Politics: Cook faces telegram challenge

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The Independent Online
THE FOREIGN Secretary is expected to be challenged tomorrow over his refusal to provide five telegrams about the Sandline affair involving arms to Sierra Leone.

The chairman of the Commons select committee, Donald Anderson, yesterday kept the lid on a furious row in private over the clash with Robin Cook.

Mr Anderson, a Labour MP, announced last night he would be holding a press conference to deliver an interim report after Mr Cook's refusal to submit the telegrams on the ground that it would conflict with the separate investigation by Sir Thomas Legg.

Senior Tories on the committee warned last night that they would not let up. "This will go on. There will be no stopping it now," said one.

Sir John Stanley, the former minister, yesterday angrily confronted Labour members of the committee in private after his questions to Sir John Kerr, the permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, were drawn to a close and the committee adjourned.

Sir John Kerr was left outside the committee after giving evidence on the Treasury's squeeze on the Foreign Office, while the MPs continued their row in private.

The row followed earlier clashes at a hearing between the top civil servant at the Foreign Office and the former Tory defence minister, over the refusal to give answers on the ground that it would conflict with the Legg inquiry into the Sandline affair.

But that same reason was given by the Foreign Secretary when he wrote to the committee refusing the request to see the telegrams which could prove that officials knew about the involvement of British mercenaries in the fight to free Sierre Leone from an armed coup.

At that time Mr Cook said: "The Government cannot disclose information which falls within the remit of Sir Thomas Legg's investigation while it is in progress, because to do so could prejudice it.

"It is also Sir Thomas Legg's view that the release of documents now could be damaging to the prospects for the early completion of a comprehensive and consistent report."

Yesterday there were attempts to limit the questioning of Sir John Kerr to Treasury cuts in the Foreign Office. He told the MPs that he believed it had been squeezed so much "you can hear the pips squeak".

Wading into a funding row between the Foreign Secretary and Chancellor Gordon Brown, Sir John warned that staff cuts had left many outposts "lacking critical mass".

"There has been a very considerable down-size and there is a danger that down-sizing can be taken too far.

"There are opportunities that the UK should be seizing around the world, which the process of steady downward trend will make it very difficult to sustain," Sir John told the Committee.

The Foreign Office, Sir John said, had a budget for "free" expenditure - which was not tied into peace-keeping or conflict prevention - of just pounds 70m.

And he told the committee of further budgetary problems caused by the refusal of the United States Congress to pay its $1.1bn (pounds 690m) debt to the United Nations. That meant Britain was still owed pounds 41 million as payment for peacekeeping activities. "I suspect it is rising," Sir John admitted when pressed by MPs.

Sir John said the Foreign Office budget had gone down by 14 per cent in real terms since the start of the Major administration, in 1990. If Labour stuck to Tory spending limits it would mean a decline of 24 per cent between 1992 and 2002.