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Tuesday, February 9, 1999 Published at 12:31 GMT

UK Politics

Arms report pulls no punches

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

The long-awaited report into the arms-to-Africa affair paints a devastating picture of a Foreign Office operating to its own agenda and led by an arrogant secretary of state.

If it wasn't so serious, the affair could be seen as a laughable shambles.

There were "Yes, Minister" officials who kept their political bosses in the dark, there was a High Commissioner who apparently hadn't read the arms embargo and there were ministers who ran around giving conflicting reports to Parliament on what was going on.

Once inquiries into the affair were underway, the secretary of state refused to hand over key documents to the committee, claiming he should decide what the MPs should or should not see.

[ image: Robin Cook: Standing by officials]
Robin Cook: Standing by officials
And behind it all was the smooth-talking mercenary who claimed he didn't know he was breaking the law in supplying arms to Sierra Leone and, in any case, had official sanctioning.

Severe criticism

The Permanent Under-Secretary Sir John Kerr has taken the brunt of the criticism, being found guilty of failing in his duty to ministers - about as severe a criticism as is possible.

Two of his staff have also been singled out for committing "serious errors of judgement" in failing to keep ministers informed.

High Commissioner Peter Penfold has also been criticised for his relationship with Lt Col Tim Spicer, the head of the mercenary outfit Sandline International.

Foreign Secretary Robin Cook is attacked mostly for his refusal to hand over sensitive documents to the committee on the grounds this could prejudice the separate Legg inquiry into the affair.

That led to a serious constitutional clash between the committee and the foreign secretary which has never been properly resolved.

The government's attempt to brush aside the report as irrelevant will only ensure that clash continues.

Whitewash claim

The Tories, including those on the committee, believe it is inconceivable that ministers didn't know more than they declared and they have shouted "whitewash".

They think the Labour-dominated committee should have gone much further with its criticisms of Mr Cook. They want heads to roll and if they can target the secretary of state himself, then so much the better.

The bottom line is that virtually no-one comes out of the affair looking whiter than white and the report confirms the worst suspicions about the Foreign Office.

It has always been seen as a law unto itself and even Margaret Thatcher used to complain she didn't have enough control over it.

But what the report did not prove was that there was any official or ministerial connivance in the breaking of the arms embargo.

This was the original, and central charge for which the Legg inquiry was established. That found there was no evidence to support such a claim and the committee has accepted that.

Meanwhile Mr Cook is standing by his officials - it would be an extraordinary step if he did not - and the government is writing off the report as over-the-top and irrelevant.

That will infuriate the MPs and could store up trouble for the future. Select committees are supposed to carry out exactly the sort of enquiry launched into the arms-for-Africa affair.

They are supposed to irritate ministers and officials if not worse. If they believe they are being treated with contempt by the government of the day then it's a fair bet they will start to flex their muscles more regularly.

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