MPs censure Cook over report leak

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The Independent Online
ROBIN COOK suffered a fresh setback yesterday when he was rebuked by MPs for his response to the controversy over his receiving advance leaks of reports by a Commons committee.

Ernie Ross, the Labour MP who admitted sending two reports to his ally Mr Cook, looks certain to be suspended from the Commons for 10 days. The severe punishment was proposed yesterday by the Commons Committee on Standards and Privileges, and is expected to be rubber-stamped by MPs.

Mr Ross, MP for Dundee West, was forced to resign from the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in February after admitting sending a draft of its highly critical report on the arms-to-Sierra Leone affair to Mr Cook's office shortly before its publication.

Mr Cook did not return it and the Standards and Privileges Committee yesterday dismissed his claim that Commons rules did not make the "private knowledge" by an MP of a select committee's proceedings a contempt of the House. "We reject Mr Cook's argument," said the committee. adding: "We regard this aspect of Mr Cook's defence as mistaken."

The timing of yesterday's report was bad for the Foreign Secretary, coming a few weeks before Mr Blair reshuffles his Cabinet. After giving Mr Blair strong support during the Kosovo conflict, Mr Cook had been expected to remain at the Foreign Office. However, there was speculation amongst his cabinet colleagues last night that the committee's criticism would persuade Mr Blair to consider moving Mr Cook.

Close aides of Mr Blair admitted he had been minded to move Mr Cook before the Kosovo crisis, partly because of his mishandling of the arms-to-Africa affair. "Until Kosovo, Robin was seen as a damp squib," one said.

Mr Cook's allies are now confident, however, that he will not be moved. At a private Labour function last week, Mr Blair said it was Mr Cook who had kept Europe and America united during the Balkans war.

John Maples, the shadow Foreign Secretary, called on Mr Cook to apologise to the Commons. "This is a very grave matter. The integrity of the Foreign Secretary has been called into question and so, yet again, have his judgement and competence," he said.

Yesterday's report urged Tony Blair to change the code of conduct for ministers to ensure that leaked reports were in future returned immediately to the committee. Downing Street suggested the Prime Minister would agree.

The MPs rejected proposals by Sir John Kerr, Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office, who recommended that officials should hand a leaked report to their minister before returning it to a select committee.

In a clear warning to Mr Blair, Robert Sheldon, Labour chairman of the standards committee, acknowledged that other MPs could be passing details from select committees to ministers: "That is certainly a possibility and we will come down very hard indeed on these matters. It is a substantial and serious interference with the work of the select committees and we cannot accept that."