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Mr. Cook: Let me remind my hon. Friend what I said just now when I read the letter from President Kabbah. If anyone is in a position to know whether Sandline was active in Sierra Leone on his behalf, it is President Kabbah himself, and he made it quite clear that there was no mercenary involvement in the restoration of his Government.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State himself established that he had not given full information to the Select Committee. It was he who drew that to my attention, and it was he who requested me to include that passage in my statement to the House last week. He did so, and was right to do so, precisely because he wanted the record put right at the first available opportunity. He will, of course, respond with the full memorandum to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) referred.

In respect of the request for telegrams, I must say that they are restricted in circulation. I fully understand what prompted my hon. Friend to ask her question, but, if we worked on the principle that telegrams might subsequently be published, we would receive much less information than we do at present--[Interruption.] Any hon. Member who has served in the Foreign Office, or seen the telegrams, will fully understand why they contain matter that might be embarrassing to Her Majesty's Government or others if it were made publicly available.

I can assure the Select Committee that we will give it the fullest possible co-operation. I look forward to discussing with it the report of the investigation, once it has been held.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster): Why did the Minister of State not verify in the middle of April whether the Foreign Secretary knew what was happening?

Mr. Cook: The Minister of State saw a number of papers--three or four--all of which indicated that a

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customs inquiry was proceeding, and said with robust confidence that there had been no official approval of Sandline's activities. There was therefore no ground for apprehension or concern on the part of the Minister of State. It was not until the lawyers' letter of 24 April that either of us was fully aware of the allegations being made by Sandline. I am confident that, with the passage of time and investigation, those allegations will be seen to be quite different from what actually happened.

Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney): My right hon. Friend referred several times to reviewing the papers. From his review, has he satisfied himself at least that no official gave any encouragement to Sandline's activities?

Mr. Cook: First, it is indeed the case that Sandline, before President Kabbah was deposed in the original coup, was a company--[Interruption.]--if the hon. Gentleman will allow me--it was a company which had extensive interests in Sierra Leone. It was indeed known among officials that Sandline had a continuing relationship with President Kabbah, and had an interest in Sierra Leone. After all, a sister company is managing the diamond mines there. It is a big player in that context in Sierra Leone. I see nothing improper in officials having dialogue with it.

In answer to my hon. Friend's question, having looked through the papers in front of me, I give a quite firm and categorical answer. No official in the Africa department did anything to condone or encourage any breach of the arms embargo.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): Is a record kept of the alleged meetings between officialsof the Foreign Secretary's Department and other Departments and the arms exporters? Will the public be told what those meetings were about? Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be a worry if officials had such discussions about exports without telling him? Does he accept that this is not the first occasion on which the Foreign Office has had discussions about the export of arms to other countries in breach of sanctions, and has covered itself by giving a warning letter that on no account must it be done?

Mr. Cook: Of course, if there were meetings of officials of the Foreign Office and officials of other Ministries, there would be records of those meetings. That is in the nature of the civil service. If there are such records, they can become part of the investigation, but I have to disabuse the hon. Gentleman of his line of inquiry.

The fact is that no licence was given for export of arms to Sierra Leone by Sandline or by anybody else. I therefore at the present time do not know, and have never heard of, a meeting to discuss an application for an export of arms by Sandline to Sierra Leone or anyone else; quite the reverse. Far from the implication of the hon. Member's question, the evidence that I have in front of me suggests that officials at no stage condoned or encouraged the export of arms to Sierra Leone.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Is my right hon. Friend aware that, notwithstanding all his protestations in defence of his officials at the Foreign Office, some of us, especially me, cynic though I may be, do not accept,

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and never will, that, in the course of what I described last week as the Opposition trying to make a seven-course dinner of a pan of boiling water, some of the high-flying diplomats challenged by him when he assumed office, having worked for the tawdry Government who are now in opposition, did not take it upon themselves to take action to undermine him and anyone else? I happen to believe that. It has happened in the past.

Fortunately, my right hon. Friend was able today to show that he is a master of his brief, as he did when he read the Scott report in three hours a few years ago and flattened the Government of the day. That is unlike the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the "man of the night", as he was aptly described by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and the Weald (Miss Widdecombe). My right hon. Friend today gave him enough rope, and he has hung himself.

Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend's remarks on the officials of the Foreign Office were noted in the Foreign Office, not to universal approbation. While I entirely understand his point, I have never at any stage while I have been Secretary of State detected resistance to a policy, or any act of conspiracy against it, at any level within the Foreign Office. I think that officials have been treated unfairly over the past weekend. [Hon. Members: "By you."] No, not by me. I have never at any stage recycled the allegations as proven fact. I have repeatedly said that they were allegations that should be taken seriously, but, in fairness to those officials, I do think that the Opposition should stop rushing to judgment, and await the forthcoming full and considered investigation.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon): Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that it is most unusual for the Foreign Office to ask for an inquiry by Customs and Excise, a Department that does not report to him; that to ask for such an inquiry to be made without the instruction of a Minister is nearly beyond belief; and that then to suggest that the inquiry will not be referred to a Minister until six weeks later seems even more a matter of imagination? Does he actually suggest that the inquiry would not and should not have been referred to a Minister before it was instituted?

Mr. Cook: I said to the House last week that I do think that the Minister of State, when he was coming to address a debate in the House on 12 March, should have been informed of the inquiry, and I do not resile from what I said then. However, I depart from the right hon. Member on his central thesis. Customs is the statutory body responsible for investigating breaches of export orders, so it is entirely proper that customs should have been made the investigator of any alleged breach.

As to consulting Ministers before doing it, on that I have to say that I think officials acted entirely properly in what they did. The moment they suspected that a breach might have occurred, they were under a duty as citizens, never mind as civil servants, to draw it to the attention of the appropriate criminal investigation organisation.

It would have been quite improper to ask Ministers' opinion as to whether a suspected breach should be referred--to have asked for a political decision before referring the matter onward. That is why I am actually

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very pleased that the Foreign Office is able to say, "We initiated this investigation--we did not attempt a cover-up, and we have since co-operated fully and openly with customs." That is what I would have expected of my officials.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde): I said on BBC Radio Scotland yesterday that the Labour party does not need lessons in ethical conduct from the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) or the odd job lot behind him--members of what we in Scotland now call the English rural party. I reminded my listeners of the Pergau dam affair and the Iraqi arms affair, neither of which led to the resignations of any Conservative so-called hon. Gentlemen. That is the point of this affair, and of this private notice question.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will give us open access to the report and a full debate on it when it is published; and that he does not put the same constraints on examination of the report as were put on him in respect of the Scott report.


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