HL Deb 27 July 1998 vol 592 cc1227-43

5.18 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on the Legg Report, which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

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

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

"One of the first findings of their report is that Sandline and its arms played little or no part in the removal of the junta from Sierra Leone. It is therefore not surprising that the citizens of Sierra Leone cannot comprehend why anyone looks for evidence of a political scandal in the restoration of a civilian government, in place of a brutal and savage military regime. Nor have Sir Thomas Legg and Sir Robin Ibbs uncovered any political scandal, after a lengthy inquiry and a search through all the files.

"Their key findings, in their own words, are: 'No Minister gave encouragement or approval to Sandline's plan to send a shipment of arms into Sierra Leoné'. Officials of the African Department acted in good faith. They, 'neither encouraged nor approved the Sandline contract'. The report concludes that, 'at no time did they advocate or authorise actions in breach of the law'. "They find no fault with the conduct of the military liaison officers. In the matter of the much publicised repair to the Sandline helicopter by the crew of 'HMS Cornwall', the report finds that their action, 'was not improper and was sensible in the circumstances', in that, 'it helped 'HMS Cornwall' to carry out its humanitarian mission'. "The briefings that Ministers received for the debates on 10th and 12th March were 'deficient' and did not provide them with the briefing that they should have received on the referral of the allegations of a breach of the arms embargo.

"In sum, Madam Speaker, after an exhaustive trawl of the files and over 60 hearings of witnesses, the Legg Inquiry has concluded that there was no policy by Ministers to breach the arms embargo, and equally there was no conspiracy among officials to undermine Government policy.

"There were though, as the Legg Report finds, a number of misjudgments by officials, largely due to over-load. I have therefore asked the Permanent Secretary to interview each of the relevant officials and to counsel them on the basis of the findings concerning them in the report. The Legg Report notes that, 'the officials concerned were working hard and conscientiously and should not be judged too harshly'. I therefore see no case for any further action.

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

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

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

"During the period covered by the inquiry, from October of last year, the managerial structures of the Foreign Office remained exactly as we inherited them in May of last year. The departmental hierarchies were the same. The working practices were the same. The procedures for the handling of intelligence were the same. The time has come to change them.

"The final chapter of the Legg Report helpfully details the lessons which must be applied in the future management of the Foreign Office. I am pleased to tell the House that we accept every one of the recommendations in the report.

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

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

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

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

"Only one decade ago, there were 430 staff in the African Command. Now there are 328—a loss of a hundred posts. This sharp reduction of staff at the time of an increase in crises in Africa was part of the reason why mistakes were made by staff under impossible pressure.

"The recent spending review provides the first real increase in the Foreign Office budget for half a dozen years. I have given instructions that part of that increase must be used to strengthen the number of staff in the hard pressed desks dealing with West Africa and Sierra Leone.

"The last lesson of the Legg Report is that there is room for improvement in modern management at the Foreign Office and for fewer layers in the hierarchy. The Foreign Office attracts many of the brightest and most energetic recruits in Whitehall. They deserve a management structure that makes full use of their energy and which enables them to rise fast on merit.

"I can announce today that we have agreed on a programme of 60 different measures to improve the management and effectiveness of the Foreign Office. We will recruit professional managers to specialist posts such as administration, personnel and resources to bring to the Foreign Office modern management methods. We will increase temporary exchanges to and from the private sector, NGOs and the academic world, to bring the Foreign Office up-to-date with working practices and policy thinking in the outside world. We will introduce assessment centres to evaluate staff performance to make sure that promotion to senior management is made on merit. We will reduce the hierarchy in the Foreign Office to enable officials to take more responsibility sooner. And we will improve the gender and ethnic balance throughout the Foreign Office so that it can be representative of all the strengths of modern Britain.

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

"Madam Speaker, I have addressed those parts of the Legg Report which demolish the fantasy of a Ministerial or official conspiracy to breach an arms embargo. Before concluding, I want to address the reality of what has happened in Sierra Leone.

"Britain was first on the scene with humanitarian aid after the restoration of President Kabbah. Since the last debate in the House we have provided police officers to help train a new civilian police force. We have sponsored the UN resolution providing for military observers to help the process of demilitarisation, and we have provided staff to be those military observers. We are providing aid to fund the process of civil reconstruction and military demobilisation. Britain is to date the only donor to the UN Trust Fund for Sierra Leone. On Wednesday the Minister of State of the Foreign Office will be attending a donors' conference in New York and will be urging others in the international community to join us in helping fund democracy and stability in Sierra Leone.

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

"Madam Speaker, I welcome the findings of the Legg Inquiry, that there was no policy of Ministers to breach the arms embargo, and no conspiracy among officials to do so. I will implement all of its recommendations, which will help give Britain a modern Foreign Office.

"Now that it is published, it is time that the right honourable Member opposite started to recognise the immense good will for Britain we have secured within Sierra Leone and tried to understand that represents a success, not a failure of our foreign policy."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

5.31 p.m.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement. On a day when a Government reshuffle focuses on ministerial responsibilities, this report paints a deeply worrying picture of turmoil, failures and misjudgments in one of the great departments of state.

I appreciate that the Minister is repeating a Statement made in another place which significantly concentrates on future restructuring of the Foreign Office—an important issue of course—but tangential to the process of apportioning accountability which the Legg Inquiry was set up to address.

The report describes a Foreign Office in shambles. We already knew that Ministers contradicted each other and themselves, that officials contradicted Ministers and themselves and that telegrams were lost and faxes destroyed. But the detailed evidence in this report is almost beyond belief.

Letters from the High Commissioner go missing; reports from the military liaison officer in Sierra Leone are destroyed, officials are asked to attend meetings to take a note because officials should be on their guard but no note is in fact taken during the meeting itself.

In all, the report contains no fewer than 30 specific criticisms of the Foreign Office. It attributes these failures to what it describes as "systemic and cultural factors." I regret to say that we do not have to look far to identify the source of these factors. In a television programme entitled "How To Be Foreign Secretary", the Foreign Secretary made the following comment: I have found that you can be a successful Foreign Secretary if you focus on the big questions and not necessarily finish the paperwork". Due to the low morale which has increasingly pervaded the Foreign Office during the last 12 months, does the Minister not agree that civil servants have little incentive to pay their characteristic attention to detail on the paperwork when they are told so publicly that it is not going to be read? Indeed, would the Minister not agree that this has contributed to the low level of morale in the Foreign Office?

As the Minister will be aware, I only received the report when it was published earlier this afternoon. However, on first reading there would appear to be inconsistencies between the report and the Minister's Statement to the House on 15th June. The report concludes that: Baroness Symons could not be expected to understand from the briefing that Lord Avebury had sent allegations which had been referred to Customs. She has told us that she did not in fact understand it and we accept this". Yet, on a previous page the report states: Lord Avebury's allegations have been referred to the appropriate authorities for them to investigate whether any offence has been committed". That was a sentence which was actually in the briefing for the Minister. Furthermore, the noble Baroness on 15th June informed this House: In my briefing for 10th March there were references to allegations of illegal arms shipments being referred to the appropriate authority. I was, rightly, not briefed to reveal that referral for the very obvious reasons I have given".—[Official Report, 15/6/98: col. 1291.] I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify those contradictory statements.

Further, turning to the report, there are two significant issues I wish to raise. First, the report, which is not exhaustive, does not comment explicitly on the protestations of the Minister of State for Africa and of the Foreign Secretary on his behalf, that he saw papers "merely for noting" in mid-April and was not fully informed of the allegations made by Sandline until 1st May. But it is not crystal clear from paragraphs 9.50 to 9.56 of the report that the Minister of State knew all the essentials of those allegations in mid-April, considered them in detail and did nothing.

The Foreign Secretary told the House that these papers gave rise to "no grounds for apprehension or concern". However, the report describes these allegations in the same papers as "sensitive and potentially troublesome".

Given the complete inconsistency between the account of events in this report and the account given to the House of Commons and its Select Committee by the Foreign Secretary and the Minister of State, does the Minister now accept that the Foreign Secretary's earlier account was completely inaccurate?

Second, and most damning of all, the report explains very clearly what in essence went wrong and why. The report concludes that the Foreign Office should have explained both the arms embargo imposed by the United Nations resolution and the Order in Council more widely and effectively. As the report says, the failure to do so created a hazard for all affected. The nature of the hazard is clear; it is that British citizens might commit a criminal offence under the Order in Council and risk imprisonment for seven years in consequence.

The cause of the failure to explain the arms embargo more effectively is equally clear. Devastatingly, the report concludes that although the British framers of the United Nations resolution which imposed the arms embargo on Sierra Leone intended that embargo to be "comprehensive in its coverage" and had no doubt that it was, British officials and Ministers played down that aspect of the embargo—not accidentally, but deliberately. The reason, at least in part, was because they knew that there were those on the ground in West Africa who, in the words of the report, "explicitly contemplated the use of force".

Can the Minister therefore explain why, in the FCO press release, the communiqué of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting and in the Adjournment Debate on Sierra Leone of 12th March the Minister of State, Mr. Lloyd, repeatedly, deliberately and unequivocally sought to give the impression that UNSCR 1132, that is the comprehensive arms embargo, imposed sanctions only on the military junta in Sierra Leone when he knew full well that the arms embargo was comprehensive in its coverage, intending no exceptions, including President Kabbah and ECOMOG?

Given that the report says that: Government has a responsibility to give citizens, and its own officials, reasonable publicity and explanation of the laws it makes under delegated powers, especially laws creating criminal … offences. That was not done in this case". On that most telling point, does the Minister believe that Ministers should take responsibility for that key issue which goes to the heart of the affair?

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I also thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place. In particular, I welcome some of the proposals for changes in the Foreign Office which may go some way towards avoiding a similar occurrence in future. In particular, we welcome the proposals for additional staff for the Foreign Office and the steps taken, for example, to ensure that contact with private military groups will be subject to much closer controls than they have been in the past.

I must say that in the instance of this report, anyone reading the Legg Report would be driven to the conclusion that, if it is not a conspiracy—and I believe it is not—it is a fairly monstrous cock-up. As one who has spent many years in politics, my usual interpretation of matters which the press see as a conspiracy is that they are not a conspiracy but a terrible mess. In the Sandline case a terrible mess is what we are looking at.

As the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, said, it is not only that there was confusion between the inadequate briefing offered to Ministers by officials in the Foreign Office—and the Legg Report gives one instance after another—but of particular relevance to this House, the briefing for our own Minister was confusing. My noble friend Lord Avebury asked a Question on 10th March, and he had already, on two occasions, written to the Foreign Office drawing attention to his information and sources which suggested that Sandline was involved in the provision of miliary advice and arms to Sierra Leone. Moreover, my noble friend had indicated the line of his questioning. Nevertheless, the Minister in this House, the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, was clearly not given adequate information on which to base her replies.

The Prime Minister has indicated that the important issue is what happened to Sierra Leone. However, this debate is not about what happened to Sierra Leone. I am sure we all welcome the return of that country to civil rule. The central issue—and it remains the central issue—is the accountability of officials and Ministers and the accountability of Ministers to the Houses of Parliament. It is on both those questions that the Legg Report raises disturbing issues which are properly open to question and debate and should not be dismissed on the grounds that the outcome for the countries concerned was one which we might all willingly accept.

I mentioned that there was profound confusion in the Foreign Office. However, I am particularly troubled by two critical issues which affected the whole question of Sandline's involvement with Sierra Leone: first, as the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, pointed out, the question of the legal purport of the Order in Council; and, secondly, the question of the legal purport of embargoes and sanctions by the United Nations. It must be said that the Foreign Office seems to have treated both issues with extraordinary lightness.

The Order in Council, which is an order in domestic law, presented a particular problem because it was framed more narrowly than United Nations Security Council Resolution No. 1132. On these Benches, we compared quite carefully the Order in Council with the UN resolution and concluded that it was much more tightly framed. It was not subject to differences of interpretation. It made it absolutely plain that the provision of arms to any faction in Sierra Leone, whether they were Children of Light or Children of Darkness, was equally ruled out in the terms of the Order in Council. That never seems to have been made plain to Ministers at the Foreign Office, including the Foreign Secretary himself.

On the issue of United Nations sanctions and embargoes, very probably for the reasons given by the Minister that the dedicated desk had been dispensed with after 1996, it is nevertheless the case that the present Government have now been in power for more than a year. Given their strong commitment to the United Nations, an ethical foreign policy and the upholding of United Nations resolutions, they could have restored that desk and seen that as a very high priority. That did not happen. The result was, as the report makes plain, that neither United Nations sanctions nor arms embargoes were treated with sufficient weight and significance by the Foreign Office, or, indeed, even by Ministers.

It is fairly plain, probably because of the extreme pressure on them, that Ministers did not have a great deal of discussion among themselves. The noble Baroness knew by 10th March, because of the nature of my noble friend's Question and the briefing for it, that there had been some question about the possibility of a Customs investigation. She was not given clear briefing as to what the effect of that was. Nevertheless, I should have thought that the Customs authorities would have made it plain that they were proceeding with the inquiry. It would then have been a matter for Foreign Office officials to recognise the significance of that and so inform their Ministers.

The Ministry of Defence had a whole series of briefings—and I commend the miliary liaison officer—one of which was lost and one of which was destroyed at the Foreign Office. It might have been possible to maintain information for Ministers had there been a closer relationship between the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office on those issues.

Finally, I am troubled, as was the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, by the fact that the Minister of State in another place indicated specifically that in his view it was perfectly proper to make available arms to Sierra Leone because it was not in conflict with the United Nations resolution, when it was clearly in conflict with the Order in Council. It is important to try to throw more light on the way in which he could make such a statement, which was not substantiated by any clear and unquestionable information.

Therefore, I ask three questions of the Minister. First, is she now satisfied that in future the Foreign Office will ensure that any Orders in Council which have weight in domestic law will be drawn up in the closest possible proximity to whatever is stated in the United Nations resolution and that any Orders in Council will be made plain and circulated to Ministers with a note of their significance?

Secondly, can she say whether she is satisfied that inter-departmental relationships, which in this case affected the Department of Trade and Industry, the Ministry of Defence and her own department, are now sufficiently close so that all Ministers can be sure that they are informing one another of matters which may significantly affect the policies on which they must decide.

Thirdly and finally, is she satisfied that the new staffing of the Foreign Office will go a long way towards ensuring that such a muddle does not occur again? However, on these Benches we certainly acquit Ministers both of the conspiracy theory, which has been raised from time to time in the media, and of misleading this House or another place. However, that is not a sufficient acquittal of the behaviour of the Foreign Office over this affair.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank noble Lords in varying degrees for their responses. In particular, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, for her closing remarks when she said that she acquitted Ministers of misleading either House. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, adopted the tone he did as regards Ministers misleading the House. I assure him that I do not believe that I have at any time, certainly not knowingly and I believe never unknowingly, misled the House on this issue. I understand that my right honourable friend and my honourable friend have said similar things in another place.

The noble Lord seems to feel that I had perhaps tried to bat this to one side, or that my right honourable friend had done so, when talking about future restructuring. I should like to return to the points on the latter in the way that the noble Baroness indicated was important. I heard the noble Lord's right honourable friend Mr. Howard make various allegations this morning on a radio programme regarding the reading of papers, and the fact that officials in these circumstances could not expect Ministers to read papers. I am sure that the noble Lord knows that Ministers really cannot read every single piece of paper that comes into their private offices. Indeed, if they did, they would not have time to do anything else. It is the job of those private offices to filter the papers which come through to them.

My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has said that he reads all documents submitted to him and that he expects the same of his Ministers. I give an assurance to the noble Lord that I, for one, do read all documents submitted to me. I can assure him that I am much too frightened to do anything else. However, I expect the noble Lord will remember that when his right honourable friend—now the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher—gave evidence before the Scott Inquiry, she talked about "a veritable snowstorm of paper". I believe that that illustrates the point that I seek to make; namely, that it is not possible for Ministers to read everything that comes into their private offices. Therefore, I do not believe that there is an incentive for Foreign Office officials not to brief Ministers properly. Foreign Office officials have worked very hard in the most difficult circumstances to brief Ministers on these points.

The noble Lord raised what he said were inconsistencies as regards what I said previously and what the Legg Report says. I am sure that the noble Lord did not in any sense mean to mislead the House because it is difficult when dealing with short Statements, but he did not quote the full report as regards my briefing. Indeed, it is dealt with most fully in the Legg Report. The point is made that the briefing was incomplete, indigestible and inaccurate in places. Indeed, in places, the briefing was actually almost contradictory. I do not believe that anything that I have said to the House has been inconsistent. I believe that what I have said has been consistent at all times. However, if the noble Lord wishes to take me on one side and show me again where he believes that I may have gone wrong, I shall be happy to talk to him about it. I have been over this matter again and again and have looked carefully into what the Legg Report says, as noble Lords would expect me to do. I am satisfied in my own mind that I have not been inconsistent and that I have not, however inadvertently, misled your Lordships.

I know that my right honourable friend and my honourable friend Mr. Lloyd have made similar statements, but that is not to seek in any way to detract from the fact that the briefing to Ministers was very far from perfect. Indeed, the Legg Report makes that clear. It is not my view that we should use this as an opportunity, so to speak, to scapegoat those who gave us those briefings. The report makes clear the strain under which those officials were operating. I made clear in the Statement which I repeated on behalf of my right honourable friend that the Permanent Secretary will be taking each of those individuals through the report, looking at the criticisms made of them in a systematic way and giving them guidance and counselling about how they can avoid a repetition in the future. Therefore, I can say that there was no attempt whatever—and I believe that the noble Lord is a little unfair not to acknowledge this—to mislead either House. Moreover, there has been no attempt whatever to obfuscate what has been happening. It is a very honest report, as I am sure all noble Lords will agree when they have the opportunity to read it properly for themselves.

The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, asked me three particular questions. She asked, first, whether I was satisfied that in future the FCO Orders in Council would be drawn up in proximity to the UN Security Council resolutions and, most importantly, made clear to Ministers and to those working within the FCO. Yes, given what Legg says on that point, I believe I am now satisfied that this is something which has been drawn very fully to the attention of the Foreign Office at all levels. Ministers must also take responsibility in that respect. I take the noble Baroness's point; namely, that there is no evasion of responsibility here. Ministers have responsibility for how their departments are run. I acknowledge that point, perhaps a little more so than the noble Lord's right honourable friend did when running the Prison Service. As I said, Ministers are responsible for how their departments run.

Secondly, the noble Baroness asked about inter-departmental relations. Again, the report draws our attention to some of the shortcomings in inter-departmental relations. I should point out to the noble Baroness that there will be new arrangements to handle defence intelligence reports when they arrive in the FCO to ensure that they are properly logged and distributed to the individuals for whom they are destined. That is a very important point. Of course, the liaison with the DTI and Customs and Excise departments is also an area where further strengthening is needed to ensure that departments are absolutely clear beyond peradventure of what is happening in related areas.

The noble Baroness's final point related to new staffing. I believe that this new staffing is a most important and key point. For the first time in six years my right honourable friend has managed to secure resources for the Foreign Office which we have not had. I do not reflect upon what has gone before; indeed, that is quite clear from what is in the Statement. But the fact remains that there has been a systematic cutting of the posts available in the Africa Command by over 100. In his Statement, my right honourable friend made clear that one of his priorities will be to strengthen the Africa Command. I hope that that will go a very long way to ensure that what the noble Baroness described as, "this sort of muddle", does not happen again.

The noble Baroness was quite right to say that this has not been an exercise in obfuscation; indeed, it has been something of a muddle. That muddle was faced fairly and squarely in the report and my right honourable friend is rightly shouldering responsibility to ensure that this sort of muddle does not happen again. I hope that he will enjoy the support of the House in so doing.

5.57 p.m.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, perhaps I may slightly shift the focus of the debate to that part of the report which deals with the support which the Government have been giving to Sierra Leone. It seems to me that part of the problem is the fact that Sierra Leone is seen as a very small country which is a long way away and that it has not had the proper attention that it deserves from the Foreign Office. Is the Minister aware that Sierra Leone offers great hope for the western coast of Africa because it is a focus of democracy? It has a democratic government and a democratic parliament, but that needs strengthening. Indeed, it needs support and training.

Perhaps I may direct the Minister's attention to a report produced by the International Crisis Group about two-and-a-half years ago, which made recommendations as to how the democratic process in Sierra Leone could be strengthened and how people could be trained there. Now that the Foreign Office has some more resources, can we hope that those concerned will spend more time on Sierra Leone as a country and as a focal point for the development of democracy in Africa?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thought that I had already made it clear that some of the extra resources that my right honourable has happily been able to secure through the CSR will be devoted to the Africa Command. Indeed, he particularly mentioned Sierra Leone in a Statement that he made in another place a short while ago. The noble Lord is quite right to say that Sierra Leone needs more help in order to get on its feet and certainly to get its democratic institutions properly embedded. So far, Britain is, sadly, the only donor to the UN trust fund for Sierra Leone, but my honourable friend the Minister of State will be attempting to encourage other donors at a meeting in which he is participating later this week.

The UK has also provided aid for the process of civil reconstruction in Sierra Leone since the return of the Kabbah Government. We have also tried to help by providing police officers to train the civilian police force in Sierra Leone. I am sure that the noble Lord will agree that the proper conduct of the Sierra Leone police force is a very important aspect of this sort of reconstruction.

We have also sponsored the UN resolution providing for military observers in order to help the process of demilitarisation. I hope that the noble Lord will see that in those four important areas my right honourable and honourable friends have already taken considerable action and have also said that we intend to do more to strengthen the civil institutions in Sierra Leone.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is always a danger when major changes are made in a government department in order to learn the lessons of some failings, that they may "overdo" it in the sense that the next problem may not arise there at all? To say that we are getting some more money—I think the whole House will welcome the increase in resources—and we shall direct it towards Africa in general, and Sierra Leone in particular, may mean that another department dealing with another part of the world which may also present this country with major problems may be neglected. Is it not better, before there is a general reallocation of resources, that the whole problem of Britain's relations with other parts of the world is examined?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, that I was not talking about diverting resources from their current home in the Foreign Office; I was talking about additional resources which have been secured by my right honourable friend in order to strengthen various parts of the Foreign Office, not solely the Africa Command. It is not a question of diverting resources from elsewhere.

I freely admit that the Legg Report has concentrated minds on ways in which the Foreign Office can modernise itself. However, the process of modernisation in the Foreign Office began shortly after the general election. In the past I have had occasion to report to your Lordships on the ways in which we are trying to strengthen recruitment in the Foreign Office to obtain a better gender and ethnic minority balance. Some of the improvements announced by my right honourable friend today do not just concern Sierra Leone and the Africa Command; they will operate across the board in the Foreign Office. For example, the central sanctions enforcement desk in the FCO will have a role right across the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The explicit guidance on how to manage relations with private military companies again will have some general application across the Foreign Office, not just in relation to Africa.

We hope that the de-layering of the hierarchies in the Foreign Office and the introduction of more professional expertise into some of the management areas will also improve performance right across the Foreign Office. I assure the noble Lord that we are not being myopic here and just looking at Africa Command. We are examining the lessons that can be learnt from the Sierra Leone affair that can be applied right across the Foreign Office to improve management.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, I believe the whole House will have been glad to hear the Statement that my noble friend has repeated, and in particular the references to paragraphs 1.9 and 1.10 on page 4 of the report which effectively absolve my noble friend and Mr. Tony Lloyd from culpability—if one can put it like that—in this respect. I draw my noble friend's attention to the words she repeated on page 3 of the Statement, During the period covered by the inquiry, from October of last year, the managerial structures of the Foreign Office remained exactly as we inherited them in May of last year … The working practices were the same". I believe that a number of us in this House have been concerned about anecdotal evidence and published evidence in newspapers of the involvement of mercenaries in Africa over the past 20 years. The previous government took absolutely no action whatever in that regard. I suspect that this has led to the culture in the Foreign Office which has allowed this unhappy state of affairs to develop.

I refer to the comments on page 4 of the Statement where the Foreign Secretary said, I have issued guidance that there should be no Foreign Office contact with private military firms without permission, and that where such meetings do take place they should be recorded in a full, written report". Can I take it from my noble friend that this is implicitly a monitoring operation of the activities of private military operations and the mercenaries, and that there will be no sanction by Her Majesty's Government of their operations?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for what he has said in relation to paragraphs 1.9 and 1.10 of the report and in regard to Mr. Lloyd and myself. My noble friend concentrated his remarks on relationships with mercenaries. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, gets a little edgy when I make the point that the problems in this respect did not start on 1st May 1997. As my noble friend points out, I suspect there were problems in these areas before then. Minds are now concentrated on how these should be dealt with. My right honourable friend has been clear in his Statement in another place. He has said that there should not be contacts without permission. These matters will be monitored carefully in the future in the hope that we never get into this kind of situation again.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, as one who was once a Minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and has experienced somewhat similar difficulties to those that the noble Baroness faces, I have a great deal of sympathy and understanding for her. Speaking personally, I think that everyone in this House would absolve the noble Baroness from in any way misleading the House. Is she aware that the sentence I valued most in her responses was that in the review of what has gone wrong Ministers must face their responsibilities as well as officials? When I heard the Statement I would have welcomed a little more humility on the part of the Foreign Secretary in regard to ministerial responsibility in this matter. He went out of his way to quote the report of the Minister of State after his visit to Sierra Leone; namely, that on the planet at the moment there is no place where there is more enthusiasm for Britain. I profoundly hope that the enthusiasm of Foreign Office officials and Foreign Office Ministers can be quickly restored after this matter.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I believe that the Statement of my right honourable friend that I repeated showed that he shouldered responsibility for putting right what has gone wrong. Ministers must bear those responsibilities. I spent 20 years as a union official in Whitehall talking rather a lot about ministerial responsibility and Civil Service responsibility. There are no "responsibility free" zones in government for civil servants or for ministers. That is not to say that responsibility always means apportioning blame; responsibility can involve putting right what has gone wrong. My right honourable friend in his Statement made clear that he is shouldering responsibility for putting right what has gone wrong in the measures that he explained in the Statement. I am sure we all hope that the measures he is proposing to take, and is already taking, will be successful.

Lord Gillmore of Thamesfield

My Lords, in common with other noble Lords I have only had time to read quickly this report. It seems that a leitmotiv is a failure to understand correctly the import of the arms embargo and, more significantly, of the Order in Council. Paragraph 5.10 points out that the press line prepared by the department, and approved by the Minister of State … stated that the Resolution introduced an 'international ban on supply of arms and petroleum products to the junta'". In fact, that was not the case. It was an interdict on the supply of arms and petroleum to Sierra Leone in general.

To turn, secondly, to the degree of overload referred to by the Minister and to which the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, drew attention, we see from the report that in the West African section of the Africa Department (Equatorial) there are six staff dealing with 20 countries. The measures referred to by the Minister—to introduce professional managers, to recruit to and from the private sector, to introduce outside assessment, promotion on merit, and further delegation with better gender and ethnic balance—may all be desirable in their own right, but they will not address the problem of overload. Indeed, spending money on professional managers may be regarded as a diversion of that resource into different fields. Will this produce a larger number of desk officers? How can accurate information on an Order in Council of the kind referred to be conveyed? The report makes it quite clear that the Government have a duty to make clear to their citizens, including their officials, the import and purport of Orders in Council that are passed in their name.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Lord rightly points out one of the shortcomings in the way that the Order in Council was dealt with. Those shortcomings are clearly set out in the report. I agree with the noble Lord. Not only all my ministerial colleagues, but everyone in the Foreign Office supports not only the conclusions but also the recommendations in the Legg Report. The shortcomings are clear, as are the recommendations as to how to deal with them in future.

On the question of overload, I understand that staff in London dealing with Africa have been cut by a third in the past 10 years. The noble Lord rightly said that those difficulties will not all be overcome by introducing more expertise or looking at gender balance. They will be overcome by ensuring that there are more desk officers; that is to say, more people working, as it were, at the coal-face on these issues. That is the point that my right honourable friend is addressing when he says that he has been looking at strengthening the Africa Command in order to ensure that there are more desk officers working in what is, after all, a very difficult part of the world given the degree of crises and instability which. sadly, from time to time arise there.

Of course it is important that accurate information about any UN arms embargo and any Orders in Council is circulated properly and unequivocally. That is undoubtedly one of the lessons that emerge clearly from the Legg Report. I assure the noble Lord and the House that that lesson is now well understood.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, perhaps I may ask a general question. I remembered that the blanket refusal to supply arms to Spain was of the greatest possible help to Franco, because he obtained arms from the fascist countries. It cannot be said that the blanket refusal in relation to Bosnia was a great help. Apparently, governments at home refused to supply help or arms to both the virtuous and the wicked. Is that generally a good thing?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I do not know whether blanket refusals over the supply of arms are a good thing. I know that in this particular case it was felt that it was the right thing to do. I now understand that to be the judgment that was reached and that it might be very difficult to ensure that weapons sent reached the right hands in what is a very confused part of the world and where there was a possibility that any weapon sent there might fall into the wrong hands. All these issues in relation to arms have to be dealt with on their merit at the time. To say anything more than that would be to provide a hostage to fortune.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, what is happening to Mr. Penfold? How is it that the hero of the hour—hymned by the Prime Minister, the man at the centre of the great policy triumph, as the noble Baroness the Minister described the whole affair,—is so excoriated in the report? How is it that in the Statement, when it comes to his alleged misdemeanours he is named, but when it comes to his undoubted triumphs his name is absent?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Lord really must not over-egg his puddings. There is no excoriation of Mr. Penfold in the report. In the same way, the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, slightly over-exaggerated some of his points. The Foreign Secretary paid tribute to Mr. Penfold's courage when arranging the evacuation of not only British but other nationals following the coup, and to his success in promoting Britain's standing in Sierra Leone. The Statement made that point again. Mr. Penfold made a real contribution. When the noble Lord has the opportunity to read Hansard, he will find that it is mentioned.

The Foreign Secretary has also had to look at the undoubted criticisms of Mr. Penfold in the report. The noble Lord would be furious if I had airbrushed out the criticisms. I am sure that all noble Lords, when they have the opportunity of reading this fairly lengthy but clear report from Sir Thomas Legg, will see the criticisms of Mr. Penfold in their proper context; namely, Mr. Penfold undoubtedly behaved with enormous courage, but he made mistakes. Those mistakes are not being dealt with in a heavy-handed way. They are being dealt with entirely appropriately. He will be written to by the Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office, who will point out the criticisms made of him in the report. I believe that that should be the end of it.

The Earl of Carlisle

My Lords, I pay tribute to Mr. Penfold. Will the Minister inform the House as to whether he had access throughout that time to a defence attaché or military attaché? In the light of cuts to the Foreign Office, which the noble Baroness informs us she is putting right, will she also examine the defence and military attaché network to see whether that can be improved so that these kinds of problems can be avoided in future?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for his well-made point. Let us not forget that, over the time in question, Mr. Penfold was not working in an office in Sierra Leone. He was not surrounded by the usual paraphernalia of high commissioners. Mr. Penfold was in exile in Conakry, working out of a hotel bedroom. He was making his contacts using one telephone, as I understand it, and one fax machine. He had none of the usual diplomatic support. His position must be seen in that context. Within the limitations imposed on him in those very difficult circumstances, he tried to take part in the normal processes of dialogue with the FCO in London and to be part of the policy making. It must be remembered that that highly courageous man was operating in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. I remind the House that Sir Thomas Legg and Sir Robin Ibbs find that all concerned, were working to fulfil government policy". There was no attempt to hide information from Ministers. That goes for Mr. Penfold as well.

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