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The BBC's Nicholas Jones
"I believe there are signs that ministers are starting to undermine the effectiveness of Parliament"
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Saturday, 10 March, 2001, 23:54 GMT
Cook accused of misleading MPs
Foreign Secretary Robin Cook
Mr Cook is under fire
Foreign Secretary Robin Cook has been accused of misleading parliament during last year's Sierra Leone arms saga.

The accusations centre on a leaked report from the Commons foreign affairs committee.


This committee was going to be very critical of him personally, and he hated that, so he was prepared to do anything ...

Francis Maude on Robin Cook
Mr Cook told MPs last February that he made no use of the leaked report but a new book suggests that he was able to quote "chapter and verse" some of its findings within minutes of its publication.

The Conservatives have called for an inquiry to investigate the claims - and demanded Mr Cook's resignation if he is found to have mislead parliament.

Misleading parliament is in breach of the ministerial code of conduct and a sackable offence.

The book, Control Freaks, by BBC political correspondent Nick Jones questions Mr Cook's claim.

Investigation

The foreign affairs committee launched an investigation in 1999 after it emerged that the Foreign Office had failed to prevent British arms being shipped to Sierra Leone - in breach of UN sanctions.

Its report accused the Foreign Office of an "appalling failure."

A copy of the report was leaked in advance to the Foreign Office by Labour MP and committee member Ernie Ross. He later resigned from the committee.

Mr Cook argued that he made no use of the report prior to its official publication.

But Mr Jones' book, extracts of which are published in the Mail on Sunday, suggests Mr Cook had already identified a "favourable paragraph" in the report just 12 minutes after it had been published.

Mr Jones says that he received a phone call from the foreign secretary at 0812 on 9 February 1999 - the morning of publication.

He says that Mr Cook ended the phone call by saying: "Remember, this conversation didn't take place."

The foreign affairs committee had placed an embargo on anyone reacting to the findings of its report until 1000 that morning.

However, according to Mr Jones he was contacted by one of Mr Cook's senior press advisers, John Williams, at 0645 that morning.

'News to me'

But Mr Williams told the Mail on Sunday: "It's news to me that the foreign secretary called Nick Jones that morning.

"If he did, he would have done so on the basis that there had been days of speculation in the press that there was going to be harsh criticism of officials and that if the speculation was right, he would robustly defend them. There's nothing wrong in that.

Francis Maude
Mr Maude has called for an inquiry
"He did not mislead the Commons. It is perfectly possible that he flicked through the report quickly and referred to sections of it as he did so."

Mr Cook later told MPs in a Commons written answer: "In advance of the publication of the report on February 9, we made no comment to the media about the report, except in response to leaks by others to the press.

"Copies of the report - embargoed until publication at 10am - were released to officials at 8am on February 9. I was immediately sent a copy.

A spokesman subsequently briefed the press orally, under the same embargo, on my initial response to the report."

In a statement to the Commons on February 24, Mr Cook added: "There was no briefing, no leak to the press in advance of publication."

And in written evidence to the Commons standards and privileges committee on March 17, Mr Cook stated: "No use was made of either the draft or the additional information from Mr Anderson or Mr Ross in briefing the media.

"The only contact we had with the media regarding the report in advance of its publication was as a result of reports in The Independent and The Times."

Integrity questioned

But shadow foreign secretary Francis Maude told BBC One's Breakfast with Frost: "Robin Cook is a very vain and self-important man. This committee was going to be very critical of him personally, and he hated that, so he was prepared to do anything ...

"There was a full-scale spinning operation using, obviously, the leaked report, which took place in advance ...

"Tony Blair has made it clear, he has said it repeatedly, the government must be whiter than white, the Ministerial Code of Conduct must be adhered to.

"If he means it, then I hope he is going to have a real serious investigation into this, and if it concludes that Robin Cook did lie about this subsequently, then I hope there will be no question whatsoever of this being terminal for Robin Cook, of him resigning."

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See also:

09 Feb 99 | UK Politics
Arms report pulls no punches
30 Jun 99 | UK Politics
Leak MP faces suspension
13 May 99 | UK Politics
Arms to Africa row re-surfaces
24 Mar 99 | UK Politics
Ministers told to return leaks
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