HC Deb 12 May 1998 vol 312 cc153-66 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 the supply of armaments to Sierra Leone in the light of the Prime Minister's statements on the outcome of events there.

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

As I reminded the House last week, President Kabbah, the democratically elected leader of Sierra Leone, was deposed in a military coup in 1997. Britain continued to recognise President Kabbah as the legitimate Head of Government of Sierra Leone, and Britain played a leading part at the United Nations in drafting the Security Council resolution calling for the peaceful restoration of constitutional government.

The peaceful restoration of President Kabbah remained the sole policy of Her Majesty's Government. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister demonstrated our continuing support for President Kabbah by inviting him to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in October—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. If hon. Members are not interested in hearing the statement, there are other areas of the House to accommodate them.

Mr. Cook

I appointed John Flynn to act as special representative on Sierra Leone, to co-ordinate international support for the restoration of the elected Government.

Earlier this year, President Kabbah was restored to power. As I said on Sunday, that was a positive outcome and represented the restoration of the legitimate and democratic Government, in place of a military regime. The outcome has certainly been welcomed as positive by the people of Sierra Leone, who were freed from a brutal and savage military regime. As the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), saw when he himself visited Sierra Leone, it was a regime which punished those who opposed it by taking off their arms and their legs.

President Kabbah yesterday wrote to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, acknowledging this Government's position in supporting his democratically elected Government, and expressing his profound gratitude to this Government for their "principled and ethical position". My right hon. Friend was therefore absolutely right yesterday to draw attention to the fact that, in Sierra Leone, the legitimate and elected Government have been restored to power and a brutal military regime has been thrown out. Sierra Leone is no Iraq. In Iraq, a brutal dictator is still in power and still producing artillery shells on machine tools that were exported to him with the full connivance of the Conservative party.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister also said yesterday: nobody should be involved deliberately in breaking a UN arms embargo". As a permanent member of the Security Council, the United Kingdom has a special responsibility to uphold UN resolutions. If we condone a breach of one resolution, we undermine the authority of other resolutions, such as those requiring Iraq to abandon its programmes of weapons of mass destruction.

We have therefore taken seriously the allegations that there may have been a breach of the arms embargo on Sierra Leone by a British firm. That is why the Foreign Office took the initiative in referring those allegations to Customs and Excise. The Foreign Office is fully and openly co-operating with that investigation. We want the public to know the truth—[Interruption.] Oh, yes; we want the truth—Conservative Members will not like it when they get the truth—and that is why I have ordered an investigation to commence as soon as Customs and Excise will agree, in order to bring all the facts out into the open.

As I said in the House last week, I am constrained as to how much I can say during the customs investigation, but I cannot allow wild allegations to continue to be made against the Foreign Office and its officials—[HON. MEMBERS: "You!"]—or to be recycled as proven fact by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) and his colleagues. I therefore say to the House that, in all the papers on this affair, I have found no evidence that officials in the Africa department were involved in any kind of conspiracy with Sandline or gave any prior approval to a breach of the arms embargo. The investigation that I have ordered will establish the truth, but in the meantime, I have more faith in my officials than I have in Sandline.

I note that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe said in a letter to me that he is astonished that I did not clear my diary before Sunday. Perhaps I should remind him that, on Friday and Saturday, I hosted the meeting of G8 Foreign Ministers in which we co-ordinated our positions on Kosovo, the middle east, nuclear proliferation and many other issues. It is a remarkable testimony to the way in which the right hon. and learned Gentleman has got this issue out of all proportion that he imagines that Foreign Ministers of the seven largest economies in the world would be entirely understanding if I cleared them from my diary in order to answer his increasingly repetitive questions.

I urge the right hon. and learned Gentleman to stop talking of allegations against Foreign Office officials as if they were proven fact, and to wait for the full, considered report that the Government have promised—in stark contrast to the repeated cover-ups of the Government of which he was a member.

Mr. Howard

What I said to the right hon. Gentleman in my letter was that it was astonishing that he had not briefed himself fully on these events before Sunday. It is not surprising that, in his loneliness on the Front Bench, with no Cabinet colleague to support him apart from the Leader of the House, he should prefer to talk about Iraq rather than about Sierra Leone.

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that the Government's position on Sierra Leone is increasingly looking like a shambles? What he described as "very serious" last Wednesday became nothing more than an "overblown hoo-hah" yesterday. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Prime Minister's intervention yesterday makes a laughing stock of him, and a complete mockery of any pretensions he may have to an ethical foreign policy? Will he confirm what he told the House last week—that there was no Government policy or UN support for military intervention to restore President Kabbah, and that the Government and the UN wanted him restored through diplomatic negotiations, not military intervention?

Will the right hon. Gentleman now answer the specific questions about his knowledge of these events which I sent him earlier today? What instructions did he give his private office to bring information to his attention? When was his private office informed of the involvement of Sandline International in operations in Sierra Leone, of plans for military intervention and of the Customs and Excise investigation? When did he himself first know of these matters?

Will the right hon. Gentleman comment on the position of the Minister of State? Can he confirm the report in The Sunday Times on 10 May that the searches carried out by Customs and Excise on the offices of Sandline International and the former house of Lieutenant-Colonel Spicer were delayed at the request of the private office of the Minister of State? Can he confirm that the reason for that request was so that the Minister of State could be briefed before the searches were carried out? Can he confirm that the Minister of State was, in fact, briefed before the search was carried out?

Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that, in the search for truth—about which he was so eloquent a few moments ago—the independent inquiry he has promised will be carried out by a judge and will take place in public, so that all the evidence can be reported, and so that there can be no question of a cover-up or a whitewash? Finally, is not the bottom line this: if, as is alleged, the Foreign Office knew of Sandline's involvement as early as December, but neither the right hon. Gentleman nor his Ministers knew of it until the end of April, does that not suggest that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is wholly out of ministerial control, and that the right hon. Gentleman is utterly failing to discharge the duties he is paid to carry out?

Mr. Cook

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has again recycled the wild allegations I see in the press. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] I will answer the right hon. and learned Gentleman, because the answers should be heard. There was no request to Customs and Excise from the private office of the Minister of State. I am bound to say that I would regard it as wholly improper if Customs and Excise were to hold up an investigation at a ministerial request. That is precisely why we have repeatedly made it clear that we will not do anything to prejudice that investigation. The right hon. and learned Gentleman owes my hon. Friend the Minister of State an apology for recycling that allegation.

On the question of knowledge, the right hon. and learned Gentleman has asked me seven different questions in writing about when I knew. I will answer. The first document that I saw about a breach of the arms embargo—[HON. MEMBERS: "Saw?"] Well, we will come back to that in a moment.

Madam Speaker

Order. I have had enough from some Opposition Back Benchers. The Foreign Secretary will be allowed silence in which to answer.

Mr. Cook

Thank you, Madam Speaker.

The first document that I received on any breach of the arms embargo or a shipment of arms was on 28 April, when I saw the letter. Since the right hon. and learned Gentleman asked the same question in multiple different ways, I have to say to him that the reason I say that is that no other paper on the matter had been put in a red box for me, a file for me, a folder for me, on top of my desk or on any other part of office furniture he cares to name.

Since the right hon. and learned Gentleman has raised in the House whether there were any changed instructions on what should go in the red box, let me say that the only instruction we have been able to trace is an instruction from my private secretary which confirms to the Foreign Office: The Secretary of State welcomes a fair amount of detail in the background note. I am receiving full briefing from the Foreign Office. I strongly resent the suggestion that there has been any briefing on the matter that has not been read by me or by the Minister of State.

It is a bit rich for the House to be lectured on the proper management of a Department of State by the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who made an art form out of the distinction between policy and operational matters, and who lost 13 court cases because he refused to listen to officials.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

Would not the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) and his former Cabinet colleagues be a little more credible if they came to this matter with clean hands? Should not he, as a lawyer, know that a fundamental principle of the law is to hear both sides—certainly not to pour scorn on officials, who cannot answer for themselves at this time?

Will my right hon. Friend take on board at least the concern that there is a real danger of excessive delay? As he well knows, prosecuting authorities, such as customs, can take an inordinate time. The Foreign Office investigation, which is very welcome, may not start until the customs investigation is near its end, so there could be a sub judice problem if prosecutions are recommended. Will he say when he expects the customs investigation to conclude, and decisions on prosecutions to be made?

Mr. Cook

It would be deeply improper for me to say to the House when customs will conclude an investigation. The important public policy issue, which will be of concern to both sides of the House, is that customs should complete the investigation thoroughly and assess clearly and fairly whether there is a case to answer—it would be wrong if that process were to be hurried because of any political consideration.

I assure the House that we intend to proceed to that investigation, which will be conducted by someone from outside the Foreign Office, the moment we receive the clearance from customs. I also assure my hon. Friend that we are determined that that investigation—which is for us to set up—will be established and carried out quickly, with a full report to the House as soon as possible.

That is important to the officials who have been repeatedly maligned in the press over the past few days. [Interruption.] No, I say to Opposition Members who are shouting that, as I repeatedly said in the House last Wednesday and have said every day over the weekend, what they read in the papers are allegations by Sandline's lawyers. I understand what Sandline's lawyers are doing: they are doing their job, which is to put the best possible colour on their client's case. That does not make their allegations true. From the papers that I have seen while Sandline has been peddling its allegations, I can say that many of them will turn out not to be true.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South)

I am delighted, as I am sure my colleagues are, that the investigation will take place. However, we take the view, which I hope the Secretary of State will share, that the investigation should take place now, irrespective of the time the customs investigation takes, as the two are trying to discover two different things. I am sure that he would agree that it is in the best interests of the nation and the House that, so that the issue is not continually clouded and murky, the investigation that he has instigated should take place immediately, and, if necessary, run in tandem with the customs investigation. Anything short of that will be recognised as prevarication, and will not be reconcilable with the Government's ambition for open government.

The right hon. Gentleman says that no Minister in his Department had any involvement prior to his being told of the matter. Will he confirm this afternoon that that applies to the whole Cabinet, including the Prime Minister? Will he also say who approved the use of HMS Cornwall as part of the Sandline operation?

Mr. Cook

I have no personal interest in delaying the start of the investigation: on the contrary, I would welcome its starting as soon as possible. I cannot act as the hon. Gentleman suggests, precisely because many of those who would give evidence to the investigation are giving evidence to the present customs investigation, so it is impossible to launch the second without cutting across the first. I do not believe that the House would want me to take any step that would prejudice an investigation that may or may not lead to criminal charges.

The statements that I have made about no ministerial approval, contact or discussion apply across the Government, and not only in the Foreign Office.

I understand that the hon. Gentleman made his point about HMS Cornwall in good faith, but the House must understand that that is another of the allegations from Sandline's lawyers.

Mr. Hancock

What about the photograph?

Mr. Cook

I shall come back to the photograph in one minute.

The reality is that HMS Cornwall docked in Sierra Leone on 1 March, after most of the fighting was over and the military junta had been removed. It did not go there to take part in any Sandline activity. Indeed, President Kabbah himself, in his letter to the Prime Minister, said: I assure you most emphatically that at no time did my Government utilise mercenaries provided by Sandline. HMS Cornwall went there to provide humanitarian relief, and it did a fantastic job, of which the House should be proud. To carry out that emergency supply up country, it had of course to fly its helicopter, and, as we would all expect its captain to be prudent about the lives of his service men, it had to have consultations with the local west African forces about where it was safe to fly. That is why the colonel of those west African forces—not a Sandline mercenary—repeatedly flew in that helicopter to the dock beside the ship.

The helicopter was on contract from Sandline, but that does not mean that HMS Cornwall was assisting Sandline in any mercenary activity; on the contrary, it shows that, in this case, the west African forces were helping Britain with humanitarian relief of which we should be proud, not ashamed.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

The House is entitled to a full explanation, and we look forward to the inquiry, but should we not be grateful that, in one instance in Africa, an elected Government who were overthrown have been restored to office? Surely that is right and proper.

Does my right hon. Friend consider it appropriate to be lectured by Conservative Members who, right up to the very day of the Falklands invasion, actively encouraged the sale of arms to the junta in Argentina, as confirmed in a parliamentary answer that I received on 20 April 1982? We hear talk of hypocrisy, but what greater hypocrisy could there be than to be lectured on arms dealing by Conservative Members?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend makes his own point. There is a parallel that is even nearer to us in time: the way in which Ministers in the previous Government decided in secret to relax restrictions on the sale of arms to Saddam Hussein. The moment they were found out, they established an elaborate cover-up and, rather than admitting what they had done, were willing to see innocent people go to prison.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Does the Foreign Secretary accept that those of us who worked for many years—four and a half, in my case—as Ministers in the Foreign Office know full well that officials are meticulous in keeping written records of their dealings, and that they ensure that their superiors, both official and ministerial, are kept fully informed in writing?

Were the following documents, or classes of document, received in any ministerial private office, and, if so, were they made available to Ministers: the reporting telegrams from Sierra Leone or any adjoining African country regarding Sandline's involvement in the coup; any documents regarding the Customs and Excise investigation into the Foreign Office; the correspondence with Lord Avebury; the record of meetings between Foreign Office officials and Sandline; and intelligence reports—that is, reports from Government communications headquarters or the Secret Intelligence Service—regarding Sandline's involvement?

Mr. Cook

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has asked a series of highly detailed questions. I accept that they are perfectly proper, but they require full and considered investigation. As general guidance, however, let me say, first, that it would be quite improper if we were passed papers from Customs and Excise, which is not our ministerial responsibility. As we referred the investigation to Customs and Excise, and have fully and openly co-operated with it, I would not expect such papers to be passed to me, for approval or otherwise. Secondly, the Avebury letter was addressed not to a Minister, but to an official, who replied to it. It was not sent up to Ministers until we subsequently received it from Sandline's lawyers.

As for intelligence, the right hon. and learned Gentleman will understand that there are limits to how far I can go; but, as he raises the point, and as someone has—without, I believe, regard to due process—released something to The Times, the House is entitled to know that at no stage over the past months was any intelligence passed to Ministers or officials that suggested a breach of the arms embargo.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that no Labour Member needs lectures in ethics from the Tories?

The Foreign Secretary will be aware that the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, of which I am a member, met this morning, and agreed to ask the Minister of State for a memorandum detailing exactly how he misled the Committee last Tuesday. We also agreed to ask the Foreign Office for copies of all telegrams between the Foreign Office and Sierra Leone since this affair began. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that there are issues of substance here, as it can be no part of an ethical foreign policy to connive at the use of mercenaries and gun runners and the types of strategy that have subjected Africa to so much misery down the years?

Mr. Cook

Let me remind my hon. Friend what I said just now when I read the letter from President Kabbah. If anyone is in a position to know whether Sandline was active in Sierra Leone on his behalf, it is President Kabbah himself, and he made it quite clear that there was no mercenary involvement in the restoration of his Government.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State himself established that he had not given full information to the Select Committee. It was he who drew that to my attention, and it was he who requested me to include that passage in my statement to the House last week. He did so, and was right to do so, precisely because he wanted the record put right at the first available opportunity. He will, of course, respond with the full memorandum to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) referred.

In respect of the request for telegrams, I must say that they are restricted in circulation. I fully understand what prompted my hon. Friend to ask her question, but, if we worked on the principle that telegrams might subsequently be published, we would receive much less information than we do at present—[Interruption.] Any hon. Member who has served in the Foreign Office, or seen the telegrams, will fully understand why they contain matter that might be embarrassing to Her Majesty's Government or others if it were made publicly available.

I can assure the Select Committee that we will give it the fullest possible co-operation. I look forward to discussing with it the report of the investigation, once it has been held.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

Why did the Minister of State not verify in the middle of April whether the Foreign Secretary knew what was happening?

Mr. Cook

The Minister of State saw a number of papers—three or four—all of which indicated that a customs inquiry was proceeding, and said with robust confidence that there had been no official approval of Sandline's activities. There was therefore no ground for apprehension or concern on the part of the Minister of State. It was not until the lawyers' letter of 24 April that either of us was fully aware of the allegations being made by Sandline. I am confident that, with the passage of time and investigation, those allegations will be seen to be quite different from what actually happened.

Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney)

My right hon. Friend referred several times to reviewing the papers. From his review, has he satisfied himself at least that no official gave any encouragement to Sandline's activities?

Mr. Cook

First, it is indeed the case that Sandline, before President Kabbah was deposed in the original coup, was a company—[Interruption.]—if the hon. Gentleman will allow me—it was a company which had extensive interests in Sierra Leone. It was indeed known among officials that Sandline had a continuing relationship with President Kabbah, and had an interest in Sierra Leone. After all, a sister company is managing the diamond mines there. It is a big player in that context in Sierra Leone. I see nothing improper in officials having dialogue with it.

In answer to my hon. Friend's question, having looked through the papers in front of me, I give a quite firm and categorical answer. No official in the Africa department did anything to condone or encourage any breach of the arms embargo.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

Is a record kept of the alleged meetings between officials of the Foreign Secretary's Department and other Departments and the arms exporters? Will the public be told what those meetings were about? Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be a worry if officials had such discussions about exports without telling him? Does he accept that this is not the first occasion on which the Foreign Office has had discussions about the export of arms to other countries in breach of sanctions, and has covered itself by giving a warning letter that on no account must it be done?

Mr. Cook

Of course, if there were meetings of officials of the Foreign Office and officials of other Ministries, there would be records of those meetings. That is in the nature of the civil service. If there are such records, they can become part of the investigation, but I have to disabuse the hon. Gentleman of his line of inquiry.

The fact is that no licence was given for export of arms to Sierra Leone by Sandline or by anybody else. I therefore at the present time do not know, and have never heard of, a meeting to discuss an application for an export of arms by Sandline to Sierra Leone or anyone else; quite the reverse. Far from the implication of the hon. Member's question, the evidence that I have in front of me suggests that officials at no stage condoned or encouraged the export of arms to Sierra Leone.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, notwithstanding all his protestations in defence of his officials at the Foreign Office, some of us, especially me, cynic though I may be, do not accept, and never will, that, in the course of what I described last week as the Opposition trying to make a seven-course dinner of a pan of boiling water, some of the high-flying diplomats challenged by him when he assumed office, having worked for the tawdry Government who are now in opposition, did not take it upon themselves to take action to undermine him and anyone else? I happen to believe that. It has happened in the past.

Fortunately, my right hon. Friend was able today to show that he is a master of his brief, as he did when he read the Scott report in three hours a few years ago and flattened the Government of the day. That is unlike the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the "man of the night", as he was aptly described by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and the Weald (Miss Widdecombe). My right hon. Friend today gave him enough rope, and he has hung himself.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend's remarks on the officials of the Foreign Office were noted in the Foreign Office, not to universal approbation. While I entirely understand his point, I have never at any stage while I have been Secretary of State detected resistance to a policy, or any act of conspiracy against it, at any level within the Foreign Office. I think that officials have been treated unfairly over the past weekend. [HON. MEMBERS: "By you."] No, not by me. I have never at any stage recycled the allegations as proven fact. I have repeatedly said that they were allegations that should be taken seriously, but, in fairness to those officials, I do think that the Opposition should stop rushing to judgment, and await the forthcoming full and considered investigation.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that it is most unusual for the Foreign Office to ask for an inquiry by Customs and Excise, a Department that does not report to him; that to ask for such an inquiry to be made without the instruction of a Minister is nearly beyond belief; and that then to suggest that the inquiry will not be referred to a Minister until six weeks later seems even more a matter of imagination? Does he actually suggest that the inquiry would not and should not have been referred to a Minister before it was instituted?

Mr. Cook

I said to the House last week that I do think that the Minister of State, when he was coming to address a debate in the House on 12 March, should have been informed of the inquiry, and I do not resile from what I said then. However, I depart from the right hon. Member on his central thesis. Customs is the statutory body responsible for investigating breaches of export orders, so it is entirely proper that customs should have been made the investigator of any alleged breach.

As to consulting Ministers before doing it, on that I have to say that I think officials acted entirely properly in what they did. The moment they suspected that a breach might have occurred, they were under a duty as citizens, never mind as civil servants, to draw it to the attention of the appropriate criminal investigation organisation.

It would have been quite improper to ask Ministers' opinion as to whether a suspected breach should be referred—to have asked for a political decision before referring the matter onward. That is why I am actually very pleased that the Foreign Office is able to say, "We initiated this investigation—we did not attempt a cover-up, and we have since co-operated fully and openly with customs." That is what I would have expected of my officials.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

I said on BBC Radio Scotland yesterday that the Labour party does not need lessons in ethical conduct from the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) or the odd job lot behind him—members of what we in Scotland now call the English rural party. I reminded my listeners of the Pergau dam affair and the Iraqi arms affair, neither of which led to the resignations of any Conservative so-called hon. Gentlemen. That is the point of this affair, and of this private notice question.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will give us open access to the report and a full debate on it when it is published; and that he does not put the same constraints on examination of the report as were put on him in respect of the Scott report.

Mr. Cook

I am happy to give the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe an undertaking that he will have more than three hours in which to read the report before we debate it. I can also give my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) an assurance that we shall of course publish the report, and I fully expect that the House will wish to discuss it when it is available. As to his later remarks, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) referred earlier to the speech of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), in which, the House will recall, the right hon. Lady detailed three occasions on which the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe misled this House knowingly.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) the undertakings he sought? Will the inquiry be conducted by a judge, and will it be conducted in public?

Mr. Cook

At the present time, we are still identifying who may head it up, but I can give an absolute assurance that it will be somebody with impeccable legal qualifications, because those will be required. Secondly, I have been repeatedly pressed by the House to produce an investigation that will report to the House at an early date. I have told the House that we shall be seeking to make sure that the procedures for that are consistent with speed, so that the House can have the facts, and officials can have the truth out in the open.

Mr. Hugh Bayley (City of York)

Last week, I spent two days in west Africa at a conference about good governance and human rights, at which there were Members of Parliament and officials of five African nations and several Latin American nations. Representatives of many donor nations, including the United States and France, also attended. Not one delegate mentioned to me British policy on Sierra Leone. Does my right hon. Friend agree that people at that conference in Africa had the issue much better in proportion than Opposition Members do?

Mr. Cook

The people of Sierra Leone have found rather incomprehensible much of what they have read in British newspapers and heard from the British Parliament in the past few days. As far as they are concerned, they have restored their legitimate and elected Government and seen the back of a brutal and repressive military regime, which is an entirely positive outcome for them. Of course, if there are allegations of a breach and allegations against officials, it is important that the facts should be out in the open. We have nothing to hide, and we want to have the truth out in the open. In Africa, as my hon. Friend pointed out, and elsewhere, the disproportionate attention given to this issue is regarded with incredulity.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

The Foreign Secretary told us earlier that it would be wholly improper if the Foreign and Commonwealth Office caused the Customs and Excise investigation to be delayed. On 29 April, the day after the Foreign Secretary became aware of the letter from Sandline International's solicitor, Customs and Excise delayed indefinitely an arranged interview with Colonel Spicer under caution, pending further investigations. Was that a coincidence?

Mr. Cook

I do not know what the hon. Gentleman is seeking to suggest, but I know that he does not have the guts to say it baldly and directly—he comes at it from a tangent. If he repeats outside the House any suggestion—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] If hon. Members will be quiet, I will answer. If he repeats outside the House any suggestion that I have improperly—[Interruption.] Please. If hon. Members have finished, I will continue. If the hon. Gentleman repeats outside the House any suggestion that I have improperly intervened in the customs investigation, I will sue, because it is totally untrue.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)

As one of two hon. Members who visited HMS Cornwall when she returned from her patrol in that area and were briefed by the commander and the crew, I can tell my right hon. Friend that they were absolutely overjoyed at the work that they could do in rebuilding clinics and taking aid to the people of Sierra Leone. They were proud that they were able to take part in that exercise. I support my right hon. Friend in ensuring that he maintains his present position of supporting his officials and Foreign Office Ministers, so that people outside the House can see the difference between the Government and the Conservative party, whether in government or opposition.

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. I particularly underline the fact that the House ought to express its appreciation of what was done by HMS Cornwall and all those who served on her at that time.

The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) asked about the pictures that were taken. They were taken in the third week of March, long after the Customs and Excise investigation had commenced. HMS Cornwall has done nothing improper in this matter, and much of which the House can be proud.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

Does the Foreign Secretary have absolute confidence in the Minister of State, who has been looking extremely miserable this afternoon? Does he agree that, if the Minister of State is forced to resign over this matter, his own position will also be untenable?

Mr. Cook

Of course I have full confidence in my hon. Friend the Minister of State, who, like everybody else in this matter, has had to put up with wild allegations being reported as fact. If my hon. Friend is looking in any way unenthusiastic about this exchange, I can only put it down to the fact that he is frustrated at being unable to answer the questions himself, to put right his name, and to make it perfectly plain that there is nothing to hide among Ministers or officials.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is rather sad that our dwindling Opposition are reduced to recycling press releases from the lawyers of a company suspected of criminal activity? Does he accept that, despite the further sneering attack on his ethical foreign policy by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), my constituents, who take an interest in foreign policy, are very enthusiastic about the attempt to achieve such a policy? They realise that it will lead to controversy and that it will be difficult, but they honour the Government for trying it, and they recognise that the previous Government pursued an unethical foreign policy.

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. Another point that Opposition Members keep refusing to face is that, in many parts of the world, our support for values of human rights, civil liberties and democracy has gained Britain respect. As the Foreign Minister of the Czech Republic put it to me, "If your entire history is about being the victim of foreign policy realpolitik, you respect a Government who are prepared to follow foreign policy on the basis of principle." Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): What was the earliest date at which the planned military intervention in Sierra Leone was known in the Foreign Office, and at what official or ministerial level?

Mr. Cook

Sixth February, and it was known to all those who received the telegrams.

Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow)

Is it not clear that Conservative Members' strategy, both now and in recent days, is to draw similarities between this issue and the arms to Iraq affair and, in the process, try to gain sustenance for the impression that all politicians are as bad as they are? Not one proven fact has been advanced today to justify the lurid allegations that the Opposition have made.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, when it comes to arms sales, there will be allegations of this sort from time to time? In terms of good government, it is crucial that there be openness, and that the Government are willing and able to submit to independent scrutiny in order to get at the facts. That is what we are doing, and it is what the Conservative party singularly failed to do on arms to Iraq.

Mr. Cook

There are three main differences between the arms to Iraq affair and this matter. The first is that the arms to Iraq affair began with a policy decision taken by Ministers in secret to relax the guidelines. Secondly, it was followed through by ministerial decisions to authorise licences for the export of the machine tools. Thirdly, that was followed by an elaborate cover-up rather than a release of the facts—which went to the extent of even suppressing documents from a court case.

There could not be a starker contrast with our conduct of this issue: there has been no policy change, no ministerial approval and no attempt at a cover-up. We are anxious that the public should know the full facts that we know, which are very different from the facts being peddled to the public.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester)

Can the Foreign Secretary confirm that he initials all the papers he sees?

Mr. Cook

I can confirm that what happens with all papers I see is that I tick them if they are put there for noting. If they are put there for approval, I write "OK" on them. No papers are returned to my office without writing on them of any character. I have read some really weird and absurd claims in the press in the past two or three days. I do go through my red boxes, I do read what is in my red boxes, and I do tick all those that I have read. That is understood by my officials. I assure the hon. Gentleman that, at no stage, in any of those boxes or files, were there any data on a breach of the arms embargo before 28 April.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us who have, through our cities, particular relations with Sierra Leone—as my city of Hull does with Freetown—were grateful and glad when democracy was restored to that country? The harrowing tales that we heard from that unhappy country during the period of despotic tyranny caused great concern, and the non-governmental organisations and other organisations involved were grateful that democratic government was restored to Sierra Leone.

Has my right hon. Friend noticed that four words have not been used at all in the cross-examination of him today, which I think merit some consideration? Those words are "public interest immunity certificates". What on earth has happened to them?

Mr. Cook

I must admit that I am rather enjoying the cross-examination, because, the more it goes on, the more empty the Opposition's case becomes. My hon. Friend draws attention to one reason why Opposition Members cannot get off the back foot: it is because their back foot is so mired in the mud of the last Government. As I said to the House last week, one of my first reactions when I heard of the lawyers' letter was to make it plain that I was not prepared to sign any public interest immunity certificate in this matter. I want the full facts to be out, and I want any court case to be fair.

Mr. Howard

The Foreign Secretary has today been dancing to his master's voice. What was "very serious and grave" last week is now apparently "receiving disproportionate attention". He failed to answer the questions of which I had given him notice earlier today. Will he now tell the House who was on the distribution list of the document received on 6 February, to which he referred in answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), and will he finally answer the question that he has scrupulously avoided: will the inquiry that he has promised be carried out by a High Court judge and in public, following the precedent set by his own Government with the Phillips inquiry?

Mr. Cook

The documents of 6 February were telegrams, and those telegrams would be widely circulated. [Interruption.] Of course they would be. Telegrams are always widely circulated. They detailed the intervention in Sierra Leone by the military observers group of the Economic Community of West African States—ECOMOG—and the overthrow of the military junta there. As President Kabbah has pointed out, that was a military intervention by the west African forces; it was not a military intervention by any mercenary force.

I have some sympathy with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. He has been looking forward to this event throughout the past two days. Every radio broadcast today promised that there would be an hour on the rack for me here this afternoon. I must say that this has been quite a pleasant interlude from the work that I have to do at the Foreign Office. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to do it again, I shall be happy to come back and repeat it.

Hon. Members

On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

Order. I seem to be getting points of order from hon. Members who are rather frustrated, so I hope that they are genuine points of order. I shall start with Mr. Winnick's.

Mr. Winnick

We have freedom of expression in the House, which is fortunate for all of us, but you, Madam Speaker, like your predecessors, have always said that we should be careful how we exercise that freedom of speech. The hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) implied the gravest form of misconduct by the Foreign Secretary. My right hon. Friend responded by saying that, if those accusations had been made outside the House, he would sue. Is there not an obligation on the hon. Member for Reigate to reflect on what he said, and, if he considers that it was inappropriate, to apologise?

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Madam Speaker

Order. As I feared, these are not matters for me. The point of order seems to be an extension of the statement and questions on it. I see that the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) is rising. He may wish to say something.

Mr. Blunt

I will be happy to put the question in a detailed form outside the House, if that is what the Foreign Secretary wishes.

Mr. Bayley

On a related point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

I have dealt with the matter.

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