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Monday, July 12, 1999 Published at 14:54 GMT 15:54 UK

UK Politics

Leak MP says sorry

The supply of arms to Sierra Leone breached a UN embargo

Labour MP Ernie Ross has apologised to the House of Commons before being suspended for leaking a select committee report on the arms-to-Africa affair to Foreign Secretary Robin Cook.

His brief statement had the effect of confirming that he has accepted a 10-day suspension from Parliament.

MPs then backed, without a vote, the recommendation by the Standards and Privileges Committee that he be suspended from the Commons as a punishment for leaking a draft committee report.

[ image: Ernie Ross: Told MPs he regretted his action and accepted suspension]
Ernie Ross: Told MPs he regretted his action and accepted suspension
Mr Ross told MPs the committee had found his action was a "serious interference with the select committee system and my conduct fell below the standards the House was entitled to expect".

He said: "I believe all members of this House should accept reports of the House that are critical of them.

"I therefore wish to apologise to the House."

He immediately left the chamber after his statement.

MPs then debated whether to suspend the MP for 10 working days as a punishment for his actions.

The report by the standards committee also recommended that parliamentary rules be changed to oblige ministers, MPs and officials not to make any use of leaked committee reports and to return such documents.

The committee also rebuked Mr Cook for failing to return the leaked report after it came into his department's possession.

In the debate on Monday, shadow leader of the house Sir George Young said Mr Ross had recognised the offence and apologised, but the government had not.

Cook 'guilty of contempt'

Former shadow foreign secretary Michael Howard said the report was "damning" about Mr Cook's conduct.

"It seems to me to follow absolutely, inevitably and unavoidably from the committee's findings that the foreign secretary was in fact guilty of contempt of this House," he said.

The Committee chairman Robert Sheldon said any unauthorised use of unpublished committee documents received by a department will be regarded by the committee as contempt.

He said: "These leaks undermine trust within a committee ... there is no excuse for these actions."

Liberal Democrat Edward Davey condemned Mr Cook, saying: "Receiving a leak of a select committee report is almost tantamount to receiving stolen goods."

[ image: Robin Cook: Was told off for not immediately returning the leaked report]
Robin Cook: Was told off for not immediately returning the leaked report
Foreign Affairs Select Committee chairman Donald Anderson refuted claims that he had briefed officials prior to the report's publication.

He said: "Over the two years that I have chaired the Foreign Affairs Committee I have done my utmost to be Parliament's man, independent of government, seeking to keep the executive accountable for what it has done and what it has failed to do."

Mr Ross resigned from the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in February when it was revealed he had leaked a draft copy of the arms-to Africa report.

The report was severely critical of the Foreign Office's role in the illegal private sales of arms to rebels who were fighting to overthrow the then military regime in Sierra Leone in 1997.

Labour's Bob Wareing was the last MP to be suspended. He was excluded from the House for five days in June 1997 for failing to declare an interest in the Register of Members' Interest.

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