Parliament & Politics: Cook is rebuked for arms telegram

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ROBIN COOK was rebuked by an all-party committee of MPs yesterday after refusing to hand over telegrams relating to the Sierra Leone affair.

However, the Foreign Affairs Committee was increasingly embroiled in internal battles last night after a Labour member was accused of blocking a Conservative MP's questions on the affair. The committee said it was "wrong in principle" that the Government had not met its demands for information. The Foreign Secretary dismissed the report as being "over the top".

The committee may now follow up with a call for a Commons debate on the issue. MPs are increasingly frustrated by the Government's insistence that it cannot hand over the telegrams sent by British officials last year after they were forced by a coup to leave Sierra Leone.

Ministers said they favoured a peaceful solution, but British mercenaries shipped arms to the exiled government in breach of a United Nations embargo, and there are claims of collusion by the Foreign Office.

Mr Cook has said that he will hand over the telegrams from Britain's High Commissioner to Sierra Leone, Peter Penfold, once an inquiry into the affair by Sir Thomas Legg is over.

But despite anger on the committee, there is little it can do. Yesterday, its chairman, Donald Anderson (Lab, Swansea East) said members would meet on Tuesday to decide what action to take next. Its options could include asking Ann Taylor, Leader of the House, to intervene; calling Mr Cook before the committee, or using a short Commons debate to address the issue.

The strongest sanction available would be a technical motion to cut Mr Cook's salary, which would be bound to fail because of Labour's large majority.

Diane Abbott (Lab, Hackney North) said the rights of independent select committees were under attack. "The Government has given the unfortunate impression that it is seeking to hide behind the Legg inquiry to avoid a wider public inquiry into the Sierra Leone affair. There are important issues of principle at stake," she said.

The Liberal Democrat on the committee, David Heath (Somerton and Frome) said: "This is no longer primarily a question about Sierra Leone. It is about the conduct of ministers and ... parliamentary scrutiny."

However, much of Tuesday's meeting is likely to be taken up by a row over a separate development, in which Ernie Ross (Lab, Dundee West) prevented Sir John Stanley (Con, Tonbridge and Malling) from asking questions about the roles of intelligence and military advisers. Yesterday, Sir John said Mr Ross had invoked a procedure not used formally for 60 years.

"The significance of that precedent is immense. In my view it lights a blowtorch at the integrity of the entire select committee system," he said. Sir John has written to the Commons Procedure Committee to complain.

Mr Ross denied that he had been asked to block Sir John's questions. "It's quite clear to me that this committee has a great deal of work to do. Some of my colleagues have got an obsession on this matter and they stopped us getting on with that work," he said.