Select Committee on Standards and Privileges Eighth Report

Reply to the Chairman of the Committee on Standards and Privileges from the Rt Hon Robin Cook MP

Thank you for your letter of 10 March about the Foreign Affairs Committee's report on Sierra Leone.

In the second week of January, my office received a copy of the draft report. The report was seen by John Grant (Private Secretary), Andrew Hood (Special Adviser), Kim Darroch, John Williams and Chris Sainty (News Department). Mr Lloyd received a separate copy of the draft report. He did not show it to or discuss it with anyone.

John Williams and Andrew Hood discussed the report with me on 1 February. I had already decided, after my evidence session to the Committee last year, that I would make clear publicly my support for officials and my wish to look forward, not back. Receipt and discussion of the report did not alter our expectations and plans for responding to the report.

John Williams showed the report to the Permanent Under-Secretary on 1 February. I saw the Permanent Under-Secretary on 2 February and told him that I intended to defend publicly officials against unfair criticism.

2.  No-one in the FCO saw the final report until it was released at 8.00 am on the day of publication. On the day before publication the Chair of the FAC gave a full briefing to Andy Henderson, the Head of the FCO Parliamentary Relations Department, making clear that the bulk of the Report's criticism would be aimed at senior officials. Mr Henderson minuted that exchange to officials within the FCO. It has been drawn to my attention in preparing answers to your questions. On the preceding Thursday Mr Ross had told Andrew Hood, my Special Adviser, that the final report had become considerably more hostile to officials.

3.  No use was made of either the draft or the additional information from Mr Anderson or Mr Ross in briefing the media, nor did the terms of the report give us any reason to do so. Indeed the only contact we had with the media regarding the report in advance of its publication was as a result of reports in The Independent and The Times who had received a leak of the conclusions of the report from a perspective hostile to the Foreign Office.

4.  No.

5.  No-one at the FCO had any contact with Mr Ross between receipt of the draft and completion of the final report. Mr Hood had the conversation with Mr Ross referred to above after the report had been finalised.

6.  No, and no amendments were tabled by Mr Ross. Nor were any amendments discussed with any other Member of the Committee.

7.  Yes. The draft was sent by fax and contained his name. Mr Lloyd's copy was sent to him in the House of Commons in a plain envelope and did not bear Mr Ross' name.

You invite me to offer any further information that may be of assistance to the Committee. I would offer the following points.

At no stage did I or anyone acting on my behalf seek to influence or to interfere with the preparation of the report. We neither lobbied members of the FAC nor proposed amendments. Madam Speaker has ruled that the fundamental responsibility of Members who find themselves in possession of leaked Committee papers must be to act in a way which does not impede the Committee in the discharge of its responsibilities to the House. We have done nothing which could have impeded or obstructed the independence of the FAC. The text actually became considerably more hostile to the FCO between the draft and the final report.

Nor did we do anything that might result in premature public disclosure of the report. It is surprising that the FAC should have pursued the release to the FCO of the report, which did not result in public disclosure, but has not pursued the leaks to The Independent and The Times (attached[30]) which did result in premature public disclosure. This is all the more surprising as, when he briefed Mr Henderson on 8 February, Mr Anderson regretted that Members of the Committee were briefing the press. The article in The Independent concludes with what appears to be a quote from a Committee Member.

Existing rules of procedure do not make private knowledge by an MP of the proceedings of a Select Committee a contempt. Any Member of the House is entitled to be present at the sittings of committees, including deliberations of the Committee. It would not be logical for private knowledge by a member of what happened at meetings at which he or she had right of attendance to constitute a contempt or even premature disclosure. Action to influence the Committee or to make public prematurely its work would be a contempt, but there was none in this case.

I stand ready to provide any further information which may be of assistance to the Committee. In the meantime I can provide the assurance you seek that I have discussed neither the questions nor the answers with Mr Ross.

17 March 1999

30  Articles from The Independent on 5 February 1999 and The Times on 6 February 1999 not printed. Back

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