HL Deb 15 June 1998 vol 590 cc1287-91

2.57 p.m.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given the Government private notice, namely:

What evidence was given by Sir John Kerr to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in another place concerning the briefing given to Ministers on the arms to Sierra Leone affair prior to the Answer given by the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, on 10th March?

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

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for raising this matter.

Perhaps I can begin by reminding the House of the single most important fact; that is, that once again there is in place in Sierra Leone a democractically elected government. The illegal rule of an undemocratic military regime has been ended. We on this side of the House welcome that. I hope that the whole House does too.

But, with the honourable exception of the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, who I believe has tried to focus on the real issues, the Shadow Foreign Secretary and his team prefer to concentrate more on pieces of paper in London than on policy and real events, like today's summit in Cardiff.

On the issues which have been raised, let me make clear once again that the Government do not and did not support any breach of a United Nations embargo. Ministers had no prior knowledge or approval of arms sales to Sierra Leone.

Let us be clear about what the Government have done. The Government referred the issue to HM Customs and Excise for investigation. Customs investigated and concluded that there are no grounds for further action. With that investigation completed, the Government immediately established an inquiry, chaired by Sir Thomas Legg, into the handling of the matter within Whitehall. That inquiry is carrying out its work. Sir Thomas Legg is considering all the evidence. He will report on the whole issue. His report will be published. It will be the best means for the full facts to be established.

It would be wrong for me to enter into detailed discussions on the questions being examined by Sir Thomas Legg. I have no intention of pre-empting his findings. But, following press allegations, I believe it is appropriate for me to address the issue of my replies in this House on 10th March to a Starred Question from the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and on 11th May as to when I first became aware of Sandline's involvement in Sierra Leone.

On 11th May, the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, asked me when I first learnt of Sandline's involvement. I replied that I was first aware of allegations regarding Sandline's role in Sierra Leone when I saw the report in the Observer of 8th March. That is entirely correct. I saw the report in a newspaper on that Sunday morning. The headline was, Britain holds talks with hired killers", the allegation being that the High Commission had been involved in secret talks with Sandline. Officials briefed me on that in preparation for the 10th March Question. So I did not mislead the House.

On 10th March I was asked about this article. The article did not refer to arms shipments or the breaking of UN sanctions. I said that the article was not entirely accurate or at least not on all fours with reports to Her Majesty's Government. That was entirely right. My answer was based on a speaking note prepared by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office which said that the High Commissioner had confirmed that allegations made in the article were wrong. I therefore did not mislead the House on that occasion either. I am sure that Sir Thomas Legg will want to look very carefully at this issue. All my briefing material has been made available to him.

The briefing for 10th March covered all aspects of the situation in Sierra Leone in preparation for the Question from the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asking what steps Her Majesty's Government were taking to help restore lasting peace in Sierra Leone. As the Foreign Affairs Committee was told on 14th May, there was information contained in the background documentation about the allegation of arms supplies being referred to the appropriate authorities. But the clear focus was on what was happening in Sierra Leone; and rightly so.

I did not on 10th March announce a Customs investigation. I was not briefed to do so; and quite right. It would have been highly prejudicial and quite wrong to make the referral public at that stage. To do so would have alerted those who were potentially under investigation and would have been unfair to them if the allegations were subsequently found to be groundless. The notion that I or others in the FCO deliberately concealed these things to protect ourselves is particularly absurd given that it was the FCO itself that passed the accusations to Customs and Excise, which led to their investigation.

Moreover, the overwhelming issue at the time was the fighting in Sierra Leone and the welcome return of President Kabbah to Freetown on the very day I was speaking. Officials were helping to direct efforts to relieve a serious humanitarian situation on the ground. They were co-ordinating the return of our High Commissioner. They were closely involved as presidency of the EU and in action in the UN Security Council in framing the wider international response to the unfolding situation in Sierra Leone. My briefing correctly focused on these major developments, particularly as I was not involved in the policy-making chain on these issues.

Of course I did not deliberately mislead this House. I have made it clear now and in what I said on 10th March and 11th May that I did not do so inadvertently either. I reiterate what I said to the House on 11th May. If any of my remarks, today or at any other time, are found to be inaccurate, I will correct them. I trust that Members on the other side, in this House or in another place, will be ready to correct their ill-founded allegations.

Let me return to the point that I made at the beginning. The minutiae that I have been forced to dwell on today have no bearing on the actual events in Sierra Leone, before or since. The situation in Sierra Leone remains serious, with atrocities by the rebels continuing. People would do better to focus on that or on some of the other grave foreign policy questions we are faced with rather than on this kind of specious nonsense.

3.3 p.m.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, we are most grateful to the noble Baroness for the comprehensive explanation that she has given and for the fact that she has gone much wider than the terms of the Question. Perhaps I may say how much we agree with her that it is not the minutiae we are concerned with but the wider issues of what will happen in Sierra Leone following the restoration of the democratic government and the other serious issues that arise out of the Customs and Excise investigation which have not yet been dealt with.

What are the special circumstances in which Customs and Excise decided not to bring proceedings against Sandline and Mr. Spicer, notwithstanding the fact that a clear breach of Security Council Resolution 1132 had been committed? Since the noble Baroness has widened the Answer, perhaps she can deal with that question now. Does she agree with me that even if the right result has been achieved in the end—that is to say, the restoration of democratic government under President Kabbah—if it has been achieved by unlawful means, in particular by a breach of a Security Council resolution, which is a serious matter as the Foreign Secretary has said, that provides an extraordinarily harmful example for dealing with future cases of this kind?

Does she further agree that a serious question arises about how we treat the so-called military consultants who were involved in this case? Is she aware that the South Africans have legislated to regulate the activities of companies such as these? Would we not do well to follow that example and even to bring forward an amendment to the United Nations Convention on Mercenaries so that the regulation would be of a universal character instead of being confined to one country?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I would refer the noble Lord to the announcement made by HM Customs and Excise on 18th May that the Customs decision, confirmed by the Attorney-General, not to mount a prosecution was taken after considering all the circumstances leading up to the supply.

The noble Lord raised the unlawful means. There is no doubt that this matter has been considered very seriously. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary and my honourable friend Mr. Lloyd and I have all said how seriously we take these issues. I reiterated that point again today in answering the noble Lord's Question, so I do not think there can be any doubt whatever about that.

The noble Lord raised the question of military consultants and mentioned the interesting example of South Africa. I will ensure that I draw to the attention of my honourable friend Mr. Lloyd the very pertinent point that the noble Lord has made.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, on 14th May I asked the noble Baroness whether, only three days before Customs officers raided Sandline on Friday 3rd April, Tony Lloyd, the relevant Foreign Office Minister, was in fact in Sierra Leone. In her own words, she said that she was unsighted on this issue but that she would write to me. A month has passed and I have received no letter. Is the noble Baroness now in a position to say whether she knew of the Minister's visit to Sierra Leone? Further to her statement on 11th May that she would not have expected to see details of the Customs and Excise investigation into Sandline, is she aware that other Ministers did indeed receive papers on this subject? Finally, was the briefing that she received for the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, in the House on 10th March either seen by or sent for the approval of any other Minister, given Sir John Kerr's evidence that a side copy of the brief was marked for Mr. Lloyd?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am very concerned that the noble Lord has not received a letter. On my return to the FCO today I shall ensure that a letter is sent to him as soon as possible.

The noble Lord raised other questions about the details of my briefing. In particular he asked whether my briefing had been sent to Mr.Lloyd. The noble Lord will know that Mr. Lloyd has said quite clearly that he did not receive any such briefing. He made a statement on this matter on 12th March. The exact statement was that he was not then briefed, told, advised or in any other way informed, either orally or in writing, either of alleged arms shipments or the Customs and Excise investigation. Clearly, this is a matter for Sir Thomas Legg. I think we must exercise some patience and look forward to what Sir Thomas Legg will have to say on these important issues.

Baroness Mallalieu

My Lords, can the Minister tell us what is happening in Sierra Leone at the moment?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I can do my best. I made some reference to this in the Answer that I gave to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. We understand that the forces of the RUF are regrouping. Sadly, reports of atrocities committed by them continue. Her Majesty's Government have taken a very strong lead in the international community. Since February we have been pursuing a consistent policy with close ministerial involvement. That involves securing a UN mandate for ECOMOG on the basis of a UN-approved disarmament and mobilisation plan; obtaining voluntary international funding to provide logistic support of ECOMOG needs; and providing humanitarian relief and plans for longer-term development and government with the Government of Sierra Leone. I hope that gives some flavour as to what is happening at the moment.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, in view of some the things that have been said on this subject since March, is the noble Baroness aware that on that occasion many of us—and I include myself—had the impression of a Minister who, under very difficult circumstances, was treating the House honestly, fairly and with considerable candour? I for one never had the impression that she was in any way misleading anybody and the Minister has confirmed that today. My next point goes rather wider than her concerns. Is she aware that some of the remarks addressed to Sir John Kerr in another place are very hard to go along with and, as far as I was concerned, were a source of considerable discomfort?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am truly grateful to the noble Lord for what he has said and I thank him very much. Sir John Kerr gave the same information on 9th June as he did on 14th May. 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 that I have given.