Sierra Leone

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 5:56 pm on 2nd March 1999.

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Photo of John Stanley John Stanley Conservative, Tonbridge and Malling 5:56 pm, 2nd March 1999

The answer to that question will be clear when I turn to my second point—the responsibility of Ministers—but Mr. Peter Penfold was by no means alone among Foreign Office officials in having contacts with Sandline International.

It is abundantly clear, indeed indisputable, that what impaled the Foreign Office on the Sandline International affair was the decision, which was conscious and deliberate, to misdescribe the arms embargo policy. I am in no doubt that all the diplomatic service officials who have been before us are men and women of integrity, and that, if all the officials concerned had been clear that the arms embargo applied to all the parties to the Sierra Leone crisis, including the Government of President Kabbah in exile in Guinea, the Foreign Office would not have become involved in Sandline International's activities. It was the misdescription of the policy that lay at the heart of the Foreign Office's difficulties.

The misdescription started at an early stage and continued from the autumn of 1997 through the rest of that year to the time when President Kabbah was restored.

It is not adequate to say that officials were responsible for the misdescription of the policy. Ministers are responsible for policy and its presentation. It was not simply an external matter. The misdescription was carried through into the internal communications of the Foreign Office.

Three Ministers were associated with the misdescription: the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, and the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd). As chair of the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference in October, the Prime Minister must take responsibility to a degree for the fact that the communiqué of 27 October misdescribed the arms embargo policy. Indeed, if that communiqué had correctly described the policy—if President Kabbah had known what the real policy of the British Government was—I am certain that President Kabbah, who had attended the conference by invitation, even though he was no longer in government in Freetown, and had been delighted to be at that conference, would have been furious. As Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Gentleman must, without question, have been associated with and played a role in approving the communiqué at the end of the conference.

I found extraordinary the way in which the Foreign Secretary sought to dismiss the Minister of State's description of the arms embargo on 12 March last year. Far from being irrelevant, 12 March was a critical date in relation to making it clear to whom the arms embargo applied because, two days previously, on 10 March, President Kabbah had been restored to Freetown. The arms embargo applied to the very Government who were now in post in Freetown. Therefore, if there had been a time in Parliament when it was necessary to make it clear that the arms embargo applied to President Kabbah, it was precisely that moment on 12 March.

I find it singularly unattractive and somewhat distasteful that throughout, Ministers have sought, on the Floor of the House and in evidence before the Foreign Affairs Committee, to lay the blame for the misdescription of the policy at the door of officials. It is unacceptable that, on such a central issue, Ministers have not accepted their responsibility for the misdescription.