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Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I also thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place. In particular, I welcome some of the proposals for changes in the Foreign Office which may go some way towards avoiding a similar occurrence in future. In particular, we welcome the proposals for additional staff for the Foreign Office and the steps taken, for example, to ensure that contact with private military groups will be subject to much closer controls than they have been in the past.
I must say that in the instance of this report, anyone reading the Legg Report would be driven to the conclusion that, if it is not a conspiracy--and I believe it is not--it is a fairly monstrous cock-up. As one who has spent many years in politics, my usual interpretation of matters which the press see as a conspiracy is that they are not a conspiracy but a terrible mess. In the Sandline case a terrible mess is what we are looking at.
As the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, said, it is not only that there was confusion between the inadequate briefing offered to Ministers by officials in the Foreign Office--and the Legg Report gives one instance after another--but of particular relevance to this House, the briefing for our own Minister was confusing. My noble friend Lord Avebury asked a Question on 10th March, and he had already, on two occasions, written to the Foreign Office drawing attention to his information and sources which suggested that Sandline was involved in the provision of miliary advice and arms to Sierra Leone. Moreover, my noble friend had indicated the line of his questioning. Nevertheless, the Minister in this House, the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, was clearly not given adequate information on which to base her replies.
The Prime Minister has indicated that the important issue is what happened to Sierra Leone. However, this debate is not about what happened to Sierra Leone. I am sure we all welcome the return of that country to civil rule. The central issue--and it remains the central issue--is the accountability of officials and Ministers and the accountability of Ministers to the Houses of Parliament. It is on both those questions that the Legg Report raises disturbing issues which are properly open to question and debate and should not be dismissed on the grounds that the outcome for the countries concerned was one which we might all willingly accept.
I mentioned that there was profound confusion in the Foreign Office. However, I am particularly troubled by two critical issues which affected the whole question of Sandline's involvement with Sierra Leone: first, as the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, pointed out, the question of the legal purport of the Order in Council; and, secondly, the question of the legal purport of embargoes and sanctions by the United Nations. It must be said that the Foreign Office seems to have treated both issues with extraordinary lightness.
The Order in Council, which is an order in domestic law, presented a particular problem because it was framed more narrowly than United Nations Security Council Resolution No. 1132. On these Benches, we compared quite carefully the Order in Council with the UN resolution and concluded that it was much more tightly framed. It was not subject to differences of interpretation. It made it absolutely plain that the provision of arms to any faction in Sierra Leone, whether they were Children of Light or Children of Darkness, was equally ruled out in the terms of the Order in Council. That never seems to have been made plain to Ministers at the Foreign Office, including the Foreign Secretary himself.
It is fairly plain, probably because of the extreme pressure on them, that Ministers did not have a great deal of discussion among themselves. The noble Baroness knew by 10th March, because of the nature of my noble friend's Question and the briefing for it, that there had been some question about the possibility of a Customs investigation. She was not given clear briefing as to what the effect of that was. Nevertheless, I should have thought that the Customs authorities would have made it plain that they were proceeding with the inquiry. It would then have been a matter for Foreign Office officials to recognise the significance of that and so inform their Ministers.
The Ministry of Defence had a whole series of briefings--and I commend the miliary liaison officer--one of which was lost and one of which was destroyed at the Foreign Office. It might have been possible to maintain information for Ministers had there been a closer relationship between the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office on those issues.
Finally, I am troubled, as was the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, by the fact that the Minister of State in another place indicated specifically that in his view it was perfectly proper to make available arms to Sierra Leone because it was not in conflict with the United Nations resolution, when it was clearly in conflict with the Order in Council. It is important to try to throw more light on the way in which he could make such a statement, which was not substantiated by any clear and unquestionable information.
Therefore, I ask three questions of the Minister. First, is she now satisfied that in future the Foreign Office will ensure that any Orders in Council which have weight in domestic law will be drawn up in the closest possible proximity to whatever is stated in the United Nations resolution and that any Orders in Council will be made plain and circulated to Ministers with a note of their significance?
Secondly, can she say whether she is satisfied that inter-departmental relationships, which in this case affected the Department of Trade and Industry, the Ministry of Defence and her own department, are now sufficiently close so that all Ministers can be sure that they are informing one another of matters which may significantly affect the policies on which they must decide.
Thirdly and finally, is she satisfied that the new staffing of the Foreign Office will go a long way towards ensuring that such a muddle does not occur again? However, on these Benches we certainly acquit
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I thank noble Lords in varying degrees for their responses. In particular, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, for her closing remarks when she said that she acquitted Ministers of misleading either House. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, adopted the tone he did as regards Ministers misleading the House. I assure him that I do not believe that I have at any time, certainly not knowingly and I believe never unknowingly, misled the House on this issue. I understand that my right honourable friend and my honourable friend have said similar things in another place.
The noble Lord seems to feel that I had perhaps tried to bat this to one side, or that my right honourable friend had done so, when talking about future restructuring. I should like to return to the points on the latter in the way that the noble Baroness indicated was important. I heard the noble Lord's right honourable friend Mr. Howard make various allegations this morning on a radio programme regarding the reading of papers, and the fact that officials in these circumstances could not expect Ministers to read papers. I am sure that the noble Lord knows that Ministers really cannot read every single piece of paper that comes into their private offices. Indeed, if they did, they would not have time to do anything else. It is the job of those private offices to filter the papers which come through to them.
My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has said that he reads all documents submitted to him and that he expects the same of his Ministers. I give an assurance to the noble Lord that I, for one, do read all documents submitted to me. I can assure him that I am much too frightened to do anything else. However, I expect the noble Lord will remember that when his right honourable friend--now the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher--gave evidence before the Scott Inquiry, she talked about "a veritable snowstorm of paper". I believe that that illustrates the point that I seek to make; namely, that it is not possible for Ministers to read everything that comes into their private offices. Therefore, I do not believe that there is an incentive for Foreign Office officials not to brief Ministers properly. Foreign Office officials have worked very hard in the most difficult circumstances to brief Ministers on these points.
The noble Lord raised what he said were inconsistencies as regards what I said previously and what the Legg Report says. I am sure that the noble Lord did not in any sense mean to mislead the House because it is difficult when dealing with short Statements, but he did not quote the full report as regards my briefing. Indeed, it is dealt with most fully in the Legg Report. The point is made that the briefing was incomplete, indigestible and inaccurate in places. Indeed, in places, the briefing was actually almost contradictory. I do not believe that anything that I have said to the House has been inconsistent. I believe that
I know that my right honourable friend and my honourable friend Mr. Lloyd have made similar statements, but that is not to seek in any way to detract from the fact that the briefing to Ministers was very far from perfect. Indeed, the Legg Report makes that clear. It is not my view that we should use this as an opportunity, so to speak, to scapegoat those who gave us those briefings. The report makes clear the strain under which those officials were operating. I made clear in the Statement which I repeated on behalf of my right honourable friend that the Permanent Secretary will be taking each of those individuals through the report, looking at the criticisms made of them in a systematic way and giving them guidance and counselling about how they can avoid a repetition in the future. Therefore, I can say that there was no attempt whatever--and I believe that the noble Lord is a little unfair not to acknowledge this--to mislead either House. Moreover, there has been no attempt whatever to obfuscate what has been happening. It is a very honest report, as I am sure all noble Lords will agree when they have the opportunity to read it properly for themselves.
The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, asked me three particular questions. She asked, first, whether I was satisfied that in future the FCO Orders in Council would be drawn up in proximity to the UN Security Council resolutions and, most importantly, made clear to Ministers and to those working within the FCO. Yes, given what Legg says on that point, I believe I am now satisfied that this is something which has been drawn very fully to the attention of the Foreign Office at all levels. Ministers must also take responsibility in that respect. I take the noble Baroness's point; namely, that there is no evasion of responsibility here. Ministers have responsibility for how their departments are run. I acknowledge that point, perhaps a little more so than the noble Lord's right honourable friend did when running the Prison Service. As I said, Ministers are responsible for how their departments run.
Secondly, the noble Baroness asked about inter-departmental relations. Again, the report draws our attention to some of the shortcomings in inter-departmental relations. I should point out to the noble Baroness that there will be new arrangements to handle defence intelligence reports when they arrive in the FCO to ensure that they are properly logged and distributed to the individuals for whom they are destined. That is a very important point. Of course, the liaison with the DTI and Customs and Excise departments is also an area where further strengthening is needed to ensure that departments are absolutely clear beyond peradventure of what is happening in related areas.
The noble Baroness's final point related to new staffing. I believe that this new staffing is a most important and key point. For the first time in six years my right honourable friend has managed to secure resources for the Foreign Office which we have not had. I do not reflect upon what has gone before; indeed, that is quite clear from what is in the Statement. But the fact remains that there has been a systematic cutting of the posts available in the Africa Command by over 100. In his Statement, my right honourable friend made clear that one of his priorities will be to strengthen the Africa Command. I hope that that will go a very long way to ensure that what the noble Baroness described as, "this sort of muddle", does not happen again.
The noble Baroness was quite right to say that this has not been an exercise in obfuscation; indeed, it has been something of a muddle. That muddle was faced fairly and squarely in the report and my right honourable friend is rightly shouldering responsibility to ensure that this sort of muddle does not happen again. I hope that he will enjoy the support of the House in so doing.
Lord Tordoff: My Lords, perhaps I may slightly shift the focus of the debate to that part of the report which deals with the support which the Government have been giving to Sierra Leone. It seems to me that part of the problem is the fact that Sierra Leone is seen as a very small country which is a long way away and that it has not had the proper attention that it deserves from the Foreign Office. Is the Minister aware that Sierra Leone offers great hope for the western coast of Africa because it is a focus of democracy? It has a democratic government and a democratic parliament, but that needs strengthening. Indeed, it needs support and training.
Perhaps I may direct the Minister's attention to a report produced by the International Crisis Group about two-and-a-half years ago, which made recommendations as to how the democratic process in Sierra Leone could be strengthened and how people could be trained there. Now that the Foreign Office has some more resources, can we hope that those concerned will spend more time on Sierra Leone as a country and as a focal point for the development of democracy in Africa?
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