Cook discounts Short snub

The Government took action yesterday to quash the idea that Clare Short had been sidelined in the handling of the Montserrat crisis. Asked if she felt "snubbed" by the setting up of a new cross-departmental committee on the island's problems, Ms Short replied: "No, I don't."

Downing Street had already rejected suggestions that the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, had in effect taken charge of the Montserrat crisis. However, it was Mr Cook who made a statement after the meeting of the interdepartmental Montserrat Action Group - in which he, too, denied any move to downgrade Ms Short's role.

"I and other Cabinet colleagues fully support the plan put together by my colleague Clare Short to ensure that the people of Montserrat have choices," he said.

The real mystery is why the Montserrat Action Group has only just been created; and why Ms Short had apparently taken the lead on a policy issue which falls mainly within the remit of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, not her Department of International Development. The Government's shoddy handling of the Montserrat crisis hinges on poor co-ordination, poor communications and lack of understanding of the issues involved, according to diplomats and Caribbean sources in London.

Far from blaming Ms Short, most point to a failure in the government machinery as a whole. The episode points to a lack of experience in foreign affairs among the new Cabinet, they say. It has alarmed other Dependent Territories, since until yesterday nobody had taken effective charge. "God knows what would happen if there were another Falklands crisis," said one.

The Dependent Territories, scattered in Europe, the Caribbean, the Atlantic, Indian Ocean and Pacific, are what remains of the British Empire. None can be or wants to be independent. They are ruled by a British-appointed governor, in tandem with a locally-chosen government. The Foreign Office has the lead responsibility for the DTs, and Baroness Symons is the minister in charge of those in the Caribbean. She is on holiday.

Ms Short, as Secretary of State for International Development, became involved only because of the island's need for emergency aid, which falls under her department. It is uncertain why she was allowed by the Whitehall apparatus to become the de facto lead minister on the issue.

However, poor communication was only one aspect of the crisis. Co-ordination between the different departments also seems to have been very weak.

There is a Royal Navy destroyer off the coast of the island; some Montserratians have come to Britain, and emergency changes have been made to rules regarding social security payments and work permits. And, of course, money is involved. So co-ordination has been required between the FCO, Ministry of Defence, Treasury, Home Office and Department of Social Security. So far this has taken place on an ad hoc basis, and seems to have been inadequate.

Until this Government took office, the Department for International Development was called the Overseas Development Agency, and was part of the Foreign Office. It was headed by a Foreign Office minister. Now that it is separate, co-ordination between the FCO and ODA seems to have deteriorated.

The lack of co-ordination from the new government seems to reflect its lack of focus on or experience of foreign policy issues; and its lack of historical memory.

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