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Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East): Would not the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) and his former Cabinet colleagues be a little more credible if they came to this matter with clean hands? Should not he, as a lawyer, know that a fundamental principle of the law is to hear both sides--certainly not to pour scorn on officials, who cannot answer for themselves at this time?

Will my right hon. Friend take on board at least the concern that there is a real danger of excessive delay? As he well knows, prosecuting authorities, such as customs, can take an inordinate time. The Foreign Office investigation, which is very welcome, may not start until the customs investigation is near its end, so there could be a sub judice problem if prosecutions are recommended. Will he say when he expects the customs investigation to conclude, and decisions on prosecutions to be made?

Mr. Cook: It would be deeply improper for me to say to the House when customs will conclude an investigation. The important public policy issue, which will be of concern to both sides of the House, is that customs should complete the investigation thoroughly and assess clearly and fairly whether there is a case to answer--it would be wrong if that process were to be hurried because of any political consideration.

I assure the House that we intend to proceed to that investigation, which will be conducted by someone from outside the Foreign Office, the moment we receive the clearance from customs. I also assure my hon. Friend that we are determined that that investigation--which is for us to set up--will be established and carried out quickly, with a full report to the House as soon as possible.

That is important to the officials who have been repeatedly maligned in the press over the past few days. [Interruption.] No, I say to Opposition Members who are shouting that, as I repeatedly said in the House last Wednesday and have said every day over the weekend, what they read in the papers are allegations by Sandline's lawyers. I understand what Sandline's lawyers are doing:

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they are doing their job, which is to put the best possible colour on their client's case. That does not make their allegations true. From the papers that I have seen while Sandline has been peddling its allegations, I can say that many of them will turn out not to be true.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South): I am delighted, as I am sure my colleagues are, that the investigation will take place. However, we take the view, which I hope the Secretary of State will share, that the investigation should take place now, irrespective of the time the customs investigation takes, as the two are trying to discover two different things. I am sure that he would agree that it is in the best interests of the nation and the House that, so that the issue is not continually clouded and murky, the investigation that he has instigated should take place immediately, and, if necessary, run in tandem with the customs investigation. Anything short of that will be recognised as prevarication, and will not be reconcilable with the Government's ambition for open government.

The right hon. Gentleman says that no Minister in his Department had any involvement prior to his being told of the matter. Will he confirm this afternoon that that applies to the whole Cabinet, including the Prime Minister? Will he also say who approved the use of HMS Cornwall as part of the Sandline operation?

Mr. Cook: I have no personal interest in delaying the start of the investigation: on the contrary, I would welcome its starting as soon as possible. I cannot act as the hon. Gentleman suggests, precisely because many of those who would give evidence to the investigation are giving evidence to the present customs investigation, so it is impossible to launch the second without cutting across the first. I do not believe that the House would want me to take any step that would prejudice an investigation that may or may not lead to criminal charges.

The statements that I have made about no ministerial approval, contact or discussion apply across the Government, and not only in the Foreign Office.

I understand that the hon. Gentleman made his point about HMS Cornwall in good faith, but the House must understand that that is another of the allegations from Sandline's lawyers.

Mr. Hancock: What about the photograph?

Mr. Cook: I shall come back to the photograph in one minute.

The reality is that HMS Cornwall docked in Sierra Leone on 1 March, after most of the fighting was over and the military junta had been removed. It did not go there to take part in any Sandline activity. Indeed, President Kabbah himself, in his letter to the Prime Minister, said:

HMS Cornwall went there to provide humanitarian relief, and it did a fantastic job, of which the House should be proud. To carry out that emergency supply up country, it had of course to fly its helicopter, and, as we would all expect its captain to be prudent about the lives of his

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service men, it had to have consultations with the local west African forces about where it was safe to fly. That is why the colonel of those west African forces--not a Sandline mercenary--repeatedly flew in that helicopter to the dock beside the ship.

The helicopter was on contract from Sandline, but that does not mean that HMS Cornwall was assisting Sandline in any mercenary activity; on the contrary, it shows that, in this case, the west African forces were helping Britain with humanitarian relief of which we should be proud, not ashamed.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): The House is entitled to a full explanation, and we look forward to the inquiry, but should we not be grateful that, in one instance in Africa, an elected Government who were overthrown have been restored to office? Surely that is right and proper.

Does my right hon. Friend consider it appropriate to be lectured by Conservative Members who, right up to the very day of the Falklands invasion, actively encouraged the sale of arms to the junta in Argentina, as confirmed in a parliamentary answer that I received on 20 April 1982? We hear talk of hypocrisy, but what greater hypocrisy could there be than to be lectured on arms dealing by Conservative Members?

Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend makes his own point. There is a parallel that is even nearer to us in time: the way in which Ministers in the previous Government decided in secret to relax restrictions on the sale of arms to Saddam Hussein. The moment they were found out, they established an elaborate cover-up and, rather than admitting what they had done, were willing to see innocent people go to prison.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): Does the Foreign Secretary accept that those of us who worked for many years--four and a half, in my case--as Ministers in the Foreign Office know full well that officials are meticulous in keeping written records of their dealings, and that they ensure that their superiors, both official and ministerial, are kept fully informed in writing?

Were the following documents, or classes of document, received in any ministerial private office, and, if so, were they made available to Ministers: the reporting telegrams from Sierra Leone or any adjoining African country regarding Sandline's involvement in the coup; any documents regarding the Customs and Excise investigation into the Foreign Office; the correspondence with Lord Avebury; the record of meetings between Foreign Office officials and Sandline; and intelligence reports--that is, reports from Government communications headquarters or the Secret Intelligence Service--regarding Sandline's involvement?

Mr. Cook: The right hon. and learned Gentleman has asked a series of highly detailed questions. I accept that they are perfectly proper, but they require full and considered investigation. As general guidance, however, let me say, first, that it would be quite improper if we were passed papers from Customs and Excise, which is not our ministerial responsibility. As we referred the investigation to Customs and Excise, and have fully and openly co-operated with it, I would not expect such papers

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to be passed to me, for approval or otherwise. Secondly, the Avebury letter was addressed not to a Minister, but to an official, who replied to it. It was not sent up to Ministers until we subsequently received it from Sandline's lawyers.

As for intelligence, the right hon. and learned Gentleman will understand that there are limits to how far I can go; but, as he raises the point, and as someone has--without, I believe, regard to due process--released something to The Times, the House is entitled to know that at no stage over the past months was any intelligence passed to Ministers or officials that suggested a breach of the arms embargo.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington): Does the Foreign Secretary agree that no Labour Member needs lectures in ethics from the Tories?

The Foreign Secretary will be aware that the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, of which I am a member, met this morning, and agreed to ask the Minister of State for a memorandum detailing exactly how he misled the Committee last Tuesday. We also agreed to ask the Foreign Office for copies of all telegrams between the Foreign Office and Sierra Leone since this affair began. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that there are issues of substance here, as it can be no part of an ethical foreign policy to connive at the use of mercenaries and gun runners and the types of strategy that have subjected Africa to so much misery down the years?

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