HC Deb 24 February 1999 vol 326 cc415-22

5.8 pm

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

Madam Speaker, with permission, I would like to make a statement arising from my parliamentary answer of yesterday on the report of the Foreign Affairs Committee on Sierra Leone.

Yesterday, I set out the circumstances in which the Foreign Office received a draft of that report. In view of comments made subsequently by a number of hon. Members, I assure the House that neither the Foreign Office nor Ministers took any action on that draft. We did not in any way seek to interfere with the work of the Committee, or to offer comments on the draft. Indeed, the record shows that my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) did not table any amendments to the draft. Nor did we publish or disclose any part of the draft to the media or to anyone else. I am therefore confident that neither I nor anyone else at the Foreign Office has committed any impropriety on the basis of the draft, or broken any of the rules of procedure set out in Erskine May; but, Madam Speaker, I shall of course accept any future ruling which you or the relevant Committees may give on the matter.

In the meantime, I remind the House that I gave the Select Committee unprecedented access to Foreign Office documents and telegrams. Indeed, its report acknowledges that the access that it obtained was a quantum leap in openness with Select Committees. I did not obstruct or impede the work of the Committee; I did not interfere with the deliberations of the Committee; and I have fully respected the role of scrutiny of both the Committee and the Chamber.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

No one doubts that the Foreign Secretary has pressing matters before him, on which he has made a statement, but the issues that we are now discussing relate to events in his office in January and early February this year.

Should the Foreign Secretary not have prefaced his statement with an apology to members of the Foreign Affairs Committee, on behalf of the Government, for rubbishing its report in advance of publication, using a document that he and his colleagues knew that they should never have received?

May I ask the Foreign Secretary some specific questions? When did he first see the draft, and did he discuss it with any of his ministerial colleagues or officials? What action did he take to report the leak? Did he show the document to anyone else and, if so, to whom?

Did the Foreign Secretary tell the Chairman of the Select Committee that his office had received a leaked copy of the draft and, if not, why not? Did the Foreign Secretary, his Parliamentary Private Secretary or anyone in his office pass copies to, or discuss the leaked document or subsequent leaked conclusions with No. 10 and the Prime Minister's Office?

We now know who leaked a copy of the draft report in January, but can the Foreign Secretary tell the House how he subsequently became aware of "certain key conclusions", of which he made no mention in his statement, but which were referred to in his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) yesterday? Can he say whether either document was solicited by anyone in his Department or his PPS? What action did he take to report the second leak? Did he initiate any action as a result of the second leak?

When the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd)—[HON. MEMBERS: "Where is he?"]—replied on 16 February to my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham by saying that copies of the report were collected on 9 February, did he know that the Foreign Secretary had received a copy of the draft in January, and that he had received a subsequent leak of certain key conclusions before the report was published?

If the Minister of State did not know, does that not reveal a breathtaking lack of liaison between two senior Ministers? If he did know, was his reply not calculated to give the House the wrong impression? If the House was knowingly misinformed, should the Minister concerned not immediately resign?

How does the Foreign Secretary's dismissive treatment of the leak square with the high moral tone that has been adopted by the Home Secretary and No. 10 about leaks over the past few days? Does not the whole sorry episode confirm all the criticisms of the entire handling of the Sierra Leone affair by Ministers, and reveal that the Government have been caught red-handed doing what we all know they have been doing since they were elected—treating the House with contempt?

Mr. Cook

First, as a number of Conservative Members have asked where the Minister of State is, I can tell the House that he is currently going around all the countries that are party to the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, trying to achieve a ceasefire. I would have thought that he would have the good wishes and support of hon. Members on both sides of House in that effort.

Secondly, I have to correct the right hon. Gentleman. There was no briefing—no leak to the press in advance of publication by the Foreign Office or any Minister in the Foreign Office. There were two leaks published in the press on the Friday and Saturday before publication. They were both hostile to Ministers in the Foreign Office. They plainly came from someone in or around the Select Committee, but they did not come from the Foreign Office.

The right hon. Gentleman asks when I saw the document. I understand that the draft was received in the second week of January. I discussed it only with the permanent secretary. We did not disclose it to No. 10 or to anyone else.

On the issue of the key conclusions, my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West has already indicated to the Select Committee the circumstances in which he informed a special adviser in my Department of the key conclusions of the final report.

The Minister of State saw the same draft that I saw, but his answer was an accurate, factual and correct answer to the question that he was asked. The right hon. Gentleman appears to wish that the Minister of State had answered a different question from the one he was asked. That is a matter for which those who asked the question have to take responsibility, not those who answered it.

Of course I understand that it is proper for the House to discuss these matters and for the right hon. Gentleman to raise them, but his indignation would carry more conviction if he were to assure the House that such an event never happened when he was in office during the period of the previous Government.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

May I on behalf of the Select Committee give you, Madam Speaker, and the House an undertaking that, in this matter, the Foreign Affairs Committee will follow to the letter the procedure that is set out in "Erskine May"? The Committee has agreed—I have already, on behalf of the Committee, written to the Chairman of the Liaison Committee—that the matter will be discussed by the Liaison Committee on Thursday this week. I anticipate that there will be then be a reply to the Committee, which, if it is so minded, will then make a special report to the House. It will then be for the House, not for the Committee or the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, to decide what future steps, if any, to take. The role of the Committee will cease because it is a House of Commons matter.

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for setting out the way in which the Select Committee will proceed with the matter. I am absolutely clear that I can robustly defend my conduct and that of my officials, in that we have at no stage committed any impropriety under the provision of "Erskine May" that we should not obstruct or impede the work of a Select Committee. We plainly have not done so.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

The hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) has a long interest in foreign affairs, particularly the middle east. It is a matter of great personal regret to me that he should have found himself compelled to resign from the Select Committee.

May I ask the Foreign Secretary a number of specific questions? To whom was the envelope containing the document addressed? By whom was the envelope received? Is there a system in his Department by means of which any document received is registered? Was that document registered as having been received in his Department, and is there an entry in the appropriate document to vouch that?

Was the document placed in the red box of any Minister? Did the person who received the document understand the rules relating to Select Committee reports? If he or she did, why was not the document simply sent back?

Mr. Cook

The right hon. and learned Gentleman raises a number of questions. I cannot say whether the document was registered, but I certainly undertake to write to him and to clarify that point.

Sending back the document would not have undone the fact of transmission of the document to us. [Interruption.] Nor would any of those braying on the Opposition Benches for one moment have believed me if I had then said that I had sent it back without having read it. It would have been a pointless gesture. There is no obligation in "Erskine May" to return a document in those circumstances. There is an obligation to ensure that one does not interfere with the work of a Select Committee or give premature disclosure. That we have observed.

I share the right hon. and learned Gentleman's tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West. My hon. Friend has a great interest and great experience in foreign affairs. He will continue to use that experience and interest to advantage.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the matters that we are discussing, although serious, are by no means as serious as the suffering and slaughter that are still going on in Sierra Leone, and should not be allowed to divert from that? However, does he also agree that one of the principles arising from this and other debates is the principle of the independence of Select Committees?

Select Committees are Committees of the House; they are not an arm of Government. No one, from whichever side of the House, should seek to bully, to pressure or to manipulate Select Committee members for party advantage. Select Committees have not just a right, but a duty, to exercise scrutiny over Government. That is the important principle that I have held throughout all the debates on the Floor of the House about these matters.

Having had so much time to look at our report, will my right hon. Friend carefully study our recommendations, which go further and are wider than those in the original Legg report, particularly those on the arms trade and regulation of mercenaries? Will he in due course come back with a considered response to what was a serious and considered report?

Mr. Cook

I assure my hon. Friend that we shall indeed be producing the considered response that she seeks, and we shall seek to do it as rapidly as we can. I also entirely endorse her view that bloodshed continues in Sierra Leone, and that there is still no stability there. Britain remains the country which is providing more material and more practical support to ECOMOG forces than any other nation, as we are providing more humanitarian relief. Currently, it is an uphill task trying to restore stability to Sierra Leone. I also tell my hon. Friend that I am under absolutely no illusion about the independence of the Select Committee system; the Foreign Affairs Committee often reminds me of it.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

If I heard the Foreign Secretary correctly, he said that his Minister of State also received, and therefore saw, a copy of the leaked document. Will he therefore say whether the Minister of State saw that document before or after he signed the written answer of 16 February—to a question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan)—in which he said that he saw the official document only at 8 o'clock that morning? If the Minister had seen the document before he signed the answer, he was misleading the House by painting a half-picture. If the Minister believes in the ethics that the Foreign Secretary preaches, he will resign if he signed that question knowing that there had been a leak.

Mr. Cook

Of course he saw it before he answered that question—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Yes—the Select Committee report itself was published eight days before the answer. Therefore, manifestly, he had seen it. I should say also that the hon. Gentleman was incorrectly paraphrasing the answer that was given. My hon. Friend the Minister was asked when he first saw the Command Paper; he answered that accurately and factually.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

Today, we are getting some high-octane humbug from the Opposition. Does my right hon. Friend share my suspicions that, in the previous Parliament, it may well have happened that Conservative Members occasionally gave Ministers fair warning—or, perhaps, unfair warning—of impending criticism of them? Does he agree also that the big difference in the case we are considering is that my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) is an honourable man and that he—someone—has resigned?

Mr. Cook

I cannot improve on my hon. Friend's comments.

Mr. Shaun Woodward (Witney)

The Foreign Secretary has told the House, both today and in written answers, that he has twice been in receipt of leaked information—the draft report and subsequent conclusions. He therefore has undoubtedly "failed deliberately" to inform Parliament—to use words that he used in the House on a previous occasion. Today, he has told the House that the Minister of State also has effectively "failed deliberately" to inform the House. Does not the Foreign Secretary have a duty to report wrongdoing when he knows that it has happened? Is there not a duty on the Minister of State to report wrongdoing when he knows that it has happened? What standards does such behaviour set in public life? Cannot the public deduce from it, "Don't commit the crime, but you can receive the stolen goods"?

On 16 February, in reply to a written question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), the Minister of State gave essentially the same answer as the Foreign Secretary has given today to the House. The answer is simply a clever attempt at obfuscation. However, the Minister of State understood the question. Will the Foreign Secretary now tell the House whether he cleared the answer to that question, and whether he will apologise to the House?

Mr. Cook

No, I did not disclose the draft that I received to the House; I would be in breach of privilege if I had disclosed the report to anyone else. As to the other matters that the hon. Gentleman raised, it was his question yesterday that was fully, frankly, openly and comprehensively answered by us. There is no way in which he can possibly argue that the reply that he received to his question was an obfuscation. Indeed, it is precisely because of that that we are here now. If the previous Government had been as honest and as full in answering questions, they would not have got into so much trouble.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

May I tell the Foreign Secretary that, as a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, I accept his statement on this sad affair? May I also point out that, from 1983 to 1987, as a then Opposition Member on the Scottish Affairs Select Committee, I was aware of wholesale leaking by Government members of that Committee? May I tell him also that I have benefited enormously from the comradeship given to me, both in that Committee and elsewhere, by our hon. and old Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross)? He committed a grievous error of judgment, but has behaved honourably in his resignation. That should not be lost on the odd-job lot who comprise what I call the English rural party.

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. I note that, as the proceedings have developed, we have still not had a further intervention by Opposition Front Benchers to give us the assurance I sought that leaking was never known to happen under the previous Government.

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that a Minister who accepts and retains a document leaked personally to him by a member of a Select Committee makes himself complicit in the leak?

Mr. Cook

I have already said to the House—I say it again to the right hon. Gentleman—that I have been through "Erskine May" and am quite clear that I have fully complied with the obligations on me as a Minister not to impede or obstruct the work of the Committee, with which I fully co-operated during its inquiry.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that, in the Nolan committee, we drew to the attention of all hon. Members—most of all, to Ministers and senior Members—the responsibility that we all share for maintaining the highest standards of conduct in public life? May I say to him that we also drew attention to the damage that leaks cause to confidence in the integrity of officials, in the civil service and in the working of Government and of Parliament? As a very senior parliamentarian, he knew that the document he received was a document that should not have been given to him.

In those circumstances, does the right hon. Gentleman not believe that the response he has given so far is not maintaining the highest standards of conduct in public life? May I urge him very seriously indeed to consider—in the further representations that the Chairman of the Select Committee said will be made—whether the attitude and approach to what he considers to be his responsibilities should usefully change?

Mr. Cook

I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. If there had been a leak of the report, if I had received it and if I had used it to disclose the report, I would indeed deserve all the strictures that he has offered. There were two leaks in advance of publication of the report. Neither of them came from the Foreign Office; both of them came from people who were motivated to be critical of the Foreign Office.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that, on the date of publication of the report, the Prime Minister went public, and on television two hours before the report was published, made references to recommendations in the report and rubbished the report as he could not have done unless he had been shown part of the report or it recommendations? How is it possible that that could have happened if the situation is as the Foreign Secretary describes it? Should not we be condemning not only the Foreign Secretary, but the Prime Minister for the whole matter?

Mr. Cook

If I followed the right hon. Gentleman correctly, he was referring to the Prime Minister's interview on the "Jimmy Young Show", which took place two hours after the press conference in which the right hon. Gentleman participated. Therefore, there was no difficulty in knowing what the report contained or what the right hon. Gentleman's view was. For the record—once again—the Prime Minister did not see the draft that I saw.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)

Will my right hon. Friend please clarify his answer to a previous question: was the draft report handed over personally to the Secretary of State himself by the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross); if not, to whom was it handed over; and to whom was the envelope addressed?

Mr. Cook

No, it was not handed over to me; I understand that it arrived by fax. I do not know to whom the envelope was addressed, but I shall happily answer the questions.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

When the right hon. Gentleman calls in aid the performance of the previous Government, does he not appreciate that he and other Labour Members were elected to do rather better than the previous Government? Does he not accept that the appropriate response is frankness, not the type of sophistry revealed in the reply that the Minister gave on Monday? Does not the right hon. Gentleman think that, given the seriousness of the criticisms in the Select Committee's report of senior officials within his Department, he was quite wrong to have prejudged the issue before giving the Committee's report the reading that it deserved?

Mr. Cook

My answer yesterday was fully frank, as I think would be accepted even by those who tabled the questions. On the subject of prejudging, I must remind the House that the report did not arrive suddenly; indeed, probably no Select Committee report has been longer in gestation than this one. The findings of the report were no surprise to those of us who gave extensive evidence to the Select Committee at repeated sessions. In answer to the hon. Gentleman's last question, I do not think that I was wrong; whether it was that day, the next day or now, I believe that I was right to defend officials against what I thought was disproportionate and unfair criticism.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I am totally opposed to the leaking of reports, which does Select Committees no good? I do not understand why our hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) did it, but he has admitted it and apologised. However, what would the people of Sierra Leone—who are suffering brutality, deprivation, crimes and atrocities—think of the scene in the House of Commons in the last 10 minutes? Are there not more important matters in the country concerned than this particular minor issue?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend highlights something which, throughout the past seven months, has been an area of bewilderment to the people of Sierra Leone, who know perfectly well that Britain has given more support to their elected and legitimate Government than any other nation. They cannot comprehend the way in which this has become a matter of deep division within our Parliament. They themselves only wish that they were allowed to have a Parliament in which they could have such debates.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Which fax machine received the message? If the Foreign Secretary cannot tell us now, will he undertake to do so subsequently? Will he put into the public domain a copy of the fax received, so that everyone can see where it came from and where it went to?

Mr. Cook

Everyone knows where it came from—my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West has already said that. I cannot say which fax machine it came on. The Foreign Office has many fax machines.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge)

Did one copy come out of the fax or several? [Laughter.] I would appreciate if the Foreign Secretary could listen for a moment. If there was just one, did the Foreign Secretary show it to the Minister of State, or did the Minister of State show it to him? Does that constitute a leak?

Mr. Cook

All I can confirm is that it came on fax paper—which is normally white—and had black lettering. The descent of this question into trivia illustrates how little of substance there is actually here.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Will the Foreign Secretary clarify something? He referred earlier to other leaks in the press. I do not know whether I misunderstood him, but I understood him to suggest that those emanated from the Select Committee. Will he reconsider that and state that there is no basis whatever for that assumption about reports which were, in any event, inaccurate?

Mr. Cook

What I said was "in or around the Select Committee". It certainly came from somebody who had the ability to obtain the draft of the report. [HON. MEMBERS: "Your office."] The reports that appeared in the press were certainly not inspired by the Foreign Office. The one in The Independent was fairly accurate about exactly what was to happen, and was placed by somebody who was hostile to the interests of the Foreign Office.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Why does the Foreign Secretary not simply admit that, when the Minister of State said on 16 February that his Department received copies of the final report on the morning of 9 February, the impression that he was seeking to give was that Ministers in the Department had no foreknowledge whatever of the likely contents of that report? Does the right hon. Gentleman not accept, in retrospect, that by splitting hairs in his pathetic fashion this afternoon, he has managed to discredit himself further even than he has accomplished in the past 21 months?

Mr. Cook

The Minister of State answered the question that he was asked. Yesterday, I answered the question that I was asked. We both answered those questions fully and comprehensively, and the full facts are now in the public domain.

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