation, to outline to the House the events leading up to the investigation and the subsequent conduct of the issue in the Foreign Office.

I shall first set out the background to the allegations. In May 1997, President Kabbah, the democratically elected leader of Sierra Leone, was deposed in a military coup. In October, the UN Security Council passed resolution 1132, which imposed an arms embargo on Sierra Leone. It was promptly implemented in this country by an Order in Council prepared by the Foreign Office. Earlier this year, President Kabbah was restored to power in Sierra Leone with the assistance of military forces from the region.

In February, Lord Avebury wrote to an official in the Foreign Office reporting allegations that arms had been flown from Bulgaria to supply forces loyal to President Kabbah by arrangement through Sandline, a British company. The letter was drawn to the attention of our legal advisers, and on 10 March, the Foreign Office formally advised Customs and Excise of the allegations, with the suggestion that it commence an investigation. Foreign Office officials have since co-operated fully with the subsequent investigation, and Customs and Excise has full access to all relevant Foreign Office papers and officials.

I was first informed of the Customs and Excise investigation on the evening of 28 April by a special adviser who had a noted a letter to me from Sandline's solicitors. The next day, I minuted the permanent secretary, stressing the importance that I attached to full and open co-operation with the Customs and Excise investigation.

The private office of the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who has responsibility for Africa, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), received copies of papers on the customs investigation in early April, and they were shown to him for noting in mid-April. However, he was not fully informed of the allegations made by Sandline of Foreign Office contact until Friday 1 May. At no point was any ministerial approval given for the activities of Sandline. Nor was there any ministerial discussion of the activities of Sandline, or any meeting between Ministers and Sandline.

Sandline's allegation that it had approval for its activities from a member or members of the Foreign Office staff is— I believe— part of the customs investigation. We have been requested by Customs and Excise not to hold any investigation of our own while its investigation continues. However, I assure the House that I am determined to establish the full facts. I can therefore announce that it is my intention that, as soon as Customs and Excise is in a position to agree, I shall invite a person from outside the Foreign Office and the diplomatic service to carry out a full investigation. The report of that investigation will, of course, be made public. In the meantime, I commend Foreign Office officials for their prompt action in drawing the allegations to the attention of Customs and Excise and for initiating the investigation.

This Government have consistently supported the legitimacy of the United Nations. This Government abide by the resolutions of the Security Council and are committed to the rule of international law. I assure the House that we have not, and we will not, condone any breach of international law.

Mr. Howard

I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for his reply and his assurance that there will be an independent inquiry into the matter and that the report of that inquiry will be published in full. It is essential that the whole truth of the murky affair should be exposed to public view and that appropriate judgments can be made and appropriate action taken.

The Foreign Secretary told us that the first he knew about the matter was when a letter from Sandline was drawn to his attention on 28 April. Can he tell us the date of that letter? Will he tell us a little more about the debate in which the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) took part in the House on 12 March after, according to the Foreign Secretary's account, his officials had decided to ask Customs and Excise to conduct an inquiry into the matter? Why did the Minister of State, who had clearly been briefed on the matter in order to speak in the debate on 12 March, not refer to that inquiry?

Is the Foreign Secretary seriously telling the House that Foreign and Commonwealth officials had asked Customs and Excise on 10 March to conduct an inquiry, but told the Minister of State nothing whatever about it before he came to the House for a debate on 12 March? Is it seriously suggested that they did not inform him of their request? If that is so, does not that indicate that Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials are wholly out of control? Is that not an utterly unacceptable state of affairs? Can the Foreign Secretary give us some assurance now of the action he will take if what must be the case, on the basis of the account he has given this afternoon, is ultimately proved to be so by the independent inquiry that he has assured us he will set up?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for what I understood was his welcome for my announcement. As to the letter from Sandline, I speak from memory, but, if I recall rightly, it was 24 April. [HON. MEMBERS: "Here is the answer."] I see that this note tells me that my memory is correct— it was 24 April. I am grateful to hon. Members for pointing out the prompt note, but I did not need it. It is probable that I would have heard about the matter on the Monday; except that, on the Monday and Tuesday— as the right hon. and learned Gentleman is aware— I was in Brussels. The difference between 24 and 28 April is a perfectly narrow period of time.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked a serious question about the debate in the House on 12 March. That is a matter of deep concern to me, and of proper concern to the House. I answered the right hon. and learned Gentleman's question by saying that the Minister of State first heard about the Customs and Excise investigation in mid-April. It is unsatisfactory that he was put at the Dispatch Box in Parliament to speak to the House without being informed that a Customs and Excise investigation had been requested on 10 March. That was unfair to the Minister of State and unfair to Parliament. That will most certainly form part of the independent inquiry which I have announced.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked, breathtakingly, what action I will take. It would be quite wrong of me to prejudge what the independent inquiry might find or what action will follow, but I can assure him that we are determined to get at the facts and that the facts will be followed by necessary action.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

To put the matter in perspective, would not any attempt by any person to compare this matter with arms for Iraq be totally absurd, not only because of the immediate, prompt and positive response of the Foreign Secretary in setting up an independent inquiry, but because the aim was not to support a dictatorial regime with arms which could be used against our own troops, but to seek the re-establishment of a democratically and internationally recognised president?

Having said that, on 10 March my right hon. Friend's officials referred this matter to Customs and Excise for investigation. There is surely a fairly simple point at issue here which could be easily ascertained. Can my right hon. Friend say whether, between 10 March and now, it has been drawn to his attention whether a licence for the export of those arms was issued? If that could be done orally, is there any minute in the relevant Department to suggest that an export licence had been issued, as has been said today by Mr. Slowe, the solicitor acting on behalf of Sandline?

Mr. Cook

No licence was given for the export of any arms; nor is there an allegation that any arms were shipped from Britain. The allegation is that they were shipped from Bulgaria, but that the contract may have been arranged by a British company. If the allegations are correct— I am not in a position to say whether they are— that gives rise to an offence within Britain under the terms of the UN resolution. That is why we are treating the matter with great gravity, but there has been no suggestion of either arms being shipped from Britain or any licence being approved for such a shipment. As to any comparison with Matrix Churchill, the central problem there was the way in which the then Ministers sought to cover up what had happened and their own involvement. By contrast, we are being full and open in co-operating with an investigation which we ourselves have requested.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

I commend the Foreign Secretary on his decision to establish an independent inquiry in due course. He referred in passing to the Scott inquiry. He will recall not only that Lord Justice Scott found that the House had been deliberately misled, but that when that finding was made, the Cabinet of the then Government declined to accept the finding of the independent inquiry that they had established.

Does the right hon. Member agree that for the independent inquiry which he proposes, there are four substantial and important questions? First, was there any breach of UN Security Council 1132? Secondly, has there been a contravention of domestic criminal law? Thirdly, is there any Foreign Office implication at any level? Fourthly, why were Ministers not informed much earlier than was the case in the account of events that he has just given the House?

Do not those matters and the answers that the Foreign Secretary has given to questions underline yet again the need for parliamentary scrutiny of arms exports through the medium of a Select Committee of the House of Commons?

Mr. Cook

We are, of course, committed to greater openness on the export of arms, and that is why we are committed to an annual report on strategic arms exports, the first of which we will be launching shortly. While I understand the hon. and learned Gentleman's concern and would not disagree with the general thrust of what he said, he is wide of the mark in this case, because there is no suggestion that arms were exported from Britain or any licence was given, or indeed, that any decision taken by the British Government is relevant.

The hon. and learned Gentleman asked four relevant questions and he will appreciate that the first three are entirely matters for the criminal investigation and it would not be proper for me to comment on them. The fourth is certainly an issue that must be central to the independent inquiry that will follow the customs investigation.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the previous Government referred the British Manufacturing and Research Company, BMARC, to the Select Committee on Trade and Industry. Unfortunately, that Committee did not have the resources to get to the bottom of the matter. Therefore, will he ensure that the independent investigation has the resources and has access to the documentation to get to the bottom of this matter?

Mr. Cook

I assure my hon. Friend that any independent person we appoint to carry out that investigation will have the full run of Foreign Office files and officials— I would not expect a person of seniority and independence to accept the post on any other basis. I also assure the House that those files and officials are also currently available to the customs investigation, which we are giving full, active and open co-operation.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that his statement to the effect that he welcomes the opportunity to inform the House of the facts would carry greater credibility had he volunteered a statement and not been brought here pursuant to a private notice question? He said that a report is to be published, and that is good news. Will he also undertake to publish the reporting telegrams received during the relevant period within the Foreign Office and all papers to Ministers during that period?

Does the right hon. Gentleman also understand the incredulity with which his remarks have been received? Assuming that what we have been told by Ministers is true, apparently they did not know what went on between Sandline and the Commissioner, and did not know until recently about the Customs and Excise inquiry. Apparently, the Minister of State was not briefed before his appearance before the Select Committee yesterday. Is not the truth that Ministers have lost control of their own Department?

Mr. Cook

I find the right hon. and learned Gentleman's remarks about incredulity deeply offensive, because they are tantamount to accusing me of deceiving the House. I assure him and other hon. Members that everything that I have said is factually, precisely, correct, and that will be borne out by any independent inquiry, which is why I will welcome its publication. It is, of course, for that independent investigation to decide which files are relevant to the future publication. It is a bit rich of the right hon. and learned Gentleman to invite me to appoint an independent investigation and suggest which papers it should publish.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

I ask my right hon. Friend to confirm that, unlike what happened under the previous Government, no public interest immunity certificates are being, have been, or will be signed by any Ministers in his Department?

Mr. Cook

I have already notified the permanent secretary that I am not willing to sign any public interest immunity certificate in any future court proceedings on this matter.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that as Customs and Excise does not report to the Foreign Office and presumably will not have any powers to interview Foreign Office Ministers or require them to attend any inquiry, one must consider that its inquiry is secondary to getting to the real basis of the problem? As that inquiry has supposedly being going on for six or eight weeks, is it not really the case that the matter is important enough for him to start the Foreign Office inquiry right away and to ensure that it has full powers to see all Ministers and really get to the bottom of the matter before it is whitewashed away and forgotten?

Mr. Cook

There will be no whitewash. The right hon. Gentleman would be the first to condemn me if I were now to take action that would prejudice the customs investigation against the specific request of the chairman of the Customs and Excise— I cannot think of a more irresponsible step that any Minister of the Crown could take. I should disabuse the right hon. Gentleman of his belief that Customs and Excise does not have the right to summon me or any other Minister to appear before it—it most certainly has that right, and we should willingly appear if requested.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Does my right hon. Friend agree with me about what the Tories are up to? They are trying to give the impression that— despite the fact that he has come to the House to explain everything— he is similar to the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), who was up to his neck in BMARC and the rest of it, and to all those serried ranks who hid behind the arms to Iraq. Unlike them, my right hon. Friend has done the right thing. It is pretty clear to me that the hooray Henrys in the Foreign Office who went to public schools— the same belly of the establishment from which Conservative Members come— caused the problem that we are discussing. The Tories are trying to make a seven-course dinner out of a pan of boiling water.

Mr. Cook

I think that I can go along with the first part of my hon. Friend's question. He is plainly right to contrast our response to this matter, which has been vigorous and open, with that of the previous Administration to other scandals. One of the differences is that we accept that the issue is serious— the performance of Ministers in the previous Administration was undermined by the fact that they denied that the issues that they faced were serious. I accept that if there has been a breach, that is a very serious matter which must be fully and openly investigated so that the full facts can be established.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

Yesterday, the Minister of State told the Foreign Affairs Select Committee that he first knew of the Customs and Excise inquiry on Friday 1 May. This afternoon, the Foreign Secretary has told us the Minister of State first knew about the matter when he was shown correspondence in mid-April. Which version of events is correct?

Mr. Cook

The House would expect me to give the correct version, as I have. What I told the House today follows full investigation of the paper trail and consultation with my hon. Friend the Minister of State, who entirely agrees with what I said. The essential burden of what he said to the Select Committee yesterday was absolutely correct— he was first fully informed of the allegations by Sandline of contacts with the Foreign Office last Friday, when he went through all the papers. That is the truth of the case, as I have stated in the House this afternoon.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that, House of Commons knockabout aside, the real issue is the tragedy of Africa post-empire? Some of the reasons for the chaos, the war and the suffering have been precisely what we are discussing— arms dealing, gun running and the fact that some western Governments have cynically interfered for commercial ends. Labour Members welcome the independent inquiry and the fact that its findings will be published, as there is a serious underlying issue.

Mr. Cook

I agree with my hon. Friend and welcome her support for my announcement today. If we hope to restore stability and to avert conflict in Africa and elsewhere, we should all keep very much in focus the importance of upholding the legitimacy of the United Nations. We can do that only if we take seriously compliance with UN Security Council resolutions.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

The Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary has told us what he finds offensive in some of the questions, but I ask him to go back to the beginning of his statement and tell us the purpose of the United Nations resolution on Sierra Leone and whether the UN backed Nigerian intervention. Will he stop washing his hands and start defending people in his Department who are doing what they believe Ministers want in accordance with UN aims?

Mr. Cook

There was no Government policy or UN support for military intervention to restore President Kabbah. Resolution 1132 and consistent ministerial statements on Sierra Leone stressed that we supported President Kabbah, but wanted him to be restored through diplomatic negotiation, not military intervention. The hon. Gentleman is wildly out of touch with reality if he suggests that a breach of a UN Security Council resolution that we ourselves voted for was somehow going along with ministerial policy.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

May I welcome what my right hon. Friend said about not using public interest immunity certificates and remind him that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), who asked the question, and the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) were among those queuing up to authorise such certificates in the case of arms to Iraq? Does not the whole affair underline the need for the Government to renew their efforts to get agreement among those who seek to sell arms materials to other countries?

Mr. Cook

I entirely agree. I am pleased to report that we are nearing agreement on a European code of conduct and that, more immediately, at the forthcoming summit of the G8 nations, we will pursue a British initiative to try to get a grip on the illicit trade in small arms, to which the present example may come rather close.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

The Foreign Secretary told us that Lord Avebury wrote to the Foreign Office in early February. When did the noble Lord receive a reply, and which Minister signed it?

Mr. Cook

Lord Avebury's letter was not to a Minister but to an official, and he received a reply from that official on 26 February.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

I strongly welcome my right hon. Friend's swift action. Will he point out to the public the clear distinction between the restoration of a democratic Government in Sierra Leone and the illegal arming of a fascist, expansionist dictatorship in Iraq that took place under the previous Government? The then Government spent eight years trying to cover up the fact that people in this country were involved in arming that regime.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend is right to draw a distinction between the outcomes, but no hon. Member should understate the gravity of a breach of a Security Council resolution, if, indeed, that is what happened. The real distinction between the conduct of the previous and present Administrations is that they sought to cover up what happened and we are trying to be frank and open about what happened.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

The Foreign Secretary clearly takes this matter very seriously. Does he acknowledge that this is undoubtedly a humiliation for an ethical and open foreign policy? Will he confirm that the investigation will include contacts, correspondence and telephone messages between the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and between the Department of Trade and Industry and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, if such contacts took place? Will he further confirm that, in line with the Government's absolute commitment to open government, all the documents will be published and placed in the Library?

Mr. Cook

I can certainly confirm that all papers that are held in the Foreign Office are available to customs for investigation. I cannot speak for other Ministers or Ministries, but it is not my view that there are substantial files on the matter elsewhere. The hon. Gentleman may be suggesting that there was some discussion about an export licence, but there was no such discussion; there was no export of arms from Britain and no licence was sought from Britain.

I cannot accept the hon. Gentleman's contention that this is a humiliation for the principles that we have been pursuing. This is a case in which there may well have been a breach of a Security Council resolution and a breach of the law of Britain as a result of the Order in Council that we introduced, and we are determined to pursue the matter and ensure that it is carried through to a successful conclusion.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)

Some of my hon. Friends have been critical of Opposition Members who have expressed incredulity, but should not we be fair to them and recognise the fact that, over the past 18 years, they have become accustomed to government by cover-up, and it is difficult for them to adjust to a Government who are committed to openness?

Mr. Cook

I do not think that I can improve on my hon. Friend's point by seeking to add to it.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

In addition to the public inquiry investigating the extraordinary state of affairs whereby no officials in the Foreign Office drew the scandal to the Foreign Secretary's attention, despite his protestations about an ethical foreign policy, will an independent inquiry investigate why when the Minister of State was first alerted to the matter, he apparently did not discuss it with the Foreign Secretary either? It is an extraordinary state of affairs when Ministers do not seem to discuss such matters, and the Foreign Secretary first learns about such a problem in a tip-off from a political adviser.

Mr. Cook

Special advisers are paid to draw matters to my attention, and that is what one did on this occasion. It is extraordinary that the right hon. Gentleman should describe the way in which one of them fulfilled his job as a "tip-off'. I have seen the papers that the Minister of State saw in mid-April, and there were no grounds for concern in them, in that they did not outline the nature of the Sandline allegations, which are serious and which we are pursuing seriously.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

The question is one of competence. I remind the House that, last week, when the Foreign Secretary had to come here to make a statement about Kosovo, and I asked him about the presence of British troops on exercise in Macedonia, he said that he did not think that there were British troops in Macedonia. He then had to have a note passed from his officials saying that British troops were there, and he graciously apologised. I thought at the time, as did many hon. Members on both sides of the House, that it was rather strange that the Foreign Secretary did not know that crucial fact connected with a crisis.

Secondly, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) said, it was a special adviser who came across the truth. I agree with the Foreign Secretary that that was good for the special adviser— but I am afraid that it does not answer the question, which was why the highly paid officials within the Foreign Office did not present that information to the Foreign Secretary. Is he completely out of touch with British foreign policy?

Mr. Cook

It is not British foreign policy to supply weapons in breach of Security Council resolutions. That is exactly the policy which I expect my officials to pursue. As for the other matter that the hon. Gentleman raised, I am not the first, and I will probably not be the last, Minister at the Dispatch Box to have a note passed to him by officials.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

Clearly, the Foreign Secretary is not insensitive to the fact that a serious allegation has been made against the Foreign OfficeMr. Tony Baldry (Banbury): Clearly, the Foreign Secretary is not insensitive to the fact that a serious allegation has been made against the Foreign OfficeMr. Tony Baldry (Banbury): Clearly, the Foreign Secretary is not insensitive to the fact that a serious allegation has been made against the Foreign Office that its officials co-operated in some way with Sandline. That allegation has enabled people such as the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) to make fun of the Foreign Office, which is not good news either for the Foreign Office or for the United Kingdom in general.

The right hon. Gentleman's statement was rather unfair on Foreign Office officials, because it leaves them in something of a limbo. I do not understand why he has not instructed the permanent secretary to conduct inquiries within the Foreign Office as a matter of urgency, and ask all the relevant and appropriate officials what contact, if any, they had with Sandline.

It seems extremely unfair on all those involved that the matter should be left as a matter of speculation and deliberation until Customs and Excise, magically, seems to have concluded its investigations. There must have been telegrams from Sierra Leone and intelligence reports, and all such things are capable of being comprehended in a reasonably short period.

Mr. Cook

The reason why I have not instructed the permanent secretary to carry out the investigation that the hon. Gentleman requests was spelt out in my statement: we were specifically requested by Customs and Excise not to make an investigation.

Mr. Baldry

Who runs the Foreign Office—Customs and Excise or the Foreign Secretary?

Mr. Cook

Customs and Excise is the criminal investigating branch in that area. It is important that neither the Foreign Office nor Members of the House do anything to prejudice the investigation—and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends would be among the first to congratulate me were I to do any such thing. Therefore, no investigation has been carried out; but I have given a commitment that there will be a full and independent investigation afterwards.

I shall respond to the hon. Gentleman's other point—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman might at least do me the courtesy of listening to my reply. I stoutly resist the claim that I have made any allegations against officials in the Foreign Office. We are taking seriously, as we are bound to, the allegations made by Sandline, but I caution the hon. Gentleman that the fact that allegations against officials have been made by Sandline does not necessarily mean that they are true.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I am not a particularly sensitive flower, as I think you know, but I should like to say something about the allegation made against me by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner).

Madam Speaker

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is seeking an extension of the private notice question. He has been here long enough to know that a point of order must be something that concerns me and on which I can give a ruling.

Mr. Wilshire

On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

Order. I am dealing with one from the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg).

Mr. Hogg

The suggestion was that I was up to my ears in BMARC. You, Madam Speaker, know that Members of Parliament are under a duty to look after the interests of their constituents; BMARC was a constituent of mine and my only dealings with BMARC took place within that context. There has never been any allegation made against me, other than by the hon. Member for Bolsover. So clear was that fact that, to the best of my knowledge, the Select Committee on Trade and Industry never made any inquiry of me.

Madam Speaker

When the hon. Member for Bolsover was making the comment, I noticed that the right hon. and learned Gentleman had an amused look on his face. I know full well that he has a sufficiently robust presence in the House to give as much as he takes.

Mr. Wilshire

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I apologise for interrupting the previous point of order. I rise to seek your guidance on the procedures of the House. When a Secretary of State comes to the House and makes comments that are contradictory to evidence given by one of his junior Ministers, as has happened this afternoon, what procedures does the House have to get the Minister of State to come to the House and explain why he said what he said yesterday?

Madam Speaker

That is not a matter for me. The hon. Gentleman might like to talk to his own Front Benchers or to the usual channels. It is a question for debate, not a matter for me.