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Lord Whitty: My Lords, before we move to the Statements on the Legg Inquiry and the Immigration and Asylum White Paper, I should like to take this opportunity to remind the House that the Companion indicates that discussion on a Statement should be confined to brief comments and questions for clarification. Peers who speak at length do so at the expense of other noble Lords.

The Legg Inquiry

5.18 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on the Legg Report, which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

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'neither encouraged nor approved the Sandline contract'. The report concludes that,

'at no time did they advocate or authorise actions in breach of the law'.

    "They find no fault with the conduct of the military liaison officers. In the matter of the much publicised repair to the Sandline helicopter by the crew of 'HMS Cornwall', the report finds that their action,

'was not improper and was sensible in the circumstances', in that,

'it helped 'HMS Cornwall' to carry out its humanitarian mission'.

    "The briefings that Ministers received for the debates on 10th and 12th March were 'deficient' and did not provide them with the briefing that they should have received on the referral of the allegations of a breach of the arms embargo.

    "In sum, Madam Speaker, after an exhaustive trawl of the files and over 60 hearings of witnesses, the Legg Inquiry has concluded that there was no policy by Ministers to breach the arms embargo, and equally there was no conspiracy among officials to undermine Government policy.

    "There were though, as the Legg Report finds, a number of misjudgments by officials, largely due to over-load. I have therefore asked the Permanent Secretary to interview each of the relevant officials and to counsel them on the basis of the findings concerning them in the report. The Legg Report notes that,

'the officials concerned were working hard and conscientiously and should not be judged too harshly'. I therefore see no case for any further action.

    "Mr. Penfold, the High Commissioner to Sierra Leone, showed great courage and a commitment to staying at his post during the military coup of last year. As a result of his consistent support to President Kabbah, he has won high standing for Britain in the country where he represents us. However, the Legg Report details a number of criticisms of Mr. Penfold. Mr. Penfold should have taken steps to inform himself more fully about the scope of the arms embargo. He showed a lack of caution in his dealings

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    with Colonel Spicer and to this extent gave Sandline a degree of approval for which he had no authority. He should have made more efforts to ensure the African Department had a proper record of his conversations with President Kabbah and Colonel Spicer. I have asked the Permanent Secretary to write to him drawing his attention to the relevant findings of the Legg Report, but in the circumstances I do not think it would be justified or in the diplomatic interest to take any further proceedings.

    "Sir Thomas Legg and Sir Robin Ibbs state that they hope the report will help the Foreign Office to close the chapter for officials. I agree with them. There will be no scapegoats, and this should be the end of the matter as far as individual officials are concerned. However, for the Foreign Office as an institution, the Legg Report must provide the opening of a new chapter.

    "As Foreign Secretary, I am responsible for the department and I am determined that we should find out why mistakes were made and to make sure they cannot happen again. The Legg Report concludes that most of the trouble originated from systemic and cultural factors. I am therefore today announcing a sweeping programme of changes to address those institutional problems.

    "During the period covered by the inquiry, from October of last year, the managerial structures of the Foreign Office remained exactly as we inherited them in May of last year. The departmental hierarchies were the same. The working practices were the same. The procedures for the handling of intelligence were the same. The time has come to change them.

    "The final chapter of the Legg Report helpfully details the lessons which must be applied in the future management of the Foreign Office. I am pleased to tell the House that we accept every one of the recommendations in the report.

    "The Legg Report finds that there was not 'a sufficiently high priority' for the enforcement of sanctions. There was a dedicated sanctions enforcement desk in the Foreign Office, but the previous government abolished it in 1996. I can tell the House that I have instructed that such a central unit shall be restored. It will be led by an official whose sole function is to make sure that the enforcement of sanctions receives the full priority that it deserves.

    "The Legg Report expresses concern at the handling of defence intelligence reports when they arrive in the Foreign Office. It is not acceptable that one such report should have been destroyed before being seen by the relevant official. I have therefore strengthened the procedures to ensure that all such reports are properly logged and that there are clear instructions for their distribution.

    "The Legg Report concludes that there should be,

'more explicit guidance on how to manage relations'

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with private military companies. I have issued guidance that there should be no Foreign Office contact with private military firms without permission, and that where such meetings do take place they should be recorded in a full, written report.

    "The Legg Report found that,

'the demands on some Foreign Office officials meant that they had to work at or beyond the limits of their capacity', and that,

'this was a contributory cause of what went wrong'.

    "Over the last Parliament, my two predecessors at the Foreign Office accepted cuts in their budget of 14 per cent. During the period in office of the previous Prime Minister the number of staff of desk officer grade in London fell by a quarter. Honourable Members opposite have become fond of describing the Foreign Office as a Rolls Royce. It is a pity that they tried to run it on two-star petrol.

    "Only one decade ago, there were 430 staff in the African Command. Now there are 328--a loss of a hundred posts. This sharp reduction of staff at the time of an increase in crises in Africa was part of the reason why mistakes were made by staff under impossible pressure.

    "The recent spending review provides the first real increase in the Foreign Office budget for half a dozen years. I have given instructions that part of that increase must be used to strengthen the number of staff in the hard pressed desks dealing with West Africa and Sierra Leone.

    "The last lesson of the Legg Report is that there is room for improvement in modern management at the Foreign Office and for fewer layers in the hierarchy. The Foreign Office attracts many of the brightest and most energetic recruits in Whitehall. They deserve a management structure that makes full use of their energy and which enables them to rise fast on merit.

    "I can announce today that we have agreed on a programme of 60 different measures to improve the management and effectiveness of the Foreign Office. We will recruit professional managers to specialist posts such as administration, personnel and resources to bring to the Foreign Office modern management methods. We will increase temporary exchanges to and from the private sector, NGOs and the academic world, to bring the Foreign Office up-to-date with working practices and policy thinking in the outside world. We will introduce assessment centres to evaluate staff performance to make sure that promotion to senior management is made on merit. We will reduce the hierarchy in the Foreign Office to enable officials to take more responsibility sooner. And we will improve the gender and ethnic balance throughout the Foreign Office so that it can be representative of all the strengths of modern Britain.

    "In developing this programme, we have drawn on proposals for change from younger officials. I want them also, not just senior management, to have ownership of this project. I will therefore invite a number of younger officials to form a working group to monitor progress and to come up with fresh ideas.

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    "Madam Speaker, I have addressed those parts of the Legg Report which demolish the fantasy of a Ministerial or official conspiracy to breach an arms embargo. Before concluding, I want to address the reality of what has happened in Sierra Leone.

    "Britain was first on the scene with humanitarian aid after the restoration of President Kabbah. Since the last debate in the House we have provided police officers to help train a new civilian police force. We have sponsored the UN resolution providing for military observers to help the process of demilitarisation, and we have provided staff to be those military observers. We are providing aid to fund the process of civil reconstruction and military demobilisation. Britain is to date the only donor to the UN Trust Fund for Sierra Leone. On Wednesday the Minister of State of the Foreign Office will be attending a donors' conference in New York and will be urging others in the international community to join us in helping fund democracy and stability in Sierra Leone.

    "I have been challenged to produce the report from my honourable friend the Minister of State after his visit to Sierra Leone in March. I have no difficulty in sharing with the House his key conclusion:

    'It would be hard to find anywhere on the planet at the moment where there is more enthusiasm for Britain. Our moral, financial and practical support really is welcomed and appreciated.' That is the reality of Britain's standing in Sierra Leone among the people who know at first hand the truth about our dealings with their country.

    "Madam Speaker, I welcome the findings of the Legg Inquiry, that there was no policy of Ministers to breach the arms embargo, and no conspiracy among officials to do so. I will implement all of its recommendations, which will help give Britain a modern Foreign Office.

    "Now that it is published, it is time that the right honourable Member opposite started to recognise the immense good will for Britain we have secured within Sierra Leone and tried to understand that represents a success, not a failure of our foreign policy."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

5.31 p.m.

Lord Moynihan: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement. On a day when a Government reshuffle focuses on ministerial responsibilities, this report paints a deeply worrying picture of turmoil, failures and misjudgments in one of the great departments of state.

I appreciate that the Minister is repeating a Statement made in another place which significantly concentrates on future restructuring of the Foreign Office--an important issue of course--but tangential to the process of apportioning accountability which the Legg Inquiry was set up to address.

The report describes a Foreign Office in shambles. We already knew that Ministers contradicted each other and themselves, that officials contradicted Ministers and

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themselves and that telegrams were lost and faxes destroyed. But the detailed evidence in this report is almost beyond belief.

Letters from the High Commissioner go missing; reports from the military liaison officer in Sierra Leone are destroyed, officials are asked to attend meetings to take a note because officials should be on their guard but no note is in fact taken during the meeting itself.

In all, the report contains no fewer than 30 specific criticisms of the Foreign Office. It attributes these failures to what it describes as "systemic and cultural factors." I regret to say that we do not have to look far to identify the source of these factors. In a television programme entitled "How To Be Foreign Secretary", the Foreign Secretary made the following comment:

    "I have found that you can be a successful Foreign Secretary if you focus on the big questions and not necessarily finish the paperwork".

Due to the low morale which has increasingly pervaded the Foreign Office during the last 12 months, does the Minister not agree that civil servants have little incentive to pay their characteristic attention to detail on the paperwork when they are told so publicly that it is not going to be read? Indeed, would the Minister not agree that this has contributed to the low level of morale in the Foreign Office?

As the Minister will be aware, I only received the report when it was published earlier this afternoon. However, on first reading there would appear to be inconsistencies between the report and the Minister's Statement to the House on 15th June. The report concludes that:

    "Baroness Symons could not be expected to understand from the briefing that Lord Avebury had sent allegations which had been referred to Customs. She has told us that she did not in fact understand it and we accept this".

Yet, on a previous page the report states:

    "Lord Avebury's allegations have been referred to the appropriate authorities for them to investigate whether any offence has been committed".

That was a sentence which was actually in the briefing for the Minister. Furthermore, the noble Baroness on 15th June informed this House:

    "In my briefing for 10th March there were references to allegations of illegal arms shipments being referred to the appropriate authority. I was, rightly, not briefed to reveal that referral for the very obvious reasons I have given".--[Official Report, 15/6/98; col. 1291.]

I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify those contradictory statements.

Further, turning to the report, there are two significant issues I wish to raise. First, the report, which is not exhaustive, does not comment explicitly on the protestations of the Minister of State for Africa and of the Foreign Secretary on his behalf, that he saw papers "merely for noting" in mid-April and was not fully informed of the allegations made by Sandline until 1st May. But it is not crystal clear from paragraphs 9.50 to 9.56 of the report that the Minister of State knew all the essentials of those allegations in mid-April, considered them in detail and did nothing.

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The Foreign Secretary told the House that these papers gave rise to "no grounds for apprehension or concern". However, the report describes these allegations in the same papers as "sensitive and potentially troublesome".

Given the complete inconsistency between the account of events in this report and the account given to the House of Commons and its Select Committee by the Foreign Secretary and the Minister of State, does the Minister now accept that the Foreign Secretary's earlier account was completely inaccurate?

Second, and most damning of all, the report explains very clearly what in essence went wrong and why. The report concludes that the Foreign Office should have explained both the arms embargo imposed by the United Nations resolution and the Order in Council more widely and effectively. As the report says, the failure to do so created a hazard for all affected. The nature of the hazard is clear; it is that British citizens might commit a criminal offence under the Order in Council and risk imprisonment for seven years in consequence.

The cause of the failure to explain the arms embargo more effectively is equally clear. Devastatingly, the report concludes that although the British framers of the United Nations resolution which imposed the arms embargo on Sierra Leone intended that embargo to be "comprehensive in its coverage" and had no doubt that it was, British officials and Ministers played down that aspect of the embargo--not accidentally, but deliberately. The reason, at least in part, was because they knew that there were those on the ground in West Africa who, in the words of the report, "explicitly contemplated the use of force".

Can the Minister therefore explain why, in the FCO press release, the communique of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting and in the Adjournment Debate on Sierra Leone of 12th March the Minister of State, Mr. Lloyd, repeatedly, deliberately and unequivocally sought to give the impression that UNSCR 1132, that is the comprehensive arms embargo, imposed sanctions only on the military junta in Sierra Leone when he knew full well that the arms embargo was comprehensive in its coverage, intending no exceptions, including President Kabbah and ECOMOG?

Given that the report says that:

    "Government has a responsibility to give citizens, and its own officials, reasonable publicity and explanation of the laws it makes under delegated powers, especially laws creating criminal ... offences. That was not done in this case"·

On that most telling point, does the Minister believe that Ministers should take responsibility for that key issue which goes to the heart of the affair?

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