I beg to move,
That this House supports the principle that there should be an inquiry by an independent committee of Privy Counsellors to review the way in which the responsibilities of Government were discharged in relation to Iraq and all matters relevant thereto in the period leading up to military action in that country in March 2003 and in its aftermath and to make recommendations on the lessons for the future.
The subject of a major inquiry into the Iraq war was last debated in the House last October. Given the extent of public anxiety on the issue, the mounting problems being experienced on the ground and the widespread feeling across politics in principle for holding such an inquiry, I make no apology for returning to it now. The motion calls for agreement to the principle that an inquiry of the kind led by Lord Franks into the Falklands war should be established. It does not of itself specify the timing or any further details and it therefore provides the opportunity for the Government to make clearer their own thinking or to come up with their own proposals.
A month ago, in a debate with some parallels to this one, we similarly proposed agreement in principle to the formalising of parliamentary approval for decisions to go to war. On that occasion, the Government responded constructively by accepting the principle and promising to produce detailed proposals and to consult the Opposition parties in the meantime. It was to be hoped that the Government would respond in similar fashion to this debate, which is in effect an invitation to them to set out in more detail inside the House their thinking on an inquiry that several Ministers have been happy to say they favour when outside the House.
The last time we debated these matters, the Foreign Secretary managed to get through the debate without conceding that a major inquiry would be held, only for the Defence Secretary to say, within minutes of the end of the debate,
“When the time is right of course there will be such an inquiry”.
If the Government believe that there will be such an inquiry, there is no reason for them not to accept the principle of it today. That is all that the motion calls for. In addition, the Leader of the House said on 23 February:
“I think we have all made clear there will be an inquiry in due course”,
perhaps forgetting that the Foreign Secretary had not made that clear when the matter was debated—and, indeed, had refused to do so.
As the candidates for the Labour deputy leadership have travelled the country, they have come under a great deal of pressure from Labour party activists, leading them all to say, in various ways, either that there will be an inquiry or that there should be one. The hon. Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) said:
“I do see the case for an inquiry as part of an overall reconciliation with the British people and actually we have an opportunity over the next three months with the new leadership to turn the page on this.”
I therefore hope that, even though the Government have tabled more or less the same amendment to our motion as they did in October, the Foreign Secretary will recognise in her speech the gathering consensus in British politics and that she will decide to become part of it. Last time, she did not commit the Government to a major inquiry. If she does not do so this time, she will be at variance with many of her Cabinet colleagues.
Will the right hon. Gentleman accept it from me, as someone who voted against the invasion of Iraq in 2003, that I would welcome an inquiry? However, I do not support a seedy, narrowly focused inquiry with partisan intent, designed to embarrass the Government, but an inquiry that examines the history of our involvement in Iraq over many decades, and will reveal the duplicity of the west in funding and arming Saddam Hussein and preparing over many years his weapons of mass destruction, which were safely disposed of before we went to war.
I can partly agree with the hon. Gentleman. I do not propose any narrow or party-based inquiry, but a wide-ranging, Privy Council inquiry, which would not be conducted on party lines. It might stretch an inquiry too far to go back several decades. That might consume so much attention that much of its work would be obstructed. However, that is all to be debated.
I hope that my right hon. Friend agrees that timing is crucial and that we should face up to that. Does he also agree that it would be irresponsible to pull key people out of a continuing campaign to give evidence to an inquiry in London, impossible to publish a meaningful report without going into such matters as logistics, intelligence, infiltration and the strengths and weaknesses of our position, and clearly impossible to publish such information while the campaign proceeds? Does he therefore further agree that the only sensible course, if an inquiry is to be conducted, is to hold it after the last troops have been pulled out of Iraq?
Two of my constituents, Sergeant Roberts and Flight Lieutenant Stead, died in Iraq. Sergeant Roberts did not have the proper body armour and Flight Lieutenant Stead’s Hercules did not have the explosive-suppressant foam device that it should have had. Does my right hon. Friend anticipate that the equipment supplied to our armed forces in Iraq will be a prime focus of such an inquiry?
Yes. My hon. Friend makes a fair point. There is no reason for such an inquiry not to consider such matters. Indeed, they should be taken into account.
Other members of the Government have added to the case for an inquiry—perhaps inadvertently. The Minister for Europe, who was Defence Secretary a few years ago, said in The Guardian on 2 May:
“We didn’t plan for the right sort of aftermath”.
On such matters as the disbandment of the Iraqi army, he revealed that the Government had “argued against” the United States, giving advice that Donald Rumsfeld or others ignored. In expounding his views on such matters, the Minister for Europe recognised that Parliament and people in general will want to know the answers to such questions if ministerial accountability is to mean anything at all.
However, such accountability cannot be supplied by random interviews in The Guardian—it needs some kind of formal and powerful process. It has to be remembered that we are dealing with one of the most controversial and difficult issues of our times, and that those of us who fully supported the invasion have had to recognise that success in Iraq has proved progressively more elusive and the consequences of failure steadily more serious.
What is more, we have all had to recognise that some of the mistakes made in the aftermath of the invasion, particularly in relation to the Iraqi army and the de-Ba’athification process, have had such far-reaching implications that any idea that the decision-making process that led to them can be free of exhaustive examination should now be set aside. This motion therefore seeks to establish the principle that such an inquiry should happen and in a way that allows its membership to draw on very senior diplomatic, military or political experience, to hold some of its sessions in confidence if it needs to and to summon all the papers and persons it deems necessary.
I believe that there should be an inquiry. It seems to me inevitable that, in the fulness of time, there will be an inquiry, but one of the key points is who should sit on it. The right hon. Gentleman suggests that it should be Privy Councillors. Although I have great respect for Privy Councillors, I have even more respect for Parliament. I believe that we should hold a parliamentary inquiry. The main reason for allowing it to be done by Privy Councillors is so that evidence can be taken at this difficult time on Privy Council terms. Surely, however, we need an inquiry that is fully in the open, which can happen only once our troops have returned.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but I disagree with it, as I would prefer a Privy Council inquiry. He should remember that membership of Parliament and the Privy Council overlaps but that having a Privy Council inquiry avoids having one conducted along party lines. If their expertise is required, people can be drawn into a Privy Council inquiry simply by being made Privy Councillors.
Is the right hon. Gentleman disappointed that, a minute prior to this debate, the Prime Minister walked out of the Chamber, especially in view of an answer that he gave on 25 October last year to my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) when he said that he would be
“happy to debate Iraq at any time.”—[Official Report, 25 October 2006; Vol. 450, c. 1515.]?
The Prime Minister then failed to turn up to a debate on Iraq exactly six days later. Today, he has missed it by one minute.
Is one of my right hon. Friend’s arguments for having a Privy Council inquiry the fact that much of the material is very sensitive and intelligence based, investigating why we went to war and how we handled the intelligence? What would be my right hon. Friend’s advice to such an inquiry on the publication of its findings, given the sensitivity of the intelligence work?
Last October, the right hon. Gentleman said that the inquiry should take place by the end of this parliamentary Session—by October this year. This morning, he said that it should take place before the end of this calendar year; but this afternoon he is not putting a date on it at all. Why is he running away from it so quickly?
I am putting a date on it. I have not been able to do so yet because I have taken so many interventions. If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to proceed, he will not be disappointed, as I am coming to that very issue.
I was explaining to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) the advantages of this approach. A formal public inquiry would be likely to be a much lengthier process. A Committee of this House, which I believe was proposed by the nationalist parties, would find it harder to benefit from external expertise. A Privy Council inquiry on the model of the Franks commission therefore rapidly recommends itself for this particular subject and it must be highly likely to be what will happen in the end. The Government should be able to accept that today. If the Leader of the House and the Defence Secretary were not referring to this kind of committee of Privy Councillors when they referred to there being an inquiry in the future, the Foreign Secretary needs to tell the House today what sort of inquiry they were they talking about.
Given, however, that the Government’s response does not look as if it is going to be as constructive or even as consistent as that, the amendment that the Government have tabled to our motion today merits examination. It argues
“that there have already been four separate independent committees of inquiry into military action in Iraq”,
and it declines
“to make a proposal for a further inquiry which would divert attention”
“improving the condition of Iraq”
at the moment.
The weaknesses of those arguments are readily apparent. First, the argument that the existence of inquiries presents a diversion from vital tasks and that four of them have taken place already cannot both be true at the same time—unless the Government believe that the hearings of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee or the processes of the Butler report seriously hampered the work going on in Iraq. Secondly, these arguments do not prevent the Government from accepting the case for a suitably powerful inquiry in principle. Thirdly, the idea that the ground has been covered even remotely adequately by what they call the
“four separate independent committees of inquiry”
is nothing short of ludicrous.
One of those inquiries was the Hutton inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr. David Kelly; another was the Butler report, which focused only on intelligence on weapons of mass destruction; one of the others was the Foreign Affairs Committee report, published four years ago, on the decision to go to war in Iraq. Afterwards, the Committee published its views on the co-operation that it had received from the Government. In March 2004, it reported:
“We were hopeful that we would receive full cooperation from the government.”
However, it went on to state:
“Our Chairman wrote to the Prime Minister (requesting his attendance and that of Mr. Alastair Campbell); the Cabinet Office Intelligence Co-ordinator; the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee; the Chief of Defence Intelligence; the Head of the Secret Intelligence Service; and the Director of GCHQ. None of them replied.”
“We are confident that our inquiry would have been enhanced if our requests had been met. We agree with Alastair Campbell that ‘It would have been very odd to have done this inquiry’ without questioning him, and we regret that other witnesses, some of whom we suspect felt the same way as Mr. Campbell, were prevented from appearing.”
That is the true story of the Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry, yet it is held up by the Government in their amendment as an example of an independent inquiry. It is unacceptable for the Government to refuse to co-operate fully with the inquiries that take place, and then to cite their work as an illustration of why further inquiries are unnecessary.
The fact is that each of the inquiries that has taken place so far has provided a snapshot of one particular aspect of events in Iraq, but that their findings were sometimes arrived at without the full co-operation of the Government and are in general now out of date. There has been no investigation so far into the overall conduct of the war, the planning for the aftermath, or the implementation of such plans as may have existed for the rebuilding of the Iraqi state and society after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
The argument that not even a proposal for an inquiry can be made because to do so would “divert attention” from the work going on in Iraq is merely the age-old argument of Ministers on the defensive. It amounts to saying that they are too busy to learn any lessons from what happened before, and it is an utterly bogus argument. Even if it were true, they would still be able to accept the principle of an inquiry, as called for in the motion before the House, but it is not true that our troops would be demoralised or that our enemies would take heart if we took the trouble to find out what has gone wrong. In a democratic society, the examination of successes and failures is a sign of strength, not of weakness. I have some experience of listening to soldiers serving in Iraq or who have recently returned from there, and they do an heroic job. They of all people are particularly anxious that the political decisions made in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion receive searching examination.
I would say to my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), who intervened on me earlier, that in circumstances of war, indeed even of total war, our predecessors in this House have conducted the most vigorous debates about wartime debacles, whether in Norway in 1940 or in the Dardanelles in 1915. Indeed, in the latter case, they set up a major commission of inquiry while the first world war continued. They were even encouraged to do so by the Minister principally responsible, a certain Winston Churchill, who clearly had a stronger sense of the need for accountability and learning lessons than we sometimes see today.
The historical precedents that my right hon. Friend has just cited reinforce my position, rather than his. There was indeed an inquiry in 1915 into the Dardanelles, but only after the last British troops and sailors had left Suva bay. In 1940, we did indeed have a memorable debate in the House on Norway, but only after the last British troops and sailors had left Narvik. I am suggesting that we should hold an inquiry into Iraq only after our last troops have left the country.
I am suggesting that when a war has been going on for this length of time, it is entirely valid to conduct such an inquiry. If it was good enough for Winston Churchill, it should be good enough for my hon. Friend.
It remains our view on these Benches that such an inquiry should begin at an early date. For one thing, some of the events to be examined took place as long ago as 2002, and we will soon find that memories will have faded, letters will have been shredded and e-mails will have become untraceable.
Let me carry on for a little while. I will come back to the hon. Gentleman later.
Secondly, we have to be absolutely clear about some of the errors that have been made so that they are not repeated, for instance in Afghanistan. Thirdly, everyone—supporters of the war as well as its opponents—must now recognise that the events of the last four years have damaged public trust and confidence in the political handling of such matters more than any events in our lifetime. A major inquiry and the debates that will necessarily flow from its findings are an essential precursor to rebuilding trust and confidence in the capacity of this or any Government to deal with situations in the middle east. Such rebuilding of public trust is a vital task, and should not be long delayed.
In debates in the House of Lords, there has been a good deal of consensus, very much in line with what I propose. Former Foreign Secretaries such as my noble Friend Lord Hurd of Westwell and the noble Lord Owen have put the case for an inquiry to consider the workings of the machinery of government. Lord Owen said:
“There is now an overriding case to establish an inquiry…very similar to the Dardanelles Commission.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 29 June 2006; Vol. 683, c. 1350.]
There is no doubt in my mind that the co-ordination of Government Departments in the aftermath of the invasion is a legitimate subject for examination. Last December, at the court martial of soldiers from the Queens Lancashire Regiment, the Army officer who led British forces in Basra following the invasion, Brigadier Moore, said that in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion his 4,000 men were,
“Not supported by any of the other government departments, other than their own.”
“The Foreign Office was there but largely inactive. No one from the Department of Trade and Industry was there. So the Brigade had to try and regenerate the economy, establish a judiciary, as well as security and stability. We were the only show in town. There was a lack of support across the rest of Whitehall.”
We should, of course, recognise the successes in Iraq over the past few years: Saddam Hussein has been removed, democratic elections have been held, and parts of the country are relatively stable. Overall, however, Iraq today is not the Iraq that we hoped for in the aftermath of the fall of Saddam. I have mentioned the need to look into the major decisions, generally made in Washington, but undoubtedly with some kind of British input, either for or against—the de-Ba’athification and disbandment of the army. Those were of huge importance, and much needs to be learned from them about how to influence decisions when conducting operations alongside a superpower.
Then there were the immense problems in delivering improvements to the infrastructure of Iraq. The United States has conducted a wide range of searching inquiries, and notably has not been afraid to do so in spite of its massive engagement in fighting in Iraq. The American Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction has produced 60 audit reports and given testimony to Congress on at least 18 occasions, but there is no equivalent examination of the more than £350 million of British taxpayers’ money disbursed by the Department for International Development since 2003. The inquiry begun by the International Development Committee in 2004 was discontinued after the last election, yet the need to learn lessons from the difficulties faced is urgent and serious.
For all those reasons, none of us in the House should turn our face against a major inquiry into what has happened. This Government and future Governments need to learn the lessons, and the country needs to be assured that they will have done so. No adequate reason remains for the Government to refuse to establish such an inquiry to begin its work in the near future, but there is even less reason for them to disagree with the motion before the House today calling for such an inquiry in principle. Their response could be a constructive one, as on war powers, accepting that principle and opening the way for cross-party discussion to bring it about. Instead, if the Government’s amendment is anything to go by, the Foreign Secretary looks set to maintain the Government’s refusal to make any proposal for an inquiry. That position is inconsistent with the many comments already made by Ministers, incompatible with learning vital lessons as fully and as rapidly as possible, and inadequate to the scale of the immensely difficult issues that we now face.
I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
“notes the Resolution of 31st October 2006; recognises that there have already been four separate independent committees of inquiry into military action in Iraq; further recognises the importance of learning all possible lessons from military action in Iraq and its aftermath; and therefore declines at this time, whilst the whole effort of the Government and the armed forces is directed towards improving the condition of Iraq, to make a proposal for a further inquiry which would divert attention from this vital task.”
The motion before the House today calls for a new inquiry
“to review the way in which the responsibilities of Government were discharged in relation to Iraq…in the period leading up to military action in that country in March 2003 and in its aftermath.”
It also proposes that the House decide now that such an inquiry should be conducted in the same way as the Franks inquiry into the Falklands war. Those with particularly long memories will recall that only about six months ago we had a debate here on a very similar motion. They may also recall that during that debate I made plain the Government’s view that there would come a time when these issues would be explored in the round so that we could learn whatever lessons could be learnt from them. However, I also made clear our view that while our troops remained actively engaged and facing real danger in Iraq, it would be wrong to launch such an inquiry. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) that there is no precedent.
Since then both Houses of Parliament have enjoyed substantive debates on Iraq, including debates in the House on 12 December and 24 January. On 11 January my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and I gave evidence to a lengthy joint session of the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committees, and on 21 February the Prime Minister delivered a detailed statement to the House on the Government’s policy on Iraq.
The Foreign Secretary says that she is unhappy with the idea of an inquiry while British troops remain in Iraq. She will be aware that it is widely assumed that even if the vast majority of British troops are withdrawn over the next 12 months, it is highly likely that a significant number will remain to carry out training functions or for other purposes, possibly for several years. Is she implying that no inquiry could be considered by the Government until the last British soldier had left Iraq?
I am not implying anything. I am simply saying very clearly and straightforwardly, as I did when this matter was last raised, that I do not think that now, when our troops are very much engaged, is the time to make the decision that has been proposed to the House.
Since we debated the issue here in October, the Government’s position on an inquiry has been restated a number of times by, for instance, my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Defence and the Leader of the House, and indeed by the Prime Minister. Nothing has happened since last October to change our position. More than 5,000 British troops do remain in Iraq, where they continue to be engaged in extremely difficult and dangerous work in trying to build a better future for the Iraqi people. Only last week, Iraqi Foreign Minister Zebari paid tribute to them and stressed the importance of what they were doing for his country. I too pay tribute to their courage and professionalism.
I know that the House will join me in offering condolences to the family of Corporal Rodney Wilson, who was killed in Basra last week. He was the 150th soldier to lose his life in Iraq since 2003. I also pay tribute to two other servicemen, Lance-Corporal Paul Sandford and Guardsman Neil Downes, both of whom lost their lives in Helmand province in Afghanistan last week. I know that I take the whole House with me in sending our condolences to their families.
Against that background, it should be no surprise to anyone that the Government’s position has not changed. We continue to believe that agreeing to set such an inquiry in motion at this moment would be not only premature but, much worse, self-indulgent. By contrast, the Opposition’s approach to the issue seems at best confused and at worst opportunistic. Sadly, that is not new. In October, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) said:
“To begin an inquiry now”
—that is, on that date in October—
He then promptly voted for a motion that implied that such an inquiry should be launched immediately. To be fair, he said that an inquiry should instead commence in
“the next Session of Parliament”.—[Official Report, 31 October 2006; Vol.451, c.183-4.]
He did not point out that, at the time, that was two weeks away. The motion that the right hon. Gentleman has tabled today makes no reference at all to the timing of such an inquiry, but does attempt—although he made only a passing reference to this—to commit the House to a very specific proposal for its forum.
The right hon. Gentleman therefore appears to have accepted the argument that we advanced last October that now is perhaps not the time for his proposal to take effect. For our part, we also remain of the view that this is not the time to send a signal of potential disunity—whether it be to the courageous Government and people of Iraq, or to our own immensely courageous armed forces—or indeed to commit ourselves to an inquiry in the form that the right hon. Gentleman has proposed. I accept, of course, that that was the form of the Falklands inquiry—but in the 25 years since the Falklands war, important things have changed in the way in which Parliament works.
I understand the right hon. Lady’s reasoning, although I may differ with her about the case for an inquiry now. Does she nevertheless agree that at some point we have to get clarity on some of the big issues? For example, there is a huge debate about how many people have been killed in Iraq since 2003. Does she agree that at some point we need to get clarity, and that we are arguing about a timetable rather than about the fundamental case for finding out the truth about those vexing questions?
Judging from the range of different statistical methods that people have used, I am not sure whether, on that matter, any inquiry will ever come to a conclusion of which there will be general acceptance—but of course I share the view that it is important that we remember the civilian casualties that have occurred during the conflict, and that we do everything we can both to minimise them and to encourage the accurate keeping of records, so that understanding is not lost.
I am sure the Foreign Secretary would accept that it is almost certain that when eventually there is an inquiry, all parliamentarians will want to examine force protection, whether involving body armour or the physical environment in which our troops are protected. Does she agree that it will be difficult to do that in an open environment now, without further compromising the security of our troops?
Why is it not possible to accept the proposal in principle, while leaving it to the Government to choose the date for dealing with all the issues that the Foreign Secretary has raised? To refuse that makes the Government look as if they have something to hide, and I am sure that they would not want that coming across as their true view.
That is complete nonsense. As I say, we are being urged now to commit ourselves not only to the principle but to a form of inquiry. From the words of the shadow Foreign Secretary—I nearly called him the Leader of the Opposition; perhaps I would be percipient in saying that—it is clear that he envisages an inquiry taking place in the quite near future. As I say, it is not sensible to put that proposal before the House at this time.
We now have a framework of Select Committees—whose role and resources, incidentally, have been substantially strengthened under this Government, despite the nonsense talked about our approach to Parliament. They carry out independent inquiries, as they already have into different aspects of our involvement in Iraq.
I argued in October that the situation in Iraq was too delicate for us to turn our attention away from the immediate task of how best we could help the Iraqi people here and now. I make no apology for saying the same today. Indeed I remind the House that only a few days ago the Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq urged us to concentrate our minds, will and interests on continuing to work with the people there to give top priority to rebuilding and helping to reform the situation in Iraq.
I am not aware of having received any representations from military commanders either for or against an inquiry. However, I have no doubt whatever that it would be possible to find both former military commanders who took the view expressed by my hon. and learned Friend, and those who took a different view. I say that without implying any discredit to military commanders, as that is a perfectly reasonable state of affairs among human beings.
No, I must get on.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence would have liked to take part in this debate, but he is today in Baghdad with the Chancellor, focusing precisely on what can be done today and in the critical months ahead to help the people of Iraq.
As all Members know, Iraq still faces a daunting array of political, security and economic challenges of a kind with which any Government in the world—let alone a Government who have been in existence for only a little over a year—would struggle to deal. The Prime Minister set out in detail in his 21 February statement our analysis of the challenges and our strategy for helping the Iraqis to tackle them. I do not intend to repeat that today, but I shall seek briefly to explain why the next few months in Iraq are especially crucial, and why the Government want to maintain a clear focus on the here and now.
With support from the coalition, the Iraqi Government have in recent months launched a major fresh effort to restore security to Baghdad and neighbouring areas of Iraq. In the coming months, critical judgments will need to be made about the success of the effort. The commander of the multinational force, General Petraeus, is due to deliver his assessment of progress in Washington in September.
It is still too early to make definitive judgments on the success of the initiative. The last of the additional US units being brought into Baghdad will arrive only this month. So far, there have been significant falls in the recorded rates of sectarian murders in Baghdad, and more recently there have been impressive reductions in recorded violence in Anbar province, which was hitherto the most violent part of the country. However, there have also been further atrocious suicide bombings in and around Baghdad, and calculated attacks on symbolic targets in the capital, such as bridges and the Parliament building itself, in a deliberate attempt to induce a sense of despair both in the Iraqi people and in those in the international community working to help them.
The initiative will be judged not solely on its immediate impact on the security environment, but on the extent to which Iraq’s political leaders manage to make progress on the fundamental political issues that underlie so much of the violence. It is crucial that Iraq’s leaders reach early agreement on legislation governing the future of the oil and gas sector, and on how to share the huge potential wealth from the sector equitably among all communities in Iraq. That alone could prove a powerful force for national unity and reconciliation.
It is essential that agreement be reached on reforms to the process of de-Ba’athification, which has become the cause of much division. It is important that the Iraqi Parliament pass legislation setting a date for provincial elections, to allow a new and more representative generation of political leaders to emerge across the country. All these steps, along with others, must culminate in an agreement on revisions to the new Iraqi constitution that give all communities in Iraq a firm sense of commitment to the country’s future.
These are all immensely difficult issues; were that not so, they would have been solved long ago. It is imperative for the future of the country that Iraq’s leaders make headway on them over the coming months.
We hope that the inquiry will be wide ranging, and that it will include an examination of how the intelligence was assessed and presented. In the meantime, however, I have a question. The main justification for war was the weapons of mass destruction argument, and that ultimately proved to be wrong. Who does the Foreign Secretary think is to blame for that? Does the blame lie with the intelligence services for their assessment of the intelligence that came in, or with the politicians for their presentation of the evidence?
The hon. Gentleman has just given an extremely good example of why it would not exactly promote the cause of looking to the future and rebuilding Iraq to engage in the kind of dialogue that he wants at this time. He is, of course, right to say that these are issues of importance, but I recall that in the last debate on this subject one of my hon. Friends reported to the House a discussion at which he had been present with Dr. el-Baradei. Dr. el-Baradei confirmed to those present at that meeting that in March 2003, he had himself believed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction that it was capable of using, and likely to try to use. So the notion that this was somehow all made up by the Government of the United Kingdom bears no examination at all. As I said, this is a good example of how the Conservative party would prefer to dwell on the past, rather than looking to what is happening now in Iraq and working with it.
No, I must get on.
In the south, we have already been able to hand over responsibility for security to the Iraqi authorities in three of the four provinces in our area of operation. British troops and civilian staff are now engaged in an intensive drive to bring the last of these provinces, Basra, to the point at which security responsibility can be handed over there, too. At this critical juncture, when Iraq’s future clearly hangs in the balance, it would be wrong—plainly and simply wrong—for us to divert our focus from the tasks that need completing now, and again turn our gaze backwards.
Let us have no pretence that this is an innocuous little motion that will have no effect on the atmosphere in, or background against which, these ongoing, highly difficult challenges have to be faced and met. If that were so, the shadow Foreign Secretary would not have troubled to table it. He made it clear last October that he hoped that the inquiry he proposed at that time would begin in this Session of Parliament. We believed then, and we believe now, that to carry a motion such as this would be an unnecessary and damaging diversion of effort, focus and attention.
All our time and energy is badly needed now for addressing the challenges of the present, as the Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq reminded us only the other day. It is our responsibility to the people of Iraq that should receive our complete focus and attention in the critical months ahead.
When we discussed this issue in October, some Members pointed out that only a few days beforehand, representatives of the Iraqi Government had urged us to concentrate on the future. It was also pointed out—to pick up the comment of my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Rothwell (Colin Challen)—that the history of Iraq did not begin with the invasion.
As I said in October, I believe that we also have a responsibility to think very carefully about the signals that we send out from this House today—signals that will be closely followed in Iraq and around the world. It is critical that we do not convey to others the impression that this country’s commitment to Iraq is weakening at a critical moment, and that we are about to turn away into a period of self-indulgent introspection. So I hope that all Members of this House will support the amendment that the Government have tabled.
The Foreign Secretary’s statement that nothing has changed in the Government’s position since October will not have been a surprise; none the less, it will be a disappointment to the House. It appears to all intents and purposes that the Government are still trying to avoid an inquiry, while hinting that there will be one. They are simply ducking the question of when.
The Foreign Secretary said that many Ministers and others have made themselves available to the House in debates, during statements and at questions. Those are worthwhile and welcome occasions, but they are surely no substitute for a thoroughgoing inquiry into what led up to the war in Iraq and what has happened since. The motion today simply asks for the principle to be accepted—little more than that. I should have thought that it was not beyond the Government to accept that. The motion has echoes of the nationalist text that we debated at the end of October, and there is nothing wrong with that, since the need for a proper inquiry into the follies and misjudgments that took us into the war in Iraq is even more pressing now than it was then. In the spirit of cross-party unity, which was evident on both sides of the House on that day, the Liberal Democrats will support the motion when it comes to a Division later.
Before I go on to our reasons why, however, let me add the support of my right hon. and hon. Friends to the tributes already properly and generously paid by the Foreign Secretary and the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), to our armed forces. Throughout the conflict, as in so many others, the men and women of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force have shown the highest levels of professionalism, dedication and commitment that could ever be expected of them. Their bravery and courage is beyond question and, indeed, many have paid the highest price. Many more have suffered or continue to suffer the consequences of their time in Iraq. We should never lose sight of those sacrifices.
Since we last debated the call for an inquiry in October 2006, we have seen the deadliest month for UK forces since the initial invasion, with 12 servicemen killed in April. In total, 30 more UK personnel have been killed since October 2006, and as the Foreign Secretary sadly marked, 150 servicemen and women have lost their lives in Iraq serving their country. Our thoughts are ever with them and the families and friends who are so tragically affected.
In the wider context, we should not forget the toll on American and other coalition service personnel, with US casualties nearing 3,500 and other coalition casualties nearing 130. That is all indicative of a desperate security situation. In written answers to me, the Secretary of State for Defence has detailed how attacks on UK-led, multinational forces have risen sharply since our last debate. From that date until the end of April, there were more than 1,300 attacks, compared with just over 500 in the previous six months. That is in the context of Operation Sinbad and the greater levels of confrontation that were inevitably involved, but at the very least, it highlights the ferocity of the situation even in southern Iraq. As we have been reminded only too recently, the dangers there extend to kidnapping, with the fate of the five latest hostages captured at the end of May still unknown. Our thoughts and prayers are with them and their families, too.
We may never know how many Iraqis have been kidnapped, and as the Foreign Secretary said, we will never know the true figure for civilian casualties in Iraq. There have been many estimates, and the United Nations has reported that 34,000 were killed last year alone. For millions of people, life and normality have been destroyed.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that there are approximately 2 million internally displaced people in Iraq. There are another 2 million Iraqi refugees in neighbouring countries, particularly in Syria and Jordan. Many people lack support, and the host countries are struggling to deal with them. According to a written answer that I received from the Secretary of State for International Development,
“DFID has provided £10 million to support emergency relief and other services to displaced and vulnerable Iraqis”—[Official Report, 7 June 2007; Vol. 465, c. 685W.]
this year. However, if I understand the answer correctly, that is in Iraq and throughout the region. In the context of the estimated £5 billion cost of the Iraq war to the United Kingdom, it is a tiny amount.
Our obligations surely extend to the many former translators and interpreters who have had to flee Iraq and, according to Human Rights Watch, have been denied any assistance in reaching the UK or in obtaining asylum in this country. Those people put their lives on the line alongside British personnel, and their lives are still on the line. Of all the people affected, surely we have a particular responsibility to them.
In Iraq, reconstruction has failed to live up to the large amounts of money poured in. To give just two examples, unemployment is commonly as high as 40 per cent. and electricity supplies in most of the country have barely improved on pre-war levels and have actually fallen below those levels in Baghdad.
Of course, there are achievements: democratic elections held in December 2005 and the formation of the national unity Government last year. As we have been reminded, security has been handed over in three of the four Iraqi provinces under British control, but those milestones have been overshadowed by the security situation and the failure of the reconstruction efforts so far. Even those of us who opposed the conflict when the House voted in March 2003—that opposition was unanimous on the Liberal Democrat Benches—did not foresee the scale of the disaster that continues to unfold in Iraq. The aftermath of the conflict is dire and we need to get to grips with why things have come to this and why we got into the mess in the first place.
The first requirement of an inquiry will be to learn the lessons and, where appropriate, apply them to the ongoing conflict. Surely, we will also learn lessons to apply to other current and future conflicts, but at the heart of the process, as the shadow Foreign Secretary set out, must be the need to ensure proper parliamentary oversight of the Executive, which has until now been utterly inadequate, despite the efforts of Members from all parties to do their bit. The oft-quoted Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, was right when he said that
“history will show that the planning for what happened after the initial war-fighting phase was poor, probably based more on optimism than…planning”.
More is required of an inquiry than investigation of what happened to planning for the aftermath; we still need to understand the fundamentals, such as the purpose of the intervention. Was it simply to seek compliance with UN resolutions or, as many leaks, commentators and suspicions suggest, to enable regime change? When was the actual decision taken and when was British commitment given to the United States President? What exactly was the UK input to coalition strategy beforehand and what has it been since? What of the intelligence? Issues remain about both its gathering and processing, which allowed the creation of the flawed prospectus. We are no nearer a full understanding of the political oversight of intelligence processing. In that respect, the early draft of the September 2002 dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, prepared by Mr. John Williams of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, is important evidence, which the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) and others have been trying to obtain. It should be released so that we can make a proper assessment of what decisions were taken and when. More significantly, we still need to understand the role of the Attorney-General and why he changed his advice over a few fateful days in 2003, knowing as we do now that he was more ambiguous in his initial advice to the Prime Minister on 13 March compared to that presented to Parliament on 17 March. Those are just some of the issues that will need to be considered by an inquiry, but it is important that we are clear about its type and powers.
As a party, we have previously set out the case for a full public inquiry, which would have the widest possible scope, to investigate all relevant aspects of the decision to go to war in Iraq, but we are happy to support the mechanism proposed by the shadow Foreign Secretary on the basis that the membership reflects the range of expertise required and that the powers will be clear.
I am intrigued by the Liberal Democrat position. Had Britain not supported the war it is likely that we would have been invited to help with the peacekeeping efforts under resolution 1483. Can the hon. Gentleman tell the Chamber whether the Liberal Democrats would have supported Britain’s participation in peacekeeping had we not been participating in the initial war-fighting?
Indeed. The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) may want to reconsider his position, given how he and his party voted at the time of the initial invasion. I am perfectly happy with what our party decided at that time and since.
What is not clear from what we have heard today and on previous occasions is the Government’s position on an inquiry. As I said at the outset, there are hints of a future inquiry but the Foreign Secretary will have to forgive us if we are a little sceptical about that, not least because the Government oppose today’s initiative because, they have argued, it is unnecessary, diversionary and might have an impact on morale. I want to deal with those issues.
Of course there have been inquiries, but the shadow Foreign Secretary demolished the argument that they were independent and comprehensive. There are well-established gaps and shortcomings in all the inquiries, in terms of both their remit and the information that was made available to them. Crucially, there has been no specific investigation of the political decision-making process that led to the decision to go to war. As for the timing of the proposed inquiry, there is an urgent need to learn the lessons now, and to apply them to what we are doing in Iraq and to other current and future operations. As others have observed, waiting until the end of the conflict is hard when that has not been defined and when victory in the conflict was claimed and declared four years ago.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my incredulous state of mind that the Foreign Secretary should dismiss the Opposition motion as self-indulgent given that the United States, which has a much stronger Executive branch, has suffered more casualties and is still engaged on the war front, has had a robust analysis through the Baker-Hamilton report as well as inquiries in both Houses of the US Congress? Does that not equally shoot down the Foreign Secretary’s rather tenuous argument?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which slightly unhelpfully anticipates a point that I shall come to in due course. Such is the way of debate in this place.
Let me turn to the issue of diverting Ministers’ time. I do not want to be completely facetious, but the Prime Minister will be a key witness to the inquiry and by happy chance he will be released from the challenges of office in a few weeks’ time, so the inquiry ought to be able to get off to a flying start any time soon. Presumably the new Prime Minister will want to be fully briefed and informed, since it seems unlikely that under current Cabinet arrangements he will feel that he was then, and is now, fully in the picture.
We have to take seriously any potential impact on morale. As the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) has just said, we should look across the Atlantic. The United States has more people committed to Iraq, yet debates there have not been stymied one bit, whether in Congress or in the course of the Baker-Hamilton inquiry last year. More importantly, the armed forces in this country expect us to ask such questions and to find out the truth—not only those who have come back from Iraq and left the Army or the Territorial Army but, as one can see from the blogs, those who are serving, too.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my observation, as someone who served in Iraq in 2003, that most servicemen there will stand aghast at the argument that the Foreign Secretary has deployed that in some way such an investigation will damage their morale? They are far more likely to have their morale damaged by the lack of body armour, tanks that clog up in the desert sand and boots that melt in the heat of the same. They will look to us as their Parliament to start such an investigation, because they cannot speak for themselves.
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point, all the more so because he served in Iraq. The House ought to pay tribute to him and other right hon. and hon. Members, particularly from the Conservative Benches, who did their duty at that time. I know that people from all over the House did so.
Beyond the expectations of our armed forces, we see senior figures of our armed forces—there is none more senior than General Dannatt—being frank and open about some of the failings and about what needs to be done. I suspect that people like him know more about morale than most of us in the Chamber. The debate is going on in every part of British life, not least in the media and as part of independent inquiries, such as that recently launched by the Foreign Policy Centre and Channel 4. That inquiry is chaired by an impeccable cross-party group with significant expertise that includes Baroness Jay, Lord King and Lord Ashdown. Parliament should not be left behind in the debate. In fact, certain Labour Members are already arguing for an inquiry as the contest for the deputy leadership of the Labour party hots up. It seems that it is open season for everyone, except those of us who were elected to scrutinise the Executive.
Earlier this year, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) set out our view that British forces should now leave Iraq. Nothing has happened in the meantime to change our view. We believe that the issue should be one of the first priorities for our new Prime Minister, not least following his visit to Baghdad. While I hope that we will return to the specifics of future policy on Iraq on a later date, we believe that it is time for us to prepare to leave and to learn the lessons.
In the debate on the need for an inquiry in October, the Foreign Secretary said:
“I have no doubt that there will come a time when we will want to look at the lessons learned from our full experience in Iraq, just as we have from every other major conflict in the past”.—[Official Report, 31 October 2006; Vol. 451, c. 181.]
Nearly eight months on, the need for that inquiry is more pressing than ever.
Order. I must remind the House that Mr. Speaker has placed a 14-minute time limit on Back-Bench speeches. However, due to what I could describe as hon. Members’ late surge of interest in participating in the debate, that might be a touch on the generous side. I hope that hon. Members will bear that in mind when they address the House.
It is a good thing that Parliament is debating the war in Iraq. The war has gone on longer than the second world war went on in Europe and has aroused the greatest passions ever among the public in Britain and the United States. It is worth reminding the House that nearly 2 million people took to the streets of London in February 2003 to demonstrate their views on British participation in that war. They took to the streets not in support of Saddam Hussein, but to oppose something that they believed to be an illegal war and because they wanted Parliament to listen to what they had to say.
Frankly, it is absurd to argue that we should not hold an inquiry into the causes of a war that has cost the lives of many people and caused huge controversy throughout the world. It is the job of Parliament and our duty as parliamentarians to investigate what is going on, to challenge what the Executive are doing and to try to represent public opinion as best we can.
In opposing the motion, the Foreign Secretary pointed out that inquiries had been carried out by the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Defence Committee and the Intelligence and Security Committee and that we had also had the Hutton and Butler inquiries. All those inquiries suffered from degrees of inadequacy. As the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) pointed out, in one case, a considerable number of fairly key witnesses refused to give any evidence whatsoever to the inquiries, which meant that the inquiries’ possible achievements were severely limited. Entirely legitimate questions remain that must be asked by an inquiry: how did we get involved in the war; how bad has the situation in Iraq become; and where does this take us in the future?
The Conservative motion is inadequate because I do not think that a Privy Council inquiry is necessarily the ideal format. Such an inquiry would exclude people who were not members of the Privy Council, even though the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks suggested that several people could become Privy Councillors instantly so that they could take part in the inquiry—[Interruption.] It would be extremely unlikely that my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and I would be invited to become members of the Privy Council under that procedure. However, while there are clearly inadequacies in the motion, it is fair enough.
A further inadequacy of the motion is the fact that it does not set a date by which the inquiry should take place; nevertheless, I will support the motion. I urge other colleagues to support it because that would mean that Parliament would stress that it is our duty to investigate what is going on and to present a credible report to the British public on how we got involved in the war and, above all, how we will get out of it.
A large number of issues need to be examined. I think that I have been in the House on every single occasion when there has been a debate on Iraq since at least 1990. We have heard just about every allegation that could ever be made about the situation in Iraq. We were told that there were weapons of mass destruction, and that there was a 45-minute danger period, but that turned out not to be the case. Hans Blix and Mohamed el-Baradei were prevented from returning to Iraq in January 2003, although they were undertaking an effective weapons inspection there. I would like to hear from both of them what exactly the terms were under which they were prevented from returning. There are many other questions, too.
Crucially, we need to know what the genesis was of foreign policy after 2001. In September 2001, the Prime Minister said that we should stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States, whatever it chose to do, and whatever problems it faced—a very brave thing to say. It was not clear then exactly what he had in mind, and where that would lead us. It led rapidly to a war in Afghanistan, and later a very strange meeting took place in Crawford, Texas, in April 2002. When the Prime Minister ceases to hold that office, he should be invited to give evidence on that meeting. Was an undertaking given to President Bush that Britain would be involved in a war against Iraq, even though there was no evidence whatever that Iraq was involved with al-Qaeda or with the war in Afghanistan?
I say that not because I am in any sense an apologist for the regime of Saddam Hussein. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks seemed to reject the notion that the inquiry should go into relations with Iraq before 1990, and I disagree with him on that point. It is important that it does consider relations with Iraq before then, because I seem to recall this House quite happily approving the sale of arms to Iraq in the late 1980s. I also recall that there was participation in the Baghdad arms fair, even after the tragedy of Halabja. There must be serious inquiries about all those things—not for some academic purpose, but so that we can try to make sense of what has happened.
I know that there are people in the House who do not accept the estimate that The Lancet made in its examination of the death toll in Iraq, but there has been no creditable rebuttal of it. Its estimate is that 650,000 civilians have died in Iraq. I am not accusing British, American or any other coalition forces of causing all those deaths, but I am saying that the foreign policy decisions, taken principally by Britain and the United States, to pursue a war that had no legal basis led to the chaos that led to that loss of life. More than 3,000 United States servicemen and women have died, and last week, tragically, someone became the 150th British soldier to lose his life.
In my constituency, there are people who fled to this country to escape from Saddam Hussein, and now there are people there who fled to this country to escape the chaos of what life is like now in Iraq, and the dangers there. Last week, I was talking to a number of people from Iraq who came to this country and who, tragically, are threatened with deportation to Iraq, They tell me that for months on end they could not go out of their house without facing the threat of being killed in the streets. The electricity and water did not work, they did not enjoy normal safety levels, and normal society and normal life did not work. All that has happened since the invasion all those years ago and, as I said earlier, we are talking about a period of greater length than Europe’s second world war.
The question of what happens in future in Iraq must also be considered. There was a report yesterday in The Observer entitled “Iraqi government threatens arrest for leaders of striking oil workers”. It said:
“Workers are objecting to Iraq’s proposed hydrocarbon law, which unions claim will amount to privatisation of the industry, allowing Western oil executives to sit on an oil ministry council which will approve contracts under which foreign companies can operate.”
That, in conjunction with the threat of arrest against Hassan Juma’a and other leaders of the Iraqi oil workers, may be one of the kernels that points to the real causes of the war in Iraq: the removal of large amounts of Iraqi natural resources into the hands of western companies. The oil law proposed in Iraq bears a horrible resemblance to the oil law introduced in Iran in 1952 after the coup that installed the Shah in power, and British oil companies did very well out of that.
Finally, on the question of foreign policy and what goes with it, the Prime Minister, ever since he took us into the war in Iraq, has developed his ideas on foreign policy a great deal. He has given many lectures around the world about what he calls “humanitarian intervention”. We should learn the following lessons: we should consider, first, whether or not the war was legal; secondly, whether it did, or did not, breach the UN charter; and, thirdly, to avoid future conflicts, perhaps we should give more support to the UN charter and the principles of international law. I am concerned that in the debate about Iraq we often forget that that war started after the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Many far-thinking people in the Ministry of Defence and elsewhere believe that we should withdraw from Iraq to put even greater resources into Afghanistan. The road to peace in the world does not lie in one war after another, after another, after another, with all the attendant attacks on our own, and other people’s, civil liberties that emanate from that. Surely, we have a big lesson to learn about how to bring about peace in the world.
When we come to vote on the motion, we can do so, whether or not we believe in the war in Iraq. I urge Members of Parliament to think a little bit further. We were elected to the House because we live in a democracy: we were sent here to hold the Executive to account, whether they belong to the same party as us or not. It is the job of Parliament to find out the truth, and to try to inform the public better how the war came about. It is therefore entirely appropriate that Parliament should vote for an inquiry, which should be conducted in depth. It should be detailed, public and, above all, far reaching so that we can learn the lessons of all those tens of thousands of people who have lost their lives in Iraq and so that at least that kind of disaster and tragedy could not be repeated somewhere else in some other oil-rich part of the globe.
May I begin by referring to an interest, declared in the Register, in a company that operates in Iraq?
I support very strongly the proposal for an inquiry made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), because the Prime Minister has shown that essentially he is still in denial about the policy over which he has presided for the past few years. On several occasions, I have heard him, when challenged with the drama, trauma and mess that have developed in Iraq, say, “I accept full responsibility.” Usually, when someone says that, they follow it with a second phrase—“And I acknowledge that we made a mess of this,” or, “It’s all gone terribly wrong.” The Prime Minister is an unusual phenomenon, because he says, “I accept full responsibility and I got it right. I continue to defend what I did.” Not only is that a rather eccentric approach but it damages the Government’s overall credibility regarding future policy in Iraq, and not simply the justification for the past.
We saw a remarkable example of the Prime Minister’s tendency towards double- speak in an article for which he was interviewed in The Economist on 31 May. It was headed, “What I’ve learned”, but when one read it, one discovered that he had not learned very much. He said:
“It is said that by removing Saddam or the Taliban—regimes that were authoritarian but also kept a form of order—the plight of Iraqis and Afghans has worsened, and terrorism has been allowed to grow.”
He went on to say:
“This is a seductive but dangerous argument. Work out what it really means. It means that because these reactionary and evil forces will fight hard, through terrorism, to prevent those countries and their people getting on their feet after the dictatorships are removed, we should leave the people under the dictatorship.”
Considered just in those narrow terms, what the Prime Minister said was entirely logical, but the premise from which he proceeded was utterly wrong. I am reminded of the remark that Harold Macmillan once made about Sir John Simon, when he said that the hon. Gentleman has such a logical frame of mind that starting from a false premise, he moves inexorably to the wrong conclusion. That is what the Prime Minister has done. He is no fool. He knows perfectly well that when any Government, including a British Government, are considering intervention through military means against a country that has not attacked them, no Government, including the present British Government, simply look at the human rights record of the Government concerned.
Of course, that is an important consideration. So, too, is the question whether we will win in a conventional conflict and the war will be over quickly. But one also looks at all the wider implications of invading a country and implementing a policy of regime change. I ignore for the moment the fact that regime change was never part of the justification for the war and, indeed, could not have been because it would have been against international law. Even if it had been, the British Government, as we well know, have been disinclined to intervene in other countries that have just as bad a human rights record. Otherwise we would have had British troops in Zimbabwe getting rid of Mr. Mugabe. No doubt the United States would have gone into Castro’s Cuba many years ago, and might have gone into North Korea more recently.
In each and every case, the reason was not a judgment about the human rights record or a judgment as to whether a conventional war would be won. It was a wider and a very wise judgment as to the overall implications and consequences of such an invasion of a country that had not attacked us. Sometimes the arguments are valid. I pay credit to what the Government did in Sierra Leone. There was a case where there was a strong human rights argument, but where the consequences of our intervention clearly have been beneficial.
That could have been anticipated, and was anticipated, and the Government were right to act. I happen to think that they were right in Afghanistan, but the whole point about Iraq is that most of what has happened since the invasion was not only predictable, but was predicted. It is not the Prime Minister’s integrity or honesty that I question; it is the basic competence—incompetence, I should say—and the poor judgment that guided his actions over that period. That is why an inquiry is essential now.
So much for the past. Where do we go from here with regard to the British presence in Iraq? Even those of us who were against the war cannot say that because we were against it, British troops must come out at the first available opportunity. Prince Turki of Saudi Arabia made a very wise remark. He said that the coalition must realise that if they go in uninvited, they cannot just leave uninvited. We have contributed to the mess in Iraq. It has a more democratic Government than it has ever had. That Government want us to retain a presence in Iraq, and they are entitled to have that view taken into account.
What arguments should be used? There are three questions that we have to address. First, are we delivering the policy in Basra, in the south, that was the reason for British troops being there in the first place? Secondly, if we are not delivering that policy or only partially doing so, is there nevertheless some justification for a continuing presence on its merits in Iraq over a period of time? Thirdly, regardless of those arguments, what are the wider political implications in regard to both the United States and western interests generally if we continue in Iraq for some time?
Let me look at those three questions briefly. First, Basra is a lot better than Baghdad. The number of people being killed is far lower. The terrorism incidents have been much easier to control, but they are not in control. There is not a sectarian conflict between Shi’a and Sunni, but we should not get too overjoyed about that. The main reason is that the Sunni have effectively been expelled from the region and have become a small minority in that locality, so the conflict there is now Shi’a-Shi’a.
However, the Government’s writ does not run in Basra, and in that sense the British Government’s presence there through their military forces has not delivered the kind of peace and stability that we hoped for over the past three or four years. I broadly accept the Government’s argument that it is sensible over the next few months to withdraw those of our troops who are involved in patrolling in Basra. Three of the four provinces have already been handed over. It makes sense to work towards a handing over of the fourth province in months, not years. That would allow a substantial deployment.
That brings me to my second question, which is highly relevant to what the Foreign Secretary said earlier: should we continue with some military presence even after most of our troops have been withdrawn and Basra province has been handed over to the Iraqi Government? In my judgment, the answer is yes because there are activities where we can continue to make a useful contribution to the objectives of the Iraqi Government, which we share, with regard to some possibility of stability in that region.
What are those objectives? First, we have been heavily involved in training the 10th division of the Iraqi army, and that job is not yet complete, so a training function should continue even if we withdraw our troops from Basra province in relation to regular patrols. Secondly, when our troops move from Basra palace to Basra airport, the protection of the airport in ensuring that it can be used with free passage is an important contribution that British troops could continue to make in an effective and credible fashion. Thirdly, a major requirement will be to ensure the free movement of logistics from Kuwait to Baghdad and to central Iraq. Such convoy work is crucial. Indeed, we will do a huge disservice not only to the Iraqis but to our American allies if they have to redeploy some of their own scarce resources to cover that purely transport-related requirement from the southern part of the country to the north. That function can be carried out pretty effectively and with minimal casualties. Fourthly, there will be occasional operations where we could assist the Iraqi army where it does not have particular capabilities available to itself.
On the basis of that argument, we would perhaps reduce our troop numbers from 5,500 to 1,000 or 1,500, ensuring that those who remained would not be as visible to the Iraqi public—and therefore could not be used as targets as has been the case in the recent past—but would continue to be able to make a useful contribution to the ongoing battle to try to get some stability and security in the country.
My third question concerns the wider political implications. We cannot get away from the fact that if the United Kingdom simply pulled out every single last soldier in the next few months, that would gravely damage the United States. I make that remark not out of love of the United States, although I happen to approve of it as a country, but because we have no national or international interest in giving comfort to al-Qaeda and terrorist elements. Leaving the United States completely exposed in Iraq, with even its closest ally having completely abandoned it, not even carrying out those responsibilities that it can credibly and effectively carry out, would be an over-reaction to the problem and should therefore not be supported. I would not make that argument were there not a job that could be credibly done, but in training and the other areas that I mentioned it is justified on its merits as well as in terms of the political strategy that points in the same direction.
We often hear comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq. In some ways, it is a false comparison: in fact, Iraq is worse than Vietnam. In Vietnam, there was already a war going on and the United States intervened to try to help one side—the Vietnamese Government. In this case, the coalition started the invasion and the war that would not otherwise have occurred. There are other highly relevant differences. In Vietnam, there was one group of insurgents—the Vietcong—and an alternative Government: the North Vietnamese Government who were ready and willing to take over control. Neither of those factors applies in the case of Iraq. Iraq does not have one insurgency—it has multiple insurgences throughout the country. Some involve Shi’a versus Shi’a’, some involve Kurds, some involve Sunni operatives, and some involve foreign jihadists such as al-Qaeda: all are battling with their own agenda and their own grasping for power. Moreover, no alternative Government are available to take over. As a result, we have a situation whereby 2 million Iraqis have fled Iraq since the end of the original war, and they are overwhelmingly Iraq’s middle class—the people who are essential if there is to be any economic reconstruction of the country. That makes the situation even more dire than it would otherwise have been.
What has happened is essentially this. Yes, it is true to say that under Saddam Hussein Iraq was a rogue state, but in the past four years—I take no pleasure in saying this—it has moved from being a rogue state and is now a failed state. A failed state can have even more serious implications for its neighbours and for the region as a whole because of the vacuum that is created—we all know what happens in vacuums when very nasty and vicious people are able to operate in ways that they would not otherwise have been able to. There are powerful reasons for ensuring that the United States is not humiliated. If Britain can continue to make some contribution to the wider international effort to achieve stability despite withdrawing its patrol forces and the bulk of its troops, that must be the right course of action.
We are not going to see an end in Iraq rather like the end in Vietnam. There will not be any US helicopter taking off from the American embassy in Baghdad on the last day of this conflict. Even if the Americans withdraw their combat forces, they are probably in for a long period of years with a very substantial presence. It will be a long haul for the Americans and probably for the United Kingdom and a number of other countries. The good news is that it will not end like Vietnam—but that is probably the bad news as well.
I should like to express my concerns about this issue. I have great regard for the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) and, given his intellect and ability, for which I also have had a very high regard, I am somewhat amazed that he has again brought such a motion to this place. The issue of an inquiry is very important. When there was a vote on that here, I did not vote for it. The right hon. Gentleman says that the Government cited propositions concerning national security and so on, and he took that advice, as did his colleagues, and voted in a particular way. Until then, during my time on the Government Benches I had only once previously voted against my Government. I took that very seriously.
In considering a motion such as this, it is important to determine whether it will really address and move forward the matter at hand, which is the number of lives that are being lost—not only among our armed forces and those of the Americans, but among Iraqis. Would such an inquiry deal with that? What would be its terms of reference and how would they be set? We have had four other inquiries. Every Member can pick holes in those inquiries because not one of us has been pleased by their outcomes. Would we get the result that we want in this case?
I agree that there is a place for the inquiry that needs to consider the issues that must be dealt with.
As Members have said, we face the question of how we deal with what is happening in the current arena of operations. How can we expose our forces to the detailed scrutiny of an inquiry? There are, therefore, inadequacies in such a proposal and we need to consider that seriously.
The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks said that there had been four inquiries but that no inquiry was genuinely examining the issue. One inquiry is examining the matter, and I happen to be chairing it. It is a parliamentary inquiry into tackling terrorism and it has been proceeding for some time. Hon. Members have mentioned Sir Jeremy Greenstock—he will attend the inquiry to give evidence about tackling what is going on.
The number of insurgents in Iraq who are taking action to inflame the situation further has been mentioned. We need somehow to defuse matters and allow the people of Iraq to return to some sort of normality. The actions that were taken, the way in which they were carried out, the consequences and the people who made the decisions need to be considered—once the Iraqi people have been brought back to normality and enjoy the safety and security that we all take for granted. We must tackle that through active policy.
We need to consider ways in which we can make a difference to the Iraqi people’s lives and start to control the insurgencies and the factions. If we do not deal with such issues, an inquiry would not assist the people who are currently most at risk.
I am trying to understand the hon. Gentleman’s argument. We went into Iraq on 20 March 2003 and, four years later, the country is on the brink of civil war. Does he honestly claim that a review would not let us understand exactly what went wrong and led the country to its current condition?
We took action after a vote in this place. We went to war and we are now facing the consequences of that. We must deal with those consequences. We could scrutinise that action, as the Opposition suggest, but I want to tackle what is happening on the ground. How do we engage with people and try to overcome a situation in which innocent Iraqis are killed daily? People lose their lives while they wait in queues for food and for jobs. We need to address that.
Are we engaging in policy making with people from the Organisation of the Islamic Conference? We need to get them back on board. Someone mentioned the Baker-Hamilton inquiry in the United States, which has considered discussions with Syria and Iran. That is fine—those two countries have a bearing on the matter. The populations of many Islamic countries have an effect on the melting pot. We need to control that melting pot and deal with the position whereby insurgents from the surrounding area come to Iraq. We must consider how to tackle that. Any inquiry should examine those important issues. Our inquiry is starting to do that and ascertain ways in which to deal with those problems. We are managing to do that on a cross-party basis.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that an inquiry could urgently consider our catastrophic failure before and after the war to protect Iraqi cultural heritage from systematic looting, which is devastating Iraq? If the Iraqis are to have any hope of rebuilding their country, that looting must be stopped. What have we in mind to prevent that? The Department for Culture, Media and Sport pledged £5 million, which has vanished, to stop the systematic looting. Would it not help the Iraqis to rebuild their future if they had some idea of what had allowed things to go so catastrophically wrong from the beginning?
I thank the right hon. Lady for that intervention; I am trying to make it clear that our inquiry is examining exactly that point. Military action has not worked and we need to consider engaging the OIC countries in the region. They can have a positive influence on all the factors that are needed to make a difference. We need to get them engaged in the process. Perhaps that will mean those countries contributing positively through allowing their armed forces to support the training of Iraqi forces, as opposed to American and British forces being targets for the insurgents. We need to examine methods of changing the arena in which our soldiers and the other coalition soldiers operate. We need to engage far more with the surrounding Muslim countries and emphasise that they have a stake in the future of Iraq, that of Afghanistan and, to an extent, that of Palestine. All those matters should be examined so that we start to deal with the position in Iraq.
We need an inquiry that starts to formulate our foreign policy on engaging with those Muslim countries, move it forward and begin to deal with the situation. To me, that is most important. The Americans started the process through the Baker-Hamilton review. It was an important step forward for the Americans to take. We are doing similar work in Parliament, where our inquiry thankfully has cross-party support.
If the hon. Gentleman believes that the Prime Minister was right to participate in the Baker-Hamilton inquiry, surely he would welcome the Prime Minister’s participation in any inquiry into the genesis of the war that the House or the Privy Council conducted.
I have invited the Prime Minister to our inquiry—[Hon. Members: “Will he come?”] I have been told that he will make himself available at some stage. I am waiting for him to respond formally. I have met him and invited him and made a formal request through his Parliamentary Private Secretary.
No. I am saying that I made a request to the Prime Minister and that it is currently being considered positively. We are waiting for a concrete date. People such as Major General Tim Cross have attended the inquiry and Sir Jeremy Greenstock will attend it. People such as Baroness Williams from the upper House serve on it. We are seriously considering how to tackle the situation in Iraq in future. My objection to the motion is that it does not do that.
What are the terms of reference of the inquiry that the Opposition propose? Would it tackle what people want it to address? We all have matters that we would like an inquiry to consider. The Opposition have tabled a motion that states that they want a Privy Council inquiry. Who will sit down and determine the terms of reference? Will the whole of Parliament agree them? How will that be managed? The Opposition need to consider that serious issue if they want a positive inquiry.
That is a matter for him; I cannot speak for the Prime Minister. What I have done and will do is pursue him to come to my inquiry—that is the best I can do and I will continue to do it.
What we have to realise in this place is that whatever decisions have been taken and whatever has happened needs to be addressed. As hon. Members have said before, an inquiry will have to look at the whole build-up of arms in Iraq. We would have to go back to the Matrix Churchill affair and other issues that have come after it. We would need to see how Iraq was allowed to get itself into the position that it did, and we would need to examine the way in which all these things have happened. All those things will need to be in the terms of reference for an inquiry. I am sure that there will be a huge amount of debate and a huge inquiry in that respect.
Most of us will agree with one or other aspect of an inquiry, but not all of it. That is what happens with public inquiries: we never always agree on all the final conclusions because they do not always suit our own particular ends or reflect what we wanted to see. The real issue for us today, though, is not that, but how we move forward. Until we start to look into how our foreign policy can address the issue of lives being lost—day in, day out—in Iraq, we will not achieve that.
How do we actively involve and engage other Islamic countries in order to deliver a peaceful settlement for those people who moved away from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein—someone who was prepared to take lives at any cost and did so, and sometimes with the help of the west? We need to move on and give confidence to Muslim opinion around the world that we are going to look into the issues that affect ordinary people who just want a decent quality of life—education and health, for example.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the reasons his inquiry is facing problems is that the voice of ordinary people from Iraq—trade union leaders, for example—cannot be heard in this country because they are not allowed to speak? When they are out and about from their country, they face the risk of being assassinated, which has happened at least twice over the last six months.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. He has made a huge contribution to the inquiry that is taking place. It is people like him who actually want a positive way forward, rather than navel gazing and continuous scratching of wounds in order to inflict damage. He realises that we need to move towards a decent future for the people of Iraq. That is the most important thing in any inquiry. What we should do in this place is to look into that very seriously and try to determine how it can happen.
I strongly believe that it is essential to establish an independent inquiry into the route to war in Iraq and its aftermath for a number of profoundly important reasons. The first is that the terrible suffering, loss of life and displacement of people in Iraq continues, as does the death and injury of our soldiers and American soldiers—with no end in sight. There is no serious exit strategy. The Foreign Secretary talks as if all is going well and that if we can just wait a little bit longer, it will all be over and we could have an inquiry then. If only that were so. Whatever view one takes about the route to war, we would all be delighted if stability were to come soon and the killing and dying would end. No serious observer, however, holds that view.
I recently met a former general in the UK Army—he was a serving general when I was in government and I know him from that period—who asked me whether I would like to know the Army view of what was happening in Iraq. He told me that the Army view was that there was absolutely no military purpose to our soldiers being in Iraq and that there was nothing that they could accomplish by being there. All they are doing, he told me, is trying not to get killed. The reason they cannot be withdrawn is that it would embarrass the US if the UK withdrew. That was a serious source of information and he was not saying that that was his personal view, but the Army view. That is outrageous. It means that our young people are killing and dying in order not to embarrass the US about its own flawed strategy. That is why we need an inquiry. It is an enormous problem and it is going to go on indefinitely.
Even in the US, where the call for withdrawal gets ever louder and the Democrat party has tried to take up and echo the call in order to win elections, there is no honesty about what is being recommended. What the US really wants to do is remain in Iraq with permanent military bases in order to dominate the Gulf, withdraw to barracks and have a pro-American Government in Iraq. That is the policy. The problem is that that is unacceptable to the Iraqi people. Poll after poll has shown that they want a withdrawal as soon as possible. That means—this is my serious and sincere view and the view of many others—that the insurgency will continue. The trouble, bloodshed, anger and hatred in the middle east will get worse. More people will die and the Muslim community across the world, about which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Mahmood) has just spoken, will go on being angry and upset. More and more young people will become convinced that the only way to get justice in the middle east is to engage in violence. This whole situation is acting as a massive recruiting sergeant for terrorism, making the problem that it is meant to address ever worse and bringing our own country into terrible disrepute.
Given the situation of our soldiers, it is right that they should be withdrawn. I disagree with the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) about that, but I agree that, irrespective of our views about how we got here, it is right to advise on the positive way forward. I believe that there is a positive way forward and that the Iraq Study Group produced a superb piece of work that points the way forward, but it is certainly not the policy being adopted by the US Administration or, to their shame, by the UK Government.
The Iraq Study Group said that the US has to make it clear that it wants to withdraw as rapidly as possible and give up its aspiration to permanent bases in Iraq. It should then seek to negotiate a withdrawal as quickly and responsibly as possible. If the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr wants other countries, particularly Muslim countries, to come in and help the Iraqis, there has to be a handover to some sort of Government of national unity—an end to the occupation, which would then trigger the willingness of the international community to come in and help the people of Iraq to stabilise their country.
There is now interesting and important evidence that Moqtada al-Sadr is in talks with the organisers of the Sunni insurgency about coming together in a potential Government of national unity, calling for an end to the occupation and then uniting against the al-Qaeda elements who are inciting civil war and violence between Sunni and Shia. That is the way forward and the Iraq Study Group outlined it as a possible policy.
The Iraq Study Group noted, of course, that if we want the help of Syria and Iran, things will have to be done. In the case of Syria, we will need to resolve the problem of the Golan heights. The report goes on to say that there has to be a settlement of the Israel-Palestine issue on the basis of the 1967 boundaries, the sharing of Jerusalem and a negotiated solution to the right of return. In other words, the Iraq Study Group, which comprised leading Republicans and Democrats who consulted all over the world—including our own Prime Minister—said that the only way out of Iraq is a change of US policy in the middle east. That is the right answer.
If the UK would say to the US, “We support the Iraq Study Group and would work with you on that basis, but if not, we are out because we are doing no good in Iraq, our young people are dying in vain and we are inflaming the problem”, we could all get back together and be proud of our Government instead of being ashamed of how they have proceeded in error and, I am afraid, deceit.
I believe that dishonesty about why we went into Iraq helps to explain the chaos that we are now in. It never was about weapons of mass destruction: the Butler report summarised what the intelligence said and there was clearly no imminent threat. People believed that some scientists were doing work somewhere, but it was obvious that there was no imminent threat. Butler put that on the record. It was not about the nature of the Saddam Hussein regime either. The Prime Minister said in answer to a question—I think from the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle), but I am not sure—that if Saddam Hussein would co-operate with the weapons inspectors, he could remain. That was not the reason.
The real reason was set out in “The Project for the New American Century” by leading neo-cons, who then went into Government. They thought that they would be welcomed when they went into Iraq because they believed their own propaganda. The purpose was, however, to remove American bases from Saudi Arabia—the land of the holy places, where they are absolutely not welcome and are seen as an outrage by the rest of the Muslim world—and place permanent bases in Iraq, from which to control the Persian gulf. That was the purpose—that is the purpose—and it is resulting in continuing insurgency, violence, divisions, death and destruction in the middle east.
We need an inquiry because we have dishonesty and bad faith, and we have a strategy that will not work. Surely it is the duty of the House of Commons to consider how we got here and to look at the available alternatives and find a way forward.
The right hon. Lady speaks of the importance of an inquiry into the war. The invasion having taken place, however, does she also agree that there is a need to look into the aftermath and the peacekeeping that prevailed afterwards? Will she tell the House whether there was enough co-ordination between the Department for International Development, the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office in mounting that peacekeeping operation? The window of opportunity for peacekeeping to work is very small.
I shall come to that point in a few minutes.
The second reason we need an inquiry is that the overwhelming majority of the people in the UK believe that they were lied to about the reasons for the war. Troops are still being deployed, and soldiers are still being injured, losing their lives and taking the lives of Iraqis for reasons that the majority in this country disbelieve. Our troops find that very distressing. A year or so ago, I was stopped in Whitehall by an officer in civilian clothes, who said that the worst thing that a soldier ever had to do was to talk to the parents of someone who had died under their command, and that when their country thinks that the war is dishonest and does not believe in it, that duty becomes unbearable. So part of our duty is to our troops. We need to get the truth out there and to treat them with respect. We should not ask them to serve, to risk their lives and to take the lives of others for reasons that their country does not believe in.
The third reason we need an inquiry is to establish why there was such a failure to prepare for post-conflict Iraq. This is the issue that the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) raised a moment ago. I was involved in this, and my view is that the failure properly to prepare flowed from the deceit on the route to war. Preparations were made in the State Department, in the United Nations and in my old Department in co-ordination with other humanitarian agencies across the world for a post-conflict situation in which the occupying powers would honour their obligations under the Geneva convention. The occupying powers have a duty under that convention to keep order, but they do not have the right to reorganise the political institutions of a country. Under such arrangements, there was an expectation of internationalisation and international support.
I went to a meeting of the World Bank shortly after the war. Of course, there were fantastic divisions there, but we worked to say that, whatever the divisions on the reasons for the war, if we could internationalise the reconstruction, please let us all come back in together to help Iraq to rebuild itself. What happened? With just months to go before the date chosen for the war, the President of the United States scrapped all the State Department’s preparations—which were massive and had been made in co-ordination with the rest of the world—and set up a unit in the Pentagon, which started making preparations from scratch. A British general, General Tim Cross, was put in as its deputy. He told me that they were moving in the furniture just a couple of months before the date chosen for the war.
The answer is not that people failed to prepare. The preparations that were properly made according to international law for conditions that would have brought international co-operation were thrown away because of the reasons for the war. America wanted, as in Japan and South Korea, to be dominant in Iraq, to have bases and a pro-American Government there. It did not want internationalisation or a UN lead. That is all extremely important, and we need to learn those lessons if we are to begin to put things right.
The fourth reason we need an inquiry is to examine the role of the Attorney-General. The full legal advice was never given to the Cabinet. I have never been a constitutionalist, but I am still utterly shocked by what took place. When I read the full legal advice, I still cannot believe that we were never given it, and that the legal advice that was given to the Cabinet and to Parliament was so different—
I think that lots of people supported the Prime Minister but now feel that they were deceived by him. People all over the country have that view.
My view on what happened over the legal advice is that the disgrace goes beyond the present holder of the office. The Attorney-General’s role needs re-examination. On any vote in which the House of Commons is to be given the right to decide on war or peace, it will need its own legal advice. We cannot go on with the present arrangements, with the pretence of independence in authority but with political pressure that causes someone to modify their legal advice.
The fifth major reason we need an inquiry is that the people of the UK have lost faith in their politicians and political institutions. There has always been a healthy disrespect for politicians in this country, but now it nears contempt. We need to be honest about what has happened, and to change our institutional arrangements as well as our policy in Iraq, in order to get back the faith and respect of the people of the UK.
I voted for the Iraq war, which I now bitterly regret. I therefore make these remarks much more in a spirit of contrition than of rebuke. I strongly believe that this issue will not go away. It continues to damage public opinion, as the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) has just so rightly said, and, like all painful traumas, it can be exorcised only by facing up to it, warts and all, and by an admission of mistakes, misjudgments and misrepresentations being made, with a full account being given of the changes to be implemented to prevent any such events from happening again.
That is the only sure way in which to restore confidence and trust, which is what my party is now, rightly, urgently trying to do. Indeed, that has been the central refrain in the leadership and deputy leadership election contests in the party. The Chancellor—the Prime Minister in waiting—has made it clear that he wants a much more open and transparent form of Government to be a key means of winning back the votes that we have lost. I say to him that the Iraq war is unquestionably the place to begin. A wholly independent and thorough inquiry—not only into the war’s origins, which have already been explored to some degree, but into its handling and its aftermath—will do far more to restore confidence and trust than any other single issue.
I take the Government’s point that there have already been four separate inquiries, but none of them addresses what is clearly still needed. The Hutton inquiry was widely dismissed as a whitewash. The members of the Intelligence and Security Committee are appointed by the Prime Minister and the Committee reports to the Prime Minister. For all its seniority and expertise, which are undoubted, it cannot be regarded as wholly independent. The Foreign Affairs Committee is inhibited because it does not have access to the crucial intelligence data. The Butler review, to be fair, did produce a pretty damning report that drew attention to many high-level failures. However, it concluded that no one was really responsible, and drew no conclusions about how a debacle of this kind could be prevented in the future. None of the inquiries dealt with the handling or the aftermath of the war. What has happened since the war is, arguably, even more important.
Having said that, I do not endorse either the proposal in the Opposition motion that a committee of Privy Councillors should undertake the inquiry. Apart from the fact that the matter was debated less than eight months ago, which makes it hard to believe that there is not a measure of political opportunism in raising it again so soon, I do not believe that it would provide the degree of independence that is vital for the purpose. The committee of inquiry, which I strongly endorse in principle, should be headed by a senior judge or similar person. However, unlike in the case of Lord Hutton, the chairman, members and terms of reference of the inquiry should all have to be approved by Parliament. The acceptance of its independence would therefore be assured from the outset. The appropriate Select Committee might be the Public Administration Committee, whose Chairman I am glad to see in the Chamber today.
A great deal of information relevant to such an inquiry has already been documented. However, several key issues that led directly to the Iraqi disaster have simply been left hanging in the air—they have been debated endlessly, but no conclusions or determination about a different Government action later have been reached. No recommendation has been made for reform to prevent a repetition in future.
I do believe that it is a good starting point. As I said, I am very much in favour of a committee of inquiry in principle. If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I shall try to spell out how it should operate.
The most important issue that has been left hanging in the air is the interface between the intelligence services and the political decision makers. I noted that the previous Secretary of State for Defence said only last month:
“I saw the intelligence from the first time I came into the office in May 1999—week in, week out—that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction”.
On the other hand, a few months before that, Carne Ross, a diplomat at Britain’s UN mission in New York in the run-up to the invasion, revealed:
“There was no intelligence evidence of significant holdings of chemical weapons, biological weapons or nuclear material”.
Those statements are totally inconsistent. Whatever the truth, and none of us can be sure either way—and that is my point—a much tighter degree of parliamentary oversight is clearly needed to ensure the integrity of the intelligence services’ advice. The committee of inquiry ought to spell out in some detail how that might work.
The Attorney-General’s advice on the legality of the war was disclosed in full, well after the event, only because of the fear that it would be leaked bit by bit, damagingly, in the immediate run-up to the 2005 general election. That is not an acceptable precedent. We need a firm Government commitment that the Attorney-General’s advice will always, in such circumstances, be published uncensored. Furthermore, reference should also be made to any significant dissenting voices, such as Elizabeth Wilmshurst’s from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and to the grounds on which that dissent is argued.
I served as a soldier and a television correspondent during the war-fighting phases of both wars, and lost a number of friends and colleagues. Before the war in 2003, a friend who was well looped-in to intelligence about the war and what was going on told me that there was not a shred of evidence of useable weapons of mass destruction, and no connection whatever between Saddam and al-Qaeda. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that the inquiry should include an investigation of the activities of middle-ranking officers in the intelligence services and the Ministry of Defence?
The whole point of having a committee of inquiry is to examine how sensitive issues of intelligence data and of national security—a blanket term that can be easily extended for the Government’s convenience—can be made available in a way that allows the public and Parliament to take a serious and informed view. We cannot generalise about that; the matter needs to be considered with great care. That is exactly why a committee of inquiry ought to be asked to do that. If we are to have a parliamentary vote, which I strongly support—I have tabled a Bill to precisely that effect—we need to know the evidence by which an informed view can be taken.
I do not anticipate this point being contentious. Will my right hon. Friend extend his comments about the Attorney-General’s advice to all advice given by the Attorney-General? In the case under discussion, two bits of advice were given. The first was wholly different from the second, and its existence was not even revealed to the Cabinet.
The second bit of advice is the crucial one. I understand my hon. and learned Friend’s point about the distinction between the two. We learned in full—in more than 17 pages—the Attorney General’s detailed recommendations to the Prime Minister only because of the accident of an upcoming general election. That is totally unsuitable. In such circumstances, all the recommendations of the Attorney-General, especially those carrying the most authority, should be made available.
The inquiry should examine the key question of the accountability of the Prime Minister to Parliament in such circumstances, and how it can be strengthened. I very much welcome the Chancellor’s commitment to a parliamentary debate and vote before Britain is taken to war in future, which is absolutely right. The implication of the Iraq saga in that context is clear: the evidence to justify a decision to go to war must be made available to Parliament in detail, involving, where time allows, rapid and rigorous scrutiny by a Select Committee, which would then report to the House to inform the debate.
None of the four pre-existing inquiries examined in much detail the aftermath of the war. Arguably, the lessons to be learned from that are even more important. The prime question is: what were the real objectives of the US-led invasion? To what extent did the UK agree with those objectives? How consistent were they with the creation of a democratic, secure, independent Iraq, which we would all wish to see?
Many key issues deserve close attention from an inquiry, and have so far not been examined at all. Was there, initially, a reconstruction plan for the recovery of Iraqi industry and civil society? If so, what part did Britain play in it? Did we seek to avert the crass mistakes of the early Bremer administration, including the rapid disbanding of Iraqi military and security forces, the almost total neglect of essential, basic public services—clean drinking water, electricity and hygiene—in favour of taking over the oilfields, and the 100 or so Bremer orders for the wholesale privatisation of Iraq? Did we have any role in any of those decisions? I would also expect a committee of inquiry to examine what part the UK authorities might have made played in the machinations, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) referred, behind the current Iraqi oil law, which looks set to deprive the Iraqi state, utterly debilitated as it is, of its one, enormous, indigenous asset.
Of course, the most important question now, the Iraqi invasion and occupation being seen for the catastrophe that they are, concerns the exit strategy. Britain’s own Army chiefs, public opinion in this country—consistently—and, indeed, the stated demands of the Iraqi Prime Minister are all calling for a speedy departure from Iraq. Of course a committee of inquiry will not settle a matter of that kind, but I think it could usefully give advice on some of the options and issues relating to it. I therefore believe that a further committee of inquiry, different from and more far-reaching than those that have preceded it, is still very much needed.
As I have said, I do not support the Opposition motion because I think it is wrongly structured, and the right structure is central in this instance. However, I do believe that the establishment of such an inquiry in a different form, with the kind of remit that I have sketched out and subject to the full approval of the House, cannot be delayed indefinitely. I hope very much that the Government will return to this issue very soon.
The right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher) has posed some of the questions that an inquiry should look into. I want to return to the question of whether we should have an inquiry, rather than discussing the question of what it might do or what findings it might come up with.
I want to deal with two specific issues. First, I want to nail the idea that the time is wrong for an inquiry. The time is certainly wrong for an inquiry about what we should be doing in Basra right now, or what General Petraeus should be doing in Baghdad and the Sunni areas right now—but there is absolutely nothing wrong with an inquiry into how we became involved in the war. What were the relationships between the Prime Minister and the President? When were the decisions actually made? How was the intelligence got so wrong, and how was it so badly misinterpreted and/or mis-sold to Parliament? What part did we play in the mistakes made by the Bremer administration, and did we argue against them or were we fully on side?
Those mistakes are in the past. I believe that we can inquire into them properly without in any way undermining the authority or effectiveness of what our troops and our coalition partners, particularly the United States, are trying to do in Iraq. I believe that it is a red herring for the Government to say that the timing is wrong. The timing is certainly wrong for a whole inquiry, but there would be nothing wrong with the timing of the first part of an inquiry, looking into how we reached this point and how such big strategic mistakes were made.
The second lie that I want to nail, which is in the Government amendment, is that there have already been four inquiries. The right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton dealt with that to some extent, but I want to deal with it in a little more detail, because I was a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee that reported on the issue.
The Hutton inquiry was nothing to do with the war in Iraq. It was to do with the death of Dr. David Kelly. The terms were drawn up by the Government and were very tightly prescribed, although the Government were extremely generous with witnesses and papers. They did not show such generosity to the Foreign Affairs Committee. The Hutton inquiry obtained every witness that it wanted, but it was nothing to do with the intelligence or the decisions that put us in this situation in the first place.
The Butler inquiry was useful. It examined the intelligence, and it was the only inquiry that found anything particularly new. It produced some very damaging evidence, mainly about the style of government—which I think tells us something about the process by which the issues were considered—but also about the fact that intelligence was at least mis-sold to Parliament, and did not quite justify what was in the September 2002 dossier.
The third inquiry was conducted by the Intelligence and Security Committee. The ISC is not a Committee of Parliament. It is appointed under statute by the Prime Minister, it reports to the Prime Minister, and for obvious reasons all its evidence sessions are held in private. Its original role was overseeing the intelligence services. It was not designed to inquire into particular uses of intelligence or particular policy decisions made on the basis of that intelligence, with or without it. It was designed to have oversight of the security services, which were felt not to be accountable to Parliament in any way, because accountability other than through departmental Ministers was very difficult. The Government, however, have used it as something to hide behind.
I was a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee for, I think, seven years, until a few months ago. The Government would say, “Oh, we’ll give that intelligence to the Intelligence and Security Committee,” as though that were an alternative to giving it to the Foreign Affairs Committee, when what was at stake was actually a foreign policy decision. I do not think that the Intelligence and Security Committee counts. The Committee that counts is the Foreign Affairs Committee, and our inquiry was obstructed by the Government.
I cannot remember another instance since I have been in the House of a Select Committee’s publishing a special report to the House saying that its inquiry was obstructed, and inviting the House to consider what it might do as a result. My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) listed some of the witnesses and papers that we were refused. Our report stated:
“We are strongly of the view that we were entitled to a greater degree of co-operation from the Government on access to witnesses and to intelligence material.”
It was a unanimous report, produced by a Committee with a Labour majority. The only way in which the Committee could have sought to insist on the attendance of witnesses would have been to seek a resolution of the House, which, effectively, would require Government approval.
I think that Parliament must decide whether it is serious about its Select Committees. We are pretty awful at holding the Government to account. So was the Labour party when we were in government, and so it will be again when we are back in government. I do not think that this is a party political issue. I think that the House must decide whether it is serious, and if it serious, whether Select Committees are the answer. We need a better mechanism than having to come back here and pass a resolution of the whole House to force the Government to comply with requirements with which they have already effectively agreed to comply.
Our Committee asked for named civil servants and specific pieces of paper, and was denied them. We received a letter saying, “The Foreign Secretary will answer for all these people.” That is not what the rules say. When Robin Butler was the permanent head of the civil service he reinforced the Osmotherly rules, which stated that if a Committee asked for a named civil servant, that civil servant had a duty to attend. In exceptional circumstances, it might be necessary for civil servants’ Ministers to answer for them. But we were not offered the Secretary of State for Defence, and we were not offered the Prime Minister himself. We were offered the Foreign Secretary to answer for all those civil servants, and I think that that was unsatisfactory.
It is interesting to note that all those people attended the inquiries of the Intelligence and Security Committee, and the Hutton inquiry. At the Hutton inquiry they gave evidence in public. All the papers that the Foreign Affairs Committee requested—which we were prepared to take on restricted terms, as we have with many other papers in the past—were offered to those inquiries quite openly. I do not know whether the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) will wind up the debate. If not, I ask him to invite the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram) to deal with this issue. The Government must stop saying that there has been an inquiry of the House just because the Foreign Affairs Committee conducted an inquiry. We were obstructed, and we published a report saying that we had been obstructed, to which all the Committee’s Labour members subscribed.
Our motion calls for—and everyone talks about—an external inquiry, as if we were incapable of performing this function for ourselves. I return to my point that the main function of the House of Commons, or at least of those Members who are not in the Government, is to hold the Government to account. One of our mechanisms for doing that is Select Committees. We should not abdicate the first difficult inquiry to a judge, as someone suggested. I happen to think that a High Court judge is the last person who should conduct such an inquiry. It would take five years, we would end up with a million volumes of evidence, and—as happened with the Scott inquiry—all who wished to do so would be able to pick out some bit of it that suited their argument. We need the House to be able to perform its functions. I think that if our Select Committee had been given the powers that it was supposed to have, we could have done it, although we might have needed some additional resources. The first step should be a Committee of the House; we should not be abdicating our responsibilities to other people.
I do believe that. Certainly we were not able to get to the bottom of the situation. The dossier of September 2002 was full of holes, and we picked up quite a lot of them. I think that the intelligence information was misrepresented, to put it at its most neutral. I suspect that, as someone suggested earlier, the decision was made six or nine months earlier, and the document was used merely to support a decision that had already been made.
What lessons might we learn from an inquiry at least into how we got into this position? There are a series of questions to be asked about how we can get out of it and where we can go from here in the middle east, and I think that we will feel the repercussions for a long time. However, there is one serious lesson that I believe most of us have learnt. It is important because of the position in relation to Iran and the possible, indeed almost certain, development of nuclear weapons, which I believe will confront us with a much more serious strategic and security threat than we ever faced in Iraq, or in Afghanistan with al-Qaeda’s bases there. It goes back to the Prime Minister's philosophy of intervention. I have always been dubious about the concept of humanitarian intervention. I do not believe that it exists in international law otherwise than through a resolution of the United Nations Security Council. In fact, in the mid-1990s, the Foreign Office published a quite lengthy refutation of the concept, saying that it did not exist.
The Prime Minister elevated that to a doctrine, and took it rather further in his famous Chicago speech. We got away with it in Sierra Leone. It was a little place and we could deal with it with one naval warship. We achieved some good; I concede that. We were jolly lucky in Kosovo. We got away with that by the skin of Martti Ahtisaari’s teeth. I do not know what he said to Milosevic to make him change his mind, but we were very lucky that we did not have to make a ground invasion of that country and make good our promise.
I would thought that someone who really thought about such things would have said at that moment, “Gosh. Hang on. That was almost the one too far,” but no, we had to test that concept again. We have now realised that there is a limit to what we can achieve with that sort of intervention, and it is pretty close to home. If our security is not at stake, there has to be an overwhelming humanitarian case—genocide or a situation on the verge of genocide—and it has to be clear that we can make a difference by intervening. If we intervene because we do not like the look of a Government, there is a long list. There must be 100 whom we do not like the look of—starting, as someone said, with Zimbabwe perhaps. There are many others around the world.
Therefore, the limits to the concept of intervention have been clearly brought home to us. We should reserve the huge punch that we have with our armed forces for situations where it is vital, and where we can succeed.
The main point that I want to come back to is that the inquiry should start in this House. It has Select Committees to do these things, and those Select Committees can do them—if they are given the powers, and if the Government do not obstruct them.
I want to follow the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) by saying something about Parliament, because he is on to something extremely important, and we should not give away to other people Parliament’s ability to do things that Parliament should do. First, however, I shall return to a remark by the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), who said that what had happened in Iraq was, in his words, predicted and predictable. I could not help but think, when I listened to him, that that was not something that the Conservative party—the official Opposition—knew at the time. If so, the massed ranks of Her Majesty's Opposition would not have been urging action on the Government. Indeed, the then leader of the party was irritated whenever Labour Members raised questions about the basis on which the strategy was being conducted. Therefore, a certain amount of humility and contrition is required on the Conservative Benches. As it happened, Conservative Members had it within their power to prevent the action from taking place. It has to be said that the questions were being asked entirely from the Labour Benches, and the people who dissented—although there were some honourable exceptions—were overwhelmingly to be found on the Labour Benches.
The reason the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who was one of those exceptions, was right to use the words “predicted and predictable” is that many of us, even when we wanted to—I was certainly in that category—could not find a way to make the story and the narrative that were being given to us about the basis for taking military action stack up. I wanted it to stack up. I have felt guilty since about not supporting action to take the world's worst tyrant out of the picture, but the fact is that I could not find a way of telling the story that made it add up.
I could not see a way of telling the story that altered the fact that Iraq was a regime contained. It was extremely vile, but it was not threatening us or the security of the world. We knew that it was not connected to al-Qaeda. In fact we knew that it was important in suppressing al-Qaeda. We thought that there was an agenda on the American right that was pushing military action as part of a wider plan for the middle east and the world, but we could not understand why we wanted to attach ourselves to it. Probably most importantly of all, we also thought that the action was likely to increase terrorism rather than to diminish it. The huge tragedy is that in the wake of 9/11 the world, with very few exceptions, turned in solidarity to the United States, yet within two years that solidarity was blown away by what happened next.
That is why the situation was predicted and predictable. It was pretty obvious, if we explored the story that was being given, that that was a likely consequence. Indeed, we discovered afterwards that the Intelligence and Security Committee had said in terms that terrorism was likely to be increased by the action that was taken.
I think that the hon. Gentleman is being slightly disingenuous. I did not support the war itself, but the hostilities finished about May 2003. A vacuum was caused, and we did not fill that vacuum with a proper Iraqi structure. That is why we are heading towards a civil war. Had that planning taken place, things would have been different. That has nothing to do with the war itself. The hon. Gentleman is blurring the two issues—something that has happened again and again.
I was not blurring the two issues. I was talking precisely about the genesis of the war, which would be a major focus of any inquiry. A further focus would, of course, be the failure to plan for what happened afterwards, but the genesis of the war is at the heart of what we are talking about. I took that to be the burden of the point that was made by the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea. Therefore, we have to revisit those events and to see why, if they were so predicted and predictable, they nevertheless happened.
By the way, I never thought that there was any intentional deceit going on. Certainly there was not any on the part of the Prime Minister—but I thought that he probably believed too much in the story that he was telling, which made him inattentive, as we now know, to the fact that, as Lord Butler has told us, the intelligence was being used to carry more than it could bear. Therefore, it is crucial that we go back and find out exactly what happened in terms of the story that was developed.
Without making, I hope, a trivial party point, I suggest that there is one inquiry that the Opposition could have at once, which is to examine why they did not know and understand better the flaws in the story that we were given at the time. That is one inquiry that they have it in their control to put in hand now, because that factor was of extreme importance, as it turned out.
I want to pick up the point that the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon made. Where does Parliament—
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, but speaking for myself, I never thought that I would be led astray by my own Prime Minister in respect of security matters. It always seemed to me unnecessary for the House to be kept informed of the minutiae of security matters, as long as the Prime Minister knew what was going on. The fact is that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) said earlier, the intelligence services were effectively suborned. That has not happened in recent history, and it is, in part, what has led us to the desperate situation that we now face.
I realise that that is the line that is given—that we were all woefully misled by the Prime Minister—but large numbers of Members of the House were not woefully misled by the Prime Minister. They interrogated the evidence, made political judgments and came to rather shrewd conclusions. Indeed, the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea has just told us that that is entirely what should have happened, so it cannot be simply that the Opposition were misled by what the Prime Minister said. The story is deeper, richer and more troubling than that.
I now want to talk about Parliament, because that element is the bit of the Opposition motion’s call for an inquiry that I dissent from. The Opposition are mistaken to call for a committee of Privy Councillors. Again, there is a story behind what happened. A couple of years ago the Public Administration Committee, which I chair, conducted an inquiry into inquiries; it was the first time that that had been done. We looked into the whole history of inquiries—who called them, how they were organised, and the whole shooting match. At the time the Government were introducing their own Bill—the Inquiries Bill—to regularise how a range of them were conducted. What became clear as a result of our inquiry was that Parliament had, through a complex process, effectively abandoned the field.
In the 19th century the parliamentary inquiry was the dominant form of inquiry. Reference has been made to the first world war and the Dardanelles campaign, but we could go all the way back to the Crimean war. The House established a Committee of inquiry to report on the condition of the Army before Sebastopol. Gladstone spoke against it, and it produced the downfall of the Aberdeen Government. However, as the party system solidified at the beginning of the 20th century, it became difficult for Parliament to undertake dispassionate cross-party inquiries. The example that is always cited is the Committee on the Marconi scandal. That parliamentary inquiry divided on party lines, and has been described as the first great whitewash. As a consequence, the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921 was introduced, which effectively took inquiries outside this House, retaining only the requirement for a resolution of this House to set up such an inquiry. The establishment of an inquiry was still anchored in a parliamentary resolution, although the inquiry itself was taken outside the House. That in turn was also criticised. The Salmon commission looked into the matter, and now we have this Government’s Inquiries Act 2005.
The overall consequence has been that Parliament has been taken out of the picture. In our report of a couple of years ago, my Committee argued that we should not abandon that territory. There is a category of inquiry on issues of great political importance that only parliamentary politics can get its teeth into. I say, with great respect, that such matters are not for judges. We heard great evidence from the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, who emphatically said that there is a category of politically contentious inquiries in which judges should not be involved.
Therefore, there is a need for a specific kind of inquiry on matters that are not appropriate for the judge route or other routes—but Parliament has abandoned conducting such inquiries and is unable to undertake them through its existing Select Committee system. I am referring to forensic, fact-finding inquiries, such as the example we heard about in respect of the Foreign Affairs Committee. That is why I have a reservation about the form of inquiry proposed in the Opposition motion. We asked Lord Butler about this matter, and he agreed that it would have been better if his inquiry had been a parliamentary inquiry. He also pointed out that four of the five members of his team were parliamentarians, so it would have been quite easy to have made it a parliamentary inquiry. For the category of inquiries I am referring to, it is constitutionally important that Parliament as an institution can say, “This subject is of such great public importance that Parliament must set up a parliamentary commission of inquiry, beyond its Select Committee system.” That would involve bringing in outsiders, as required. However, Parliament must be able to do that.
Perhaps some inquiries would best be conducted by Scotland Yard. However, is the hon. Gentleman saying that if the words “Privy Counsellors” were removed from the Opposition motion and replaced by a loose form of words such as “MPs chosen at random”, he would support it?
Let me tell the hon. Gentleman exactly what I think, as this is important. This is what my Committee reported to Parliament two and a half years ago about the similarities and differences between the Privy Councillor form of inquiry and a joint committee of inquiry of this House:
“The similarity in form of the Franks and Butler Committees with that of a Joint Committee is striking but, as Committees of Privy Counsellors, their nature is fundamentally different and, from a constitutional point of view, less satisfactory. We recommend that in future inquiries into the conduct and actions of government should exercise their authority through the legitimacy of Parliament in the form of a Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry composed of parliamentarians and others, rather than by the exercise of the prerogative power of the Executive.”
That highlights the essential point. It is a truism that Oppositions call for inquiries and Governments resist them, unless they find it convenient to have one—and then, as Lord Heseltine has told us, they decide what they would like their conclusion to be and choose a chairman to make sure that they get it. That is what happens, but it is unsatisfactory if we believe that Parliament really is, as used to be said, the grand inquest of the nation. If it is that, it must have the mechanism to set up inquiries rooted in this place even when the Government of the day do not want them, and particularly where no other mechanism is suitable for the job in hand.
I have been listening with great respect to my hon. Friend’s comments, and I would usually leap with enormous enthusiasm on anything that would enhance the power of Parliament, and in particular of Select Committees. However, I shall support the motion, because is there not a problem in this instance, in that we in Parliament were complicit in the decision to go to war? My hon. Friend is right to say that some Members did not sift the evidence with as much care as they should have done. He was not guilty of that, and I am proud to say that I too did not vote for the war, because I did not believe what we were being told. However, Parliament was complicit in the process—we voted for this. In those circumstances, is it not essential that an inquiry be taken outside Parliament, and away from those who were involved?
I draw the opposite conclusion. If we want to restore the reputation of this House, we must be able to show that we can do the kind of things that the public want us to do. They want to know where this war came from, in the largest possible sense. They want Members of Parliament, irrespective of party, to make sure that that job is done. That is what I strongly believe.
I wish to conclude, if I may.
I am weary of all the time being on the side of those who demand inquiries because that is part of the rhetoric of the job that we do, while not being serious about making sure that we put in place the mechanisms to give us the inquiries that we need. I want that to be the lesson that comes out of this process. I am sure that we will have an inquiry one day, and I hope that the Government will propose the kind of inquiry that I would like.
I warmly congratulate those on the official Opposition Front Bench for bringing back to the table the call for a comprehensive inquiry into the Iraq war, which was first tabled last autumn.
The motion is not about apportioning blame. It is about the House taking responsibility. To echo the point made by the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews), it is about this House recognising our collective responsibility— notwithstanding that a minority of us voted against the motion before the House four years ago—and signalling our collective determination to put right the colossal wrong that was inflicted on the people of Iraq and this country by that vote. We cannot bring back the dead, but we can honour their memory in our sincere commitment to learn the painful lessons of these last four years. Only then can we rebuild a relationship of trust between the Government and the governed in this country, and between this country and the countries of the rest of the world.
As we have heard in this debate, the cost of this war has been immense in human terms: 150 British servicemen and women, more than 3,500 Americans and more than half a million Iraqi civilians. Two million people have left Iraq and a further 2 million have been displaced internally. Millions more, especially the young, as we heard from the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short), are scarred by hate, hostility and a passive acceptance of, or even positive support for, continued violence. The war has galvanised Islamic extremism, destroyed Iraq’s basic infrastructure, turned it into a fertile ground for recruiting terrorists, exacerbated the divisions within Iraq and fomented a civil war. It has diverted our attention from the very real threat of al-Qaeda, weakened our standing in the world, and undermined the United Nations and the rule of international law. All in all, it has made the world a far less safe and hospitable place for decades to come. This is the worst foreign policy disaster in more than half a century, and it would be a dereliction of our duty in this place were we not to hold an inquiry into this terrible debacle.
As has already been said, the damage done is not just the denting of public confidence in this Government; confidence in democracy itself, in any Government of any hue who will be faced in future with matters of peace and war, has been undermined. Indeed, on looking at the facts, the picture of manipulation and distortion and the absence of accountability in any real or meaningful sense is troubling to all of us—of any party and of none—who are concerned for the integrity of our democratic system. The Prime Minister developed more than ever before not a collegiate but a presidential style of government, with no effective input from the Cabinet or from Parliament because it and we were not in full possession of the facts.
As it happens, I do not doubt that the Prime Minister genuinely believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and the same is probably true of the Bush Administration. Why else were hundreds of millions of dollars budgeted for the destruction of weapons of mass destruction that never actually materialised? The question is: what was the basis for the Prime Minister’s belief? In a sense, it was belief itself—faith itself. As a former director of strategic proliferation in the US State Department, Greg Thielmann, said in July 2003:
“this administration has had a faith-based intelligence attitude: we know the answers, give us the intelligence to support those answers”.
The Prime Minister subtly shifted his position from saying that Iraq had the potential to develop WMD—in the same way that Iran has now—to saying that it actually possessed them, when there was no basis for that shift in the information emanating from the intelligence services. What was a potential became an article of faith, and then became an established fact. He told journalists that Iraq had
“actually acquired weapons of mass destruction”
and that the threat was
“not in any doubt at all”.
He said that Iraq was in possession of
“major amounts of chemical and biological weapons”,
yet there was no concrete evidence for any of this. It was assertion, which we now know to be entirely false. The intelligence at the time in both the United Kingdom and the United States was heavily qualified and non-committal, but the facts were fixed around the policy.
As far as the dodgy dossier is concerned, the serious charge levelled by the Butler report is not that the Government fabricated intelligence, but that they distorted it by leaving out the qualifications and the caveats. As Hans Blix so eloquently put it, the Government put exclamation marks where there should have been question marks, in effect misleading the Cabinet, Parliament, the Labour party, the public and the international community. It is our duty now in this place to find out how and why that course of action was pursued.
The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood was absolutely right in saying that the poor judgment and lack of candour that characterised the run-up to the war have also featured heavily in its disastrous aftermath. As we have heard, the most fateful decision of all was coalition provisional authority order No. 2, on the dissolution of the Iraqi army and the police force. Simply sacking close to three quarters of a million people—many of them armed, as we now know—and turning them into a vast army of the unemployed, alienated, humiliated and angry, was a monumental misjudgment from which Iraq has still not recovered.
The policy of privatising the state-owned enterprises had the same effect on the middle classes in Iraq, many of whom were employed by those companies. Interestingly enough, the only pre-invasion, Saddam era economic legislation that remained in place was a law restricting trade unions and collective bargaining. It would be interesting to hear what the Government’s view on that was at the time. The inevitable result of the wave of economic insecurity that engulfed Iraq was insurgency, civil war and political instability.
The reasons we went to war, which the hon. Gentleman referred to in his opening comments, could perhaps be dealt with by a review at a later date, but the points that he is making now are the very reason we need an inquiry now. Reconstruction is still going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we need to learn those lessons so that we can make progress and make sure that we get Iraq and Afghanistan right, along with any other areas in which we are involved in a similar way.
I have been listening very carefully to the hon. Gentleman. If there were a contemporaneous inquiry, does he not think that, if he were a soldier or officer posted in Iraq who had also been there on previous tours, his mind might be on that inquiry, rather than on his current operations? Would such an inquiry therefore not be a profoundly bad idea?
I can only make my decision based on what serving officers have told me, and they have said that they want us to fulfil our democratic duty and to represent them by examining those difficult questions. Indeed, they have told other Members whom we have heard from this evening the same.
We need to know what the Government’s role was in the mistakes that were made in the aftermath. The Prime Minister said that the invasion had been subject to the
“most careful planning and consideration”.
That clearly cannot be the case—we only have to look at the facts before our very eyes.
He accepted the Bush Administration’s assurance that it was
“unlikely that there would be internecine warfare between different religious and ethic groups”,
even though he had been advised by Britain’s Iraq experts at a Downing street seminar that that could very well be an outcome of the policy. Of course, we have now learned that the CIA advised the Bush Administration, in a paper presented to the President, of the very same conclusion.
That was the point that I wanted to put to the hon. Gentleman. The State Department’s preparation said that there was a real danger of chaos and internecine civil war, and that the answer was to take off only the very top of the Ba’athist regime and leave everyone else in place, because any professional in the country had to be a member of the party. That was the State Department’s advice.
Yes, and of course, we are still struggling to get the al-Maliki Government to reverse the de-Ba’athification policy.
Throughout the occupation and the aftermath of the war, the Government, conscious of the pressures of negative public opinion, have consistently underestimated the strength of the insurgency, consistently overestimated the capabilities of Iraq’s Government and security forces, and failed to provide Parliament with an accurate assessment of the conditions on the ground in Iraq. Given the catastrophic failure at the heart of the Government, to which the enduring crisis in Iraq surely testifies, the lack of a proper inquiry to date is an abdication of our responsibility in this House, which we must put right tonight.
Let us turn briefly to the contrary arguments. The argument about the four inquiries, which the Government present in their amendment, has been categorically demolished by several hon. Members. The shortcomings of the Select Committee process, which I would like to amend, are there for all to see from the comments that we have heard. As far as the Hutton and Butler inquiries are concerned, the terms of reference were deliberately—in my view—drawn too narrowly in order to preclude them from examining the wider issues with which we have concerned ourselves in this debate.
The second argument, which says that the time is not right, flies in the face of constitutional precedent. I do not refer just to Norway and to the Dardanelles; there is a much more pertinent precedent. When the British Army was last bogged down in a quagmire in Iraq, then known as Mesopotamia, in the summer of 1916, the official—Conservative—Opposition tabled a motion calling for a commission of inquiry into the Mesopotamia campaign, its inception and its conduct.
The motion was not moved, because they did not have to move it. The Government of the day accepted the principle, conceded the point and established the Mesopotamia commission in August 1916, while British troops—to answer the point made by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies)—were still in Basra. Indeed, while the commission was still investigating, there was a further push to central Iraq, to Baghdad. There was a commission of inquiry during a campaign that had cost the lives of 90,000 British troops.
If it was possible for the Government of the day to hold such an inquiry then, while the liberty of this country was at stake, why is it not possible now? One of the main charges that the commission laid at the Government in the Mesopotamia inquiry was that they were guilty of what it called in an elegant phrase, the misuse of reticence, or the culling of inconvenient facts to protect the official line—a practice that could as happily describe the Government’s Iraq policy today as it could the then Government’s policy 90 years ago.
This House cannot remain reticent; we must speak out. In the words of the special prosecutor in the case of the White House aide, Lewis Libby, who was sentenced this week:
“We need to make the statement that the truth matters ever so much.”
It matters even more in “this little room”, to use Churchill’s phrase, because of what it signifies to so many millions of people. I hope that despite the difficulties that I understand right hon. and hon. Government Members will face, it will be possible for the House tonight to unite not behind party but behind the most basic principle that in this place, above all others, we must accept our responsibility if we are not to repeat our mistakes.
I am very grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I shall, indeed, be brief.
Of course, there must be and there will be an inquiry. I favour the type of inquiry that the motion sets out, and I have already indicated why I do so in an intervention. The Government’s reasons for opposing the motion are untenable. To deal with them individually and briefly, of course we must not damage or undermine the integrity of the elected Government of Iraq; but far more important than that, we must not damage or undermine the integrity of the elected Government of the United Kingdom. One great success of Iraq was the millions who voted in their election: one great failure of the United Kingdom is the millions who did not vote in ours. One reason they were alienated from the political process was undoubtedly Iraq.
It is myopic and false to suggest that there have been a total of four separate inquiries, and I shall not deal with that suggestion, because it has been rehearsed on many occasions. However, it is far more myopic and false to suggest that there have been four inquiries that have exonerated the Government, because they manifestly have not. The Butler inquiry in particular did not exonerate the Government. At paragraph 472, it said:
“We have also recorded our surprise that policy-makers and the intelligence community did not, as the generally negative results of UNMOVIC inspections became increasingly apparent, re-evaluate in early-2003 the quality of the intelligence.”
Of course, Lord Butler was speaking mandarin, a language in which he is fluent. In mandarin, “surprised” does not mean “Good Lord! Is that the time?” It means to be confronted with facts and assertions that are utterly incomprehensible. The question that he asked in vacuo was, “Why didn’t policy makers re-evaluate what they had sought in early 2002 when taking us to war in 2003?” He could not ask the question because of the terms of reference within which he was enchained.
One particular reason the issues were not revisited was that the decision to invade had already been taken—irrespective of the intelligence that was subsequently obtained. That, above all, is one matter than an inquiry must consider. The decision is to be found—mentioned not in the debate, but many times in America—in the so-called Downing street memo or minute, which The Sunday Times published in 2005, in an uncharacteristic service to this debate. It relates to a Downing street minute in July 2002, which records the report of Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of the Secret Intelligence Service, or “C”, as he was known. It reported that he had come from Washington, where, he said:
“There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”
Not one word of that reached this House in the subsequent debates. Not once were we told that it was the belief of the SIS and its head that America had already made up its mind, whatever the intelligence. None of it came here. That is the first matter that must be investigated.
The second matter, which has been touched upon on numerous occasions, is the Attorney-General’s legal advice. On 7 March 2003 he produced for the Prime Minister an opinion that was hedged with doubt. He said that a reasonable case can be made; but two paragraphs later he said that a contrary case may easily and reasonably be made. Not a word of that reached the Cabinet or this House. Ten days later, a wholly contrary and completely un-hedged and unqualified opinion on the legality of war was given to the Cabinet. Not one word of explanation has been heard by this House for that sudden change to what has manifestly been perceived to be an illegal conflict.
Those matters must be resolved, and they are so important that party politics must be put on one side in order to obtain the inquiry. A fellow Back Bencher asked me a little while ago when we were discussing the debate, “Are you going to vote with the Tories?” The answer is no. I am not going to vote with the Tories: I am going to vote for an inquiry. I shall do so at every conceivable available opportunity, because it is in the interests of the country, of Parliament, and coincidentally, of my own party under its new leadership that we resolve this matter now.
Earlier, Mr. Deputy Speaker suggested that there had been a late surge of interest in the debate. That has been fully confirmed by the quality of the speeches we have heard, not least that of the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews). As is customary with him, he put the interests of the country and Parliament before his own narrow party interest—[Laughter.]
I always like to try to help the hon. and learned Gentleman.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) made a compelling case in principle for an inquiry of the type he set out, and the debate has illustrated that his view is widely supported on both sides of the House. It is thus extremely disappointing that despite the fact that the Foreign Secretary has had seven months to consider the arguments my right hon. Friend made previously, she has not been persuaded of them—unlike her right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Education and Skills and for Defence, both of whom have accepted the case for an inquiry, although they have not put a timetable on it. The Foreign Secretary seems to be out of step with many members of the current Cabinet and—who knows?—possibly the next one, too.
The Foreign Secretary not only said that her position was unchanged but made the astonishing remark that accountability was now self-indulgent introspection. It is astonishing that she should have equated accountability in the House with narrow introspection. We make no apologies for holding this debate. She described it as opportunistic. If it is opportunistic to give right hon. and hon. Members an opportunity to express their views on a matter of major national importance, we are proud to have facilitated it and proud to have done so again today.
Furthermore, in another astonishing contribution, the Foreign Secretary responded to my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) by making it clear that she saw no merit in looking back to examine the lead-up to the war in Iraq. In essence, she argued that experience can inform neither the present nor the future. That is a serious indictment of her policy, and if it is the Government’s policy it is a serious indictment of their strategy, too. If we cannot learn from our experience, we are not doing a service as Members. It is significant that some Members who supported the war in the past have said that we owe it to the public to revisit the matter—the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher) is one such Member.
I offer three reasons an independent Franks-type inquiry would benefit all of us, Ministers included. First, there is now almost universal recognition that there was a woeful lack of debate in the UK about post-conflict reconstruction. Paradoxically, in Washington in the six months leading up to the war there was talk of little else, but in this country—silence. The Government would not make time for a debate because they did not want to give their Back Benchers the impression that they had already signalled to the US Government a tacit commitment to provide British military support.
We had to initiate the debate and we did so on 30 January 2003, when my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) said:
“If the wider war on terrorism is to succeed, it is crucial that we do not forfeit vital international support by pursuing a war against Saddam Hussein without a comprehensive humanitarian strategy for helping the innocent Iraqi people.”
During that debate, not only my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden but many other hon. Friends tried to get an answer from the then Secretary of State for International Development about what precisely the British Government had it in mind to do post-conflict. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short)—I am pleased that she is in the Chamber today—gave a lot of background about the circumstances and the lead-up, about Saddam Hussein and so on. However, she gave the House very little information about exactly what the Government’s strategy—indeed, the allies’ strategy—was for post-conflict reconstruction. All she said was:
“I have had talks with the various UN humanitarian organisations and the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which leads co-ordination of the UN effort. I think that the preparations are as good as they can be.”—[Official Report, 30 January 2003; Vol. 398, c. 1043-54.]
That was virtually all the information given to the House.
The result was that Parliament had almost no opportunity to test the Government’s post-conflict reconstruction policies—how the country was to be run after the decapitation of the Saddam regime, let alone the rebuilding of Iraq’s crumbling infrastructure. It was interesting that Washington had a clear plan, although as my hon. Friends have suggested, it did not last beyond the first round of gunfire. None the less, there was a plan, which was to leave in place those who were running the infrastructure in Iraq, but that was not consistent with removing the Ba’athists from the regime. Save for the opportunities afforded by the Opposition, the House could not debate those matters and we are pleased to offer Members a further opportunity to discuss them today.
As General Sir Mike Jackson, until last year head of the British Army, made clear in the Dimbleby lecture last December, the solution in Iraq does not lie simply with the military. He said:
“I want to say something about across-government capabilities. Particularly in post-conflict situations, it is not just a matter for the military. The political and military approaches must be as one. Complex and difficult conditions follow war, ethnic conflict, and failed states. My analogy here is the strands of a rope. Individual strands are just that, they have this or that breaking strength. But when you weave them together you actually produce something that is stronger than the sum of its parts. And these strands for me are obviously security, the political dimension, humanitarian, and economic—at least those four. And you don’t have long to get going. There is a sense that you must make a difference within a hundred days, or you will have a lost opportunity. It gives me no pleasure to say that I fear this was not the case where Iraq was concerned.”
Our armed forces are simply brilliant at getting things done quickly. I give the House an example. When the Select Committee visited Iraq less than three months after the war ended, we were given a briefing by a young captain from the Royal Monmouthshire Militia Royal Engineers and a senior warrant officer from the Army Air Corps. Within 13 weeks of the end of the war, they had already undertaken the refurbishment of 13 schools in Basra—a phenomenal achievement. We went to see DFID. What was it doing? It was still designing the forms. There was a grotesque lack of co-ordination between Departments, which is a real indictment. The military had done their bit; they had fulfilled their obligations, but unfortunately the civil side had not. There was no effective follow-up because there was no plan.
General Jackson argued that there should have been much greater co-ordination between Departments—a point also made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood). The current Secretary of State for International Development seems to be moving in that direction, too. Recently, he said:
“Using ‘hard power’ alone will not be enough to tackle terrorist groups”.
The second purpose of an inquiry would be to consider how we should adjust our whole military posture to the new type of military operations we face, including at the tactical level: whether our soldiers, sailors and airmen are getting the right training package for that type of warfare; whether, as my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) said, we have the right equipment for the task; whether we have the correct balance of forces, and what needs to be done so that we do not become disproportionately reliant on urgent operational requirements—a kind of panic-buying formula—to make up the shortfall in equipment.
I do not believe that such an investigation would disrupt ongoing operations, still less that the armed forces would resent it. Between us, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks and I represent a large slug of the British Army and we have not heard it said anywhere that such an inquiry would damage the morale of those on the ground. They have acquitted themselves with enormous courage and dignity in a military operation that they know does not command universal approval at home. I believe that they would welcome any measure that would help to build public confidence that lessons have been learned.
Significantly, when the Foreign Secretary was asked by the hon. and learned Member for Medway whether the military had given an indication that they would support an inquiry, she could not answer that question. Indeed, the Minister of State responsible for the armed forces could not give her any comfort, either. They both know that her point was bogus and invalid.
The third reason we need an inquiry has been set out by many right hon. and hon. Members: the four inquiries on which the Government rely as evidence that the House has had the opportunity to consider all the issues that have been debated today did not consider the issues in the round or in the way in which many right hon. and hon. Members would like. Simply speaking, those inquiries did not deal with the issues, or dealt with them partially and indifferently. We have heard at length how the Select Committee was treated contemptuously by the Government.
I make no apologies for mentioning in this debate and in this week, which commemorates the 25th anniversary of the Falklands conflict, the issue of combat stress among our brave service personnel. We are embarked on two war-fighting operations that involve high-intensity combat, yet unlike the second world war, when civilians in London and Coventry were being bombed out of their homes, or the Falklands campaign, when the entire nation was engaged and glued to the evening news to find the latest reports from the front, today the rest of us are enjoying the cricket—I do not know the result of the test match—[Hon. Members: “We won.”] We won, so the rest of us are enjoying the cricket, the motor racing and other relatively peaceful summer pursuits. This is a serious issue, and I do not want to demean it, but I want to make the point that the rest of the nation is enjoying the summer season, while our soldiers, sailors and airmen are engaged in bloody battles in the intense heat of the middle east. That experience will have an enduring effect on some of them.
I met such personnel yesterday at a Falklands drumhead service in Aldershot military cemetery in my constituency, and they are still suffering after the Falklands campaign. It is said that more men have died by their own hands since 1982 than the 255 who gave their lives 6,000 miles away. I am aware of the Ministry of Defence’s announcement today, and I welcome it, but it is insufficient to meet the challenge that we face. An inquiry of the kind that my right hon. and hon. Friends have proposed tonight would provide an opportunity to examine why we are doing so comparatively little to help to mend those with broken minds.
There is a precedent. In the Dardanelles campaign, it was said that the remit of the commissioners in that inquiry in 1916 included the conduct of the war,
“the supply of equipment to the troops, the provision for the sick and wounded and the responsibility of the Government whose duty it has been to minister to the wants of the forces employed in the theatre of war”.—[Official Report, 27 July 1916; Vol. 84, c. 1896-97.]
I rest my case—there is a precedent as to why an inquiry should consider such matters, too.
We cannot postpone an inquiry until a time that is politically convenient for the Government. We need to make a decision in principle now, and to assemble a wise and experienced panel of eminent persons who can consider the lead-up to the war, the use and interpretation of intelligence, the war itself and the post-conflict reconstruction. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) said, we can do that perfectly well without inflicting any problems on those engaged in war-fighting operations.
The reason for the relative urgency is that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks said, while the events are fresh in people’s minds and the e-mails have not been destroyed, we need to learn whatever lessons we can from the background to operations in Iraq so far, and to apply them to Afghanistan before it is too late.
The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) made the point that Parliament needs to assert its authority over the Executive—a point that was also made by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). I strongly support that, and I hope that the House will support our motion and the principle that an inquiry should be established, even if the precise format proposed on the Order Paper is not exactly what some right hon. and hon. Members would like. The point is the principle of the matter, and we owe it to the nation to be able to establish that.
When Michael Foot called for a special commission to consider the Suez campaign, he cited something said by Lord John Russell in respect of the Crimea campaign a hundred years previously:
“Inquiry is the proper duty and function of the House of Commons…Inquiry is, indeed, the root of the powers of the House of Commons. Upon the result of the inquiry must depend the due exercise of those powers.”—[Official Report, 16 November 1966; Vol. 736, c. 442.]
I submit that this House should support this motion.
In opening the debate, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary set out why the Government’s view has not changed since we last debated the issue, not the least of which is that nothing has happened in that time that would require us to change our view.
When we considered the issue in October last year, the motion was proposed by the nationalist parties—Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party. I well understand the motivation of those political parties in that and all other matters involving the United Kingdom: they have a visceral dislike of all things British. They do not want to be part of this united country. They want to engender disharmony, disillusionment and division in all that we do as a nation. They are driven not by what is right for our armed forces in the difficult tasks that they face in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, but by cheap political posturing—no more than naked populism dressed up as principle.
Although it is tempting, I would not ascribe such motives to the Conservative party. I fully accept that the role of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition is to find grounds of substance on which to hold the Government to account. Like many of my hon. Friends, I spent too many years—10 years—on the Opposition Benches, and I know only too well the difficulties that that poses for party interest versus national interest.
On this occasion, no matter how well argued the case—I pay tribute to the eloquence of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who opened the debate—the Opposition have it wrong. A telling intervention by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) made it clear that he thought so too. He made a specific point, and although the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks is not usually flummoxed or stumped, he paused momentarily before he dealt with the issue.
This is always a question of judgment. To undertake such an inquiry now would divert effort and attention from our prime task, which is to improve the condition of Iraq and find a more peaceful and stable future for its people.
Not at the moment. If the motion was passed, regardless of the fact that the Opposition claim that it is about establishing the principle of an inquiry, the media in this country would go into hyper-overdrive. We would have endless weeks and months of corrosive speculation about who would serve on the inquiry, what they would examine and even what their conclusions would be. I believe that it would be less of an inquiry and more of an inquisition.
Many in this House and beyond have already come to their conclusions, yet at the same time they are calling for an inquiry. The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) made it clear that he already knows what the outcome of the inquiry should be. He carefully avoided the earlier view of his party that we should withdraw our forces by the autumn of this year. He did not mention whether that is still the policy of his party or not, irrespective of the conditions on the ground or the consequences. If there were such an inquiry, and those who have come to their conclusions already did not agree with its outcome, they would simply dismiss it as a whitewash and continue their assertions. I am reminded of former Prime Minister Jim Callaghan’s comments about the Franks report on the Falklands conflict:
“for 338 paragraphs, the Franks Report painted a splendid picture, delineating the light and shade. The glowing colours came out. When Franks got to paragraph 339, he got fed up with the canvas that he was painting and chucked a bucket of whitewash over it”.
That tends to happen with a lot of inquiries. If they do not reach the conclusions that those who call for them want, those people simply dismiss them out of hand.
The Minister argues that we should not have an inquiry now because that might be difficult in terms of the media. How long do we have to wait for such an inquiry? If the war went on for another four years, would we have to wait four years? If it was the hundred years war—I know that that is an absurd example, Mr. Deputy Speaker—would we wait 100 years?
I did not put forward that view just because of what would happen in the media, although I think that that would be corrosive. Let me make a serious point: we know from this debate—from speaker after speaker—the previous debate and each time that we have discussed Iraq that people have already reached their conclusions and firm positions. They want an inquiry to confirm those positions, but that would not be the purpose of any such inquest. The hon. Gentleman’s earlier intervention showed that he had reached a conclusion. He has made the firm statement that he opposed the mission from the outset and voted against it. If he were to give evidence, it would be on that basis, although I guess that no one would really be interested in the evidence that he might wish to give. However, would he accept the outcome of the inquiry if it did not stack up with his perceived position?
On 20 March, I asked a Foreign Minister—the Minister for the Middle East—whether he thought Iraq was in a state of civil war. Since 20 March, about 8,000 Iraqis have met a violent death. Does a Defence Minister believe that Iraq is in a state of civil war?
The hon. Gentleman should remember from his military training the definition of what constitutes a civil war. An elected Government are in place in Iraq and are working assiduously to find solutions to complex problems. We and many other countries are assisting them. Yes, many lives have been lost, some of which, sadly, have been those of individuals serving alongside the Iraqi people to try to find peace and stability. However, that in itself does not constitute civil war.
Some of the sectarian groupings and factions are beginning to talk about the need to find at least a point of contact with the Government of Iraq and coalition forces. There are thus glimmers of hope while the carnage goes on, which, as the hon. Gentleman knows only too well, is being perpetrated not by coalition forces, but by other forces, many of which are internal to Iraq but some of which are being stoked up and manipulated by external forces. Incidentally, if those forces were not in Iraq, they would be attacking us by other means. That is the harsh reality of the world in which we live.
While this is a question of judgment, I do not believe that now is the time to set a date for a review or to reach a final decision on the best way to conduct such a review. This is a time to keep a focus on what is happening in Iraq in the here and now. Like my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, I make no excuses for saying again that the situation in Iraq is too grave for us to divert our attentions from the immediate task of best supporting the Iraqi people as they begin taking control of their future.
I honestly think that the hon. Gentleman has not listened to the answers that have already been given on that point. That inquiry examined not the past, but how to deal with the present—[Interruption.] Does the hon. Gentleman want an answer, or does he want to heckle? The inquiry was carried out to try to find solutions to some of the difficulties that we have to address. However, the motion calls for a different inquiry. I listened attentively to hon. Members’ speeches. They talked about the past and some indeed argued that we should go beyond the immediate past and further back—[Interruption.] This is a multifaceted debate. The motion calls for an inquiry on the past to learn “lessons for the future”, but the future is here and now. Baker-Hamilton sought to address what is in front of us.
Our policy of focusing our efforts on the vital task of helping to develop the capacity and capability of the Iraqi authorities remains unchanged. That support is valued by the Government of Iraq. Iraqi Ministers have publicly stated their appreciation of the help and support that we provide. We would be doing them a disservice if we were to allow our attention and efforts to be diverted from supporting them, even in part.
We are not alone in giving support to Iraq. As hon. Members will know, we are one of the 25 countries that contribute to the multinational force in Iraq. I have little doubt that they, too, would not want our attention and efforts to be diverted from the vital task in hand. I make no apologies for saying that we must continue to give our armed forces our undivided attention and support as they help Iraq’s security institutions. I earnestly believe that an inquiry would do nothing to assist them and, at worst, that it could undermine their efforts. This is a question of undermining not their morale—that charge has been made—but their efforts. If senior military personnel were called away from the front or other deployments so that they could be dedicated to revisiting the part that they played in the past when they had important jobs to do, it would take them away from the vital task in hand.
As I have indicated, I think that we are making progress in Iraq. The transfer of Maysan province in southern Iraq to the Iraqi authorities and the handover of bases in Basra city to the Iraqi security forces are ample evidence of the sterling work done by UK forces and our coalition partners, especially on training and supporting the 10th division of the Iraqi army.
I have heard nothing in this debate that would change the Government’s position that it would be wrong to launch an inquiry on our experiences in Iraq at this time. There have been several independent committees of inquiry, including those of Lord Butler and Lord Hutton. Reports have been published by the Defence and Foreign Affairs Committees of the House of Commons, while Ministry of Defence lessons-learned reports have also been produced. The questions of what happened at the time and what we have to do militarily have been well trodden over, as has the wider reach of what we are trying to do by giving humanitarian, governmental, social and economic support to the people of Iraq.
We have had many opportunities to discuss the issue; we have done so time and again. I urge the House to support the amendment proposed by the Government for one very good reason: I believe it to be correct, and I believe the motion proposed by Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition to be wrong at this time. It would not in any way help the people of Iraq.
Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—
Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments):—
Mr. Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House notes the Resolution of 31st October 2006; recognises that there have already been four separate independent committees of inquiry into military action in Iraq; further recognises the importance of learning all possible lessons from military action in Iraq and its aftermath; and therefore declines at this time, whilst the whole effort of the Government and the armed forces is directed towards improving the condition of Iraq, to make a proposal for a further inquiry which would divert attention from this vital task.