William Hague, the Tory leader, accused the Prime Minister during question time of failing to take responsibility, even though the damning report had described "failure at every level of the Foreign Office".
In a highly critical report, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs said the Foreign Secretary's most senior official, Sir John Kerr, had "failed in his duty to ministers" and should be held responsible for the debacle. The investigation was launched after British mercenaries shipped arms in breach of a UN ban, with the apparent knowledge of some officials.
In angry exchanges, Mr Blair stressed that at the time of the affair in 1998, when rebels were trying to take power in Sierra Leone, the Government was being urged to provide more help to the democratically elected regime. "It is important not to, with the benefit of hindsight, apply counsels of perfection, when we take account of the context of the time, are not fully justified," he said.
But Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, urged Mr Blair to support German proposals to publish the European Union's arms control code of conduct report so that "these scandals" would not happen again. "Whilst the Government has been playing pass-the-parcel with the blame over the last year for this, the terrible tragedy in Sierra Leone has simply repeated itself. The rebels who were defeated by Sandline arms, have now been re- armed, apparently with the assistance of another British company," he said. "Unless and until we set up a proper international regime for the control of arms, these scandals will not end, they will go on, again and again and again."
Replying, Mr Blair said the Government had taken the lead in tightening arms sales both in Britain and the EU. The real issue was not actually Sandline, or even the foreign affairs committee report, but what was done about the situation in Sierra Leone. Rebels had been re-armed by sources "wholly outside this country".
Launching his criticism, Mr Hague claimed the Government had dismissed the report before it was even published. He told Mr Blair: "You were saying that ministers should be exonerated before the report had even been published. If Robin Cook, not civil servants, is not to be held responsible for the condition of the Foreign Office, then who is?
"Isn't it actually a story of incompetence and half-truths and secrecy and contempt for parliament, for which the Foreign Secretary is responsible and for which you are responsible ... are you going to take the report seriously, or are you going to treat this House, its committees and their reports with complete arrogance?"
Mr Blair insisted that the Government would "respond carefully" to the committee's recommendations.Reuse content