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

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

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

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

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister also said yesterday:

As a permanent member of the Security Council, the United Kingdom has a special responsibility to uphold UN resolutions. If we condone a breach of one resolution,

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we undermine the authority of other resolutions, such as those requiring Iraq to abandon its programmes of weapons of mass destruction.

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

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

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

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

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

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that the Government's position on Sierra Leone is increasingly looking like a shambles? What he described as "very serious" last Wednesday became nothing more than an "overblown hoo-hah" yesterday. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Prime Minister's intervention yesterday makes a laughing stock of him, and a complete mockery of any pretensions he may have to an ethical foreign policy? Will he confirm what he told the House last week--that there

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was no Government policy or UN support for military intervention to restore President Kabbah, and that the Government and the UN wanted him restored through diplomatic negotiations, not military intervention?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Cook: Thank you, Madam Speaker.

The first document that I received on any breach of the arms embargo or a shipment of arms was on 28 April, when I saw the letter. Since the right hon. and learned

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Gentleman asked the same question in multiple different ways, I have to say to him that the reason I say that is that no other paper on the matter had been put in a red box for me, a file for me, a folder for me, on top of my desk or on any other part of office furniture he cares to name.

Since the right hon. and learned Gentleman has raised in the House whether there were any changed instructions on what should go in the red box, let me say that the only instruction we have been able to trace is an instruction from my private secretary which confirms to the Foreign Office:

I am receiving full briefing from the Foreign Office. I strongly resent the suggestion that there has been any briefing on the matter that has not been read by me or by the Minister of State.

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

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