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Wednesday, February 24, 1999 Published at 20:20 GMT

UK Politics

'No impropriety' over Sandline leak - Cook

Robin Cook rejects Tory charges that ministers misled Parliament

Foreign Secretary Robin Cook insisted "neither I nor anyone else at the Foreign Office committed any impropriety" after receiving a leaked draft of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee report into the arms-to-Africa affair.

Robin Cook's statement to the House
He told MPs: "Neither the Foreign Office nor ministers took any action on that draft. We did not in any way seek to interfere with the work of the committee or to offer comments on the draft."

In an emergency Commons statement the foreign secretary also rejected accusations that Foreign Office Minister Tony Lloyd had misled the House over the leak.

The Tories claim Mr Lloyd misled MPs in a written answer when he said the Foreign Office first saw the committee's full report on 9 February - the same date it was made available to the public.

[ image: Ernie Ross: Resigned in disgrace from the Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday]
Ernie Ross: Resigned in disgrace from the Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday
But in his statement to MPs on Wednesday Mr Cook said the minister had given "a factual answer to the question he was asked".

The previous day Labour MP Ernie Ross resigned from the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, which authored the report, after admitting sending a copy to the Foreign Office in January.

The leak came to light when a Tory member of the committee, David Wilshire MP, spotted that Mr Cook was giving media interviews rebutting the report before it was officially available.

Mr Wilshire has already made public his dissatisfaction with the foreign secretary's statement and is demanding a further statement from Mr Cook over what he claims is a discrepancy between what the foreign secretary said in the House and the report itself.

The Tory MP said that Mr Cook had told the House that Mr Ross had not tabled any amendments to the draft report. But the report records that Mr Ross had moved an amendment - which the committee rejected.

Mr Wilshire said: "Here we have yet another example of half-truths and misleading information.

"I believe the foreign secretary should come back to the House of Commons and apologise."

Speaking after Mr Cook's statement Donald Anderson, the Labour chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, assured MPs that the committee will follow the correct parliamentary procedure on the issue "to the letter".

He added that once the correct initial procedures had been followed it would be "for this House, and not the Standards and Privileges Committee, to decided what future steps, if any, there will be".

Mr Anderson's remarks signalled that the matter is unlikely to go away, and may return to the floor of the Commons.

'Smoked out'

[ image: The arms-to-Sierra Leone report strongly criticised the Foreign Office]
The arms-to-Sierra Leone report strongly criticised the Foreign Office
Earlier, Tory shadow leader of the House Sir George Young accused the government of dragging its feet over admitting it received leaked copies of the report.

He told BBC Radio 4's The World at One programme: "I think they should have told Parliament much earlier than they did. They really had to be smoked out on this."

He added that for ministers, seeing an early copy of the committee's findings enabled them "to do a fairly good hatchet job on the report when it came it out. Everyone was slightly surprised that the government was so well briefed".

Sir George said it was "a threat to our democratic process if we do have a government that will do almost anything it can to mollify, marginalise and discount criticism, particularly from a select committee of the House of Commons".

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