HC Deb 18 May 1998 vol 312 cc600-58

[Relevant document: Minutes of evidence taken before the Foreign Affairs Committee on 5 May and 14 May (HC 369-vii and 745-i).]

Madam Speaker

I inform the House that I have selected the amendment standing in the name of the Prime Minister.

3.34 pm
Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

I beg to move, That this House deplores the muddle of government policy towards Sierra Leone over the last year; notes the contradictory statements made on this matter by the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; stresses the importance of establishing what knowledge and involvement there was on the part of government ministers, officials and officers of the intelligence services of and in the activities of Sandline International, including possible breaches of both international and United Kingdom law; and calls on the Government to announce without delay that it will establish a public inquiry into this question, presided over by a judge to be nominated by the Lord Chief Justice. In the past few days, the Foreign Office has become the setting for a Whitehall farce. We have seen the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), and the permanent secretary contradicting one another and themselves, day by day and hour by hour. We have seen a once great Department of State reduced to a shambles. We have seen muddle and mess on a massive scale.

During the general election campaign, Conservative Members used to complain that new Labour was prepared to change its line as often as necessary to win votes, but the more innocent among us never expected that to persist after the election. Yet, when this affair began, the Foreign Secretary's defence was that his officials knew more than he did, and that he should have been told. The Prime Minister then came out with a second defence: Britain had helped the good guys to win, and that was all that mattered. In the House last week, the Foreign Secretary seemed to be edging towards a third defence—his officials had done nothing wrong after all. The Prime Minister is preening himself for a policy that Ministers were apparently not told about, and that was never implemented.

Let no one be in any doubt that the questions at the heart of this debate are serious and grave. It is clear that the Prime Minister takes a different view, but he does not seem to know or care what the Foreign Secretary said in the House on 6 May, when he told us of his deep concern and said that the matter was of proper concern to the House."—[Official Report, 6 May 1998; Vol. 311, c. 723.] He said that it was very serious, and that no one should underestimate its gravity.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) suggested that officials were doing what they believed Ministers wanted by working for the restoration of President Kabbah—what might roughly be called the "Blair defence"—he was told by the Foreign Secretary that he was wildly out of touch with reality". The House might think that "wildly out of touch with reality" is a perfect description of the Prime Minister's attitude throughout this unhappy affair.

There are three key questions before the House this afternoon. First, what did the Foreign Office know about the activities of Sandline International, when did it know, and what did it do about it? Secondly, what does the saga tell us about the way in which the Foreign Office is run, and the grip, or lack of it, that the Foreign Secretary has on his Department? Thirdly, what are the consequences of the various ill-timed and ill-considered interventions by the Prime Minister, and what effect have they had on the prosecution of Sandline?

Let me make it clear that Conservative Members welcome the ousting of the military regime in Sierra Leone run by Major Koroma, and the restoration of President Kabbah. The Government were right to want his restoration and to work for it, but the essential question they faced from the outset was whether they wanted President Kabbah restored peacefully, or whether they were prepared to sanction military intervention to secure his return.

To that essential question the Foreign Secretary gave an unequivocal answer on 6 May: 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."—[Official Report, 6 May 1998; Vol. 311, c. 727.] That crucial feature of Government policy is something of which the Prime Minister appears to be blissfully ignorant—perhaps no one ever told him about it—but everything that the Government did flowed from that.

It was because the Government did not support military intervention that they took a leading role in sponsoring and drafting resolution 1132. It was because they did not support military intervention that they translated resolution 1132 promptly—as the Foreign Secretary was at pains to point out on 6 May—into an Order in Council prepared by the Foreign Office. It was because they did not support military intervention that the Order in Council made it a criminal offence to supply arms or other equipment to any persons connected with Sierra Leone. That is the background against which the facts of this saga fall to be considered.

The involvement of Sandline International in events in Sierra Leone first came to public attention in February, when Lord Avebury, apparently alerted by what he had seen on the Internet, wrote to a Foreign Office official to report allegations that Sandline had arranged for the supply of arms from Bulgaria to forces loyal to President Kabbah. That letter led to the Foreign Office calling on Customs and Excise to investigate the allegations.

On 6 May, the Foreign Secretary told the House that that had happened on 10 March. By the time that Sir John Kerr gave evidence to the Select Committee on Thursday, it had been discovered that, in fact, the reference to Customs had been made in February.

Mr. Hugh Bayley (City of York)

Before the right hon. and learned Gentleman leaves the subject of military intervention, will he tell us his party's view? Does it support the involvement of the military observer group, ECOWAS, in the overthrow of Major Johnny Paul Koroma's regime?

Mr. Howard

I see no reason to differ from the view expressed by the Minister of State, who has told the House that he was not happy to support the activities of ECOMOG, and that they conflicted with the UN resolution. Whether we on the Conservative Benches would have supported precisely that UN resolution and the Order in Council that flowed from it is a different matter. The Government did, and they must accept the consequences. The matter is as simple as that. The hon. Gentleman must learn that his party is in government now, and that certain consequences flow from that.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm that the Government of whom he was a prominent member gave training assistance to a military dictatorship in Sierra Leone before the election of President Kabbah, and that the Conservative Government had a record of supporting brutal military regimes throughout the world?

Mr. Howard

I do not accept that for one moment. I am prepared to debate and defend the previous Government's record at any appropriate time. This debate is not about the previous Government; this debate is about the activities of the present Government. Labour Members must learn that their party is in government. They must decide when they go through the Lobby whether they want to support the Government's activities. They will not be able to change the subject.

It is significant that Foreign Office officials—or at least those who saw Lord Avebury's letter—were immediately aware of its implications. They knew that the Government's policy was to work for the peaceful restoration of President Kabbah's Government. They knew that the supply of arms was inconsistent with that policy, and illegal. That is why they called in Customs and Excise.

The matter first came into the public domain in an article in The Observer on 8 March, which apparently led to the intervention of the Minister of State in the House on 12 May. The Minister did not mention the Customs investigation into Sandline. He and the Foreign Secretary say that that is because he was not told about it in his briefing before the debate.

On Thursday, before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Sir John Kerr first said that he thought that the Minister's briefing contained a reference to the Customs investigation. Then, after "checking his memory", he said that it did not. I mean no disrespect to Sir John when I say that we should have preferred him to check the file and briefing papers rather than his memory before he sent his extraordinary letter on Thursday.

I ask for the production of that file. There can be no reason whatever why it should not be produced. The Foreign Secretary has repeatedly said that he wants to be full and open about the matter. Why can that file not be produced now, this afternoon, to assist the House in debating the matter? In the absence of the production of that file, the House, and, indeed, the country, will draw their conclusions about what the Foreign Secretary and his Minister of State have to hide.

Whatever the file may or may not contain, we know that the Minister of State's account of events to the House on 12 March was, to put it as mildly as I can, incomplete. He described the account in The Observer as "ill-informed and scurrilous"; he described the article as nonsense. But he did not specifically deny the only explicit allegation in the article—that Peter Penfold, the high commissioner to Sierra Leone, had been involved in discussions with Sandline. He failed to tell the House about something that we know was in his brief: the deal between President Kabbah and Sandline.

On Thursday, in the latest of his many ill-starred appearances before the House and the Select Committee, the Minister said that his statement on 12 March was an exact account of his state of knowledge at that time. He went on to say, betraying a little less than full confidence in his previous remark, that, if that turned out to be wrong, he would appear before the House to correct any error.

An appearance has yet to be made in respect of that error. The Minister of State has still to provide an answer to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. Faber) last Tuesday: was Sandline International mentioned at his meetings about Sierra Leone on 19 March and 1 April? It is a perfectly straightforward question, and the Minister could and should answer it now. Will he do so? [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] I would be happy to give way to him.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office(Mr. Tony Lloyd)

No, Madam Speaker.

Mr. Howard

We note the Minister's answer, and are delighted to have it, but it is a great shame that we have had to wait nearly a week for such a simple and straightforward answer.

The Foreign Secretary told us last week that he received his first document regarding any breach of the arms embargo, or shipment of arms, on 28 April. He then took us on an entertaining tour of the furniture in his office. He did not tell us when the documents were first sent to his private office.

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

I am glad to tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the letter was faxed to my office on 24 April. On 25 April, I was in Brussels, and between 25 and 27 April I was in Luxembourg. I returned on 28 April, and was shown the letter within an hour and a half of landing. I do not see what the right hon. and learned Gentleman's problem is.

Mr. Howard

The Foreign Secretary has once again answered a question that I did not ask. I asked not about the letter of 24 April from Sandline, but about any document that might have referred to Sandline's involvement in Sierra Leone; if the Foreign Secretary cannot see the difference between those two questions, he certainly is not fit to hold the office that he occupies.

His previous answers, and, indeed, his answer now, were carefully phrased to refer to documents, but did not refer to any oral briefing that he may have received.

Mr. Cook

I am again glad to inform the right hon. and learned Gentleman that I had no oral briefings at any stage beforehand, so I hope that he can skip to the next page of his speech.

Mr. Howard

I am absolutely delighted that the Foreign Secretary is in a rather more forthcoming mood today than he has been in the past. I hope that that will continue when he makes his own speech. I will be happy to give way to him again if he will reply to the series of questions put last week by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), which the Foreign Secretary acknowledged were perfectly proper questions. The Foreign Secretary knows that he need not wait before answering those questions; he should answer them in advance of the inquiry, and without delay.

We are asked to accept that the Foreign Secretary's alibi is that he did not know what was happening in his own Department. Those are not words for which I can claim any originality; the right hon. Gentleman used them himself in 1992.

The Opposition are prepared to accept the general proposition that the Foreign Secretary cannot be expected to know of every small or trivial matter in the Foreign Office. However, we cannot accept that recent events in Sierra Leone are either small or trivial. After all, we are talking about the reversal of a coup carried out by a military junta in a country with which we have always had close and friendly relations.

Sierra Leone was important enough to receive a visit from the Minister of State at the end of March, although we have yet to hear what he was told during his visit about the activities of Sandline. It was of such importance that the Foreign Secretary appointed a special representative, Mr. John Flynn, to co-ordinate international support for the restoration of the elected Government."—[Official Report, 12 May 1998; Vol. 312, c. 153.] We have not been told much about Mr. Flynn: the Foreign Secretary did not mention him when he came to the House on 6 May. What involvement did Mr. Flynn have with Sandline? What did he report to the Foreign Secretary? If he was co-ordinating international support for the restoration of the elected Government, he at least must surely have known what was going on. If he was appointed by the Secretary of State to act as a special representative, he surely must have reported back to the Secretary of State. Those questions and many others do not need to wait for the outcome of the inquiry. They can, and they should, be answered now.

What was the involvement of the Ministry of Defence? Over the weekend, we had reports for the first time that another naval vessel, HMS Monmouth, was in the area with a significant number of British service personnel on board. What part, if any, did that vessel play in the military action? Will the inquiry cover the involvement of the Ministry of Defence and the knowledge of Ministers and officials in that and the other Government Departments involved?

Last week, the Foreign Secretary got on his high horse when dealing with allegations that he might not have read all his briefing, saying: 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."—[Official Report, 12 May 1998; Vol. 312, c. 156.] I am bound to say that the Foreign Secretary has only himself to blame when such suggestions are made, as it was the right hon. Gentleman himself who boasted in the documentary "How to be a Foreign Secretary" that he did not always read his briefing. Perhaps just a trifle prematurely, he said: I have recognised that you can be a successful Foreign Secretary if you focus on the big questions and not necessarily … finish the paperwork. If the Foreign Secretary volunteers statements of that sort, he cannot be surprised when people take them at face value. Indeed, he cannot be surprised if officials do so. Was it because he did not finish his paperwork that officials, perhaps understandably, stopped putting it in front of him? Turning to the part played in this farrago by the Prime Minister, the right hon. Gentleman has taken a rather lofty attitude to all this. As far as he is concerned, the only thing that matters is that President Kabbah was restored. The fact that the Foreign Secretary was insisting that he should be restored peacefully is a trivial detail. The fact that an arms embargo was imposed by the United Nations and made a part of the criminal law of this country is irrelevant; and the fact that that arms embargo and the criminal law may have been breached is "overblown hoo-hah". "Who?" is indeed the question; "Ha" alas, is not a sufficient answer.

The Prime Minister said yesterday that the Foreign Secretary had led the restoration of President Kabbah, yet the Foreign Secretary disclaims all knowledge and responsibility. The full extent to which the Prime Minister has become wildly out of touch with reality—to use the Foreign Secretary's phrase—was apparent in his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) last Wednesday.

My hon. Friend asked the Prime Minister how he could claim credit for the outcome in Sierra Leone when he says that he did nothing to bring it about. His answer was: I am not saying that we did nothing: we did a great deal to bring it about."—[Official Report, 13 May 1998; Vol. 312, c. 370.] He want on to talk about humanitarian aid and money for schools, hospitals and transport.

The fact is that President Kabbah was not restored to power by aid or money to schools, hospitals and transport. He was restored to power by military intervention that was contrary to British policy. It was contrary to United Nations policy, and it is something that the Prime Minister, in sharp contrast to his Foreign Secretary, has consistently failed to recognise. For the Prime Minister, it is increasingly clear that the truth is what he says is the truth, and the law is what he says is the law. A good result is something proclaimed by him to be a good result. Indeed, I confidently expect that tomorrow he will declare that Newcastle United won the FA cup on Saturday after all.

This saga, as never before, proves how much power has gone to the Prime Minister's head. If it were not so serious, it would be laughable, but it is serious. The Prime Minister's interventions may well have had the most serious impact on the criminal investigation by the Customs and Excise. Almost the first thing that the Foreign Secretary told the House about the whole affair was: The chairman of Customs and Excise has requested that while that investigation proceeds, nothing should be said that could prejudice it."—[Official Report, 6 May 1998; Vol. 311, c. 721.] It is a pity that he did not draw those words to the attention of the Prime Minister.

This saga has brought the Foreign Office into disrepute—it has become the laughing stock of the world. What can be done to restore its reputation? There can be no doubt that there should be a full, urgent and independent inquiry. The inquiry must cover all relevant Departments; it must once and for all establish what Ministers and officials knew, and when; if Ministers and officials did not know, it must explain why; and it must ensure that decision making in the Foreign Office never again plumbs such depths.

The inquiry must be held in public, and be presided over by a judge. It is no disrespect to any individual to say that an inquiry held behind closed doors by someone who has spent his whole working life as a civil servant in Whitehall does not begin to fit the bill. If this country is to be convinced that there is no cover-up or whitewash, the inquiry must sit in public, so that we can see that every avenue is thoroughly and vigorously pursued.

A precedent is readily to hand. The Government's inquiry into BSE is sitting in public, and is presided over by a distinguished judge. What is the difference between that inquiry and the one into Sierra Leone? Is it simply that, when the Government hold an inquiry into events that took place under their predecessors, they hold a public inquiry under a distinguished judge, but when they are forced to hold an inquiry into events for which they are responsible, they hold an inquiry in private—behind closed doors—under a Whitehall insider who has spent his whole working life as a civil servant?

On 23 April, the Foreign Secretary addressed a dinner in the City. He delivered what he termed an "interim report" on his stewardship of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He said that he would not be able to conclude by declaring an interim dividend, but he went on: I can report that the senior executives of the business are satisfied with the performance of the company and are bullish about our future prospects. The very next day, the letter from Sandline arrived at the Foreign Office. Ever since, the Foreign Office has been submerged in a mess of muddle and incompetence.

The Foreign Secretary has only one way in which to begin to retrieve his reputation—by ordering a full, independent and public inquiry under a senior judge. If he fails to do so, he will be confessing that he has something to hide. He will stand accused of conniving at a cover-up, and he will be paving the way to a whitewash. Nothing less than a public inquiry will do. I commend the motion to the House.

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

I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof: 'notes the Government's consistent policy of support for the restoration of President Kabbah and recognition of him as the elected and legitimate President of Sierra Leone and welcomes the success of that policy and the overthrow of the brutal and repressive military regime; applauds the open and proper manner in which the Government have responded to allegations of a breach of the UN arms embargo; and congratulates the Government on its commitment to an urgent outside investigation and publication of a full report.' The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) has not been prompted to choose this topic for debate by a deep compassion for the people of Sierra Leone. He was happy to say nothing in the House about the people of Sierra Leone for nine months, while their elected president was in exile and their local population was being terrorised by a brutal military regime. [HON. MEMBERS: "What did you say?"] I shall say what the Government did, and I shall expect some backing from the Opposition when they hear what support we gave to President Kabbah.

Mr. Howard

Will the right hon. Gentleman say what he told the House during those nine months?

Mr. Cook

Several times in the past year, the Foreign Office made perfectly plain our support for President Kabbah—I did so myself when I met the Foreign Minister of Sierra Leone.

Both the removal and the restoration of President Kabbah passed over the right hon. and learned Gentleman's head without comment or question. He has been prompted to bring the debate before the House by his desperate wish to believe that the extravagant allegations that have been made over the past week were true. Anyone would have to be pretty desperate to believe all of them: new depths of absurdity were plumbed on Sunday, when it was suggested that the Prime Minister may have been complicit in a breach of the arms embargo this year because his father lectured in law in Sierra Leone 30 years ago.

It is an extraordinary testimony to the emptiness of the speech that we just heard from the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe, who said nothing about Sierra Leone until two weeks ago, that it did not contain a single new point. His credibility on this matter would be greater, were it not for the fact that every Labour Member remembers, far better than Conservative Members appear to, what the Conservatives did in government.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has the nerve to wax eloquent about my not being in control of my Department. That takes a brass neck, coming from a former Home Secretary who, when told that 537 prisoners had been given early release, replied: I think I should have been consulted. The questions that have been posed this afternoon are easily disposed of. The right hon. and learned Member sees something sinister in HMS Monmouth being stationed in the area. HMS Monmouth was sent, prudently, by the Ministry of Defence, in case it should be necessary to evacuate civilians during the fighting. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is surprised that officials, acting perfectly properly, could have referred their suspicions to Customs and Excise for examination. It is absolutely right that officials should feel able to seek an investigation of a possible offence without political approval, and the procedure on that point has not changed one iota between the time of the previous Government and that of the present one.

In the last two years of the Conservative Government, there were 200 occasions when action was taken by the Customs and Excise following Government information fed through the restrictive enforcement unit, and, on the vast majority of such occasions, there was no reference to Ministers. Indeed, I doubt whether all the former Conservative Ministers present, between them, could name 10 per cent. of those cases. So let us have no more humbug about the procedures in this case being incredible, when they were identical to the procedures followed by the Conservatives in office.

Mr. Edward Gamier (Harborough)

In the cases that the Foreign Secretary just mentioned, did the then Prime Minister at any stage refer to those investigations as "hoo-hah"?

Mr. Cook

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister never referred to the case against Sandline, or the investigation, as hoo-hah. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] No, he never did. My right hon. Friend made it plain that, if there was a breach of the embargo, that was wrong; he absolutely said that. What he did say, absolutely rightly, was that all the many wild allegations that have accrued around that investigation were hoo-hah.

For the past two weeks, I have been constrained in what I can say because of a perfectly proper concern not to prejudice the investigation by the Customs and Excise; but, as of this afternoon, that investigation is over. Last week, I said that the extensive—

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

What the Foreign Secretary said about the number of references that had previously been made to Customs and Excise was important. May we know how many of those references concerned a breach of a United Nations decision and resolution, and how many concerned the export of arms? Those are the two matters which are of major importance.

Mr. Cook

I made it clear that those 200 cases arose entirely from proceedings in the restrictive enforcement unit.

Sir Peter Emery

That reply does not answer the question, which was about arms and the UN.

Mr. Cook

No; that reply is the answer to the right hon. Gentleman's question. The restrictive enforcement unit exists precisely to police any acts of restriction on trade resulting from UN decisions or Orders in Council by Britain. That is its function.

Last week, I said that the extensive files on this matter made it clear that there was no conspiracy between officials of the Africa department at the Foreign Office and Sandline to breach the arms embargo. As the Customs and Excise investigation is over, I can today be more blunt.

Throughout the whole period, there was only one meeting between officials at the Foreign Office and Colonel Spicer of Sandline. I am advised by the senior official at that meeting that Sandline said that it had heard that someone else was planning to run shipments of arms to Sierra Leone, and asked what the legal position would be. The text of the Security Council resolution was fetched and read to the representatives of Sandline. They asked whether the reference to Sierra Leone included everyone connected with Sierra Leone, and they were advised that that was the case. It was the very same officials who alerted Customs and Excise to their suspicions and started an investigation. That is not the action of people conniving in the very breach that they were asking Customs and Excise to investigate.

I believe that the conduct of public policy by Ministers and by officials must be open to scrutiny. That is why, from our first exchanges in the House on the matter, I have made it clear that I wanted what had happened inside the Foreign Office to be investigated from outside the Foreign Office. Now that the Customs and Excise investigation has been concluded, I can announce that I have asked Sir Thomas Legg QC to undertake that investigation, and he has agreed. As an eminent lawyer, he has impeccable qualifications for the job. Even the right hon. and learned Gentleman announced this morning that he had great respect for Sir Thomas Legg—although I did not hear that when he spoke in the House this afternoon.

As a distinguished servant of the Lord Chancellor's Department, Sir Thomas has weighty and relevant experience of the relationship between the public service and the prosecuting authorities; and, as a retired servant of the Department, he is now free to express his mind openly and independently.

Mr. Howard

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that Sir Thomas Legg, for whom I do have considerable respect, has spent the whole of his working life as a civil servant in and around Whitehall? Does he seriously think that an inquiry held in private by someone who has spent his whole working life as a civil servant meets the seriousness of this case or that it will reassure the public?

Mr. Cook

The right hon. and learned Gentleman apparently believes that Sir Thomas's experience and knowledge of the public service will be a handicap in his inquiry—that it compromises his independence to know the procedures that he is investigating. I think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will be pleased with what I am about to say. I can reassure him that Sir Thomas Legg will not be acting alone. He will be supported by an assessor of impeccable independence of mind. I believe it important that the investigation should assess the procedures of the public service in this matter by the best standards of modern management.

I am therefore pleased to inform the House that Sir Robin Ibbs has agreed to assist Sir Thomas Legg as an assessor. As a former director of ICI and chairman of Lloyds TSB, Sir Robin has great experience and authority—[Interruption.] My hon. Friends must not spoil my punchline. He has great experience and authority of best management practice—so much so that, when the Conservatives were in government, Baroness Thatcher appointed him as her adviser on efficiency. I am therefore confident that Conservative Members will applaud his expertise.

Mr. Gander


Mr. Cook

The hon. and learned Gentleman has already had his shot.

I will be placing in the Library a copy of the full terms of reference of the investigation, which is essentially tasked with answering two key questions: whether any Department of the Government gave approval to breaches of the arms embargo on Sierra Leone; and what was known by the Government, either by Ministers or officials, of any alleged breach. The investigation will extend to the Ministry of Defence and any other relevant Department. It will also cover the intelligence agencies and will have regard to any communiqué or report received by officials which referred to Sandline.

The investigation will commence immediately and be concluded as soon as possible. The report will be made public. I will ensure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has adequate time to read the report before it is published.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle)


Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)


Madam Speaker

Order. The Foreign Secretary is not giving way.

Mr. Cook

There will be no repeat of the shabby manipulation by this Conservative party over the Scott report, when we were given three hours to read five volumes.

Mr. Hogg

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. Will he tell the House, first, whether the two persons charged with the inquiry will sit in public, and, secondly, if they want to enlarge their terms of reference, will they be allowed to do so?

Mr. Cook

If the investigators wished to enlarge their terms of reference, I would welcome any request from them. We would look carefully at it and I am sure that we would agree to it. On the question whether they would sit in public, I listened with the greatest interest to the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe describing his new discovery of the virtues of the public inquiry. It was not a discovery which he made in government.

I must apologise, Madam Speaker, because in my statement to the House last week, I misled the House. I recognise the importance that the Opposition attach to putting the record straight. Last week, I informed the House that, as Home Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe had lost 13 cases in the courts. I regret to inform the House that I overlooked four other cases that need to be taken into account, making a grand total of 17 lost cases. Not once did he order a public inquiry to find out where he went wrong.

Twice during the right hon. and learned Gentleman's period as Home Secretary, the spectacular escape of prisoners led him to appoint an inquiry into the Prison Service, and on neither occasion did he make it a public inquiry, yet, now that he is in opposition, we are asked to believe that he is a born-again believer in public inquiries.

Sir Peter Tapsell


Mr. Cook

I shall give way for the last time.

Sir Peter Tapsell

When the right hon. Gentleman finally tells the House whether the inquiry is to be held in public, will he at the same time tell us why he has gone to such enormous lengths to avoid the obvious and traditional custom of appointing a High Court judge to preside over such an inquiry?

Mr. Cook

I have already announced the distinguished lawyer who will conduct the inquiry. He is so distinguished that even the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe is obliged to say that he has great respect for him. I am perfectly confident that Sir Thomas Legg is as capable of carrying out the inquiry properly, legally and with adequate qualifications and safeguards as any High Court judge.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I hope that he accepts that, even if the Opposition are not seriously interested in Sierra Leone, there are people in the House and, more important, outside the House who are extremely interested in Sierra Leone and in how the Government handle such issues in Africa. Will the inquiry take as its point of departure the Orders in Council passed in this country, which were quite clear that arms were not to be sent to anyone in Sierra Leone, or will the inquiry take as its point of reference the United Nations resolution, which people are now saying is ambiguous?

Mr. Cook

I would contest my hon. Friend's final statement that the resolution was ambiguous, but, to answer her narrow point, the investigation will have both documents available to it. The investigators can draw whatever conclusions they, with their qualifications and their investigations, see fit to draw from both documents in the light of events over the past four months.

I have honoured the commitment that I gave that the inquiry would be carried out by someone from outside the Foreign Office. The public need to know the truth, and they need to know it urgently. If we went down the road of a public inquiry, we would waiting for it to start, long after the investigation that I have announced will be finished and out in public.

Moreover, the issues do not justify a public inquiry. It is already clear that we are looking at a limited range of issues over a short period and covered in a relatively modest bundle of official papers. There is not a single ministerial decision on Sandline to be investigated. That is entirely different from the arms to Iraq scandal, in which the inquiry had to pursue back over several years questions of Government policy, and in which Ministers were in it up to their necks, both in the secret changes in policy and in the repeated deceit of Parliament and the courts. It is even more limited in scope than the matters being pursued in the public inquiry into bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which will examine the conduct of Government policy over 15 years and the repeated failure of Ministers in the previous Government to grasp the severity of the problem or to be frank with the public.

The real reason why the right hon. and learned Gentleman demands a public inquiry is to create the impression that there is a great political scandal waiting to be exposed. He has so far failed miserably to expose it. To be fair to him, he cannot find a great political scandal on this issue because there is not one there.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

I am much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman. I have listened carefully to his comments, and he seems to reject the allegations made by Sandline regarding its conversations with the Foreign Office. Is not that in itself a good reason why the matter should be referred to a judge for inquiry? There is the question not only of the Foreign Secretary's comments to the House but whether there has been a misunderstanding between Sandline and the Foreign Office, and who is right about those conversations.

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman's question has already been asked and answered. I am perfectly confident that Sir Thomas Legg QC has all the legal experience and qualifications necessary to adjudicate in such matters. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman on one point—indeed, his comments are helpful. Until now, we have heard in public only the allegations by Sandline; the investigation can now start to sift the evidence properly and produce a full and considered report.

As the Conservative party attaches so much importance to Sierra Leone and has put the topic before the House for debate, perhaps we could invite Conservative Members to attach some importance to what is said by the people of Sierra Leone. Nobody in Sierra Leone believes that there is any political scandal in the conduct of the British Government towards their country. They are delighted to be rid of a savage military regime which killed their sons and raped their daughters. They are delighted to have back their elected president and their constitutional Government. There was no failure of British policy in Sierra Leone. Britain supported the elected Government of Sierra Leone.

Mr. Howard

Does that mean, therefore, that the Foreign Secretary now accepts that his policy has been wrong throughout and that he should have favoured military intervention to restore President Kabbah?

Mr. Cook

I refer the right hon. and learned Gentleman to what President Kabbah has said. He has expressed his profound gratitude for the resolute support that Britain gave him. Since then, the high commissioner for Sierra Leone has written to the Minister of State, saying that he has followed with utter disbelief the sustained attacks on the British Government's role in restoring democracy to Sierra Leone. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman has asked what Labour and Britain did for Sierra Leone, I shall tell him. Britain supported the elected Government of Sierra Leone, and Britain helped pass the resolution of support for it at the United Nations. Britain welcomed President Kabbah to the meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government. Britain was first on the scene after the restoration of President Kabbah with the humanitarian relief provided by HMS Cornwall. The Minister of State was on the first ministerial team from outside west Africa to visit Sierra Leone and to congratulate President Kabbah after his restoration.

Last July, when I outlined our policy on human rights at a meeting of non-governmental organisations, I referred to the funding and equipment that Britain had provided for a radio station supporting the cause of democracy against a regime so repressive that I was advised that I could not name it without risking reprisals against British lives. That radio station was to enable President Kabbah to communicate directly to his people throughout the period of military rule. That radio station, funded by Britain, was the vital link between President Kabbah and his people. It helped mobilise support for the restoration of democracy in that country. That is part of the practical, financial, moral and political support that we provided to President Kabbah.

There was no failure of policy; nor has there been any cover-up. We have acted openly throughout. The Foreign Office took the initiative in referring the original decision to Customs and Excise. The Foreign Office has cooperated openly and fully with the Customs and Excise investigation. I moved immediately on the completion of that investigation to appoint an investigation by two men who bring to it immense legal authority and unchallengeable probity. Every briefing paper, every telegram and every minute will be available to them. Yet the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe and others around him have the nerve to claim that there is still some comparison between this episode and the conduct of the previous Government over arms to Iraq.

There are no comparisons. There are only contrasts between our conduct in Sierra Leone and the previous Government's conduct in Iraq. The greatest contrast of all is that, in Sierra Leone, the Government's policy has contributed to the return of a legitimate and elected Government. In Iraq, the Conservative Government's policy still leaves British machine tools turning out shells for a brutal and repressive dictator.

How many Conservative Members can say that they are proud of what their Government did in supplying Saddam Hussein? We can be proud of what we did for Sierra Leone. Therefore, we are confident that the independent investigation that I have announced today will show that, unlike the previous Government, we have nothing to fear from bringing the truth out into the open.

4.21 pm
Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

Whether there is now to be a prosecution, there are fundamental questions that still require to be answered. Even if there is no prosecution, it does not mean that the United Nations arms embargo was not broken. Even if there is no prosecution, it does not mean that no criminal offence was committed. If no prosecution is to be initiated, it means only that the prosecuting authority does not believe that it can successfully obtain a conviction.

I am bound to say that there seemed little chance of a conviction by a jury when the words "hoo-hah" and "hype" were used to dismiss what was and remains legitimate public interest in these events. There seemed little chance of a conviction by a jury as soon as the public were told to concentrate on the successful restoration of a legitimate Government and to disregard the means by which that was achieved. The truth is that after these interventions, prosecution was inevitably doomed.

If the words "hoo-hah" and "hype" are of any significance in the context in which they were used, why was it that the Foreign Office referred the matter to Customs and Excise? It cannot have done so lightly. If "hoo-hah" and "hype" are legitimate to use to dismiss interest in these matters, why has the Foreign Secretary ordered an independent inquiry? An inquiry is an acknowledgement that there are matters of substance to investigate, and the more distinguished the members of the inquiry, the more substantial these matters are.

Mr. Hogg

The hon. and learned Gentleman has made an important point, that the Prime Minister's public intervention may have made the prospects of a successful prosecution remote. Does he agree that one of the things that the two inquiry adjudicators should look into is exactly what the advice of Customs and Excise was as to the prospects of a successful prosecution, so that we may know whether it was the Prime Minister's intervention that made a prosecution impossible?

Mr. Campbell

As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows better than me, that is a matter for the Attorney-General. I suspect that the conventions by which the prosecuting authority reports to the Attorney-General are such that investigation of those matters would be prevented. It would, however, be open to the Attorney-General to take the view that so important was that matter that he would waive the traditional right to confidentiality. Thus the right hon. and learned Gentleman's proposition would depend substantially on the view that the Attorney-General was willing to take.

The dismal truth is that, after a fortnight of speculation and innuendo, we are no better informed of the answers to the questions posed at the outset of this affair. Those questions remain as follows: was the United Nations arms embargo breached; was criminal domestic law breached; if there were such breaches, were officials of any Government Department, or officers of the security services, implicated; and, given that I accept the truthfulness of Ministers, why were they not informed?

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

I am sorry to take the hon. and learned Gentleman back a little, but I wanted to intervene because the Attorney-General is in the Chamber. One issue that emerged from the Scott inquiry was responsibility for Customs and Excise prosecutions. It was felt that Customs and Excise should have greater independence. The previous Attorney-General said: I shall be answerable to the House for actions taken by Customs and Excise in relation to individual prosecutions relating to defence exports and to sanctions infringements".—[Official Report, 17 June 1996; Vol. 279, c. 331.] That was an enhancement of the role from the previous position. In a sense, it meant greater independence. The independence of prosecution activity by Customs and Excise was thought to be at the heart of the Scott inquiry. Does the hon. and learned Gentleman think that, in the light of that answer, the Attorney-General should be able to help the House today?

Mr. Campbell

It is for the Attorney-General to decide whether he wants to favour the House. After all, part of his role is independent of the Government, and if he feels that he could assist the House by intervening, I have no doubt that a suitable opportunity could be found.

On the general point to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, I was a member of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry during the investigation into what became known as the Iraqi supergun. The then Attorney-General, who is now the noble Lord Mayhew, explained to the Committee at great length why by convention up to that point the Attorney-General's role in relation to Customs and Excise investigations and prosecutions was very limited. Indeed, as a result of Lord Justice Scott's strictures on that matter, the convention and practice have both been changed.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Campbell

No; I should like to make progress.

On 5 February 1998, my noble Friend Lord Avebury wrote to a senior Foreign and Commonwealth Office official reporting allegations that had appeared originally in the Toronto Globe and Mail of 31 July 1997—more than eight months previously—which were repeated on 9 February in another publication. On 26 February, the Foreign Office official replied to that letter of 5 February, saying that the allegation that Sandline was involved in the supply of arms to Sierra Leone, which was contrary to Security Council resolution 1132, implemented in British law by Orders in Council, had been referred to the appropriate authorities—Customs and Excise—which would examine any evidence and assess whether a crime had been committed. Therefore, at some time between 5 and 26 February, an individual in the Foreign Office had referred the matter to Customs and Excise. That makes the delay in bringing those matters directly to Ministers' attention all the more difficult to understand.

It is a matter of profound regret to me that, after a fortnight of what I can only describe as inept, confused and occasionally contradictory handling by the Government, the reputation of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been substantially dented. To argue that the House should ignore Sandline because the result was satisfactory is to ignore the rights of the House of Commons and of Members of Parliament to hold Ministers of the Crown to account for their actions. To argue, as some have, that we should concentrate on nuclear proliferation in the Asian sub-continent or on unrest in Kosovo and relegate consideration of Sandline is to ignore the fact that our confidence in the Government to deal properly with those issues depends, inevitably, on our assessment of the competence of the Foreign Office to deal properly with Sandline.

Even supposing that there was no breach of the United Nations resolution, why were Ministers not informed of the proposed arms shipments? The Foreign Secretary has given us statistical information, and it might benefit from closer analysis once it is put in the public domain. Are arms shipments to areas of tension where the United Kingdom Government are pursuing a determined policy for the restoration of a deposed foreign Government so commonplace that they do not rate any mention to Ministers? If that is so, it is a surprising state of affairs.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office referred the matter to Customs and Excise. Are such references, where the transaction is the shipment of arms, so commonplace that they do not rate any mention to Ministers or to a Foreign Secretary who, on any view, enhanced and distinguished his reputation by the way in which he pursued the previous Government in relation to the arms to Iraq affair? One would have thought in those circumstances that, from the narrowest of political standpoints, it would be inevitable that such a matter, if there were something of that sort, would be referred to the Foreign Secretary—and to this Foreign Secretary in particular.

Mr. Ian Bruce

Does the hon. and learned Gentleman think that the House is missing something—that the arms were not going to Sierra Leone, but to the Nigerian military regime? We should be looking at whether the British Government were effectively conniving with a regime that they constantly condemn.

Mr. Campbell

Nigeria's role in those matters occasioned considerable anxiety. At the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Edinburgh last September, there was considerable scrutiny of Nigeria's response to the conditions placed on it for continued membership of the Commonwealth. Some, myself included, argued that Nigeria's failure to observe the conditions on which it had been suspended was such that expulsion should follow. The attitude of the Government—of any British Government—to Nigeria in such circumstances was bound to be one of sensitivity.

I had considerable apprehension about the role taken by the Nigerian Government in the restoration of President Kabbah. Once again, we got the right result, but whenever one makes that point, one must ask, "Supposing we had not got the right result? Supposing the outcomes had been different—would our attitude and the Government's attitude to the means by which they were achieved be rather different?"

I welcome the proposal to hold an independent inquiry. I am not convinced that it needs to be held in public, so long as a person of sufficient detachment and independence is chosen to conduct it. I agree with the Foreign Secretary about the conversion of some Conservative Members to the value of a public inquiry. I remember well, as he does, that before he and I were given three hours to examine Lord Justice Scott's report in the basement of the Department of Trade and Industry, a lot of senior Conservatives—including Lord Howe of Aberavon, if my memory serves me correctly—were put up to rubbish in advance the outcome of the Scott inquiry, before the report had even been published.

It did not stop there. The Foreign Secretary will remember that the central conclusion of the report was that Parliament had been deliberately misled about a change of policy. What happened at the Dispatch Box? The then President of the Board of Trade, now Lord Lang, said that the Government did not accept the central conclusion of the report. That justifies the Foreign Secretary exhibiting a degree of scepticism about the conversion that has taken place, but when sinners return to the fold, one should try to be nothing other than generous.

Mr. Grieve

Leaving aside the question whether sinners have been converted, does the hon. and learned Gentleman agree that, in the light of what the Foreign Secretary said today, one of the central issues in the inquiry will be whether the Foreign Office's recollections of its dealings with Sandline are right or whether it might be mistaken? In such circumstances, it would be inappropriate for the members of the inquiry and its chairman to be drawn from the civil service.

Mr. Campbell

The hon. Gentleman anticipates my point. Like others, I have a great deal of respect for Sir Thomas Legg and Sir Robin Ibbs. However, in this case, not only a legal qualification but independence from Whitehall and from Government are essential for the credibility of the investigative process. I regret that the Foreign Secretary has not found himself able to go outside Whitehall. For example, he referred to Sir Robin Ibbs, who, of course, had a distinguished career outside Whitehall but has been part of it in the very capacity to which the Foreign Secretary referred.

Once a person has been appointed, he or she should be invited to consider whether the investigation should be in public, because issues involving the Security Service are obviously of great delicacy and sensitivity and, in some circumstances, the lives of people called to give evidence might be put at risk. Therefore, a decision about the extent to which the inquiry should be public ought to be left to the person of independence and detachment who will be called upon to conduct it.

If the inquiry is to be credible, it will, as I think is conceded, inevitably have to consider the actions of Ministers—not only what they knew and when they knew it, in the rehearsal of the phrase that ultimately caused President Nixon to step down, but whether they exercised due diligence to find out. The question is not merely whether they knew, but whether they ought to have known. I echo last week's observation by my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) when I say that another question for the inquiry is whether there is any substance in the allegation that the Government are relying on what came to be described as the Thomas a Becket defence.

Out of this we should surely try to find some pointers for the future. That is why I say that the inquiry's remit should be to consider the need to require arms brokers who operate in the United Kingdom to be registered here and to be subject to licence, and to require all transactions in which they engage, irrespective of whether the arms pass through the United Kingdom, to be subject to the domestic licensing regime that operates here. Extra-territorial powers of that kind are not unprecedented. United Kingdom nationals who assist in the acquisition of chemical weapons capabilities by third parties are liable to prosecution under the Chemical Weapons Act 1996.

Ms Abbott

I have a question for the hon. and learned Gentleman before we deal with the inquiry's remit. I have here a copy of the terms of reference that have been placed in the Library. Does he agree that it is curious that the term of reference that the inquiry will not have are to look into whether there was a breach of the United Nations embargo?

Mr. Campbell

The hon. Lady has the advantage of me, because I have not seen the terms in detail. However, if the inquiry's first consideration is not whether United Nations Security Council resolution 1132 was breached, its conclusions will be substantially flawed. The Foreign Secretary demurred to the hon. Lady. If the terms of reference require further elucidation and expansion, it would be appropriate for him to give them so that that issue, which is fundamental to the inquiry, falls within its remit.

The inquiry should also consider whether any application for licensing approval involving arms should be required to contain full details of the banking, insurance, credit and transport arrangements in the brokering of a particular transaction. Finally, it should consider the establishment of a Select Committee in the House of Commons to oversee arms export policy and to scrutinise individual applications.

It is sometimes said that those are matters of commercial confidence, but if the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) can be trusted to oversee the security services and GCHQ, surely either he or hon. Members of the same experience and integrity could be trusted to provide appropriate scrutiny of sensitive and potentially difficult arms exports.

As the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs properly said, this is not arms to Iraq. Any efforts to suggest that it is are misplaced and mischievous. As I have said, Lord Justice Scott established that the previous Government had deliberately failed to inform Parliament of a change in Government policy in the supply of arms to Iraq and, in doing so, had failed to discharge their constitutional obligation of ministerial accountability. There is no evidence of any of that here, but the allegations that have emerged over the past weeks are damaging to the Foreign Office.

The Attorney-General (Mr. John Morris)

In view of the hon. and learned Gentleman's earlier remarks and those of the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), I can confirm that Customs and Excise has now reached a view and announced in the past few hours that proceedings should not be instituted against any person. I confirmed that decision, which was based on the particular circumstances leading up to the supply of arms—I emphasise that—and no other circumstances apply. I am grateful.

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire)


Mr. Campbell

Might I say that there will be those in the House who will want to consider carefully the terms of what the Attorney-General has just said? Perhaps some of them will want to press the point even now.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

Would the hon. and learned Gentleman be interested, as I would be, to learn from the Attorney-General whether that decision was taken on evidential or public interest grounds, and whether he might elucidate that matter a little further?

Mr. Campbell

This is a match that may have to be conducted in circumstances where I am not the court, as it were, but I have some small experience of prosecuting, not within this jurisdiction, but a little further north, and it was certainly my experience—prosecuting some time ago, it has to be said—that decisions not to proceed were never the subject of explanation. The only way in which an explanation of the sort that the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) seeks from the Attorney-General, but through me, could be provided, would be if the Attorney-General were willing to provide that information. That is a point that he may have to take up with the Attorney-General directly.

I deduce from what has been said that the decision was based on the view that there was insufficient likelihood of a conviction to justify taking proceedings. If that be so, and I return to a point that I made at the outset, I am firmly of the view that some of the descriptions—some of the use of language such as "hoo-hah" and "hype"—must have made some contribution to the view that the prospects of success were insufficient to warrant prosecution.

The fact that there is no prosecution does not mean that the embargo was not broken, because the standard of proof required to bring home a criminal charge is proof beyond reasonable doubt. That is a high standard. If we were asked to consider whether a UN embargo had been broken, most hon. Members would be satisfied with proof on a balance of probabilities.

I go back to the point that I made before: even if there is no prosecution, it does not mean that no criminal offence was committed. Therefore, the Attorney-General's intervention does not take away from the inquiry's two fundamental and primary tasks: to establish whether there was a breach of the UN resolution and of criminal law.

Mr. Grieve

Does the hon. and learned Gentleman agree that, if what was said by the Foreign Secretary is correct—that Sandline sought approval from the Foreign Office for the export, or at least raised it and was told in unequivocal terms that it would be a breach—it becomes all the more remarkable that clear evidence is not there on which it could be prosecuted?

Mr. Campbell

I think that we are about to have a tutorial on legal matters, which is well outwith the scope of the debate, but some of us, remembering the way in which the Matrix Churchill case came to an end, have formed the view that, no doubt with some success, Sandline's solicitors have legitimately been seeking to establish what one might call a Matrix Churchill defence in a public forum. That may be a partial answer to the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, but if he wishes to pursue it at greater length, he will no doubt seek to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I have said already that I do not believe that these events have any parallel with the issue of the supply of arms to Iraq and the deliberate misleading of the House of Commons, but the allegations that have emerged over the past weeks are deeply damaging to the Foreign Office, to the Government and, ultimately, to the UK's interests. The allegations have not been made any less damaging by the way in which they have been dealt with, particularly in the past fortnight or so. It follows from that that the sooner the truth is known, the better.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Tom King

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We have just had the advantage of an intervention by the Attorney-General, which I think the whole House appreciated because there was uncertainty. In his speech, the Foreign Secretary carefully used the phrase that Customs and Excise had completed its inquiry—he never said what it had done and whether there was to be no further prosecution; he said merely that it had completed its inquiry. The Attorney-General, exercising the right of a Law Officer to intervene in a debate, has now clarified the position. I understand that, if the House had wished to do so, it could have treated that as a Government statement, on which hon. Members could then have asked the Attorney-General questions.

That moment has now passed, but the Attorney-General is helpfully here. I understand that he is not winding up the debate, but that the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), will be. Can we take it that, if any hon. Members now wish to raise points in the presence of the Attorney-General, the Minister of State will be able to answer questions that are effectively directed at the Attorney-General, and that the Attorney-General will kindly brief him in the light of the responsibilities that he accepts that he now has under the new arrangements, for Customs and Excise prosecutions? Will the Minister of State be able to give answers to hon. Members, which obviously would help the House?

Mr. Grieve

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I understood the intervention of the Attorney-General to be in reply to the comments of the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell), the Liberal Democrat spokesman. In those circumstances, there was no opportunity, as I understand it, legitimately for the Attorney-General to be questioned—as if he were making a statement. I seek clarification on that point because, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) says, the moment has passed when we can ask the Attorney-General questions.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

The whole House will have heard the point that the Attorney-General made. As the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) suggested, in the light of the Attorney-General's remarks, it is for Ministers to respond to questions. They will do so in the way they feel fit.

4.47 pm
Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

I propose to make four points, which I hope will help the House to look rationally at this important matter. First, I give the background. Sierra Leone is a friendly Commonwealth country. Since independence in 1961, it has been racked by a great deal of political turbulence, and it is one of the poorest countries in a very poor continent.

That political turbulence reached its climax in May last year, when President Kabbah, who was democratically elected and internationally recognised, was overthrown by a military coup. All the relevant international organisations sought to have that position reversed and the President returned to power. They included the Organisation of African Unity and the Commonwealth, and of course we know that our Prime Minister invited President Kabbah as his personal guest to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Edinburgh in October.

Hence the UN Security Council passed resolution 1132 last year and an Order in Council was subsequently implemented, which came into effect on 1 November. We know that, ultimately, the legitimate president was returned to power, largely with the help of ECOMOG—a unit comprised mainly of Nigerian forces. Perhaps those who are now acclaiming Mr. Penfold, our high commissioner in Sierra Leone, and making him a national hero will be a little puzzled by the nature of the debate in this country.

The matter first came before the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs on 5 May. We were conducting an inquiry into what an ethical dimension to foreign policy means in practice. We were due to meet the Minister of State on the Tuesday following the bank holiday. It is fair to say that when he came before the Committee, he thought he was appearing before us on a different but related matter—the human rights report that the Government had published in April.

As there had been considerable press interest in Sierra Leone over the weekend, it seemed proper to the Committee to deal with Sierra Leone in our questions to the Minister. As he was not prepared, because he came to the Committee on another matter, he prefaced his remarks with a number of disclaimers and said that if he made errors he would correct them as soon as possible. The very next day—Wednesday 6 May—the Foreign Secretary responded to a private notice question and the Minister of State wrote to me, in my capacity as Chairman of the Committee, on the following Friday, saying that I should deem the Foreign Secretary's statement to be the answer to the Committee that had been promised.

On Tuesday 12 May, the Committee met in private session. We were decidedly unhappy with the Minister's letter, which we did not think sufficient, and we asked him to provide us with a paragraph by paragraph correction of the evidence that he had given us the previous Tuesday. We also decided to ask the Foreign Secretary for the relevant telegrams sent from and to Conakry and Freetown from October last year. That request was refused: I shall return to that matter in a moment. The Minister of State has now written to us setting out a full response.

That is largely the role that has been performed by the Committee. I have ensured that all the relevant documents—including the evidence given by Sir John Kerr, the permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office, to the Committee on Thursday 14 May, together with his correcting letter of that same afternoon; the two relevant evidence sessions; and the letters addressed to the Committee—are before the House, albeit in an uncorrected state, to inform this debate.

Ms Abbott

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Select Committee is extremely unlucky? No sooner does a Minister or an official appear before it to give evidence on matters relating to Sierra Leone, than within hours they retract their evidence. Are we not an unlucky group of people?

Mr. Anderson

That is an interesting observation. In all fairness, the Minister of State was appearing before the Committee on another matter, albeit related. That accounts for the fact that he was not as fully briefed as he would have liked to be. When Sir John Kerr came before the Committee, his memory failed him on a key matter and a correcting letter, addressed to the Committee, was sent that same afternoon. I hope that the House recognises that the Committee has done all that it can to deal with questions of interest to the House, and that the necessary information is now before the House to inform this debate.

Obviously, one question that needs to be asked relates to the interpretation of the UN Security Council resolution. The aim of the resolution was consistent with the general wish of the international community to replace the illegal regime with the legal regime. However, the resolution does not say that; it puts the legal regime—which at that time was in exile in Conakry—and the illegal regime on a par in terms of arms supply. Naturally, the implementing Order in Council also makes no distinction between the legal and the illegal regimes. That is puzzling. Was it because of sloppy drafting?

On any construction of the Order in Council, there must have been a technical breach of that order. According to the first schedule to the order, it is clear that arms are included and that any British national who supplies arms to Sierra Leone—to either regime—is guilty of an offence. I note the interesting defence by Sandline, that it thought it had a licence. With a legal hat on, I would not like to appear before the chairman of the bench on a charge of not having a licence for a public house and say, "I have a virtual licence," or, "I thought I had a licence." That may or may not be good mitigation, but it is certainly not an answer to a charge.

The only reason for not proceeding against Sandline is either on the ground of public interest and the overall wish of the international community, or that the surrounding circumstances are such that, given the relations between civil servants and Sandline, no jury would be likely to convict and we would simply have a costly exercise, the only beneficiaries of which would be the lawyers.

I note that that argument was advanced in a letter to The Times last Friday from Berthan Macaulay, the special legal adviser to the Sierra Leone Government. I last met Mr. Macaulay when he was a defendant in another treason trial in Sierra Leone in 1967. It is good to see that he is still around. The idea that motive is sufficient to construe either the UN Security Council resolution or the Order in Council in such a way is wholly unsustainable. The construction is clear—there has been a technical breach of the UN embargo.

We need to ask questions about the UN Security Council resolution. It may be that Sandline was initially supplying a very different sort of assistance to the Ecomog forces. It might have provided technical assistance, intelligence and training, in which case it would not have been in breach of the resolution, which is essentially a ban on arms supply. It may have been like the United States forces in Vietnam, who began as military advisers, but gradually slipped into a combat role. It may be that those in the Foreign Office who were well aware of Sandline's activities believed that they comprised assistance that did not breach the UN embargo. It is only at a much later stage that the question of arms supply arose. As we now know, the relatively small number of arms that were supplied arrived after the battle for Freetown was already over.

The role of the intelligence services may well be another complicating matter, but no more than that.

The House will therefore have to examine events in the light of the United Nations Security Council resolution, and also the activities of Mr. Flynn, who was the special adviser to the Foreign Secretary. We have heard rather little about Mr. Flynn's activities.

I should like now to deal with the matters raised by the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell), who speaks with great distinction on behalf of the Liberal Democrat party, and Lord Avebury's letter of February 1998, addressed to the Foreign Office official. We will have to examine why there was a time lapse between receipt of the letter and action on it, after the matter was referred, on 10 March 1998, to the Foreign Office legal adviser.

More specifically, we will have to discover why the Minister of State was placed in an embarrassing position, through no fault of his own, by not being briefed before replying to the Adjournment debate of 12 March 1998 initiated by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). Surely the sensitivity of the matter should have been known by the date of that debate.

After 12 March, why was there a further time lapse—until some time in the middle of April—until the matter was submitted for noting to the Minister of State? Surely it was known by then that the matter was sensitive and that the Minister had not been briefed adequately on 12 March. We will have to ask questions, not only about that lapse, but about subsequent events that have been detailed in the Sandline letter.

Many interesting issues will have to be addressed by the distinguished leader of the investigation, and by his assessor—who also knows his way around Whitehall, and is very well tried in management methods and private industry.

What options remain open to the House and to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee—which I have the honour of chairing? I heard the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) mention a public inquiry, the first option. He knows as well as I do that such an inquiry would take a long time to complete its work. Lawyers may be involved in such an inquiry, whereas I think that the House would like answers to a relatively narrow range of questions. The matter does not involve the time scale involved in bovine spongiform encephalopathy, for example, or the complexity of the arms-to-Iraq affair. I am sure that the House would like the inquiry to report as speedily as possible.

Although I understand the wish of the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe to dress up the matter by equating it with the arms-to-Iraq affair, I do not think that the British public will fall for such a comparison. They realise that such an effort would be—to use a current phrase—well over the top.

I therefore do not think that a full public inquiry would meet our needs. I accept the assurances of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs that the inquiry will be a speedy one, and that it will be conducted by very experienced and tried people, whom he has announced.

The role of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee is to serve as the arm of the House in monitoring the Government's actions, specifically the actions of the Foreign Office. Basic questions and shortcomings are likely to arise and to be revealed during our investigations. Such questions include what civil servants said to Ministers; who knew what and—perhaps as important—who should have known; and why Ministers were not adequately briefed in a matter of such importance.

I believe that there is a role for the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. However, I should hope, first, that every hon. Member realises that the Committee has acted properly in the investigations that we have conducted so far—both in questioning the Minister of State and the permanent under-secretary, and in ensuring that all the relevant documents are before the House for this debate.

The Foreign Affairs Select Committee's role should not stop at our actions to date. The Committee should now press forward, although it will be for the Committee itself to decide on the next steps. Perhaps it would be unwise to attempt to duplicate or parallel the inquiry being conducted under the auspices of the Foreign Office, which will publish its report. If that report is published speedily, there will indeed be another job to be done. That job can be done only by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, on behalf of the House.

I hope that the Foreign Secretary will understand the Committee's role. I hope that the House will realise that the Foreign Affairs Select Committee is eager to do its parliamentary job, on behalf of the House. I believe that we shall not be found wanting in that task.

5 pm

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling)

I found quite breathtaking the Foreign Secretary's claim—in responding to the speech of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard)—that there had been "no failure of the British Government's policy towards Sierra Leone". However, if the Government's clearly stated policy of resolving the issue by peaceful means had been observed, the junta would still be in place in Sierra Leone. It is extraordinary for the Foreign Secretary to claim that there has been "no failure of the British Government's policy", when the transition to democracy in Sierra Leone was achieved by a policy that was precisely the reverse of the one adopted by the British Government.

Right from the outset, the Foreign Secretary and other Ministers have made it clear that the only policy option that they were ready to contemplate was one of resolving the crisis by peaceful means. I have dug out an answer given to me—as far back as 11 July 1997—by the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd). He specifically stated that the Government's policy was to achieve a "peaceful solution". That policy was reflected in the United Nations resolution.

Perhaps the point that was most illustrative of the Government's policy was made by Baroness Symons, who said in another place: we do not endorse the ECOMOG action."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 10 March 1998; Vol. 587, c. 100.] Given the absolutely clear and consistent repudiation of the use of the military option, it really does not stand examination for the Foreign Secretary or the Prime Minister to continue claiming that, in some way, the British Government's policy has been responsible for restoring democracy in Sierra Leone.

I should like to deal with the issue of the possible breach of the arms embargo in Sierra Leone within the context of the Government's overall foreign policy. Ministers have made it clear that the centrepiece of their foreign policy is to put foreign policy on what they describe as an "ethical basis". Time and again, they have made the point that arms control is a central part of such a policy. Moreover, Foreign Office Ministers have repeatedly told us that their proposal to the European Union of operating a new code of conduct on arms exports demonstrates the ethical basis of the Government's foreign policy.

Arms control is a far wider issue than the Government's trivialisation of it—by describing the embargo, for example, as a "hoo-hah"—would seem to indicate. The Government are engaged in enforcement of not only one arms embargo. A very helpful list provided in Hansard—on 28 January 1998, in answer to a question tabled by the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. King)—showed that, at that date, the British Government were operating a total of 17 arms embargoes in addition to the one on Sierra Leone. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe might like to take an interest in the remaining 17 embargoes, to determine how they are being operated.

So the Government have made arms embargoes and arms control a major part of their foreign policy, with the ethical dimension, at least in a rhetorical sense, accorded the utmost importance. Against that background, it is ludicrous for the Government to dismiss this issue as mere hoo-hah and trivial. The fact is that, the very first time the Government's arms control policy has come under pressure in this Parliament, it has broken apart, so it is a very serious matter.

One central question remains unanswered, and from what the Foreign Secretary said today, it appears that the inquiry that he has set up will deal with it. That question is whether the Government machine was wholly behind Ministers in the execution of the embargo against Sierra Leone, or whether some part of the Government machine was in effect acquiescing in a breach of that policy. Of course, the answer will come out in the findings of the inquiry, but what I find extraordinary about the whole business is the position of Sandline. We are dealing not with a secretive company that was operating covertly, but with one which, according to all the evidence available to date, was operating quite overtly.

There is one material discrepancy between what the Foreign Secretary told us today and what the permanent secretary told the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs last week. The Foreign Secretary said that there had been one meeting between the Foreign Office and Sandline, whereas the permanent secretary told the Select Committee that there had been a great many telephone calls from Mr. Spicer to the Foreign Office. Indeed, he made a virtue of the fact that Foreign Office officials had been instructed not to put the telephone down on Mr. Spicer.

The permanent secretary also said that there had been at least one meeting with Mr. Spicer in the Foreign Office building itself,, and, drawing on his memory—as is clear from the transcript of the evidence—he said that there might also have been meetings between Mr. Spicer and British high commission officials in Conakry. That suggests a much greater degree of contact between Sandline and the Foreign Office. In addition, as we know, the Sandline helicopter operation was carried out in full public view, as has been well recorded in the media.

In other words, we are dealing with a British company which was acting quite overtly and whose operations appear to have been known to a considerable number of officials. Given that Sandline was operating so overtly, why were not officials all over Whitehall and beyond blowing the whistle on it? So far, or certainly up until the point at which we finished with Sir John Kerr's evidence last week, only two whistleblowers have been identified, and neither comes from within the Government machine.

The first whistleblower was Lord Avebury. He wrote to the head of the west Africa department in the Foreign Office on 5 February. As we learned from Sir John Kerr, that letter was copied and made available to the restrictive enforcement unit at its meeting on 18 February. It is surprising that Foreign Office officials had not got it to all members of that unit well before the meeting, but we were told that it was apparently circulated to that important unit on the day of the meeting.

According to Sir John Kerr's evidence, the whistle was also blown by the Canadian newspapers. Apparently, the Canadian newspaper reports were the ones attached to the formal submission by the Foreign Office when it made its request to Customs and Excise to carry out an investigation. It is extraordinary that a Customs and Excise investigation is initiated when a British company has acted in a conspicuously overt way in breaching an embargo, but that, as of today, only two sources have emerged as having questioned Sandline's operations in relation to United Kingdom law and the United Nations Security Council resolution.

Were officials in Whitehall and beyond vigorously supporting the arms embargo against Sierra Leone—I think that this issue should be of much more interest to the Government than it appears to be—or were some acquiescing in a breach of the arms embargo policy? That fundamental question remains unanswered. The present account of events is wholly inexplicable, certainly to any hon. Member who has served in government.

It is incumbent on the Government to take the story back to before 18 February, which is the first date on which it appears the Whitehall machine took notice of Sandline and agreed that the matter should be referred to Customs and Excise. The House is entitled to know whether officials were supporting a Government policy, endorsed by Order in Council and approved by the House, or whether some were acquiescing in a breach of that policy. That is the key information that the House is entitled to have made available to it very soon.

5.16 pm
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Many of the issues raised by the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Sir J. Stanley) will undoubtedly be dealt with by the inquiry which the Foreign Secretary announced today. It is right and proper that those issues should be examined. They are important, and the House is entitled to know what happened. My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) rightly mentioned the role of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs in this connection. I have every confidence that the inquiry will investigate thoroughly all the matters that have been raised.

There was undoubtedly a breach of the arms embargo. That is one important matter that the inquiry will examine. I am not an apologist for Sandline. I do not know that organisation's motives for doing what it did. It will no doubt tell us—it would be surprising if it were otherwise—that its only concern was to restore and support democratic government. That may be so, but I have a healthy and perhaps understandable suspicion of organisations that deal in arms, and I am not likely to lose that suspicion.

The Security Council resolution to which frequent reference has been made was concerned first and foremost with the junta that had taken power from a democratic Government. It is clear to anyone who reads resolution 1132 that it was concerned with the restoration of democratic government in Sierra Leone. We have to consider it in that light. As I said, I am no apologist for the breaching of any arms embargo or of any Order in Council, but I make a distinction—I see no reason why I should not, even if it is not spelled out clearly in resolution 1132—between a legitimate Government who have been overthrown and a junta. After all, when numerous Security Council resolutions were passed to condemn the apartheid state in South Africa and demand an arms embargo from member states, surely a clear distinction was made between the objective of those resolutions—to condemn the apartheid state—and the liberation movement.

If there was a fault, perhaps it lay in the framing of the Security Council resolution, which emphasises that only peaceful means should be used to get rid of the junta. That gives rise to an obvious question: if only peaceful means had been applied, what Government would Sierra Leone have now? How long would it have been before the junta was overthrown by peaceful means and negotiations? Those are important questions, although I am not saying that, if the arms embargo was broken by British firms, that should be condoned.

Ms Abbott


Mr. Winnick

I give way to my hon. Friend, who has a puzzled frown.

Ms Abbott

With his usual bravura and flair, my hon. Friend has expounded the fashionable theory about the UN resolution: that it was ambiguous and did not mean what it was intended to mean. Does he accept that the Government played a part in drafting that resolution, so, if anyone is to blame for the lack of clarity, it is Her Majesty's Government? Does he accept also that the Orders in Council that we passed are not ambiguous; they are perfectly clear—we are not supposed to have sold arms to or traded arms with anyone involved in the situation in Sierra Leone?

Mr. Winnick

My hon. Friend only emphasises what I said. I am not an apologist for the breaking of the arms embargo, and I am not in favour of operations such as Sandline, but I asked legitimate questions. If only peaceful means had been applied, what sort of Government or authority would there now be in that country in west Africa? It may well be that the resolution could have been better framed. It is not unknown, even within the Labour party, for the drafting of such well-meaning resolutions to need improvement. There is not much difference between my position and that of my hon. Friend.

At the weekend, I read a comment that there is no real difference between the Government being restored in Sierra Leone and the rebel forces. I do not accept that. First, genuine elections took place on 26 and 27 February 1996. The Commonwealth observer group reported that the elections undoubtedly allowed those registered voters an opportunity to vote freely and without interference. There seems to be no doubt that those were genuine elections, and we welcomed them at the time.

On 11 March 1996, Baroness Chalker, who has been much involved in elections in various parts of the world, welcomed in the other place "the favourable judgment" of the international observers I have just mentioned. Sierra Leone had an elected Government, after all the coups and dictatorships, which my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) rightly mentioned, since the country ceased to be a colony in 1961.

The forces against the elected Government have continued to operate. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) may be interested to know that, in a report from Freetown in The Guardian on Saturday, Gary Younge said that the controversy in the countryside relates to a different form of arms—the arms and legs that are being cut off by the rebel forces. In the local hospital there are many casualties of the rebel forces, who have not given up, although they have been cleared out of the capital.

The report in The Guardian also said: All the fuss in England about arms being sent in support of President Kabbah's restoration … is being raised by people who do not know the pain that Sierra Leone has been through. If they did, they would not pick diplomatic nits over who in British officialdom knew what, when, or about which UN resolution was violated in exporting arms to oust the junta. I emphasise again, so that there is no misunderstanding, that I am not in favour of arms embargoes being broken. Orders in Council should be observed, and the inquiry must examine the matter, but the people concerned have suffered under a dictatorship, if only for a short time, the atrocities committed by the rebels who have been ousted from the main part of the country. Perhaps understandably, even though they are Africans—Conservative Members perhaps do not understand the wish of people in Africa, like those in Europe, to live under a democratic Government—they do not take a nit-picking attitude. They are simply pleased that once again they have a democratic Government.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

The hon. Gentleman is taking a tremendously long time to tell us what we know already; perhaps he will tell us one or two things that we do not know. Is he saying that it was right and a good thing for that vicious regime to be overthrown by force? I think he is, and, if so, must he not condemn his Government for having drafted and signed up to a UN Security Council resolution that, in his own admission, made it most unlikely that the regime could be overthrown by force?

The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways: either it was right for the regime to be overthrown by force, in which case the Government were wrong to sign up to the resolution, or it was wrong for the regime to be overthrown by force, in which case the Government were right to sign up to the resolution.

Mr. Winnick

The hon. Gentleman is simply trying to be clever. Of course it is not possible in every case where a Government have been overthrown to say that military force should have been used. The Opposition did not criticise Security Council resolution 1132 at the time it was passed.

Surely it is right and proper that, in a debate such as this we should ask, although the resolution referred to peaceful means, whether it is possible to get rid of such a junta without force. That is a legitimate question. It does not mean that the British Government had to say, in relation to Sierra Leone or other countries where democratic Governments have been overthrown, that military force should be used, but, as a Back Bencher, I raise that question. I have already said that there may have been a defect in the resolution.

I wonder how much the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), who is nit picking, is concerned with democracy, in Africa or elsewhere.

Dr. Lewis


Mr. Winnick

That was a rhetorical question, but if the hon. Gentleman is so keen to intervene, I will give way.

Dr. Lewis

My record of supporting democracy against totalitarian regimes is a great deal better than that of the vast majority of Labour Members, including the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), as I will point out if I am fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Winnick

The hon. Gentleman did not protest when the Government in Chile were overthrown, and he did not protest against the junta in Argentina, so that is hypocrisy.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

Does my hon. Friend agree that, according to most reports, the actions of ECOMOG forces, not the arming of people in Sierra Leone, led to the overthrow of the military junta?

Mr. Winnick

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct.

Mr. Bayley

It seems that the great democrat, the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), has not read the UN Security Council resolution. Had he done so, he would have realised that it mentions ECOMOG, the military observer group of the Economic Community of West African States, and gives it a role.

Mr. Winnick

Indeed, although the resolution goes on to say that the overthrow should be achieved by negotiation and peaceful means. These matters are of importance not because of nit-picking or whether a Minister gave this answer or that answer, but because, as we approach the next century, we should be concerned with trying to establish democratic government in all countries on all continents. To do so is essential.

In considering arms and presumed arms scandals, which the Opposition are so keen to build up today, it is important that those who criticise do so with clean hands. I find it very difficult to take seriously the concerns expressed today by former Ministers and former Government Back Benchers who made no protest over the export of arms to Iraq—to the most murderous dictatorship of Saddam Hussein—and who allowed arms to be exported to Argentina, right up to the very day of the Falklands invasion.

Yes, there are points in this matter that need to be considered and, yes, it is right for my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to set up an inquiry, but to try to compare this matter with some great scandal along the lines of arms to Iraq or arms to the Argentine junta is absolute nonsense. The matter must be considered in its proper light. That is why I believe that my hon. Friends will have no hesitation in supporting the Government's amendment.

5.30 pm
Sir Raymond Whitney (Wycombe)

The speech of the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) was a fascinating insight into not only the confusion that reigns in his mind but the confusion that reigns on the Labour Benches generally. Over the years, the hon. Gentleman has sought assiduously to build a reputation as a high-minded peace campaigner—I do not think that he would resile from that definition—but, in his speech today, we saw another persona. We saw a swashbuckling advocate of a coup de main to whom the end always justifying the means. One might normally find such a characteristic on the Conservative Benches, not among the ranks of the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Winnick

I hope that I am a campaigner for peace. The hon. Gentleman should, however, know that I enthusiastically supported the British forces in the invasion of the Falklands and was the first person in the House of Commons to demand military action against Saddam Hussein. I am afraid that my speech today represents no departure.

Sir Raymond Whitney

I do not want to damage the hon. Gentleman's reputation, but I must say that his reputation for consistency is seriously in jeopardy. I advise him to read in tomorrow's Hansard what he has just said. I think that he will be a little regretful of the extraordinary dichotomy of views.

The confusion in the mind of the hon. Member is completely outmatched by the Government's extraordinary confusion and the farrago of nonsense that they have presented over the past fortnight. My charge against the Foreign Secretary is not based on any allegation that he may have misled the House, been economical with the truth or turned 180 deg, having discovered that what he considered a serious event his Prime Minister thought was a little hoo-hah. All those allegations may be true; I suspect that many consider that they are. My charge against the Foreign Secretary—I am sorry that he is not present—is that, over the past year, he has not only presided over, but has been responsible for, the virtual destruction of a considerable asset: the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

I joined the Foreign Office in 1964 and was privileged to be a junior Foreign Office Minister, so I recognise that I am somewhat parti pris—I may be a little biased. Having been a member of that institution does, however, give me some right to know how it is respected throughout the world. It is a convention in smarty-pants writing in the press and among business men who sometimes cannot manage their own affairs to denigrate the Foreign Office, but those who really know—the business men who understand how to get the best out of the Foreign Office and the political commentators who understand the complexities of international relations—appreciate that it is a great national asset.

It is an occupational hazard of Foreign Offices in any country to be the messengers from overseas, delivering messages that are not always welcome to domestic Governments. Countries and interests that conflict with our interests and obligations have somehow, sometimes, to be reconciled. It is my strong view that, year after year, in the conduct of foreign policy, in the reconciliation of the real world with British national objectives, the Foreign Office has a very fine record. The high regard in which our Foreign Office was—as has been suggested—held in the rest of the world should be recognised.

With regard to the affair in Sierra Leone, we have been invited day after day over the past fortnight to believe the unbelievable. We have been asked, for example, to believe that a group—not one person, but a group—of senior and middle-ranking officials in the Foreign Office and other Departments have conspired to work against the declared policy of Her Majesty's Government. That is totally unbelievable. Anyone who has had the slightest experience in the Foreign Office—be it at official or ministerial level—knows that the opposite has been so.

Indeed, I think that the trend has moved in the wrong direction. Over the years, officials have insisted more and more on clearance, one level up, for anything—certainly anything of the nature of the matter that we are debating. It is totally impossible that this matter could have been continued or launched without any suggestion that political ministerial clearance should be obtained. That has been the trend for many years. When I was a junior Minister, I tried to counter it. I said, "Come on, chaps, you are high-powered people, you are paid to do a lot. Okay, there is political responsibility, but the balance is shifting in the wrong direction." However, the trend has continued.

It is even more inconceivable that, given a new Labour Government, the Foreign Office would have responded in such a way over the past 12 months. On the contrary, officials, to whom, obviously, I am no longer directly connected, would have been even more cautious given a new Government, a very hefty political mandate, something called an ethical foreign policy and a new Foreign Secretary who is—how charitable should I be—not exactly emotionally in tune with the Foreign Office's mores and approach.

I shall not go too much into the affairs of the Foreign Secretary's diary secretary, and all the rest of it; suffice it to say that he performed appallingly in India and Pakistan. We are told what a clever man he is, but it was not very clever of him to think that he could say one thing to the Pakistanis, quite the opposite to the Indians, and get away with it. Of course, he did not get away with it. He did not get away with many things, and everyone knows that.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)


Sir Raymond Whitney

Someone shouts, "Nonsense." Let them challenge what I have said. How on earth can Labour Members explain what happened in India and Pakistan except by saying that the Foreign Secretary was trying to be too clever by half? Everyone knows that that is exactly what happened. We are being asked to believe that Foreign Office officials said that they would go ahead, break the arms embargo and get into bed with a private company, and to hell with the Foreign Office.

Now we are being asked to believe that the Foreign Office lost a telegram. That seems to be accepted in all reports. The Foreign Office does not lose telegrams. To put it at its most basic, they are serially numbered; when Washington telegram 1003 arrives, and the last one received was Washington 1001, someone in the great machine will ask what happened to 1002.

Let us assume that a telegram comes from the high commissioner in Sierra Leone, saying that he has decided to have a go at breaking the arms embargo. Is it conceivable that the private offices of the Minister of State or the Secretary of State would just shove it to the bottom of a pile, put it in a box, and, when it came back, say, "Well, we know that the Foreign Secretary is too busy thinking great thoughts and does not want to get involved in detail, so perhaps he has not initialled it, but never mind, let us pass it on"? That is unbelievable nonsense.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

Does my hon. Friend—a fellow former Foreign Office Minister—agree that it is truly incredible to believe that any telegram from the high commissioner in Sierra Leone that related to these matters would not have been put in the Minister's box? It is simply unbelievable that a telegram of that importance did not go into a box—whether it was read is, of course, another matter.

Sir Raymond Whitney

I would go further than my hon. Friend. It would be put in the box, and when a telegram of that importance came back unticked, any private secretary would have gone to the Minister to ask whether he had seen it and understood its import. We are asked to believe that, before the Minister of State appeared before the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs to discuss Sierra Leone, he was not told that the Foreign Office had asked Customs and Excise to examine the breach of regulations. That is just one more unbelievable proposition.

The final nail in the coffin occurred last week, and concerned the permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office. I have known Sir John Kerr for perhaps 35 years, and he is, by anyone's definition, an intelligent man. What happened last week was not the action of an intelligent man. It cannot be explained by Sir John's getting it wrong, being unclear or having an uncertain memory. He knew how important was his examination by the Select Committee. He is a man of meticulous industry, coupled with intelligence. It is unbelievable that he got into the mess he did; but, when he went back to the Foreign Office that lunchtime, something funny happened on the way to King Charles street—I say no more than that.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

The hon. Gentleman has repeated the word "unbelievable" over and over. I appreciate that, as an ex-civil servant, he wishes to defend his ex-chums, but I remind him that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was capable in the early 1980s of losing an entire report on the condition of the Montserrat volcano. That report did not surface for more than 10 years. I fear that the Foreign Office is capable of losing and forgetting things.

Sir Raymond Whitney

The hon. Lady must refer to a little internecine warfare between what is now called the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office. That is quite another matter. She is on completely the wrong track.

Dr. Tonge

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Raymond Whitney

I am sorry, but I must finish.

The onus is on the Foreign Secretary himself. We must understand why he refuses, against all evidence and all precedent, to have a proper examination by an independent agency—a High Court judge—at a public hearing. This is the most extraordinary development. It is not some little matter—as some Labour Members and members of the press occasionally argue—but a fundamental undermining of a great asset of the nation, which can be restored only by some serious reconsideration by the Foreign Secretary of his position.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Before I call the next speaker, I remind the House that a large number of Members are trying to catch my eye, and it would be helpful if speeches could be kept a little shorter.

5.44 pm
Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

It is regrettable that the House may lose sight of the serious issues underlying recent events in the parliamentary tit for tat. It is to those issues that I want to address my remarks.

Sierra Leone is not some far-off country of which we know nothing. It is a member of the Commonwealth, and we have a long-standing historical connection with it, and moral responsibility for it. One of my themes will be that, because of its position as a member of the Commonwealth, and because of our responsibilities, some people might have expected Ministers to keep a closer eye on events. What matters is not only whether the good guys won—this week or next week—but the process by which they did it and the implications that that will have for the future of Sierra Leone and a whole region torn by instability, which includes Liberia and Nigeria.

Hon. Members who have spoken have been told that they are not really interested in Sierra Leone. Perhaps I can be excused that slur: I am a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, I have a long-standing interest in Africa and the Commonwealth, and my constituency contains large numbers of people from Sierra Leone who have come to me since before last May's election to tell me what their Government are doing, and to tell me their fears and hopes.

The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) said that Sierra Leone is a poor country. The saddest thing is that it is not. Sierra Leone has bauxite and gold; it exports cocoa and coffee. Above all, Sierra Leone exports diamonds. One of the most serious underlying issues is that the country is potentially rich, and it ought to be able to guarantee each of its citizens a decent standard of living, decent health care and decent housing. If it is impoverished today, it is because of recurrent political instability, and because of a type of underhand western intervention and the activities of mercenaries.

That is why this issue is not just a hoo-hah. That is why it matters. When we trace the threads of the affair, and the relationships between Government officials, mercenaries, diamond dealers, arms dealers and financiers, we see the pattern that underlies much of the tragedy and instability across the region. That is why some of us have taken a consistent interest in the affair.

Let me remind the House of the history of Sierra Leone since it was made independent in 1961. There was an army coup in 1967, when the governor-general had to leave. In April 1968, there was a counter-coup. In 1967, the presidential election had only one candidate—we might call that the premature-Abacha model. In 1978, a one-party state was introduced. In 1982, the elections were ruined by violence. In 1987, there was an attempted coup, the leaders of which were executed. In 1992, there was a counter-coup, and a military regime was installed under Captain Valentine Strasser.

In 1996, there was another coup, by Strasser's deputy. There was also the election of which we have heard so much, but the House needs to be reminded that the backdrop to the election was civil war, instability and incursion by Liberian troops—which highlights the complication of the relationship between Sierra Leone and Liberia. There were also the activities of the South African-based mercenaries—Executive Outcomes—who are closely connected with Sandline. Between 1996 and 1997, there were four coup attempts against President Kabbah. In 1997, there was Koroma's coup.

I set out those dates not to impress the House with my knowledge of recent events, but to highlight the fact that the tragic history of Sierra Leone has been one of coup and counter-coup, mercenary intervention and counter-intervention, civil war, rape and—above all—constant bloody armed struggle for control of resources. That is why what matters is not which side wins this month, this year or the next, but the process. That process—western intervention, mercenaries, gun running and diamond dealers—has reduced the people of Sierra Leone to the poverty that we see today, and is causing the people from Sierra Leone I know so much anguish and anxiety.

That is why it is wrong to dismiss this whole affair as "hoo-hah". We are talking about a pattern of events that has reduced that potentially rich region—when Britain left it, post-empire, it was potentially wealthy and could have guaranteed its people a decent standard of living—and the adjoining regions to the state in which we see them today. The House is focusing on that pattern of events.

Ministers have told us that President Kabbah is pleased to have been reinstated, and I am sure he is, but I suspect that ordinary people in Sierra Leone would have been even more pleased if there could have been a peaceful resolution, and more pleased still if this Government were pursuing policies that would once and for all draw a line under Sierra Leone's bloody history of mercenaries, coups and counter-coups. From what I heard in the Select Committee and read in newspapers, it is not clear that the Government have been pursuing such policies. Even if their policies represent a good outcome this week, it is not clear that they represent a definite departure from that terrible history.

As a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, I was glad to hear its Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), tell the House that he sees a role for that Committee in looking into these events, and that we would press ahead with that work. Many hon. Members welcome that. However, I must take this opportunity to talk about the evidence that the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd,) gave the Committee. Those of us who have queried it, or who have even asked questions of the Minister of State, have been roundly abused for not showing sufficient loyalty towards the Labour Government. We have been accused of nit-picking and self-importance.

In a modern Government, as we approach the millennium, given the large and varied scope of Government activities, Select Committees play a key role in ensuring the accountability of Ministers. If Ministers are to be accountable to the House and ultimately to the people we represent, it is fundamentally important that they come before Select Committees in good faith and that they do not mislead the Committees of the House, either intentionally or unintentionally. When the Minister of State came before the Select Committee, he made not merely errors of interpretation, but a number of statements that have since been proven to be false. For example, he said: because there is an outside inquiry by Customs and Excise at this moment in time we could not authorise an independent inquiry. Well, what do you know, the Foreign Secretary came before us the very next day and told us that he had authorised an independent inquiry. The Minister of State also said: the first I knew of this story was also on Friday night and there has not been a chance for me to be briefed beyond what the Foreign Secretary had issued by way of statements over the weekend. We now know that papers went to the Minister of State rather earlier than that.

I cannot boast that I have been a Minister, as other hon. Members have, but I was a career civil servant and I know this: when a Minister is sent a document for noting, he is supposed to read it. To talk of documents being sent to Ministers for noting as though it were some abstract process in which there is no connection between the information on the page and the Minister's brain is clearly contrary to everything that I know about the way in which a private office operates. I am grateful for this opportunity, even as a humble ex-administration grade civil servant, to put that on the record.

Even during his evidence, the Minister of State contradicted himself. He said: I have not had an opportunity to speak to the Foreign Secretary. A few paragraphs later, he said: I spoke briefly to the Foreign Secretary over the weekend. He said: I am only aware of Sandline's activities in terms of what has been reported in the newspapers", and, later: Clearly I have read the newspapers, I have information from that base". I could continue, but I will not do so because I hope that the Select Committee will have the Minister of State back in person to explain a series of misrepresentations to the Committee.

I say sincerely that, for me and for many Labour party supporters outside the House, it is not good enough for Ministers to tell the Select Committee that all they know of events in Sierra Leone is what they read in the newspapers. Many people outside the House who worked for 18 long years to return a Labour Government believed that that Government would take Commonwealth issues and those relating to the rule of law there and, indeed, to Africa, far more seriously than the previous Government.

It may cut ice with the Opposition, but it cuts no ice with Labour supporters to hear the Government say that they are merely replicating the procedures that obtained under the Conservative Government. Millions of people outside the House expect something rather better from a Labour Government.

Mr. Winnick

I hope that I am also capable of criticising the Government, but I am not sure whether my hon. Friend has touched on the central point. She says that the Labour Government should give a lead and so forth in the Commonwealth. Will she say how we should have dealt with the junta? Was it right to take the view that only peaceful means could get rid of it? Or does she think that in certain circumstances military means—although certainly not the sort of methods that were used—should be used?

Ms Abbott

My hon. Friend asks a reasonable question, and I would ask one of him. Of all the members of the Security Council the British Government were bound to have the best, the most long-standing and the most up-to-date knowledge of events in Sierra Leone. If, at the point of drafting the resolution, the Government thought that it would not be possible to remove the junta by peaceful means, why on earth did they draft the resolution in those terms? Why did we pass the Orders in Council in those terms?

Colleagues cannot get away with the spin of the day, which is, "Oh, well. The UN resolution was a bit vague and woolly. No one knows what it meant." We knew what it meant—we were on the Security Council and we knew more about Sierra Leone than anyone else. If we thought that it was not possible to remove that regime by peaceful means, we should never have put our name to that resolution.

I cannot leave the subject of the Minister of State's evidence to the Select Committee without referring to Sir John Kerr. I have not known him as long as many other hon. Members have, but I must say that for someone of his eminence to come before the Select Committee and then, within hours, to use the rather inept formulation that he had had the opportunity to reflect and look at the files, is not credible. Sir John Kerr must have known that when Ministers knew was at the heart of parliamentary interest in this issue. We are asked to believe that he made a genuine error about when Ministers knew, which is beyond belief. If he really made an error of that nature, the civil service is not what it was when I was a trainee.

In the tit for tat and media frenzy about the issue, a number of questions have been asked over and again. What did Ministers know and when did they know? I would ask a third question, which is why did they not find out? As someone who worked in the civil service, albeit as an administration trainee, I know that there would have been a wealth of information about the meetings with Sandline. There would have been memoranda, minutes, telegrams and Security Service briefings.

I have to take Ministers at their word when they say that they did not know, but, if they did not know, I want to know, as someone who is genuinely interested in Africa and who realises that many people in Africa look to this Government to take a stronger and more ethical interest in them than previous Governments have done, why Ministers did not ask. I do not believe that, if civil servants had been asked to give the fullest possible briefing, they would have held back information. Whenever I have heard the Government's version of events, the question that has gone through my mind over and again is not what Ministers knew, but why they did not ask.

I am surprised that the inquiry's terms of reference, which are in the Library, contain nothing about whether UN sanctions were breached. They say: The investigation will look into these allegations with a view to establishing … what was known by Government officials … and Ministers … whether any official encouragement or approval was given to such plans … and … if so, on what authority". A breach of UN sanctions is not mentioned. I was a humble civil servant, but I learned a thing or two about how to fix an inquiry. Opposition Members have focused on who will conduct the inquiry, but, as an ex-trainee mandarin, I know that one way in which to fix an inquiry is through the terms of reference. How strange that, after all the debates on UN sanctions—on not only Sierra Leone, but Iraq—this well-trumpeted inquiry should be set up with nothing in the terms of reference about whether UN sanctions had been breached.

Mr. Menzies Campbell

The hon. Lady conducts a penetrating analysis of the terms of reference. Does she agree that it is all the more strange to appoint as the chairman of the inquiry someone who, although he is described as a distinguished lawyer, will not, under the terms of reference, have to exercise his legal expertise?

Ms Abbott

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman. The chairman is said to be a distinguished lawyer, yet he is not supposed to look into the central legal issue—whether UN sanctions were breached.

Dr. Julian Lewis

In support of the hon. Lady's point, may I remind the House that, on 6 May, the Foreign Secretary stated: 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."—[Official Report, 6 May 1998; Vol. 311, c. 726.]?

Ms Abbott

I am at a loss. It is hard to square the terms of reference with the focus of the debate on Sierra Leone so far—it has been like Hamlet without the prince. We shall have an independent inquiry—the Foreign Affairs Select Committee will consider with all due energy the areas into which we believe that we can usefully inquire.

Ministers may have paid insufficient attention to Sierra Leone because they thought that little events in some Commonwealth country were marginal to the Government's big picture—I do not know. However, the Government should remember that many of the people—in this country and abroad—who waited long years for a Labour Government hoped for a different approach to foreign affairs, in terms not only of ethics, but of rebuilding and breathing new life into our relations with the Commonwealth.

Many people in this country and in the Commonwealth are looking to what the Government now do and say about Sierra Leone. They want to know whether the Government are genuinely interested in and committed to Commonwealth countries such as Sierra Leone. The Commonwealth may not be terribly new Labour, but we owe it a moral and political debt. For as long as some of us are Members of Parliament, we shall try to ensure that that debt is paid.

6.3 pm

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

In following the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), who is one of my companions on the Foreign Affairs Committee, I make it absolutely clear that this debate is meant not as criticism of what happened in Sierra Leone—I am delighted that the democratic Government were restored; if force was necessary, so be it—but to hold the Foreign Office to account about the proceedings and to determine whether it was efficient in dealing with the problem.

My worry is that the Foreign Secretary has decided not to hold the inquiry in public. If it is carried out by someone who has spent the whole of his working life in the civil service, assisted by someone else who has spent much of his working life in the civil service, and comes out in support of the Government, some people will shout whitewash—anyone who denies that does not live in the real world. Why not—as the Labour party demanded time and again in opposition—refer the matter to the Foreign Affairs Committee? It could conduct an inquiry in the terms outlined by the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington, as it has the power to summon Ministers and other persons and to call for papers.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) described it, the choice of who will chair the inquiry and its terms of reference sound like a script of "Yes, Minister"?

Sir Peter Emery

I was about to say that—my hon. Friend takes my better lines.

The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington mentioned the terms of reference, which include: what was known by Government officials … and Ministers about plans to supply arms … whether any official encouragement or approval was given to such plans or to such supply; and … if so, on what authority". They do not include the factor that is of major relevance—whether the actions of Ministers or officials could be interpreted as wishing to give encouragement to Sandline to remove the rebel Government. That is the factor that needs inquiry.

On Thursday, I asked Sir John Kerr whether Mr. John Everett, Mr. Craig Murray, Mrs. Linda St. Cook, Mr. Tim Andrews and Mr. Philip Parham had had some contact with Sandline—he said that they had. I then suggested that, given the efficiency of the Foreign Office, notes and memoranda would have been made. Sir John agreed immediately. When I told him that the Foreign Affairs Committee wanted to see those notes and memoranda, he—if I may be somewhat unkind—hoo-ed and hah-ed a little before suggesting that that could not happen because of the Customs and Excise inquiry.

Now that the customs inquiry is out of the way, the Committee should have the papers immediately, as they will prove whether what the Government are suggesting can be substantiated. If, as the Prime Minister says, the Government want to be open and to hide nothing, why are not the telegrams about aspects of Sierra Leone and the west coast of Africa to the Foreign Office available for scrutiny, as the Committee demanded more than 10 days ago? It has been said that they are not for general circulation, but there is a precedent—members of the Committee have been asked to examine the telegrams in the Foreign Office. We must ensure that that is done.

If there is nothing to hide, why the restriction? As soon as there is restriction, people immediately suspect that there is something to hide. If the Government are so determined to clear their name, let us have the political facts out in the open—the matter is no longer ultra vires, as there is no prosecution.

I find it amazing that the Foreign Office should refer to the restrictive enforcement unit—of whose existence Sir John said that he did not know—on 18 February, as we were led to believe that nothing had happened until the Foreign Office sent the letter on 10 March. That is also of considerable importance and illustrative of the way in which Ministers are trying to sidestep the issue.

Earlier, I asked the Foreign Secretary how many references relating to arms and a United Nations resolution had been made to Customs and Excise. Undoubtedly, many references were made on a host of different subjects, but who can really believe that a reference on arms, on the breach of a United Nations resolution, is not important enough to be referred by civil servants to a Minister? Moreover, who can really believe, in all honesty, that civil servants would not do so for two and a half months? I cannot believe it, so I think that there is something that we must get to the bottom of.

There are only two alternatives. Either the matters were referred to Ministers and Ministers either did not see them or did not want to see them, so Ministers must be held to account; or the Foreign Office did not send them to Ministers—we must ask, why not?—in which case the Foreign Office is at fault. It must be one or the other, and in either case the buck stops with the Foreign Secretary. Whether or not the Foreign Office was wrong, he must be held responsible; and I believe that the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House has the power and the right to carry out an inquiry, so that we may get to the bottom of this.

6.11 pm
Mr. Hugh Bayley (City of York)

The right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) is the first Conservative Member unequivocally to welcome the fact that Major Koroma's regime was toppled by the action earlier this year. Conservative Members, including those on the Front Bench, have displayed a certain naivety by concentrating on the minutiae—the little issues of administration at the Foreign Office—to the exclusion of issues of policy.

No one in any part of the House disputes the fact that the election of President Kabbah in 1996 gave us, for the first time for a very long time, a democratically elected Government in Sierra Leone. If development is to take place in Sierra Leone—which my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) was talking about—a precondition is that there should be the rule of law under a democratically elected Government. When President Kabbah was overthrown, that went out of the window. He was replaced by a regime that brought down upon itself worldwide condemnation.

The Amnesty International report published in October 1997 recorded that the rule of law simply did not exist in Sierra Leone. It drew attention to widespread abuse and violation of human rights, to arbitrary arrest, torture, rape and looting, and to reports of extra-judicial executions. All parts of civil society in Sierra Leone were opposed to that regime and to the coup.

Mr. Blunt

The hon. Gentleman is giving a graphic account of the appalling situation in Sierra Leone, yet our Government were complicit in enabling that regime to stay in power, by their drafting of the United Nations Security Council resolution, and by the fact that they were prepared to ensure that the only institution that could overthrow that regime—ECOMOG—was not allowed, under the terms of the Order in Council, to receive arms and assistance from this country. The Government were adopting a policy of Pontius Pilate, washing their hands of the Sierra Leoneans, who were dying in their droves. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will note that what we did was to give them money, and give them a radio broadcast so that President Kabbah could invite them to rise in revolt. We did not have the necessary will to support them in that task.

Mr. Bayley

I have seldom heard such arrant nonsense. The hon. Gentleman should read the UN Security Council resolution again, very carefully. It does not, as he suggests, rule out any role for ECOMOG. That role is included. The resolution also says that, every 30 days, ECOWAS must report to the committee supervising the sanctions on what is happening. In my opinion, the Security Council resolution, read in conjunction with the three statements made last year by the Security Council, does not make it clear that sanctions were broken by any British party. That is something for the inquiry to establish, but unlike many hon. Members, I do not take it as read that that is cut and dried.

Dr. Julian Lewis

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bayley

No; I must make progress.

I draw the attention of hon. Members on both sides of the House to the fact that the statement issued by the Security Council in February, after the regime was overthrown, said that it welcomed the fact that the rule of the military junta has been brought to an end and encouraged the Military Observer Group of ECOWAS (ECOMOG) to proceed in its efforts to foster peace and stability in Sierra Leone. If, as Conservative Members are suggesting, the UN Security Council resolution did not consider that there could be any circumstances in which military action could take place, the Security Council would not have made that statement.

Mr. Gapes

Can my hon. Friend confirm that the United Nations Security Council resolution adopted in October 1997 specifically expresses strong support for the efforts of ECOWAS, and that ECOWAS is the regional organisation whose military arm is ECOMOG? Therefore, the UN Security Council was supporting the actions of ECOWAS and its forces to restore democratic government in Sierra Leone.

Mr. Bayley

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is what the Security Council resolution says, and what Conservative Members are seeking to ignore.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Mr. Bayley

No. I am afraid that, because of shortage of time, I cannot give way.

Conservative Members also seek to ignore the fact that paragraph 7 of the resolution makes it clear that it applies differently to the two Governments—to the democratically elected Government in exile and to the then illegal Government of Johnny Koroma within the country. The Security Council welcomed the overthrow of the Koroma regime because it was the policy of the Security Council that the democratically elected Government should be reinstated, and it was seen from the start that ECOWAS and its military arm, ECOMOG, would have a crucial role in ensuring that that took place.

Mr. Blunt

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bayley

No; I will not give way to the hon. Member a second time.

Of course hon. Members would be happier if the overthrow of Koroma's regime had been achieved by peaceful means. The Conakry agreement required Koroma to pass over power to the constitutional Government; it would have been much better if he had decided to do so, but he did not, and it was obvious that a peaceful surrender of power was not going to happen.

Like other hon. Members, I am uneasy about the involvement of the Nigerian regime in military action in west Africa, but in practice, if there was to be a military component in the solution, it had to involve either Nigeria or South Africa—and the latter made it clear that it could not participate. Paragraph 7 of the UN resolution makes specific provision for proposals for military action to be considered, because it gives power to ECOMOG to seek exemption from the terms of the Security Council resolution—

Mr. Robathan


Mr. Bayley

I have already told the hon. Gentleman that I do not have time to give way.

It is quite clear that no exemption was sought before the military action, but had it been sought, ECOMOG would simply have been announcing its intention to take action. It is naive of Conservative Members to pretend that justice could have been done and that the constitutionally elected Government could have been restored had we simply resorted to talks. Action was necessary, and when military action is taken in west Africa, Marquess of Queensberry rules just do not apply.

6.20 pm
Mr. David Faber (Westbury)

This has been a good debate. I warmly congratulate my right hon. and hon. Friends on their speeches; I also congratulate the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) and the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). In a splendid speech, the latter delivered a devastating indictment of Labour Ministers.

It will not have escaped the notice of the wider world that at no time in the past two weeks have Ministers come voluntarily, at their own instigation, to the House to offer an explanation for this extraordinary affair. They have been summoned by the private notice questions tabled by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) and by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. Today, once again, it has been left to the Opposition to try to elicit answers to important questions.

The ministerial code of conduct, complete with its stirring foreword by the Prime Minister, tells us that Ministers have a duty to Parliament to account, and to be held to account for, the policies, decisions and actions of their Departments … It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity".

Mr. Blunt

In the debate on Sierra Leone on 12 March, the Minister of State spoke of an article in The Observer, which referred to Britain's talks with hired killers, and about the Foreign Office admitting our ambassador's link to notorious mercenaries". The Minister said: The suggestion that Britain was conspiring with hired killers is wrong, and I wish to make that clear on behalf of the Government."—[Official Report, 12 March 1998; Vol. 308, c. 844.] On 23 December, President Kabbah had been in direct contact with Sandline on the telephone in the morning; on the same day, our high commissioner had lunch with officers of Sandline; and a contract was concluded between President Kabbah and Sandline by fax that afternoon. That suggests that the Minister inadvertently misled the House.

Who is kidding whom? Was the high commissioner kidding the Minister of State, or was the Minister of State kidding the House?

Mr. Faber

I am not in possession of the facts about that meeting, but it clearly predates any dates about which we have already been told. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that at the end of this debate.

The code of conduct for Ministers goes on: Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament and the public, refusing to provide information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest". The truth is that, when it comes to the Foreign Secretary and the Minister of State, information has to be prised out of them in a process more reminiscent of drawing teeth than of open government. They have consistently failed to reach the standards expected of them, and have at best bent and at worst broken the ministerial code.

Evidence given to the Select Committee on two occasions has had to be retracted or corrected. Collective amnesia seems to have gripped the corridors of the Foreign Office; the Foreign Secretary's speech today yet again utterly failed to clear up many of the unanswered questions posed by my right hon. and hon. Friends. We welcome the setting up of the inquiry, but our admiration of Sir Thomas Legg as a distinguished civil servant notwithstanding, I echo the concerns expressed to the effect that someone should have been picked from outside the civil service, preferably a learned judge. We condemn the fact that, for reasons that the Foreign Secretary did not adequately lay out, the inquiry is not to sit in public, and its terms of reference are wholly inadequate—as the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington pointed out.

It is right that the inquiry should embrace the Ministry of Defence, but should it not also include the Department for International Development, since aid would have been delivered with the assistance of Sandline? As the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington rightly said, the inquiry should consider whether arms were supplied in breach of the UN resolution and the Order in Council.

It is perhaps worth quoting the statement issued by Customs and Excise this very afternoon. It is extraordinary that the Foreign Secretary did not choose to read it into the record this afternoon, and that it has not been supplied to the House. It says: Even though offences may still have been committed, the particular circumstances leading up to the supply affect the fairness of the case to the extent that any prosecution could well fail and would certainly not be in the public interest. That is both a staggering admission and a damning indictment of the Foreign Office. The absence of a prosecution, therefore, does not imply that there was no breach of the embargo; and it is ludicrous that the inquiry should not look into any such possible breach. As the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington said, the terms of reference have been well and truly fixed.

The Foreign Secretary told us that only one meeting had taken place at the FCO between officials and representatives of Sandline but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) pointed out, Sir John Kerr in his evidence described numerous telephone calls—and almost certainly meetings in Conakry—which had also taken place.

When the Minister winds up the debate, will he at last give us detailed answers to two specific questions? First, what is the definitive policy of the Government towards Sierra Leone, in particular to the implementation of Security Council resolution 1132?

I want to make one thing abundantly clear: we unreservedly welcome the ousting of the military regime in Sierra Leone and the restoration of President Kabbah's legitimate Government. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe made the very same point in his opening speech. We recognise, as do hon. Members on both sides, the appalling atrocities that took place and continue to take place in the name of the military junta. We condemn them absolutely, and the Prime Minister's pathetic attempt to pretend otherwise at questions last week, supported by some today, did him no credit and serves only to underline the increasingly patronising and ill-informed manner in which he deals with any question to which he does not know the answer. To the Prime Minister, a counter-coup in west Africa, and a possibly serious breach of a UN arms embargo, are nothing more than overblown hoo-hah and hype in the media.

Both my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe and the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife have referred to the detrimental effect which the Prime Minister's extraordinary intervention may have had on the Customs and Excise investigation. The statement from this afternoon serves only to underline that point. We have heard today from the Foreign Secretary and the Attorney-General that Customs and Excise has completed its investigation and that prosecutions are not to follow, so will the Minister answer the question posed to the Attorney-General in the Chamber earlier today by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell): was the decision taken on evidential or on public interest grounds?

The Prime Minister told us yesterday that the Foreign Secretary's actions had led to the restoration of President Kabbah, yet this is the same Foreign Secretary who claims to have no knowledge of events in Sierra Leone and no responsibility for them. He is the same Foreign Secretary who told the House on 6 May that this was a matter of "proper concern" to the House. He expressed his deep concern, saying that no one should "underestimate its gravity", and he described the line taken by the Prime Minister—that the ends should justify the means—as "wildly out of touch" with reality.

Moreover, on the same day—6 May—the Foreign Secretary asserted that there was no Government policy in favour of, or UN support for, military intervention to restore President Kabbah, whose regime was to be restored through diplomatic negotiations, not military intervention. In that increasingly infamous Adjournment debate on Sierra Leone of 12 March, the Minister of State confirmed that that was the policy at the time. He told the House: Let me make it clear … that while we welcome the fact that the rule of the military junta had been brought to an end, we were unable whole-heartedly to endorse the ECOMOG action. We believe that any use of force should be based in international law"—[Official Report, 12 March 1998; Vol. 308, c. 842.]

Mr. Tony Lloyd

Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

Mr. Faber

Yes, we agree—although clearly the hon. Member for City of York (Mr. Bayley) does not. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling pointed out, Baroness Symons emphasised that point in another place. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that, with the benefit of what he now claims to know, the ECOMOG action to reinstate President Kabbah was illegal and in breach of the UN resolution? Is that the Government's view?

As the noble Lord Steel pointed out in a letter to The Times today—again, this was reinforced by the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington— the British order in council enforcing the embargo is a good deal more extensive and detailed in drafting than the UN resolution itself. The Government took a leading role in sponsoring and drafting resolution 1132. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe pointed out earlier, it was precisely because the Government did not support military action that 1132 was translated into an even more clearly worded and strengthened Order in Council.

This evening, the Minister has the first opportunity since his ill-starred appearance before the Select Committee to put the record straight and to answer the questions already posed to him many times.

His performance before the Select Committee was explained away, not least by the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), by his having been invited to speak on the subject not of Sierra Leone, but of human rights. I should have thought, incidentally, that human rights were of considerable concern in Sierra Leone.

The Minister's performance was also explained away by the fact that it took place the day after a bank holiday weekend. Today is the day after an ordinary weekend but, given the Foreign Secretary's proud boast about his paperwork, perhaps it was optimistic of us to expect any new answers today.

If the hon. Gentleman were so badly briefed for the Select Committee meeting on 5 May, why had his office felt able to issue a statement to The Sunday Times the day before, in response to an article in the newspaper, denying that Ministers knew of any collaboration in the military operation by Foreign Office officials. Was that statement cleared with the Minister at the time and, if so, was it not suggested to him by his officials that it just possibly might be raised at the Select Committee two days later?

In the debate on 12 March, the hon. Gentleman attacked The Observer for what he described as an ill-informed and scurrilous article which had, he went on, talked about Britain's talks with hired killers, and about the Foreign Office admitting our ambassador's link to notorious mercenaries plotting against the Sierra Leone Government. It is worth considering the Minister of State's rebuttal of the two points that he himself had made. First, he cites the high commissioner, Mr. Penfold, as confirming that on no occasion did he attend any meetings at which Sandline—the company mentioned—and President Kabbah were present together."—[Official Report, 12 March 1998; Vol. 308, c. 844–45.] That was not the issue. The fact that Sandline, President Kabbah and Mr. Penfold were never together is irrelevant to the question whether Mr. Penfold recommended the firm's services to President Kabbah, whether he liaised with Sandline in the ways outlined in Sandline International's solicitors' letter, and whether he informed the Foreign Office of what he was doing.

Sir John Kerr has since confirmed in his evidence to the Select Committee that Sandline had had meetings in the Foreign Office and had regularly telephoned officials. He also suggested that Mr. Penfold may well have had meetings with Sandline in Conakry.

As early as February, the attention of the Foreign Office had been drawn by Lord Avebury to the role allegedly played by Sandline International in flying arms from Bulgaria to support President Kabbah in his efforts to regain control in Sierra Leone. The Foreign Secretary informed the House on 6 May that, on 10 March, the Foreign Office formally advised Customs and Excise of the allegations, with the suggestion that it commence an investigation. However, Sir John Kerr informed the Select Committee last week that the investigation had been agreed at a meeting on 18 February.

In the same debate of 6 May, the Foreign Secretary told the House that the Minister of State received copies of papers on the customs investigation in early April, and they were shown to him for noting in mid-April."—[Official Report, 6 May 1998; Vol. 311, c. 721–22.] Again, the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington has pointed out the fallacy in that argument. It contradicted the Minister of State's evidence that he was not told until 1 May, a statement that he has since revoked, but for which he has not yet apologised.

By early April, the Customs and Excise investigation was well under way, with visits being paid by officials to the Sandline International offices and the private residences of Colonel Spicer. We are asked to believe that the first intimation that the Minister of State received of the alleged breach of a United Nations arms embargo by a British company was at least three weeks, and possibly more, after the investigation had begun, and that the Secretary of State was informed only on 28 April.

It is essential that we are told what were the contents of the papers received by the Minister of State, and what other form of briefing he received. Was he told of arms being involved? Was the role of the high commissioner in Sierra Leone mentioned? Was he briefed that Sandline had had discussions with the several officials in the Africa department of the Foreign Office who are named in Sandline's letter?

Why, in the words of the Foreign Secretary, was the Minister of State not fully informed of the allegations made by Sandline before Friday 1 May? Does he prefer to receive his briefings by instalments, or does that reflect yet again the appalling breakdown of communication that is becoming daily more evident between officials and Ministers at the Foreign Office?

Many of us who are seeking to get to the heart of this vital matter felt that we might at last be getting somewhere when the permanent under-secretary, Sir John Kerr, gave his evidence to the Select Committee. He told the Committee that he believed that a briefing prepared for the Minister for the debate on 12 March did include reference to a letter sent two days earlier to Customs and Excise, formally asking it to investigate the allegations made about Sandline.

Sadly, as the House knows, our optimism was premature. Some hours later, a letter from Sir John to the Committee was released in which he stated that he now recalled that the briefing pack prepared for Mr. Lloyd's use in the debate on March 12… does not mention arms shipments; and, as I thought, it does not say that one such report had already been passed to the Customs and Excise. As my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) rightly said, that briefing pack must be published now, together with the notes of the conversations between Foreign Office officials and representatives of Sandline International to which Sir John Kerr referred in his evidence, and with all relevant telegrams from Sierra Leone and Guinea during the period in question.

May I ask the Minister, as did his hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East, to throw a little more light on the role and the brief given to Mr. John Flynn, a distinguished former diplomat, appointed by the Foreign Secretary on 9 January as his special representative to Sierra Leone. He was described at the time as having a wealth of experience in conflict resolution in Africa", and the Foreign Secretary has said that he was to co-ordinate international support for the restoration".—[Official Report, 12 May 1998; Vol. 312, c. 153.] of President Kabbah. What precisely was his role? How frequently did he visit Sierra Leone, and did he meet representatives of Sandline there or in London? Did he accompany the Minister to Freetown on 31 March? On how many occasions did he meet the Minister and the Foreign Secretary?

During the speech of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe, the Minister intervened to answer the question that I asked him at Foreign Office questions last week. He said that he did not discuss Sandline at the meeting that he held with John Flynn at the Foreign Office on 19 March, or at the meeting that he held with non-governmental organisations on 1 April.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Will the hon. Gentleman clarify for the House exactly what he is insinuating about Mr. Flynn?

Mr. Faber

The hon. Gentleman is wrong. I am not insinuating anything. I am asking the Minister to give further details about the role that Mr. Flynn was asked to play. I am keen to know whether Mr. Flynn is still involved in implementing the Government's policy in Sierra Leone, or has he, too, become disenchanted with their performance? We read yesterday about his recent meeting with the Foreign Secretary, after which he is said to have complained privately that the Foreign Secretary had seemed uninterested in the subject, apparently preoccupied by other matters".

Mr. Robin Cook

The hon. Gentleman will not wish to mislead the House. I should inform him and the House that I have received a letter from Mr. Flynn in which he flatly denies making any such statement and reasserts my interest in Sandline and Sierra Leone. He is greatly distressed by the way in which remarks that he did not make have been attributed to him.

Mr. Faber

I would not wish to add to the distress of Mr. John Flynn. The Foreign Secretary has answered the question.

Does the Minister expect us to believe that he was briefed for a debate on 12 March, but that he was not told of Sandline's activities, or of the Customs and Excise investigation begun, according to Sir John Kerr, on 18 February? Did the Minister hold meetings or conversations with Mr. Penfold or Mr. Flynn, and yet was told nothing of Sandline International? We are led to believe that the word "Sandline" never occurred in any conversations that he had with Mr. Penfold or Mr. Flynn.

Did the Minister visit Freetown himself on 31 March, without the word "Sandline" or reference to its operations there passing the lips of anyone whom he met? Did he hold a meeting with NGOs on 1 April to discuss the position in Sierra Leone, and in particular the delivery of aid, yet during the meeting not one of them mentioned the role played by Sandline?

What has the Minister been doing for the past few months, if not one person, from his own officials to those on the ground in Sierra Leone, felt moved to inform him about the activities of a British company helping militarily to restore President Kabbah to power? It is time for the Minister to tell us when he first knew of the allegations and from whom. Last Thursday he told the House: my statement in the House on 12 March was an exact statement of my knowledge at the time. If, given the events of time, I need to correct that, I shall of course seek to do so before the House."—[Official Report, 14 May 1998; Vol. 312, c. 537.] Tonight is his opportunity.

In a debate in the House on 2 April on the international arms trade, the Minister described my speech, which had criticised the Government's so-called ethical foreign policy, as "sad" and "churlish". It is not my behaviour in this sorry saga that we are debating tonight that I consider to be sad. The hon. Gentleman went on—as Ministers always do—to blame the previous Government, and said that I should have stood up and said that we were genuinely sorry. Tonight, the House will want to know whether the Minister is a big enough man to stand up and say that he is sorry.

6.39 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Tony Lloyd)

I am delighted to speak about Sierra Leone before such a packed House. The House of Commons tonight, with full Opposition Benches, contrasts markedly with the House during the debate on 12 March. My speech on that occasion has attracted the interest of both the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), and his junior spokesman, the hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Faber). However, neither of them took the trouble to attend that debate—although a solitary Conservative Back Bencher spoke in it. That was the level of Opposition interest in the events in Sierra Leone. We have had to wait from the restoration of President Kabbah until now to hear the Opposition even welcome the President's return to power in that country.

Let me say at the outset that the Government's policy with respect to Sierra Leone has been a success, and it has been a success for an ethical foreign policy. I shall tell the House a little about the events that took place.

Mr. Robathan

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Lloyd

No, the hon. Gentleman has already made several interventions.

From the time of the coup, the Government recognised and supported the legitimate elected Government of President Kabbah, even while he was in exile. We regarded as illegitimate the junta that had taken his place. We wanted democratic Government to be restored and we were delighted when it was. However, we wanted it done legally—that is an important point as many Opposition Members, particularly the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Sir J. Stanley), have fudged such issues. We wanted it to happen in accordance with United Nations Security Council resolutions as that is the correct way for such things to occur.

We contemplated the threat or use of force, but only as a last resort. When we were asked about it—only one Conservative Member asked a question about Sierra Leone from the time of the coup last July until recently—we said that we preferred to see negotiations, which would avoid bloodshed and harm to the people of Sierra Leone. We made it clear that the possibility of force was available as a last resort, but only with the blessing of the United Nations. That is the right and proper way for the Government to behave, and we do not resile from that approach.

We did not want arms to flow into the region—that goes to resolution 1132, which the hon. Member for Westbury does not seem to have read—even if they were meant for the good people, as they could easily have ended up in the wrong hands. We made it clear over and over again that we would not support any illegal action. President Kabbah got the message. In his letter to the Prime Minister of 11 May, he said: I recall, during the Commonwealth meeting in Edinburgh, Mr. Tony Lloyd remarking that while the British Government would continue to give diplomatic and other support to my Government, it could not provide it with lethal materials or weapons. As far as I was concerned, the matter was closed. Several interesting points have emerged during the debate, and one of them concerns the role of the Opposition. I am not even sure whether the shadow Foreign Secretary knows who got rid of the junta in Sierra Leone. I can inform him that ECOMOG, not Sandline, got rid of that regime. The shadow Foreign Secretary and his hon. Friends do not seem to realise that. ECOMOG conducted a significant military operation and forced the junta to take flight. President Kabbah's letter to the Prime Minister said: As I review the media reports in London, it struck me that Sandline's role in the removal of the illegal regime and the return of my Government has been exaggerated. That is an understatement. He goes on to say that the weapons arrived only after the removal of the illegal regime—that is an important point—and the liberation of Freetown by ECOMOG. President Kabbah said: I assure you most emphatically that at no time did my Government utilise mercenaries provided by Sandline. He continued: It is erroneous for anyone to suggest that Sandline was involved in a coup … on my behalf. Sandline did not restore President Kabbah's Government.

Mr. Blunt

At this point, the Minister should know that the issue of arms is neither here nor there. Crucial to the military success of the ECOMOG operation was the military assistance and advice given by Sandline to President Kabbah, with the knowledge of the High Commissioner. That package included arms, and President Kabbah signed the end user certificate knowing that they came from a British company.

Mr. Lloyd

The hon. Gentleman must appreciate that there is nothing in the Security Council resolution or in Britain's national legislation—the Order in Council—that could control advice provided to President Kabbah. Is the hon. Gentleman serious in raising that point? We have said continually that there was no ministerial approval of any breach of the United Nations arms embargo. I reiterate that Sandline did not restore President Kabbah's Government: that was achieved by forces, chiefly Nigerian, contributed by ECOMOG. It was a trained and well-equipped army, and, frankly, a few mercenaries with a handful of arms shipped via Bulgaria could not do the job.

Dr. Tonge

I thank the Minister for giving way. Will he tell the House whether he and his Government are entirely happy about the involvement of the Nigerian Government in restoring power to President Kabbah? Many people in Sierra Leone are particularly worried about that and about the influence that Nigeria will have over them in the future.

Mr. Lloyd

I shall come to that point in a moment. The British Government—this is germane to the hon. Lady's question—did not fully endorse the ECOMOG action, because there was no Security Council resolution mandating that invasion.

Mr. Howard


Mr. Lloyd

If the right hon. and learned Gentleman will allow me to finish my point, I shall certainly give way.

On 12 March, I told the House: while we welcome the fact that the rule of the military junta has been brought to an end, we were unable wholeheartedly to endorse the ECOMOG action. We believe that any use of force should be based in international law."—[Official Report, 12 March 1998; Vol. 308, c. 842.] I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will endorse that view.

Mr. Howard

Certainly. If the hon. Gentleman takes the view—as he has done consistently—that the ECOMOG action that restored President Kabbah was contrary to international law, how can he conceivably justify his claim at the outset of his speech that the return of President Kabbah was a great success for British foreign policy?

Mr. Lloyd

Self-evidently, the return of President Kabbah is welcome, and Britain did several things to assist it. The right hon. and learned Gentleman does not seem to be aware that, while we regret that the military observer group of the Organisation of West African States—ECOWAS—did not await a United Nations mandate before intervening, Britain worked very hard to ensure that it knew that we would support such a resolution if proper rules of engagement and a proper military plan were presented to the United Nations to give it legal legitimacy. That is the action of a responsible Government.

Since then, we have contributed to ECOWAS. We have offered logistical support, and we have contributed £2 million to the United Nations trust fund for ECOMOG, which is targeted at issues such as disarmament and demobilisation. However, we did not fully endorse the actions of the Nigerian army that did the job. Therefore, it is ludicrous to suggest that we would endorse the actions of mercenaries who made no difference in that situation.

Mr. Garnier

In light of the Minister's remarks in the past five or 10 minutes, does he agree that the Prime Minister's intervention and his description of this affair as "hoo-hah" were deeply unwise?

Mr. Lloyd

The Prime Minister always made quite clear the parameters of events. He made it clear that we strongly welcome the restoration of President Kabbah—and the Opposition concur with that view. The Prime Minister said that the restoration of the legitimate Government in Sierra Leone was possible only through legal action, and he has never said anything other than that. He is consistent in that view.

Equally, the Prime Minister has not endorsed any action—he made this very clear, and the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) should know that—that is in breach of the United Nations arms embargo, which would be deplorable. However, the Prime Minister did say that the Opposition's attempts to use the incident for domestic political purposes were the kind of hoo-hah that we all deplore. [Interruption.] At the end of the day, the shadow Foreign Secretary knows that.

That is why, between May last year and May this year, Opposition Members asked not one question about Sierra Leone. They made not one observation about Sierra Leone, and they made no attempt to raise issues regarding human rights abuses in that country—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. I will not allow any shouting in the Chamber. The House must come to order.

Mr. Lloyd

Opposition Members may shout all they want, but the simple reality is that the shadow Foreign Secretary and his junior spokesman showed not one scrap of interest in Sierra Leone during those long months.

I shall tell the House what has happened in Sierra Leone. This is important. I shall try to do this dispassionately. When I went to Sierra Leone I was shown pictures of the atrocities committed by the Revolutionary United Front. I was shown a picture of a decapitated body. The head had been placed between the legs as a warning to others. That is an example of the atrocities that took place regularly. At no point during 12 months did one question come to the Foreign Office from the shadow Foreign Secretary. Why not?

Mr. Faber


Mr. Lloyd

It seems that the junior Opposition spokesman will explain why. Please do.

Mr. Faber

I made this clear in my speech. We deplore the atrocities that took place. I referred to the Prime Minister's intervention on this matter as pathetic, and pathetic it was. As the Minister took such a close interest in matters in Sierra Leone, will he tell us when he first knew, and from whom?

Mr. Lloyd

It is astonishing that the hon. Gentleman is prepared to rise to speak about his own actions. For 12 months, the hon. Gentleman with Opposition responsibility for Africa seemed oblivious to the fact that the coup had taken place in Sierra Leone. He raised not one question or protest during that period. Not once did he display interest in what had happened in Sierra Leone.

Dr. Tonge

I thank the Minister for giving way again. I well remember when he told the House of the atrocities in Sierra Leone, because that was during the debate on arms contracts and arms sales. The official Opposition did not attend that debate.

I noticed from the Foreign Office press releases that on the day when you were speaking about those atrocities in Sierra Leone, and horrifying the House with your descriptions, you had that morning met President Kabbah of Sierra Leone. I wonder whether you had heard anything about this matter—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I have not met President Kabbah.

Mr. Lloyd

I am not sure about the matter of Sandline, to which the hon. Lady has referred, and President Kabbah. President Kabbah and I never discussed Sandline during the various meetings that I have had with him.

I shall tell the House what the Government did do. Most certainly, Britain was responsible consistently for actions at the United Nations. Britain was responsible for making sure that President Kabbah was invited to Edinburgh for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, uniquely for a president in exile. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister appointed John Flynn, and his role is perfectly straightforward. He has not been appointed to conspire on behalf of Sandline. He is to work for the Government in terms of our policy.

The hon. Member for Westbury should be careful about the level of innuendo—[Interruption.] John Flynn is a respected former diplomat and should be given that recognition.

Britain sent in HMS Cornwall after the coup had been thrown out, as it were, in Freetown. The ship took part in humanitarian activity. HMS Cornwall took no part in military action against the coup plotters or even in favour of President Kabbah. The House should be more proud of the Royal Navy's role and a little ashamed of the insinuations that it has behaved somehow dishonourably. I hope that the shadow Foreign Secretary will be very careful.

Sir Peter Emery


Mr. Lloyd

No, I shall not give way. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to forgive me.

Since then I have visited Sierra Leone, along with the Commonwealth ministerial action group. I met once again with President Kabbah. I met nobody in Sierra Leone from Sandline. I have met nobody from Sandline, and will meet nobody from Sandline. I think that my record on that score stands complete.

Since the coup Britain has been working hard at the United Nations to ensure that there is a peacekeeping role for ECOMOG—to make sure that there are military observers to take part in the process of demilitarisation and demobilisation.

I shall make a political point about what happened hitherto in Sierra Leone. The coup took place because the Conservative Government did not make an effort to ensure that democracy was solid in Sierra Leone. That is why the coup took place. We shall not make that mistake again. That is why we are continually engaged—that is why £2 million has gone into the United Nations trust fund.

Mr. Howard

As a matter of fact, it was the previous Government who paid for the elections as a result of which President Kabbah came to power.

The Minister of State has seven minutes left to answer the many specific questions that have been put to him during the debate, not least by the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). Will he now answer the questions that have been put to him and account to the House for his conduct in this matter?

Mr. Lloyd

My account to the House is very clear. I made a clear statement last Thursday and I shall be judged by that. I shall come on to that in a few minutes. Before doing so, I shall quote once again from President Kabbah in his letter to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. He wrote: I hasten to add that the people of Sierra Leone will be for ever grateful to your Government and the British people for the timely assistance, encouragement and support you gave us in our hour of need. Those are not the words of someone who thought that Britain had not done enough. They were the words of a man who thought that Britain had played a noble role in the restoration of democracy in Sierra Leone. It is a role that I am proud to have had a part in, and that is the position of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.

Sir Peter Emery


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The House must come to order. The House must be quiet.

Sir Peter Emery

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Lloyd

I do not think that Conservative Members are terribly interested in listening. However, it is clear that Sandline has made many allegations. It wanted to exaggerate its military role and its contacts with officials. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has already said, we should be careful in not repeating allegations made by Sandline to those who cannot defend themselves in this place. However, that does not mean for one second that we would condone any breach of the United Nations' ban or sanction. Any such allegation is treated with the utmost gravity. That is why the allegation was referred to Customs and Excise.

I cannot go beyond the statement of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General except to say that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has not seen the report of the officers of Customs and Excise. My right hon. Friend was not a party to the decision made by the commissioners. I cannot add to the statement that they have made today. However, I can assure the House that, if the conduct of anyone in the Foreign Office has been a factor in the commissioners' decision, that will be fully investigated and revealed by the investigation that my right hon. Friend has already announced. That is an important assurance to the House. Hon Members should give the House the courtesy of accepting that the inquiry should go ahead on the basis outlined, so that it can get to the bottom of these matters.

Clearly, the inquiry must go to the truth and it will get to the truth. It is worth the House recognising something that the Opposition are reluctant to accept, in that it was Foreign Office officials, whom the Opposition scorn, who warned Sandline, as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has said, that the United Nations arms embargo was in force. Once Foreign Office officials were told that it was alleged that the arms embargo had been breached, they referred the matter to Customs and Excise.

The right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) said in the House last week that it was astonishing that the matter had not been referred to me before being put to Customs and Excise. The right hon. Gentleman is not only wrong but outrageous. It would be ridiculous for Ministers to be asked to comment on the reference of potential criminal activities. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will take this opportunity to retract.

Sir Peter Emery

In a slightly calmer vein, and in an effort to defend Foreign Office officials who the Minister says cannot defend themselves, will the Minister give the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, as it has requested, the memos of the meetings of officials that are in the hands of the Foreign Office along with the notes made and the telegrams that have been received? Those documents will speak louder than any of the Minister's words, and we shall then know the truth.

Mr. Lloyd

These are clearly matters for the inquiry. It is a shame that the right hon. Gentleman did not retract his ridiculous statement of last week.

I have many meetings with many people. The one common thread joining non-governmental organisations, President Kabbah and many other people is that the subject that did not come up was Sandline. Sandline was a sideline.

The House is being gripped by Sandline fever. The shadow Foreign Secretary has been determined to try to make his name on it. We understand why. In the absence of any foreign policy, it is necessary to grasp at whatever comes to hand.

The hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) asked whether the inquiry would cover the Nixonian formula: what Ministers knew and what they should have known. Let me make it clear to the hon. and learned Gentleman that I shall welcome appearing before an inquiry, and shall welcome precisely that line of questioning. It is important for the confidence of this House in my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, and in me, that such questions are asked. I shall co-operate fully with the inquiry and ensure that those questions are answered.

Many questions have been put to me. I congratulate the shadow Foreign Secretary on the award that he won last week from the Royal Television Society for his interview with Jeremy Paxman, when he refused 14 times to answer a question about whether he had overruled Derek Lewis.

The Government have nothing to hide and will hide nothing. We shall get to the bottom of all this. Contrast that with the sleazy actions of the previous Government, of whom the shadow Foreign Secretary was part. They covered up arms to Iraq—a real scandal—and still do not apologise.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 128, Noes 287.

Division No. 277] [7 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Baldry, Tony
Amess, David Bercow, John
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael Beresford, Sir Paul
Arbuthnot, James Blunt, Crispin
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Body, Sir Richard
Boswell, Tim Letwin, Oliver
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)
Brady, Graham Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)
Brazier, Julian Llwyd, Elfyn
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Loughton, Tim
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Luff, Peter
Bums, Simon Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Butterfill, John MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Chope, Christopher MacKay, Andrew
Clappison, James Maclean, Rt Hon David
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Rushcliffe) McLoughlin, Patrick
Madel, Sir David
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Maples, John
Collins, Tim Mates, Michael
Cran, James Maude, Rt Hon Francis
Curry, Rt Hon David Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian
Davies, Quentin (Grantham) May, Mrs Theresa
Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice) Moss, Malcolm
Day, Stephen Ottaway, Richard
Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen Page, Richard
Duncan Smith, lain Pace, James
Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter Paterson, Owen
Evans, Nigel Prior, David
Faber, David Randall, John
Fabricant, Michael Redwood, Rt Hon John
Flight, Howard Robathan, Andrew
Forth, Rt Hon Eric Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxboume)
Fraser, Christopher Ruffley, David
Gale, Roger St Aubyn, Nick
Garnier, Edward Sayeed, Jonathan
Gibb, Nick Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian
Gillan, Mrs Cheryl Shepherd, Richard
Goodlad, Rt Hon Sir Alastair Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Soames, Nicholas
Gray, James Spicer, Sir Michael
Green, Damian Spring, Richard
Greenway, John Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Grieve, Dominic Steen, Anthony
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie Streeter, Gary
Hammond, Philip Swayne, Desmond
Hawkins, Nick Syms, Robert
Hayes, John Tapsell, Sir Peter
Heald, Oliver Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Heath, Rt Hon Sir Edward Taylor, Sir Teddy
Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David Tredinnick, David
Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas Tyrie, Andrew
Horam, John Walter, Robert
Howard, Rt Hon Michael Wardle, Charles
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot) Waterson, Nigel
Hunter, Andrew Wells, Bowen
Jack, Rt Hon Michael Whitney, Sir Raymond
Jackson, Robert (Wantage) Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Jenkin, Bernard Wilkinson, John
Johnson Smith, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Key, Robert Woodward, Shaun
King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater) Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Kirkbride, Miss Julie
Laing, Mrs Eleanor Tellers for the Ayes:
Lansley, Andrew Mr. John M. Taylor and
Leigh, Edward Mr. John Whittingdale.
Abbott, Ms Diane Bayley, Hugh
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Beard, Nigel
Alexander, Douglas Bell, Martin (Tatton)
Allen, Graham Benton, Joe
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale) Berry, Roger
Armstrong, Ms Hilary Betts, Clive
Ashton, Joe Blears, Ms Hazel
Atkins, Charlotte Blizzard, Bob
Austin, John Blunkett, Rt Hon David
Banks, Tony Boateng, Paul
Barnes, Harry Bradley, Keith (Withington)
Battle, John Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin)
Bradshaw, Ben Golding, Mrs Llin
Brinton, Mrs Helen Gordon, Mrs Eileen
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E) Grant, Bernie
Brown, Russell (Dumfries) Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Browne, Desmond Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Buck, Ms Karen Grocott, Bruce
Burden, Richard Grogan, John
Burgon, Colin Hain, Peter
Byers, Stephen Hall, Patrick (Bedford)
Caborn, Richard Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth) Hanson, David
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Harman, Rt Hon Ms Harriet
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Healey, John
Campbell-Savours, Dale Hepbum, Stephen
Cann, Jamie Heppell, John
Caplin, Ivor Hesford, Stephen
Caton, Martin Hewitt, Ms Patricia
Cawsey, Ian Hill, Keith
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S) Hinchliffe, David
Chaytor, David Hodge, Ms Margaret
Clapham, Michael Home Robertson, John
Clark, Paul (Gillingham) Hoon, Geoffrey
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S) Hope, Phil
Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge) Hopkins, Kelvin
Clelland, David Howarth, Alan (Newport E)
Clwyd, Ann Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Coaker, Vemon Hoyle, Lindsay
Coffey, Ms Ann Hughes, Ms Beveriey (Stretford)
Cohen, Harry Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Colman, Tony Humble, Mrs Joan
Connarty, Michael Hutton, John
Cook, Rt Hon Robin (Livingston) Iddon, Dr Brian
Cooper, Yvette Illsley, Eric
Corbyn, Jeremy Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)
Corston, Ms Jean Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Cranston, Ross Jenkins, Brian
Crausby, David Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)
Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley) Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)
Cryer, John (Homchurch)
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S) Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Dalyell, Tam Jones, Mrs Fiona (Newark)
Darling, Rt Hon Alistair Jones, Helen (Warrington N)
Darvill, Keith Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W) Jowell, Ms Tessa
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Keeble, Ms Sally
Davies, Geraint (Croydon C) Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)
Dawson, Hilton Kemp, Fraser
Dismore, Andrew Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)
Dobbin, Jim Khabra, Piara S
Dobson, Rt Hon Frank Kidney, David
Doran, Frank Kilfoyle, Peter
Dowd, Jim King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)
Drew, David King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey) Kingham, Ms Tess
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston) Kumar, Dr Ashok
Edwards, Huw Ladyman, Dr Stephen
Efford, Clive Lawrence, Ms Jackie
Ellman, Mrs Louise Lepper, David
Fatchett, Derek Leslie, Christopher
Fisher, Mark Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Fitzpatrick, Jim Linton, Martin
Flint, Caroline Livingstone, Ken
Follett, Barbara Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)
Foster, Rt Hon Derek Lock, David
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings) Love, Andrew
Foster, Michael J (Worcester) McAllion, John
Fyfe, Maria McAvoy, Thomas
Galloway, George McCabe, Steve
Gapes, Mike McCafferty, Ms Chris
Gardiner, Barry McCartney, Ian (Makerfield)
George, Bruce (Walsall S) McDonagh, Siobhain
Gerrard, Neil McDonnell, John
Gibson, Dr Ian McGuire, Mrs Anne
Gilroy, Mrs Linda McKenna, Mrs Rosemary
Godsiff, Roger McNulty, Tony
Goggins, Paul MacShane, Denis
Mactaggart, Fiona Primarolo, Dawn
McWilliam, John Prosser, Gwyn
Mahon, Mrs Alice Purchase, Ken
Mallaber, Judy Quin, Ms Joyce
Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S) Quinn, Lawrie
Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury) Radice, Giles
Martlew, Eric Rammell, Bill
Maxton, John Rapson, Syd
Meacher, Rt Hon Michael Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)
Meale, Alan Reid, Dr John (Hamilton N)
Merron, Gillian Robertson, Rt Hon George (Hamilton S)
Michael, Alun
Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley) Robinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW)
Milbum, Alan Rogers, Allan
Miller, Andrew Rooker, Jeff
Mitchell, Austin Rooney, Terry
Moffatt, Laura Roy, Frank
Moonie, Dr Lewis Ruddock, Ms Joan
Moran, Ms Margaret Russell, Ms Christine (Chester)
Morgan, Rhodri (Cardiff W) Ryan, Ms Joan
Morley, Elliot Salter, Martin
Morris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley) Sarwar, Mohammad
Morris, Rt Hon John (Aberavon) Savidge, Malcolm
Mudie, George Sawford, Phil
Mullin, Chris Sedgemore, Brian
Murphy, Jim (Eastwood) Sheerman, Barry
Norris, Dan Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
O'Brien, Mike (N Warks) Singh, Marsha
O'Neill, Martin Skinner, Dennis
Osbome, Ms Sandra Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)
Perham, Ms Linda Smith, Angela (Basildon)
Pickthall, Colin Smith, John (Glamorgan)
Pike, Peter L Snape, Peter
Plaskitt, James Soley, Clive
Pollard, Kerry Spellar, John
Pond, Chris Squire, Ms Rachel
Pope, Greg Steinberg, Gerry
Pound, Stephen Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
Powell, Sir Raymond Stinchcombe, Paul
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E) Stoate, Dr Howard
Stott, Roger White, Brian
Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin Whitehead, Dr Alan
Straw, Rt Hon Jack Wicks, Malcolm
Stuart, Ms Gisela Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Sutcliffe, Gerry
Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury) Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S) Wills, Michael
Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W) Winnick, David
Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Tipping, Paddy Wise, Audrey
Todd, Mark Wood, Mike
Touhig, Don Woolas, Phil
Trickett, Jon Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE) Wright, DrTony (Cannock)
Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown) Wyatt, Derek
Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Twigg, Stephen (Enfield) Tellers for the Noes:
Vaz, Keith Mr. John McFall and
Ward, Ms Claire Mr. Jon Owen Jones.

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments) and agreed to.

Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.


That this House notes the Government's consistent policy of support for the restoration of President Kabbah and recognition of him as the elected and legitimate President of Sierra Leone and welcomes the success of that policy and the overthrow of the brutal and repressive military regime; applauds the open and proper manner in which the Government have responded to allegations of a breach of the UN arms embargo; and congratulates the Government on its commitment to an urgent outside investigation and publication of a full report.