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Mr. Cook: I am happy to give the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe an undertaking that he will have more than three hours in which to read the report before we debate it. I can also give my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) an assurance that we shall of course publish the report, and I fully expect that the House will wish to discuss it when it is available. As to his later remarks, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) referred earlier to the speech of the righthon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), in which, the House will recall, the right hon. Lady detailed three occasions on which the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe misled this House knowingly.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): Will the right hon. Gentleman give my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) the undertakings he sought? Will the inquiry be conducted by a judge, and will it be conducted in public?

Mr. Cook: At the present time, we are still identifying who may head it up, but I can give an absolute assurance that it will be somebody with impeccable legal qualifications, because those will be required. Secondly, I have been repeatedly pressed by the House to produce an investigation that will report to the House at an early date. I have told the House that we shall be seeking to make sure that the procedures for that are consistent with speed, so that the House can have the facts, and officials can have the truth out in the open.

Mr. Hugh Bayley (City of York): Last week, I spent two days in west Africa at a conference about good governance and human rights, at which there were Members of Parliament and officials of five African nations and several Latin American nations. Representatives of many donor nations, including the United States and France, also attended. Not one delegate mentioned to me British policy on Sierra Leone. Does my right hon. Friend agree that people at that conference in Africa had the issue much better in proportion than Opposition Members do?

Mr. Cook: The people of Sierra Leone have found rather incomprehensible much of what they have read in

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British newspapers and heard from the British Parliament in the past few days. As far as they are concerned, they have restored their legitimate and elected Government and seen the back of a brutal and repressive military regime, which is an entirely positive outcome for them. Of course, if there are allegations of a breach and allegations against officials, it is important that the facts should be out in the open. We have nothing to hide, and we want to have the truth out in the open. In Africa, as my hon. Friend pointed out, and elsewhere, the disproportionate attention given to this issue is regarded with incredulity.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): The Foreign Secretary told us earlier that it would be wholly improper if the Foreign and Commonwealth Office caused the Customs and Excise investigation to be delayed. On 29 April, the day after the Foreign Secretary became aware of the letter from Sandline International's solicitor, Customs and Excise delayed indefinitely an arranged interview with Colonel Spicer under caution, pending further investigations. Was that a coincidence?

Mr. Cook: I do not know what the hon. Gentleman is seeking to suggest, but I know that he does not have the guts to say it baldly and directly--he comes at it from a tangent. If he repeats outside the House any suggestion--[Hon. Members: "Oh."] If hon. Members will be quiet, I will answer. If he repeats outside the House any suggestion that I have improperly--[Interruption.] Please. If hon. Members have finished, I will continue. If the hon. Gentleman repeats outside the House any suggestion that I have improperly intervened in the customs investigation, I will sue, because it is totally untrue.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West): As one of two hon. Members who visited HMS Cornwall when she returned from her patrol in that area and were briefed by the commander and the crew, I can tell my right hon. Friend that they were absolutely overjoyed at the work that they could do in rebuilding clinics and taking aid to the people of Sierra Leone. They were proud that they were able to take part in that exercise. I support my right hon. Friend in ensuring that he maintains his present position of supporting his officials and Foreign Office Ministers, so that people outside the House can see the difference between the Government and the Conservative party, whether in government or opposition.

Mr. Cook: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. I particularly underline the fact that the House ought to express its appreciation of what was done by HMS Cornwall and all those who served on her at that time.

The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) asked about the pictures that were taken. They were taken in the third week of March, long after the Customs and Excise investigation had commenced. HMS Cornwall has done nothing improper in this matter, and much of which the House can be proud.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): Does the Foreign Secretary have absolute confidence in the Minister of State, who has been looking extremely miserable this afternoon? Does he agree that, if the Minister of State is forced to resign over this matter, his own position will also be untenable?

Mr. Cook: Of course I have full confidence in my hon. Friend the Minister of State, who, like everybody else in

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this matter, has had to put up with wild allegations being reported as fact. If my hon. Friend is looking in any way unenthusiastic about this exchange, I can only put it down to the fact that he is frustrated at being unable to answer the questions himself, to put right his name, and to make it perfectly plain that there is nothing to hide among Ministers or officials.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is rather sad that our dwindling Opposition are reduced to recycling press releases from the lawyers of a company suspected of criminal activity? Does he accept that, despite the further sneering attack on his ethical foreign policy by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), my constituents, who take an interest in foreign policy, are very enthusiastic about the attempt to achieve such a policy? They realise that it will lead to controversy and that it will be difficult, but they honour the Government for trying it, and they recognise that the previous Government pursued an unethical foreign policy.

Mr. Cook: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. Another point that Opposition Members keep refusing to face is that, in many parts of the world, our support for values of human rights, civil liberties and democracy has gained Britain respect. As the Foreign Minister of the Czech Republic put it to me, "If your entire history is about being the victim of foreign policy realpolitik, you respect a Government who are prepared to follow foreign policy on the basis of principle."

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): What was the earliest date at which the planned military intervention in Sierra Leone was known in the Foreign Office, and at what official or ministerial level?

Mr. Cook: Sixth February, and it was known to all those who received the telegrams.

Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow): Is it not clear that Conservative Members' strategy, both now and in recent days, is to draw similarities between this issue and the arms to Iraq affair and, in the process, try to gain sustenance for the impression that all politicians are as bad as they are? Not one proven fact has been advanced today to justify the lurid allegations that the Opposition have made.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, when it comes to arms sales, there will be allegations of this sort from time to time? In terms of good government, it is crucial that there be openness, and that the Government are willing and able to submit to independent scrutiny in order to get at the facts. That is what we are doing, and it is what the Conservative party singularly failed to do on arms to Iraq.

Mr. Cook: There are three main differences between the arms to Iraq affair and this matter. The first is that the arms to Iraq affair began with a policy decision taken by Ministers in secret to relax the guidelines. Secondly, it was followed through by ministerial decisions to authorise licences for the export of the machine tools. Thirdly, that was followed by an elaborate cover-up rather than a release of the facts--which went to the extent of even suppressing documents from a court case.

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There could not be a starker contrast with our conduct of this issue: there has been no policy change, no ministerial approval and no attempt at a cover-up. We are anxious that the public should know the full facts that we know, which are very different from the facts being peddled to the public.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester): Can the Foreign Secretary confirm that he initials all the papers he sees?

Mr. Cook: I can confirm that what happens with all papers I see is that I tick them if they are put there for noting. If they are put there for approval, I write "OK" on them. No papers are returned to my office without writing on them of any character. I have read some really weird and absurd claims in the press in the past two or three days. I do go through my red boxes, I do read what is in my red boxes, and I do tick all those that I have read. That is understood by my officials. I assure the hon. Gentleman that, at no stage, in any of those boxes or files, were there any data on a breach of the arms embargo before 28 April.


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