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Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, my noble friend mentions the two inquiries. As I have made

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clear, the Customs and Excise inquiry will be completed first; and then the inquiry by an independent person from outside the Foreign Office will take place.

The noble Lord asked me to repeat the assurance I gave the House. There was no prior knowledge and no prior approval on the part of any Ministers. I hope it goes without saying that, of course, that includes me.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, is the Minister aware that many of us share the enthusiasm of the Prime Minister in wishing to see democracy restored in Sierra Leone? However, with respect, that does not seem the key point which concerns many Members in this House and in another place. Perhaps I may ask her whether we may return for a moment to what seems to me the crucial constitutional issue of the relationship between senior officials and elected Ministers, without in any way impugning the honour of the noble Baroness, which I would not dream of doing.

There are two questions which I hope the Minister can assure us any inquiry will pursue. The first is whether Ministers authorised the use of Her Majesty's forces to help to maintain and repair equipment, in particular a helicopter belonging to a private group of mercenaries. The second question is whether, when on 12th March the Minister of State in another place let it be known that in his view an article that appeared on this matter in the Sunday Times was "ill informed and scurrilous", he had inquired of the Foreign Office what submissions it had received. That was more than a month after my noble friend Lord Avebury had drawn the attention of the Foreign Office to the serious allegation that Sandline was involved in breaching UN sanctions. Perhaps I may ask for the Minister's assurance that those two matters will be dealt with in detail and with great care by the public inquiry when it has been established.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I can give the noble Baroness the assurance she requires about the relationship as regards the chain of information between senior officials and elected Ministers. Of course it is of the utmost importance that there is confidence between Ministers and officials over sensitive issues. I can assure the whole House that Ministers, and indeed senior officials, will be co-operating with the investigation by the person from outside the Foreign Office; and that Ministers, and I am sure I speak for senior officials in this respect as well, will be keen to see exactly how all the pieces of this important jigsaw (if I may put it that way without seeming in any way not to take the matter seriously) fit together. That is why my right honourable friend took the initiative in saying that we need a Foreign Office investigation on this matter as well. My right honourable friend is to be congratulated on taking the initiative on that in the way that he did.

Lord Tordoff: My Lords, during the period of these investigations, life is going on in Sierra Leone. Before the coup, there were a number of initiatives to try to improve the level of governance in that unhappy state. May we have an assurance that the Foreign Office will

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not be totally distracted by what is going on from doing the job that it ought to be doing; namely, trying to strengthen democratic government in Sierra Leone for the future?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: Yes, my Lords, I can give the noble Lord that assurance. Of course, there is much more going on in the Foreign Office at present than simply the preparation for this very important investigation and dealing with the Customs and Excise investigation. The noble Lord is quite right. The normal business of the Foreign Office must continue. That includes dealing with the problems referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, which are still evident in Sierra Leone.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford: My Lords, perhaps I may apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff. I had mistakenly assumed that we were all Cross-Benchers! My humble apologies.

Will my noble friend give the House an absolute assurance that if, following the inquiry being carried out by Customs and Excise, criminal proceedings were to take place, unlike the previous Conservative Government--who shame-facedly sought to use public interest certificates to protect Ministers in that government from public scrutiny in regard to any role they may have played in the Matrix Churchill fiasco--our Government will not, in any circumstances, in any proceedings, resort to the use of public interest certificates?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: Yes, my Lords, I can give my noble friend that assurance.

Baroness Young: My Lords, perhaps I may take the noble Baroness back to her answer. I am sure that she speaks with all honesty when she says that no Minister knew what was happening. I speak as someone who has been a Minister. I find it extraordinary, following upon the letter from the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and press reports, that no Minister was involved. I recognise, and hear, that the noble Baroness does not have responsibility for Africa and I should not have expected her personally to be the first to be informed about anything that was going on. I should, however, have expected her colleague, Mr. Tony Lloyd, whose responsibility it is, to know. There are those among us who find it quite extraordinary that Ministers did not know. How can that be the case? Is it believed that there has been some kind of extraordinary conspiracy on the part of civil servants, including our own High Commissioner in Sierra Leone, who is a most respected man, to keep Ministers in the dark over this affair? Can the noble Baroness shed any light on the point about whether or not there really was some document in a Minister's Box that was possibly not seen?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I repeat what I said in my Answer: there was no such prior knowledge or approval. The noble Baroness asks detailed questions about the possibility of a conspiracy, and how it could possibly have happened that there were

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no details, prior knowledge or approval. Those questions are entirely right and proper. I applaud the noble Baroness and others for asking them. It is precisely those questions that we hope will be answered by the Foreign Office investigation. It will be carried out by an independent person with no conflict of interest. That person will examine all the paperwork with the full co-operation, not only of Ministers, but also of officials in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Lord Janner of Braunstone: My Lords, surely this House should welcome the Minister's Answer, repeating as it does the Government's firm promise to seek to find and report the full facts. Does my noble friend agree that that is precisely what the previous government did not promise to do, did not do, and should have done in the "arms-to-Iraq" affair?

Earl Russell: My Lords, on 10th March, when the Minister answered a question from my noble friend Lord Avebury on the Observer article, she said:

    "That article was in several respects not entirely accurate, or at least not on all fours with the reports that Her Majesty's Government are receiving".--[Official Report, 10/3/98; col. 101.]

The Minister will hear in those words an element of honest doubt. Can she tell the House what accounted for that doubt?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I answered your Lordships as I always do, as honestly and accurately as I could within the terms of the briefing that I had at the time. I can say no more than that, except that, if my remarks are shown to have been inaccurate, although made in good faith, I shall of course correct them.

Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, when does the noble Baroness expect to receive some indication from Customs and Excise as to when its investigation will be completed?

Lord Richard: My Lords, we have been discussing this matter for 28 minutes. The House may feel that these proceedings have gone on long enough. I say that merely because there is no standing order that governs the time allowed for Private Notice Questions. Under those circumstances, I hope that the House will feel that the correct way of dealing with the matter is for the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, to wind up for the Official Opposition, and then perhaps the House should move to other matters.

Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, with great respect, may I have an answer to the question that I have already put?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, we very much hope that the Customs and Excise department will be able to complete its investigations as quickly as possible. At that point, my right honourable friend will wish to make it clear who is to lead the Foreign Office investigation into these matters, and exactly what are the terms of reference for that investigation. I am sure that

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at that point noble Lords will wish to ask further questions. I shall, as always, be delighted to answer your Lordships.

Lord Moynihan: My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for her answers. Inside this House--like, I am sure, those outside--we remain astonished that Ministers in the Government--not merely in the FCO, as we have learnt this afternoon--had no knowledge of the affair. They clearly should have.

Finally, does the Minister agree with those of her colleagues in the "arms-to-Africa" affair who believe and have said that they were quite right to do it?

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