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Arms to Africa row Monday, 27 July, 1998, 19:29 GMT 20:29 UK
Ministers cleared of arms-to-Africa charges
Robin Cook in the Commons
Cook: no further action against officials
There will be "sweeping changes" at the Foreign Office following the report into the arms-to-Sierra Leone affair but the government has been cleared of any "political scandal".

Speaking in the Commons, the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, announced the publication of the report by Sir Thomas Legg and Sir Robin Ibbs into allegations that the UK Government had given its approval to UN sanction busting arms shipments to Sierra Leone.

Mr Cook said: "There will be no scapegoats and this should be the end of the matter as far as officials are concerned."

But the report, which criticises officials rather than ministers, has made a series of recommendations to combat the "systemic and cultural factors" in the Foreign Office, which it blamed for the accusations.

The foreign secretary said: "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."

Micheal Howard in the Commons
Howard: blames ministers
The Shadow Foreign Secretary, Michael Howard, responded to the report saying: "Ministers directly bear the responsibility for the most serious failures."

For the Liberal Democrats, Menzies Campbell said: "The truth is the report reveals an embarrassing catalogue of error and inadequate management, which has no doubt substantially dented the Foreign Office reputation for effortless superiority."

Menzies Campbell
Menzies: Foreign Office's reputation has been "dented"
The report found "a number of misjudgements by officials" but this was largely due to overwork. Mr Cook said he had asked the Permanent Secretary, Sir John Kerr, to interview each of the relevant officials and to counsel them on the report's findings about them.

The High Commissioner in Sierra Leone, Peter Penfold, was criticised in the report which said he had "given a degree of approval which he had no authority to do" to plans by a private military firm Sandline to send arms to the country to help restore President Kabbah to power.

However no further action will be taken against him.

Sweeping changes

Mr Cook, announcing a series of sweeping changes, said he had accepted in full the report's recommendations to prevent a similar situation arising in the future.

One of the key recommendations will be the restoration of a dedicated sanctions enforcement desk, which had been abolished under the previous Conservative government.

Contacts with private military companies have now been banned unless special permission is granted.

Mr Cook also announced a programme of 60 measures to improve the administration and effectiveness of the Foreign Office.

He said a sharp reduction in staff was "part of the reason why mistakes were made by staff under impossible pressure".

He said that part of the extra cash allocated under the Comprehensive Spending Review would be used to strengthen the number of staff dealing with West Africa and Sierra Leone.

The report follows allegations that UN sanctions against Sierra Leone could have been broken when the British security firm Sandline helped restore President Kabbah's government to power after a military coup.

Donald Anderson
Anderson: report revealed human failings
Mr Cook is unlikely to face a grilling on the issue when he appears before the Commons' foreign affairs select committee on Tuesday.

Committee chairman Donald Anderson, said the report made it clear that, "no minister encouraged, approved or had knowledge of the sale of arms to Sierra Leone and that therefore, the misunderstandings, the accidents, the human failings which are detailed very clearly in this report need to be seriously addressed but give no support to those who have consistently tried to pillory ministers".

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Robin Cook: "The time has come to change ..."
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27 Jul 98 | Arms to Africa row
27 Jul 98 | Arms to Africa row
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