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Sierra Leone: Foreign Affairs Committee Report

Volume 597: debated on Wednesday 24 February 1999

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7.50 p.m.

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on the Foreign Affairs Committee report on Sierra Leone that has been made in the other place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The Statement is as follows:

"Madam Speaker, with permission, I would like to make a Statement arising from my Parliamentary Answer of yesterday on the report of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee on Sierra Leone. Yesterday I set out the circumstances in which the Foreign Office received a draft of that report.
"In view of the subsequent comments made by a number of honourable Members I want to assure the House that neither the Foreign Office nor Ministers took any action on that draft. We did not in any way seek to interfere with the work of the committee or to offer comments on the draft. Indeed, the record shows that the honourable Member for Dundee West did not table any amendments to the draft. Nor did we publish or disclose any part of the draft to the media or to anyone else. I am therefore confident that neither I nor anyone else at the Foreign Office has committed any impropriety on the basis of the draft or broken any of the rules of procedure. But I shall, of course, accept any future ruling which you or the relevant committees may give on this matter.
"In the meantime, I would remind the House that I gave the Select Committee unprecedented access to Foreign Office internal documents and telegrams. Indeed, its report acknowledges that the access it obtained was a quantum leap in openness with Select Committees. I did not obstruct or impede the work of the committee. I did not interfere with the deliberations of the committee, and I have fully respected the role of scrutiny of both the committee and this Chamber".
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

7.52 p.m.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place. I fear that it may come as no surprise to your Lordships' House to hear the news that there has been yet another twist in this unfortunate catalogue of half-truths, obfuscations, misinformation, ill-kept minutes and disappearing documents that is the Sierra Leone affair. A leaked report and an attempt to undermine the inquiry into Sierra Leone conducted by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee can now be added to that sorry list. This raises grave questions about the extent of government collusion in the matter. I hope that the Minister will be able to answer those questions satisfactorily this evening.

As a result of a Written Question asked by the shadow spokesman for foreign affairs in another place, it came to light yesterday that although the Foreign Affairs Select Committee did not publish its report on Sierra Leone until Tuesday, 9th February the Private Office of the Foreign Secretary received a draft copy of the report in the second week of January. Moreover, around 5th and 6th February his office was made aware of certain key conclusions in the report. Can the Minister now inform the House when the Foreign Secretary first saw the report? The Foreign Secretary has apparently sought to justify his response to the leak by stating that in advance of the publication of the report he made no comment to the media about the report except in response to leaks by others to the press. Does the Minister agree that it is deeply flawed logic on the part of the Foreign Secretary to argue that somehow two wrongs cancel each other out?

In his response to a Written Question on 16th February asking who in the Foreign Office was the first person to have sight of the report, Mr. Lloyd, Minister of State, gave the following reply:
"Copies of the report were collected from the Foreign Affairs Committee office at 0800 on 9 February by the Head of Parliamentary Relations Department and the Parliamentary Clerk".—[Official Report, Commons, 16/2/99; col. WA 751.]
Given that that Written Answer has been shown to be misleading, the question of whether such deception was deliberate must be posed. Can the Minister now confirm whether the Minister of State in another place was aware that the report had been sent to his department in January? If he was not aware of it at that time, when did he first become appraised of it? Further, can the noble Baroness confirm whether the Minister of State approved the Written Answer of 16th February at a time when he was aware of the leak? Given that when in opposition the Foreign Secretary criticised the leak of a Health Select Committee report to the Department of Health, linked it to subsequent changes in the report, described it as extraordinary and a grave situation and sought guidance on whether the matter could be put before the Select Committee on Privileges, does the Minister agree that this is an extremely serious situation? Further, does the noble Baroness agree that should it be discovered that the Minister of State in another place knowingly and deliberately misled Parliament he will have forfeited the confidence of Parliament and that his position as a Minister will no longer be tenable?

As evidenced in the Minister's comprehensive responses to me on many occasions, I have learnt to appreciate that in delicate areas of information flows within the Foreign Office the noble Baroness takes great care to provide well-researched answers. Accordingly, can the Minister inform the House when she herself first had sight of the report? Furthermore, when to her knowledge did her Private Office first have sight of the report, or the draft report, and on what date was it drawn to her attention that the report had been leaked to the Foreign Secretary's Private Office? Can the noble Baroness say why, in her view, the Foreign Secretary did not reveal the leak immediately and inform the chairman of the Select Committee or Madam Speaker?

I believe that there is widespread agreement throughout this House that Select Committees play a vital constitutional role in holding the Executive to account. It is a grave matter indeed when committee members are found to have abused their position. In the light of the damning conclusions reached by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in its report, perhaps the Minister can answer one final question. In her view who should take responsibility for the Sierra Leone affair?

7.57 p.m.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, has referred on a substantial number of occasions to matters in another place. This is a matter for another place. I do not consider that it is a matter of significance for this Chamber.

Perhaps I may address myself not to the substance of the Statement but to the appropriateness of repeating in one day in this Chamber three Statements that have been made in another place, in particular a Statement that is very much concerned with Commons business. Speaking with the support of the Leader and Chief Whip of my group, I believe that it is inappropriate that this Statement should have been repeated. We have just spent two days in this House debating the role of the second Chamber. In the course of a substantial number of speeches noble Lords made reference to the need for a different style and focus, not simply duplication of the business of the House of Commons. Tonight we have in consequence delayed substantially a debate on a timely and important subject. I regret that.

7.59 p.m.

My Lords, I am bound to say to the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, that there is not a great deal that I can add to the Statement made by my right honourable friend. The noble Lord will have the opportunity tomorrow to read in Hansard my right honourable friend's responses to questions put to him in another place today. I am sure that he will do that assiduously.

Perhaps I may deal with some of the points on which I am able to assist the noble Lord a little further. However, I may not be able to go into the full detail that some of the noble Lord's questions require because I do not have the first-hand knowledge so to do. The noble Lord will be aware that the Foreign Secretary has been extraordinarily busy at Rambouillet. The noble Lord may not be aware that my honourable friend Mr. Lloyd is at present in the Great Lakes region to try to secure a ceasefire. I should have thought that that was a rather better use of my honourable friend's time at present than worrying about bits of paper, seriously as we take this issue.

In the second week of January the Foreign Secretary's office received a copy of the draft report. So the answer to that question is the second week of January. Shortly before publication of the report, and at around the same time as leaks critical of FCO officials appeared in the press, the FCO was also made aware of certain key conclusions of the report. I repeat this to the noble Lord. Neither my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary nor any other FCO Minister, official or special adviser took any action to publish or disclose any part of any version of the report or to interfere with the committee's deliberations.

The noble Lord asked me about my own position on this. A copy of the report was delivered to my office about half an hour after the reports were released to the FCO. That is about 8.30 a. m. on 9th February. That was the first time I saw the report in any form. I saw no copy of the report in draft. I saw no part of the report. No one told me that there might be a copy somewhere in the Foreign Office, and no one discussed it with me at any time.

My right honourable friend has complied fully with his obligations to the Foreign Affairs Committee. He did not obstruct or impede the work of the committee. He did not interfere in the deliberations of the committee. He has told another place today that he was guilty of no impropriety, and neither were any other Ministers, and there was no leak to the press from the FCO.

I say this to the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan. I know he has enjoyed going over what has, after all, been a certain amount of government discomfiture over Sierra Leone. I understand that. But it really is time to put this issue to bed. The Legg Report made it clear that Ministers were not to blame for what happened over Sierra Leone, the subject of the Legg Report. The FAC report does not blame Ministers. Others have been the subject of criticisms; those criticisms have been dealt with. It is not right to go on worrying away at these issues with officials, who have already been criticised and the criticisms dealt with. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, will accept that in the friendly spirit in which it is meant.

8.2 p.m.

My Lords, at the risk of receiving strictures from the Liberal Democrat Benches, perhaps I may say that I am pleased that this opportunity has been given to the Minister to make it perfectly clear that she did not see any version of the report prior to the day on which it was released. It is important that she should have been able to make it absolutely clear, and the Statement has given her that opportunity.

I wonder whether the noble Baroness is able to assist me by answering this simple question. Who was the first person in the Foreign Office to have sight of a copy of the report; and when—I do not refer to the time of day—was that copy seen? I define "copy" in the common, normal English parlance of a copy: a first draft; a second draft; and a final copy. I should be grateful if the noble Baroness can help me with an answer to that question.

My Lords, the honest truth is that I do not know who had first sight of the report, which was received in the second week in January. I understand from my right honourable friend's Answer to Questions in another place today that it arrived by fax machine. So I suppose I must say to the noble Lord that it was the person who took it off the fax machine. I do not know who that person was.

I am grateful for what the noble Lord said about my position. I did not know that anyone thought I had seen the draft report. It is nice to know that if he had some cruel suspicions on that point, those have been allayed.

My Lords, I do not know whether an opportunity will arise later, so I hope that the House will forgive my saying this now. Since reference has been made to those responsible for the incompetence and the troubles of Sierra Leone, does the Minister agree that there are over 200 established posts still unfilled; that the Africa department has lost 100 people in the past few years; that the Sierra Leone desk was dealing with 13 countries; and that the officers concerned were working 70 hours a week? That should be noted and remembered.

I hope that the Minister will agree with me that it seems strange that the MPs on the committee do not seem to understand the convention by which civil servants speak under instruction from their Ministers and for their Ministers and are not allowed or expected to express private views. Having read the report, the way in which they were treated was disgraceful. They were bullied; they were harassed; and they were treated as though they were very low creatures indeed. That fact should be put on record.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for a great deal of what she said. Of course there were shortcomings over the Sierra Leone affair. That has been acknowledged widely. But we must not allow those shortcomings to characterise a view of the Foreign Office as a whole. As the noble Baroness said, the overwhelming majority of the people in the Foreign Office work extraordinarily hard. The people who have been the subject of criticism have worked extraordinarily hard. Those are good, honest people—

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. My point was never to suggest shortcomings. On the contrary, it was to suggest an explanation of the difficulties.

My Lords, I had no doubt that that was exactly what the noble Baroness was doing. I sought to reinforce her view by stating vigorously my own.

There are not only the 220-plus posts abroad. An enormous number of people work in the Foreign Office. I knew little about the Foreign Office before I became a Minister. I hope that that is not too shocking an admission to make to your Lordships. However, having worked there for 19 months, I am very proud to be a Foreign Office Minister because I am proud of the staff who work there.

My Lords, as the House will be aware, I have not intervened on this issue at any time since I left office in May 1997. However, can the Minister do something—I am not sure what—to persuade her colleagues that when papers are submitted to them in their boxes they are properly considered? Had that happened, we would not be in this sorry state; and perhaps (although it is not a sequitur) the people of Sierra Leone would not continue to suffer so much.

I learned a lot in 11½ years in that office, in particular about the staff—not only their commitment to their work but also about what makes it run smoothly. That is team work. I hope that the noble Baroness will find a way to put that right.

My Lords, we know a great deal about teamwork in the Foreign Office. As the noble Baroness may know, there has been an extraordinary amount of teamwork. I refer to the open days; the bringing in of young people from outside; and the enthusiasm with which officials throughout the Foreign Office have grasped the Government's agenda has been extraordinarily pleasing to Government. The noble Baroness shakes her head. But the team work we have had from officials has been exemplary. I have had cause often to congratulate them on the way that they have picked up on government initiatives.

It is only fair to remind the noble Baroness that after the former Prime Minister the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, had been in office, both she and Mr. Heseltine spoke of the enormous volume of papers that come into ministerial offices. The fact is that not every single one of those papers is always read. When giving evidence before the Scott Inquiry, the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, talked about a veritable snowstorm of papers. Mr. Heseltine also said that between 500 to 700 pieces of paper were coming into his office at any one time. Of course selections have to be made from those papers of what Ministers can or cannot read. Speaking for myself, I always read my box to the very end. I am conscious that my level of ignorance has to be compensated by the diligence of the officials who brief me. And I am much too frightened not to read to the end every evening.