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Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Randall for so kindly referring to my service to the fund over the years. While it is not for the Government alone to decide the question, does the Minister agree that the problems of many of the fund's pensioner members multiply in their retirement years and that some representation for them among the trustees would be in the best interests of the fund as a whole, not least of present MPs who are its pensioners of the future?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, my noble friend's long service to the fund has been well commented on by my noble friend Lord Randall. My noble friend Lord Morris is right that current thinking is that pensioners should be represented and the recommendation of Professor Goode is being considered by the President of the Council. I cannot say what the Government's attitude will be, but I should say to my noble friend that any change in the constitution of the pension fund must be ratified through the negative resolution procedure of both Houses.
Lord Higgins: My Lords, I must declare an interest as chairman of a company pension fund group of trustees and also as a member of the parliamentary scheme. I endorse what has been said about the splendid work done over many years by the noble Lord, Lord Morris. The implications of the Question seem to be that trustees who are pensioners would somehow represent pensioners' interests. Does the Minister agree that it is important that all trustees should, when appointed, represent all interests involved? Having said that, I express the hope that the base on which the parliamentary scheme exists would benefit from being widened in the way suggested.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I have a great deal of sympathy for what the noble Lord says. As one who set up and ran a pension fund for 30 years outside politics, I agree that there should be pensioner
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, in this case the managing trustees are appointed by the House of Commons as a whole. If the pension fund were to apply to this House, I presume that the position would be hereditary.
Lord Rowallan: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I must declare an interest as a council tax payer in East Ayrshire. The North Lanarkshire shortfall of £4.8 million on its direct labour organisation and East Ayrshire's shortfall of £3 million for the second year running must mean that services for the council tax payers of those councils must be hard hit. Can the Minister assure me that the guilty councillors and/or officials responsible for the shortfall will pay for it rather than the council tax payers?
Lord Sewel: My Lords, at the moment it is clear that we are dealing with a case of incompetence rather than a case of corruption. An uncontrolled and unplanned deficit may well fall, at least in part, on the council tax payers. In the present circumstances, any local authority has a duty to cut non-essential expenditure immediately and to the bone. Perhaps those two authorities could take account of that and look at travel and entertainment expenditure. I should make it clear that there is no question of additional government grant.
Lord Sewel: My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State served formal notice on the two councils last week. They are required to provide certain information and have three weeks to do so. The Secretary of State can then direct them and use his power to require re-tendering or even the winding-up of the DLO.
Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the action taken by our right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland stands in sharp contrast with the lack of action from the Conservative Government in relation to Westminster council? Comments on matters in North Lanarkshire and East Ayrshire would have more credibility if the Conservative Party had got round to dealing with the sleaze in Westminster council.
Lord Sewel: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for those accurate comments. In all seriousness, what happened in North Lanarkshire and East Ayrshire was unacceptable. In those circumstances, the real question is what we do as a government. We acted, and acted decisively.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I begin by congratulating the Minister on succeeding in gaining a place on his party's list as a candidate for the Scottish parliament. Is he aware that it must be a singular achievement for a Member of this place to pass what some people describe as the "Politburo" set up to vet candidates? Does the Minister have some regrets about the number of Labour local councillors who are sharing his position in the list, given the disrepute into which so many Labour councillors have brought Scottish local government? While the noble Lord, Lord Hogg, can name one council, what does the Minister have to say about Monklands--changed into North Lanarkshire to make it sound better--Paisley or Renfrew, where one MP committed suicide, another had to obtain police protection and a third has been suspended by his party for ages? The police had to go into that council 20 times and a senior policeman said, "If it had been a public house, we would have closed it down." We have the problems too of East Ayrshire and East Dunbartonshire. Words from the Government are fine. But action is necessary to protect local council tax payers and services to the public.
Lord Sewel: My Lords, my right honourable friend acted clearly, firmly and decisively. As a former leader of my own council, a former president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and as a former member of the Accounts Commission in Scotland, I take seriously any improper action in local government, no matter which party or individuals are involved. I am also aware, as indeed is that other product of local government, the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, of the great work so many councillors do for their communities. That should be recognised.
Perhaps I can begin by reminding the House of the single most important fact; that is, that once again there is in place in Sierra Leone a democractically elected government. The illegal rule of an undemocratic military regime has been ended. We on this side of the House welcome that. I hope that the whole House does too.
But, with the honourable exception of the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, who I believe has tried to focus on the real issues, the Shadow Foreign Secretary and his team prefer to concentrate more on pieces of paper in London than on policy and real events, like today's summit in Cardiff.
On the issues which have been raised, let me make clear once again that the Government do not and did not support any breach of a United Nations embargo. Ministers had no prior knowledge or approval of arms sales to Sierra Leone.
Let us be clear about what the Government have done. The Government referred the issue to HM Customs and Excise for investigation. Customs investigated and concluded that there are no grounds for further action. With that investigation completed, the Government immediately established an inquiry, chaired by Sir Thomas Legg, into the handling of the matter within Whitehall. That inquiry is carrying out its work. Sir Thomas Legg is considering all the evidence. He will report on the whole issue. His report will be published. It will be the best means for the full facts to be established.
It would be wrong for me to enter into detailed discussions on the questions being examined by Sir Thomas Legg. I have no intention of pre-empting his findings. But, following press allegations, I believe it is appropriate for me to address the issue of my replies in this House on 10th March to a Starred Question from the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and on 11th May as to when I first became aware of Sandline's involvement in Sierra Leone.
On 10th March I was asked about this article. The article did not refer to arms shipments or the breaking of UN sanctions. I said that the article was not entirely accurate or at least not on all fours with reports to Her Majesty's Government. That was entirely right. My answer was based on a speaking note prepared by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office which said that the High Commissioner had confirmed that allegations made in the article were wrong. I therefore did not mislead the House on that occasion either. I am sure that Sir Thomas Legg will want to look very carefully at this issue. All my briefing material has been made available to him.
The briefing for 10th March covered all aspects of the situation in Sierra Leone in preparation for the Question from the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asking what steps Her Majesty's Government were taking to help restore lasting peace in Sierra Leone. As the Foreign Affairs Committee was told on 14th May, there was information contained in the background documentation about the allegation of arms supplies being referred to the appropriate authorities. But the clear focus was on what was happening in Sierra Leone; and rightly so.
I did not on 10th March announce a Customs investigation. I was not briefed to do so; and quite right. It would have been highly prejudicial and quite wrong to make the referral public at that stage. To do so would have alerted those who were potentially under investigation and would have been unfair to them if the allegations were subsequently found to be groundless. The notion that I or others in the FCO deliberately concealed these things to protect ourselves is particularly absurd given that it was the FCO itself that passed the accusations to Customs and Excise, which led to their investigation.
Moreover, the overwhelming issue at the time was the fighting in Sierra Leone and the welcome return of President Kabbah to Freetown on the very day I was speaking. Officials were helping to direct efforts to relieve a serious humanitarian situation on the ground. They were co-ordinating the return of our High Commissioner. They were closely involved as presidency of the EU and in action in the UN Security Council in framing the wider international response to the unfolding situation in Sierra Leone. My briefing correctly focused on these major developments, particularly as I was not involved in the policy-making chain on these issues.
Of course I did not deliberately mislead this House. I have made it clear now and in what I said on 10th March and 11th May that I did not do so inadvertently either. I reiterate what I said to the House on 11th May. If any of my remarks, today or at any other time, are found to be inaccurate, I will correct them. I trust that Members on the other side, in this House or in another place, will be ready to correct their ill-founded allegations.
Let me return to the point that I made at the beginning. The minutiae that I have been forced to dwell on today have no bearing on the actual events in Sierra Leone, before or since. The situation in Sierra Leone remains serious, with atrocities by the rebels continuing. People would do better to focus on that or on some of the other grave foreign policy questions we are faced with rather than on this kind of specious nonsense.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, we are most grateful to the noble Baroness for the comprehensive explanation that she has given and for the fact that she has gone much wider than the terms of the Question. Perhaps I may say how much we agree with her that it is not the minutiae we are concerned with but the wider issues of what will happen in Sierra Leone following the restoration of the democratic government and the other serious issues that arise out of the Customs and Excise investigation which have not yet been dealt with.
What are the special circumstances in which Customs and Excise decided not to bring proceedings against Sandline and Mr. Spicer, notwithstanding the fact that a clear breach of Security Council Resolution 1132 had been committed? Since the noble Baroness has widened the Answer, perhaps she can deal with that question now. Does she agree with me that even if the right result has been achieved in the end--that is to say, the restoration of democratic government under President Kabbah--if it has been achieved by unlawful means, in particular by a breach of a Security Council resolution, which is a serious matter as the Foreign Secretary has said, that provides an extraordinarily harmful example for dealing with future cases of this kind?
Does she further agree that a serious question arises about how we treat the so-called military consultants who were involved in this case? Is she aware that the South Africans have legislated to regulate the activities of companies such as these? Would we not do well to follow that example and even to bring forward an amendment to the United Nations Convention on Mercenaries so that the regulation would be of a universal character instead of being confined to one country?
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