We now come to the Opposition Day debate on the Iraq inquiry. I have to announce to the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister. There is also a 15-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.
I beg to move,
That this House calls for an inquiry by an independent committee of privy councillors 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 its aftermath and to make recommendations on lessons to be drawn for the future.
The passing of the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq war brings us naturally to consider once again the need for a high-level and wide-ranging inquiry into its origin and conduct. When we last debated the issue on 11 June last year, I think it is fair to say that a consensus emerged across the House that such an inquiry would be necessary at some point. Those of us who voted for the invasion of 2003, just as much as those who voted against it, expressed the view that the length of the conflict, the difficult and controversial nature of the decisions leading up to it, the extreme difficulties encountered afterwards, and the sheer immensity of the decision and of its consequences were all so great that a major inquiry would be unavoidable. The Government accepted that argument in principle, but argued that the appropriate time had not been reached.
The case that I wish to put to the House is that the nation expects, our troops deserve, and the facts lead to a fresh conclusion that the time to commence such an inquiry has now been reached. The passage of time, the urgent need to learn for the future, the need to reinforce the credibility of future decision taking, and the diminished role in Iraq of British forces all point to that clear conclusion. In a letter to the Prime Minister of 11 February, the Fabian Society put the case very well. It said:
“Iraq has been…the most controversial and publicly contested episode in British foreign policy for half a century, since Suez”.
“An inquiry cannot change the course of events since 2003. But…A full inquiry would ensure that a rounded assessment of the pre-war diplomacy, the intelligence failures…the conduct of the war itself, and the difficulties of post-war political and economic reconstruction could inform future policy.”
It argued that the fifth anniversary of the war would be
“the right time for the government to set out plans to ensure the lessons from Iraq are learnt and inform the future of British foreign policy”.
In response, the Prime Minister maintained the Government line of the past 18 months, saying:
“This Government has already acknowledged there will come a time when it is appropriate to hold an inquiry. But…we believe that is not now.”
That statement was treated by some as a new development in Government policy, but in fact it brought us no nearer to an inquiry than at any time in the past 18 months. In the debate on this issue of 31 October 2006, which the nationalist parties initiated, Ministers did indeed refuse to concede the case for any inquiry, but the Defence Secretary then announced to the television cameras waiting outside:
“When the time is right, of course there will be such an inquiry.”
That has been the Government’s position for 18 months.
Given that discussions on Privy Council terms with leaders of his party and other parties took place before many of the crucial decisions, would the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is right that the Conservative party’s role and views throughout the proceedings should equally be the subject of the inquiry?
I am sure that no Opposition party would object if an inquiry wished to have access to any of its papers or records of its deliberations. The hon. Gentleman might not want to set that precedent in the case of his own party; if he is relaxed about it we may have inquiries in future on parties that promise things in elections and do not deliver them in opposition, but that is another matter.
Does the right hon. Gentleman go along with the idea that whenever an inquiry is held, it will be useless unless witnesses are obliged to swear an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? We have learned that from painful experience. The inquiry should afford support to witnesses who want to tell the truth but are being leaned on by superiors and people we do not see to be ambiguous or economical with the truth. For an inquiry to have any veracity, it is a prerequisite that people give evidence under oath.
There is no reason why that should not be built into an inquiry. If we were to carry the motion, the practical effect would be that the Government would have to come back with their own proposals for an inquiry. I am sure that they would want to build such a requirement into them.
As someone who voted against the Iraq war on every single occasion, I think that it ill becomes someone to come to the Dispatch Box and argue about an inquiry at this stage. It would be unreal for you to expect people like me to come into the Lobby with you. Could I pose a question back to you? If the right hon. Gentleman is looking at a position where you want an inquiry at this moment in time—
I thank the right hon. Gentleman. While I am in favour of an inquiry, and I do not accept the Government’s arguments that the time is not right, I am concerned about its nature. If we vote for the right hon. Gentleman’s motion, how can we be sure that it will provide a full inquiry that will take evidence in public, preferably on oath, in which we can have every confidence? We have not had confidence in previous inquiries, with good reason.
The case we have set out in the motion is for a Privy Council inquiry, modelled on the inquiry that took place after the Falklands war. As I said in response to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), the practical result of the motion being carried would be that the Government would be required by Parliament to set up an inquiry, which would be a matter for further debate. My preferred model is that of a Privy Council inquiry. I want to set out the reasons for that in a moment.
Let me proceed a little way. I will give way to hon. Members in due course, but we have to remember that others will wish to speak.
The case in principle for an inquiry should, therefore, be agreed across the political spectrum. It was agreed after the last debate. For those of us who supported the invasion of March 2003, recent signs of hope in Iraq are welcome indeed. The security situation has improved, the Iraqi economy is growing, stumbling but genuine steps towards political reconciliation have taken place and optimism among the people of the country has risen. But we all have to recognise that the path to this renewal of hope has lain through a painful trauma, including the deaths of 175 members of our armed forces. While the 23 days of the initial military campaign to overthrow Saddam were astonishingly successful, the constant theme of those who have written about their involvement in subsequent events is that things went seriously wrong in the preparation for, and execution of, the occupation of the country.
Sir Hilary Synnott, who was in charge of southern Iraq under the coalition provisional authority, puts very well in his book the need to draw practical lessons from the events. That is part of the case for an inquiry beginning now. He says that, of course, the highest-level political decisions in the run-up to the war need to be examined, but that many practical issues also need to be considered. I shall quote him at some length. He mentions:
“The deficiencies of process and planning need to be examined in detail: the inability quickly to mobilise adequate numbers of appropriate experts or sufficient financial resources…The bureaucratic accounting and contracting procedures; the failures of communication and understanding—between the hub in Baghdad and the regional and provincial spokes…the failure to motivate and organise the Coalition Central Government Departments so that they were…able to contribute their particular skills and resources to an effort which needed to be a truly comprehensive one.”
“Only by careful analysis of such failings will it be possible to decide to what extent changes need to be made and then…ensure they are brought about.”
Does my right hon. Friend agree that any inquiry needs to embark on the much more fundamental question of whether it is right for any nation to go to war in the absence of an express United Nations resolution, save when there is an urgent, genuine and immediate threat to its security or that of its immediate allies?
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that some of us felt that, whatever preparation had been made in advance of the invasion, the war would inevitably lead to the sort of mess that exists now—in other words, those who voted against the war at the outset felt that it was impossible to avoid the quagmire that we now face?
Of course, there are people who hold that view. There are disagreements in the House and in every party about that. The hon. Gentleman may recall that the person who said:
“I happen to be on the side of those who believed Saddam Hussein had to be removed by force, but no one could have predicted they would have made such a mess of the peace building afterwards”
was his noble Friend Lord Ashdown. There is bound to be disagreement to some extent in any party about that.
Does my right hon. Friend share my opinion that it is clear that a majority in the House of Commons currently believes that there should be an inquiry now, but that the practical problem is that we will not get one in the lifetime of this Parliament until sufficient Labour Back Benchers are persuaded to support the proposal? Could he perhaps invite members of the Labour party who have already expressed such an opinion to table a motion, stipulating what sort of inquiry they would like, and contemplate our party or the Liberal Democrats giving time for debate so that we could mobilise a parliamentary majority to do what the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) suggested? Thus Parliament could reassert its right to call an inquiry when it wants.
Having spent the weekend reading Sir Hilary Synnott’s book, I am determined to impart my knowledge of it to the House. He makes an important point when he states:
“Understanding the causes and consequences of what went wrong in Iraq should not therefore be regarded as just an academic or historical exercise.”
In his opinion,
“Britain and America seem likely to be involved in more, not fewer, nation building efforts in the coming years…Even in Afghanistan, after more than six years of operations, the challenges show little sign of abating, and several of these are, yet again, being examined from first principles—police training…the role of Provincial reconstruction teams”,
and so on. He continues:
“Many of the shortcomings in that country have similarities with those in Iraq and still need to be properly assessed, with appropriate conclusions drawn.”
That, as I see it, is why a full-scale inquiry is of practical relevance, and why it might be of assistance to the future operations of this or any other Government and to our armed forces in the field elsewhere. To close our minds to learning from or to delay learning from the issues that Sir Hilary Synnott—the man in charge of governing southern Iraq on our behalf—has been talking about would be a dereliction of our duty, as well as that of the Government.
Can we get back to the terms of the right hon. Gentleman’s motion? It refers to
“the period leading up to military action in that country in March 2003”,
but when, in his opinion, did that period begin? Does it include what happened when the Thatcher Government were arming Saddam and implicitly supporting the repression of the Kurds, or does it simply start when the Labour Government were elected?
I do not think that that period starts with an election. Rather, it is for the members of the inquiry to decide; or, indeed, it is for the Government to bring forward terms of reference for an inquiry that set that out. That question is hardly an insurmountable obstacle to the setting up of a Privy Council or any other inquiry.
I am grateful. To develop the argument that the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) made, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, this being the third attempt to have an inquiry into Iraq, if we do not have one this time, owing to the practical problem of Labour Back Benchers, the message sent out to the public will be that to have such an inquiry, they must not vote Labour, but for somebody who will ensure that one is held?
Unlike the right hon. Gentleman, I voted against the war in Iraq. I accept that lessons can be learned from any inquiry that can help the House better to understand how things might be conducted in the future. However, does he not share my worries about holding an inquiry at this stage, in that if it indicted the Government on the reasons for their entry into the war and how it was conducted, it would leave our troops currently in Iraq in a very vulnerable position, both militarily and politically?
No, I do not agree with that. I want to set out the case for commencing an inquiry, now or very shortly, and deal with that very point.
As it enters its sixth year, the conflict in Iraq will soon have lasted as long as the second world war. The formative decisions—about the occupation of Iraq, the disbandment of the army, de-Ba’athification and the overall manner in which the military occupation was conducted—were made either in the immediate aftermath of the invasion five years ago, or in some cases well before it. Decisions and analyses relating to the origins of the war and its planning were therefore made up to six or seven years ago.
Any inquiry would presumably take many months to hear and assemble evidence; so even if the Foreign Secretary were to announce an inquiry at the Dispatch Box today, it would entail key participants of those early decisions trying to give a crystal clear recollection, by the time they gave evidence, of events of perhaps seven or eight years earlier. An inquiry announced next year or the year after would require those recollections to stretch back anything up to a decade, with accompanying documents, e-mails and files intact. With the best will in the world, that is going to be difficult for those involved. A continuing delay of months or years—for all we know, the Prime Minister may well mean years—is not merely the postponement of an inquiry, but the diminishing of its value. Its task at a later date would be more difficult, and the accurate and detailed picture of important moments and key meetings would necessarily be more difficult to assemble.
The passage of time is also bringing into public view a series of welcome but inevitably partial assessments of the initial stages of the conflict, in the form of memoirs, lectures, diaries and responses to freedom of information requests. The Government succeeded in blocking the publication of the account of the experiences of Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain’s senior diplomat at the UN and in Iraq, which was reported to include the observation that the opportunities for the post-conflict period were
“dissipated in poor policy analysis and narrow-minded execution.”
Other accounts are well known, including the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) attacking the highly personalised form of decision making by the Government, the diaries of Alastair Campbell and Lance Price from inside Downing street, the criticisms of the Government by Sir Christopher Meyer and General Sir Mike Jackson, and the memoirs of Sir Hilary Synnott, from which I have already read a considerable extract.
All of these accounts have come out, and in recent weeks it has been ordered that Cabinet minutes must be published, and an early draft of the so-called dossier on weapons of mass destruction has been forced out of the Government. With such a plethora of bits and pieces of information, and so many personal accounts, coming to light, would it not be better for the Government and for all who wish to learn from these events if what happened were considered properly, completely and in the round, with conclusions based on all the necessary information rather than on the parts that individuals have chosen or managed to publish?
The former Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, was able to say on BBC television nine days ago:
“We probably hadn’t thought through the magnitude of what we were taking on…we were pushing our own side to be prepared, but I don’t think any of us really thought through this much bigger question of what we were dealing with”.
What harm could it do to this country for the points that he was making to be properly analysed and understood? Such views are a welcome contribution to our understanding of events, but they are no substitute for an inquiry with real power and purpose.
The right hon. Gentleman asks what harm it could do to this country. I can tell him quite plainly that it would not only debilitate our armed services—[Interruption.] I would appreciate it if the House would listen to what I have to say. It would not only debilitate our armed services but give great comfort and encouragement to al-Qaeda elements in the country, which would give them inducement to carry on their bloody trade even more vigorously than they have done to date. That is the harm that could be done.
I fundamentally disagree with the hon. Gentleman about that. I do not think that we should shy away from the proper functioning of democracy on the ground that it might encourage our opponents. An inquiry of this kind is part of the proper functioning of democracy.
An odd argument has been made by the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) about an inquiry undermining our troops and our security efforts. If that were the case, why was there an inquiry into Bloody Sunday while British troops were still serving in Northern Ireland? That inquiry was supported by Labour and Conservative Members.
I agree with the general point that the hon. Gentleman is making. Of course, the same argument could have been made about the Dardanelles commission in the first world war, or, if we go back even further, about the inquiry that this House argued for, and voted for, on the Crimean war. The same argument can be made in all such circumstances as far back in history as we wish to go.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that, when James Baker and the other wise men carried out their inquiry on behalf of the American Government, no one suggested that it would harm American troops? Given that there was acceptance on that, surely it is logical that the inquiry that we are proposing would not harm our own troops.
My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. There have been far more searching investigations and discussions in the US Congress—and, indeed, in the Iraq study group, as far as we can see—about the nature of the United States’ involvement in Iraq than anything that we have seen in this country. Indeed, there are far more regular reports to Congress—General Petraeus is about to testify to Congress again—than anything that we see here. This is a separate point that the Government should attend to. There should be regular quarterly reports about progress in any theatre of war.
I am listening very carefully, but it seems as if the right hon. Gentleman and his party were not in the House when we debated going to war in Iraq. I voted for that war and I still believe that it was the right decision at that time. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that in any ensuing inquiry, the Opposition’s role in this country’s democracy should be taken into consideration, particularly when, according to what we are hearing, the Conservative party somehow stumbled into voting for the war?
I think that that question has already been raised, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I may have to cut down on interventions in the next few minutes. The hon. Gentleman is simply raising the same point as was put forward by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey. If those carrying out the inquiry—in whatever form it takes—want to see the paperwork relating to the deliberations of the Opposition parties, those parties should be entirely amenable to that happening. We should approach it in that spirit. What is being proposed here is not a trial or an impeachment, but an effort to learn for the future. It is a vital national process and it is an important issue for this country, irrespective of whether we voted for or against the war in Iraq.
Let me continue for a few moments.
A further aspect of the passage of time to which I referred is the fact that the need to learn from what has happened is serious and urgent. None of us can know at what stage in the future a British Government might feel compelled to say to Parliament and public that military action of some kind is necessary against a potential adversary. We just cannot know, but what we do know is that unless the country has been shown that all possible lessons have been learned, the credibility of any Government in that situation would be in severe doubt. And for good reason, since it would be entirely possible that lessons had not been learned because no searching examination of the past had taken place. We cannot proceed blithely into the future without understanding what has happened in the past.
When asked about an inquiry towards the end of last year, the Foreign Secretary said:
“I am obsessed with the next five years in Iraq, not the last five years in Iraq.”
Of course the future success of Iraq in the political, economic and security fields is the most important issue of all in these matters, but whoever heard of making a success of the future without understanding the errors of the past? Do we not all avidly read the memoirs and diaries that I mentioned for clues as to the correct policy in the future? Are we not engaged in a conflict of major proportions in Afghanistan where, for all we know, important lessons about Government machinery, military planning and the occupation of an unfamiliar country might actually be useful sooner rather than later?
I happen to have opposed the war on the grounds that insufficient thought had been given at the time to what might happen if we won militarily. My right hon. Friend might be relieved to know, however, that I agree with him entirely on the purpose of having an inquiry now, not least because we are in danger of losing the peace in Afghanistan where our troops are in conflict. I declare that I have a son who has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan and that one of the biggest problems facing our armed forces today is the lack of transposition of the knowledge that we gained in Iraq to the circumstances of trying to secure the peace in Afghanistan—[Interruption.]
My hon. Friend makes a personal and a political point in support of my case, for which I am grateful. I heard a sedentary intervention on the Government side a few moments ago to the effect that Afghanistan and Iraq are completely different cases; however, not only has my hon. Friend pointed out some parallels, but a similar argument was made by Sir Hilary Synnott, who was the man in charge of southern Iraq.
It is disturbing that, although there is a rhetorical consensus about the need for an inquiry at some point, the Government’s body language still shows an unwillingness to inform the future by studying the past. When my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) asked the Foreign Office last November how many studies into the consequences of the Iraq war it had started or completed and what lessons had been learned by the Department, the reply came back:
“No study of this type has been carried out”.—[Official Report, 19 November 2007; Vol. 467, c. 562W.]
Not at the moment.
Similarly, in response to the same question, the Department for International Development responded:
“There has been no formal or specific study into the consequences for DFID of the conflict in Iraq.”—[Official Report, 21 November 2007; Vol. 467, c. 931W.]
Whatever lessons the Government thought they had learned—on the basis of not having conducted any studies so far—were presumably passed on in their evidence to the Iraq study group, which my hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) mentioned. That inquiry was commissioned by the United States Government and Congress, but the evidence, although given to the American commission, has never been disclosed to the British Parliament. Nevertheless, despite the passage of years, the publication of incomplete accounts and the threats of an uncertain future, Ministers maintain their position that an inquiry cannot yet be commenced.
I will not give way for the moment.
I expect the Foreign Secretary will advance that argument again, but I see from the Government’s amendment that they have at least dropped the argument that they advanced last summer that an inquiry was not necessary at an early date because four separate inquiries had already been held. Given that one of them was the investigation into the death of Dr. David Kelly and another was the report by the Foreign Affairs Committee, which complained vociferously about the lack of Government co-operation with the Committee’s proceedings, that was never a very convincing argument.
The Government’s remaining argument is that, in the words of the Prime Minister’s letter to the Fabian Society, it is
“vital that the Government does not divert attention from supporting Iraq’s development as a secure and stable country.”
That is the Government’s crucial argument, as expressed by the Prime Minister himself, so it merits some examination. First, let us be clear that the idea that Iraqi politicians will be unable to proceed with measures of reconciliation, that the Iraqi economy will suffer, or that the stability of the country will be endangered because we are conducting an inquiry in Whitehall is ludicrous.
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman before the end of my speech.
Of course it is true that there are still senior officials in the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development who are closely concerned with Iraqi affairs, but being busy cannot possibly provide an argument for indefinitely postponing something that has become so essential. Presumably, when they are no longer dealing with Iraq there will be no shortage of other things for them to do. If we are to wait until those Departments have arrived at a benign and settled time when their senior officials can be troubled with the distraction of an inquiry, such a thing will never take place at all.
If it is true that, as the Prime Minister also said in his letter,
“the whole effort of the…armed forces is directed towards supporting the people and Government of Iraq”,
is it not of paramount importance for that effort to be based on a better understanding of past events? The commission that inquired into the Dardanelles campaign was set up in 1916 and reported in 1917, on the recommendation of Asquith, the Prime Minister of the time, who could no doubt have argued that the whole effort of the Government and the armed forces was devoted to winning the first world war. Of course their effort was devoted to winning the first world war, but our predecessors at that time reached the view that they might be better at winning the war, and any other war, if they understood as soon as possible where things had gone wrong.
“Ah,” the Government have said in the past, “this may all be true, but we still have members of our armed forces in Iraq, and we would be letting them down or undermining their morale if an inquiry were commenced while they were there.” The implications of that argument are, of course, disturbing, as for all we know some British force may be employed in Iraq for a considerable time to come, and it would follow from the Government’s argument that no inquiry is remotely on the horizon.
It should also be pointed out that that has, in any case, always been a weak argument. The largest Army garrison in Britain—in Catterick—is in my constituency, and I am glad to say that it is often visited by the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook). I often speak to soldiers and senior officers who have returned from Iraq, and the notion that their morale would be in any way undermined by our commencing an inquiry into the origins and conduct of the Iraq war is one that most of them would consider truly laughable. The morale of those wonderful people is made of far sturdier stuff than that. It depends on their training, their colleagues, their leadership and their equipment. Far from their being undermined by an inquiry, there are few who would not welcome it, for they above all others want to know that all of us politicians have learned from mistakes for which some of their colleagues paid with their lives.
Furthermore, the Government cannot claim simultaneously that the role of our armed forces in Iraq has been much reduced and circumscribed, and that the military situation is so critical that no inquiry can be commenced. On 16 December, the Foreign Secretary said,
“our role from now is going to be a supporting role because it's Iraqis in the lead in security, Iraqis in the lead in politics.”
In October, the Prime Minister told the House,
“in the spring of next year”
—that is now—
“…we plan to move to a second stage of overwatch where the coalition would maintain a more limited re-intervention capacity and where the main focus will be on training and mentoring.”—[Official Report, 8 October 2008; Vol. 464, c. 23.]
Is a process of training and mentoring, or even of overwatch, in 2008 going to be disrupted or damaged by the holding of an inquiry that would surely concentrate on the events of 2002, 2003 and 2004?
We have also discussed that many times. I do not regret my decision, but other Members who voted the same way as I did will regret their decision; some of them have spoken out about that. However, I believe that all of us, regardless of whether we voted for or against that decision, should be able to join together in being willing to learn from what has happened, because none of us thinks that everything went according to plan. That should be the united basis on which this House approaches an inquiry, as it was in the first world war example I have referred to, and which provides a lesson for us to draw on.
There is another strong reason in the national interest why there should be an inquiry now. Given that there will be a new President in the White House as of January and given that one of the perceptions of our decision to join with the Americans is that we were their poodle, it is important that our Government and the people of Britain understand the implications of that decision so that in future we get a foreign policy that is more balanced and that does not look so subservient.
In advancing that argument, the hon. Gentleman might start to fracture the possible coalition in all parts of the House in support of an inquiry. I shall not therefore go down that road with him, but let me at least say that that is clearly an argument that can be put in favour of an inquiry.
Since the current Prime Minister took office, the Government have announced at least 50 separate reviews of different areas of policy, all presumably designed better to inform future policy making. They cover a vast range of subjects, from casinos to 24-hour drinking to the promotion of tourism and to sunbeds. [Interruption.] The Foreign Secretary may not be aware of it, but the Government are having a review of sunbeds. Many of these reviews are in the military area, such as the review of support for the armed forces, the armed personnel review and the review of the role of the military. It defies credibility that there should be time and resources to review a vast range of subjects, including many in the field of defence, but that any review or inquiry into probably the most important events of the decade is too much of a distraction from the matters in hand.
Finally, among the Government’s arguments against an inquiry last year was that it would give the impression of division or weakness to the enemy; the hon. Member for Stockton, North has made that point. However, since when, in any mature democracy, have considered debate, searching inquiry and the establishment of truth been a sign of weakness—even in more dramatic moments in our history? Did our predecessors shy away from debating Norway in 1940 in case Hitler was emboldened?
The truth is that the case for commencing an inquiry of the type, or of a similar type, to the one we are calling for today has become overwhelming. That has been well illustrated by the work of the Fabian Society and the debates in the House of Lords where former Foreign Secretaries of all political persuasions have put the case for an inquiry to begin.
If Ministers continue to argue against that, they will be increasingly isolated voices, holding out against a preponderance of national opinion, which embraces every other party and many members of their own. They may be unwilling to embark on something which would, of course, add to the duties of some of them, but they should not shirk this task because it seems unpleasant, and they should remember that if this inquiry is not established by this Administration, it most surely will be by the next one. They may be unwilling to act at the behest of the Conservative party, or of the Liberal Democrats, or even of the Fabian Society, but if so, they should go away from this debate and come back in a short time with their own considered proposals. Not to do so would be an error of policy, as well as of politics; and not to do so would be to frustrate the wishes not of any one party in this House, but of the British people as a whole.
I beg to move, To leave out from ‘House’ to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
‘notes the Resolutions of this House of 31st October 2006 and 11th June 2007 on an Iraq inquiry; recognises that this House has already twice voted against holding an inquiry at these times; further recognises that a time will come when an inquiry is appropriate; but declines to make a proposal for a further inquiry at this time, whilst important operations are underway in Iraq to support the people and government of Iraq.’.
The amendment stands in the name of the Prime Minister, and that of myself and my colleagues. I must notify the House that a long-standing official engagement means that I shall not be present for the wind-ups.
I start on two points on which I believe there is agreement across the House. First, whether we voted for the Iraq war or against it, we all recognise that the continued bravery, dedication and professionalism of our armed forces and our civilian staff operating in Iraq is second to none. All of us have constituents whose sons and daughters, husbands and wives have served, or are serving, in Iraq. Some of us have constituents whose loved ones have died there. None of us—on any side of the debate—has anything but admiration for and pride in the selfless way in which those people have gone about their task, and nothing that I say today will impugn the motives or motivations of speakers or hon. Members, however they vote.
Secondly, there is agreement across the House that an inquiry into the Iraq war will be necessary. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) set out the reasons for that well, and I do not need to rehearse them. He was also generous enough to say that the Government have been consistent on this issue since October 2006. The dispute between us concerns not substance, but timing. The Opposition have said that the time for such an inquiry is now—on the GMTV programme this morning he said, “Now is the right time”. Given today’s reports from Basra, most people would see that as a bizarre choice of priority. We say, as the Prime Minister has said, that
“the right time to look at these issues and review the lessons learned is when our troops have finished the work in Iraq”.—[Official Report, 19 March 2008; Vol. 473, c. 932.]
The British Government’s view is that now is not the right time, but why have the Americans been prepared to carry out their own inquiries in previous years since the beginning of the war? Why has the time been right for the Americans when they have held inquiries but now is not the right time for the British?
That relates to the burden of my speech; it is contained in our amendment, which refers to the “important operations” that our troops are doing in theatre. I want to go through each of the arguments carefully. They relate to precedent and the learning of lessons, both of which I shall address, and the condition of our troops on the ground.
Does the Foreign Secretary not accept that his argument is absurd? If we do not have an inquiry now, we will never have one while any conflict is going on because there will never be a good time to do so, as others have pointed out. Perhaps he could take a lesson from across the Atlantic. Not only has the United States held inquiries, but both of its Houses have debated and voted for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, and the troops remain there only through the presidential veto. Cannot we learn a lesson from that side of the Atlantic too?
Some 60 debates on the Iraq issue have taken place in this House. It is proper and right that any hon. Member, or group of hon. Members, can table a motion arguing for the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq now and Parliament would have the right to vote on that issue.
A few moments ago, the Foreign Secretary argued that the conflict in Basra is a good argument against an inquiry. I am sure that he has read the recent interview given by Jonathan Powell, the former chief of staff to the Government, who makes it clear that the Government in no way planned for or understood the possibility of a sectarian conflict or internal civil war being likely to break out in Iraq if a war took place. Is that not precisely why we need to have an inquiry? Today’s events in Basra demonstrate the inadequacy of the Government’s preparation for one of the worst conflicts for which this or any British Government have been responsible in the past 100 years.
The events demonstrate a wide range of issues, not least the role of the Iraqi security forces and police in disbanding and attacking some of the Iraqi militia—the Shi’a militia—in the south of Iraq. I shall argue and explain in my speech why the situation in Basra precisely does not call for the sort of inquiry that has been mentioned. Our rationale was simple and it was set out clearly in the debate in the House on 31 October, to which the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks referred. This is what was said at the time:
“important operations are under way in Iraq. Major political decisions in Iraq and efforts to contain the insurgency appear to be in the balance. The Baker commission is expected to report in the next few months. Any inquiry should be able to examine what happens in the coming months”—
that point was made earlier—
“as well as the events of recent years. To begin an inquiry now would therefore be premature”.
Those powerful words encapsulate the heart of our case. What is peculiar is that they were not uttered by a Government Minister. Instead, they are the words of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks in that debate, who provided a catalogue of reasons against an immediate inquiry.
Let us go through those reasons carefully. Eighteen months on, the Baker commission has reported but every other count set out not by me, but by the right hon. Gentleman in October 2006 applies now. The right hon. Gentleman argued against an inquiry in October 2006 because
“important operations are under way in Iraq.”
That was his argument, not mine. [Interruption.] It is his argument and mine. The same is the case today. About 4,000 British troops are providing vital functions to monitor, mentor and train Iraqi security forces, to provide key support to those forces, to support border security on the Iran-Iraq border and to provide a quick reaction force at high readiness.
The right hon. Gentleman also argued against an inquiry because:
“Major political decisions…and efforts to contain the insurgency appear to be in the balance.”—[Official Report, 31 October 2006; Vol. 451, c. 183.]
So they are today; it is his argument and mine. One has only to switch on the TV to see it. I shall come back to this later and explain current developments but there are clearly clashes between the Iraqi security force and militia groups, never mind important developments on the political front. The Iraqi Government are deliberating on a new election law and a hydrocarbons law, as well as revenue-sharing laws that will benefit all Iraqis. The myriad Iraqi political parties that have emerged since 2003 are working through the implications of their 4 December commitments to constitutional reform. [Interruption.] Some hon. Members say that that is not relevant, but it is relevant because it is the exact reason given against an immediate inquiry by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks in 2006. In fact, he concluded by saying that an inquiry would be “premature” because of those grounds. If that argument was good enough for him then, it should be good enough for him now.
The events in Basra today, where the Iraqi army is trying to address the militias and, to a degree, the police force, which is wholly infested by the militias, are a direct consequence of the failure of British policy. That policy was made evident to the Select Committee on Defence in 2004 when we were shown the Iraqi police being trained by the British. That has a direct read-across to what our troops are doing in Afghanistan, where the lessons from Iraq are directly applicable to the failure to establish a police force that is not corrupt. What is happening in Basra today will happen in Afghanistan tomorrow if we do not learn the lessons.
For the record I want to say that my party, of course, called for an inquiry at a time considerably before the Conservatives did. Will the Foreign Secretary explain the position? Is he saying that there will be no inquiry while British forces remain in theatre? If that is the case, we still have troops in the Falklands, in Cyprus and in Bosnia. Is not the reality that the Baker commission in the US led to the appointment of General Petraeus and a change in policy by the US military that, to its credit, is starting to see some good effects? Could not that happen to our forces, too?
The hon. Gentleman referred to the Falklands—the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks called it a model inquiry—but we should remember that the Falklands inquiry was established at the end of the Falklands conflict. I do not think that the point made by the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) in respect of the Falklands is—
Rather than taking the easy tack and looking at the inconsistency of the Conservative position, will the Foreign Secretary look at the substance of the case for an inquiry? Rather than talking about the operations, which we all know about, will he say why those operations would hinder an inquiry?
What the House hopes to hear is why an argument that might have been premature 18 months ago has not matured now. We want to know, for example, whether the then Prime Minister put decisions in writing in the way in which Winston Churchill instructed his Secretary of State to do in 1941. Meetings were to be minuted and decisions confirmed in writing. Those are the kinds of things that will get lost as we get further away from the time when the war started, year by year. The House, the country and our troops deserve better than that.
There have been four arguments made for an inquiry and I want to go through them one by one, but the very case that the hon. Member makes—that he wants to know whether decisions were given in writing or orally—shows that this has nothing to do with the learning of lessons that are appropriate for the lives and welfare of our troops on the ground today.
The one group of people whose views on this issue have not been mentioned in the first hour of this debate is the Iraqi people. The motion talks about “all matters relevant thereto”, which would presumably include the internal workings of the present democratic Government in Iraq. Can my right hon. Friend tell the House whether the Iraqi Government have been pressing him for an early inquiry?
That is a good point and one that we had not thought of circulating in the briefing. We have not been pressed by the Iraqi Government, who have more important things on their mind.
The judgment about the right time hinges on four points, and I shall address each in turn. The first is precedent. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks mentioned the situation in July 1916, when Prime Minister Asquith set up an inquiry not into the origins and conduct of the ongoing first world war, but into the time-limited, finished and ill-fated Dardanelle expedition of 1915 and, for the sake of accuracy, into the Anglo-Indian campaign in Mesopotamia in spring 1916. That point was brought out in the debate on 31 October 2006 by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), who at the time was not my hon. Friend. He showed that the Dardanelle example did not actually speak to the case that the right hon. Gentleman seeks to prosecute. In fact, the campaign was over before the inquiry was set up—
A case could just be made by the Foreign Secretary about the Dardanelles, but he glided carefully over the example of the campaign in Mesopotamia—which we otherwise know as Iraq. That inquiry was set up specifically to learn military operational lessons in an ongoing campaign, which had brought disaster to the British at Qut al Amara. It was going on at the time, and lessons were learned. That example proves our case.
It is a good thing that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks did not mention the Mesopotamia campaign in the prosecution of his case. In fact, it was the Dardanelles campaign that he mentioned.
The right hon. Gentleman did mention the famous Norway debate in 1940, but it is known as the Norway debate, not the Norway inquiry, for a very simple reason—it was a debate about Norway, not an inquiry into the Norway campaign. There was no inquiry into the Korean war, Suez, the first Gulf war or the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s. The Franks inquiry was set up after the end of the Falklands conflict. The right hon. Gentleman said in his speech that we should model—not my word, his—any inquiry on the Franks inquiry. In fact, the Franks inquiry was set up only after all the troops had come home from the Falklands. I do not therefore believe that the case has been made.
The whole of the Foreign Secretary’s argument seems to rest on what will be perceived outside this Chamber as the absurd premise that a group of 4,000 people with an overwatch role will somehow have their morale undermined if we commence an investigation to clear up the huge number of concerns that remain about the war. Is that really what his argument rests on? If not, will he finally get round to telling us what his argument is?
I have never mentioned the word “morale”. I do not think that the morale argument is a very strong one and the hon. Gentleman will not hear it from me.
The second argument is that following Basra’s transition to provincial Iraqi control in December, our military role in Iraq is now so limited—the right hon. Gentleman used the rather dismissive word “diminished”— that an inquiry could safely be held without prejudice to the position of our servicemen and women in Iraq. That argument does not accord with the reality of our ongoing commitments in southern Iraq.
No; I am just going to make this point, then I shall let hon. Members come in.
British forces still have an important role to play in monitoring, mentoring and training the Iraqi security force in southern Iraq. Our forces support the Iraqi security force in active operations such as countering smuggling on the Shatt al-Arab waterway and at the Iranian border, including by supporting, training and developing the Iraqi department of border enforcement.
When necessary, and at the request of Iraqi authorities, we provide Iraqi-led operations with advanced capabilities that the Iraqi security forces do not possess. That was what we did in January when the ISF were faced with a series of pre-planned attacks in both Basra and An Nasiriyah by a fundamentalist sect during the Ashura festival.
I shall give way at the end of this section of my speech.
UK forces were in close contact with the Iraqi security forces, and provided fast air support and aerial surveillance capabilities in support of ISF operations. Those capabilities were crucial in enabling the Iraqi security forces to deal with the situation as effectively as they did.
We also retain the capacity to deploy ground forces in support of the Iraqi security forces, at Iraqi request and in line with the terms of the memorandum that was signed in December. The dangers and difficulties of that role are shown by the continued efforts of small numbers of extremists to target our forces. It is not tenable to make the second argument: that our armed forces are no longer devoting significant attention to the future of Iraq, and so have time on their hands for all the demands of an inquiry.
I think it is evident that the mission has not been accomplished. I associate myself entirely with something that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, said earlier—I do not know whether he was quoting what I said last week. It seems clear that the war itself went better than most people expected, but that the building of the peace afterwards has gone much worse than people expected. That is the basic truth, and we might as well all accept it. The mission has not yet been accomplished.
On the previous point, I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) completely demolished the Foreign Secretary’s argument.
Will the Foreign Secretary explain to the House why the Prime Minister promised a reduction in the number of troops in Iraq to 2,500 by next summer? It is now becoming evident that that is not going to be delivered, and 4,000 looks like the minimum. Is that not a further argument for an inquiry? Some of the mistakes that the Government made soon after the invasion seem to be being repeated.
The Prime Minister’s promises were made on the basis of military advice. He promised a downward trend in troop numbers, which remains the case. All further decisions will also be based on military advice, and I think I would discount the numbers that the hon. Gentleman is chucking around.
The Foreign Secretary’s argument is predicated, in truth, almost entirely on the fact that it would be militarily deleterious for an inquiry to be held now. Will he tell us which senior commanders of the British armed forces, present or past, have told him or said that such an inquiry would be harmful?
The same question was asked in a previous debate, and the answer was, “None.” That is not the basis of the case. I am asking people to make a judgment of the four reasons that have been given. The first is the precedent, and the second is the so-called diminished role that we are playing.
I do not understand the Foreign Secretary’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie). He has described clearly the role being carried out by the 4,000 people still in Basra. He said that it is not their morale that he is worried about. What is the argument that an inquiry into the origins of and planning for the war will disrupt the continuing role in Basra? It sounds as though the Foreign Secretary is just saying, “They wouldn’t have the time.” The people involved in Basra at the moment, however, are highly unlikely to be required for the sort of inquiry that my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) has been arguing for.
The argument is straightforward: that the focus, attention and priority of armed services and diplomats should be on the job at hand, not on the service of an inquiry.
The third argument for an inquiry has to do with the lessons learned for the benefits of future policy. It is that an early inquiry can help us learn lessons that will contribute to the future success of efforts in Iraq. However, our military, diplomatic and development strategies have consistently been adjusted and updated in the light of events on the ground in Iraq and the lessons that have been learned.
As I said earlier, in 2003 the Ministry of Defence published two studies about the operations in Iraq. Since then, it has conducted a series of internal reviews and studies concerning various stages of the operation. They apply across the complex range of issues raised by the Iraq conflict—from military kit to counter-insurgency strategy, from the relationship of security to economic and political change. More broadly, we have long recognised the importance of learning systemic lessons about the conduct of post-stabilisation operations— a point that was made earlier in relation to Afghanistan.
The final argument is that, if an inquiry is not held soon, memories will fade, records will be lost and the passage of time will render it impossible to conduct an effective and detailed examination. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks said last week:
“As we reach the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq it is becoming imperative to begin an inquiry before memories have faded, e-mails have been deleted and documents have disappeared.”
The Foreign Secretary spoke about lessons learned, but 15 years or more ago a very expensive course—the higher command and staff course—was set up at the Joint Forces Staff college. It studied campaign planning, and many of the senior officers and civil servants who tried to make decisions about the invasion of Iraq had been on it. I know that they looked carefully at a module covering the Marshall plan, and at what would happen after the fighting finished. Why was their advice ignored, and should we not inquire into the matter?
I shall be happy to look into that, and to ask my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces to address the point about the module. However, the hon. Gentleman and I agree that there are significant lessons to be learned, both in-theatre and about decision making. What divides us is when there should be an official inquiry—and the motion calls for a Privy Council inquiry—into the Iraq war. Should we hold one now, or when our troops have finished their work? I put it to the hon. Gentleman that it is more sensible to hold it when our troops have finished their work.
The Foreign Secretary has gone into some detail about the internal inquiries conducted by the Ministry of Defence. There is no dispute about them, but will he explain why the Foreign Office has not undertaken any inquiry? I refer the right hon. Gentleman to the written answer that I received from the Minister for the Middle East on 19 November 2007.
The wisdom of all Foreign Office officials is of course used to inform the development of policy. Those officials include existing ambassadors who have moved out of Iraq, as well as those who have retired. The policy of the Foreign Office is not the same as it was in 2002 or 2003, but the failure to establish an official inquiry is not a consequence of that.
I want to say more about the fourth and final argument for an inquiry, which is that memories will fade and that e-mails will be deleted. Frankly, that is the weakest part of the case for an inquiry. Since 2003, there have been four separate inquiries into different aspects of the decision to invade Iraq and associated events, and they are not going to go away. In the same period, there have been 60 parliamentary debates on the matter. As the depth of interest in the fifth anniversary of military action shows, events and decisions related to Iraq are still being analysed and debated in minute detail. I do not see any risk that interest will fade before the time is right for an inquiry.
I am afraid that the Foreign Secretary has just holed himself below the waterline. He has told the House there have been four inquiries, and that used to be the Government’s argument for not holding an official inquiry. Will he tell the House how the Government were able to hold the four inquiries about which they now boast without harming operations in Iraq?
The argument against the Government was that those inquiries were narrow and limited. I shall go through them: they include the inquiry into the death of Dr. David Kelly—the so-called Hutton inquiry—and the Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry for which the hon. Members who compiled it claimed to have received insufficient help. Both were specific and narrow, but the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks made it clear that the inquiry proposed in the motion would have no limit on what it would be able to look at. A Privy Council inquiry of the sort that is being proposed is of a different order from those that have been conducted so far. The inquiries that have been conducted so far, including the Butler inquiry on the use of intelligence, were discrete and narrow in their terms of reference and in what they were investigating.
Before my right hon. Friend moves on from the point about memories fading, many in this House remember well the events leading up to actions five years ago, and we remember well the Conservative party’s view on the issues. Is he not being patient in his speech, given that we know why we are debating the subject today? The debate is a cynical move by the Conservative party to reposition itself on Iraq for narrow, party political advantage.
The Opposition’s position on the four inquiries may indeed have been that the terms of reference were so limited that a wider inquiry was needed, but does the Foreign Secretary not recall that the Government’s position, repeated time and again by Members on the Government Benches, was that it was precisely because the inquiries’ terms of reference were so wide-ranging and comprehensive that no further inquiry was needed?
There is absolutely no comparison between the Privy Council inquiry advocated by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, which would cover every aspect of not just Government policy but, as we learned today, Opposition policy, and the Butler inquiry on the use of intelligence or the Hutton inquiry on the death of Dr. David Kelly. Those were of a different order from the Privy Council inquiry, with no limits, that is being proposed today.
In a moment; let me make some progress. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, majored on this point, but it is not credible to argue on the basis of the risk of interest fading, of records being lost, or of e-mails going missing. That cannot conceivably be the basis for arguing for an inquiry now, rather than when our troops have come home. That seems to me to be the fourth and final weakness of the case that he makes.
My right hon. Friend mentions the Butler committee’s inquiry, but how can the House have confidence in that inquiry, or indeed that of the Intelligence and Security Committee, when one member of both committees—a former Member of the House, Ann Taylor—was involved in the preparation of the dossier? We know that from an e-mail to Jonathan Powell, among others, that begins:
“Ann Taylor read the draft dossier this morning and passed on some detailed comments to John Scarlett. She has just rung me to underline the following points.”
There then follow various points. A Member of the House was involved in drawing up the dossier, was then appointed a member of the Butler committee, and was Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee; how can we have confidence in those procedures?
I have never heard the credibility or the good sense of the Butler inquiry called into question. I think that all of us who have read that study believe that it did a very serious job, without fear or favour. It interrogated all the relevant people, it looked into all the issues, and it had full access to papers. It came up with a clear set of recommendations that no one would say were comfortable for the Prime Minister and the Government of the time.
My hon. Friend says, from a sedentary position, something about what the Butler saw; I think that the Butler saw pretty much everything in this case. I am surprised to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones) cast doubt on the credibility of the Butler inquiry.
The Foreign Secretary said earlier that it was not the morale of troops in Basra that was of concern to him, but the fact that senior Ministers and diplomats would be distracted from the priorities of dealing with the ongoing situation in Iraq. He knows perfectly well that not a single senior Minister, ambassador or senior civil servant who was responsible for Iraq five years ago currently has responsibilities for Iraq, so how can that possibly be an argument in favour of his position?
First of all, for the record, I would never say that the morale of troops was not of concern. My argument was that I would not advance the case against an inquiry on the basis of the morale of the troops. Secondly, in respect of the work that would be required across the armed forces, which I mentioned, and the diplomatic service, it is not only the senior Ministers to whom the right hon. and learned Gentleman referred but the whole machine that will have to service the inquiry and ensure, in a diligent way, that the issues are addressed. That is the issue at hand. That is the argument for holding an inquiry when we could hold one, when all our troops have come home.
The Foreign Secretary has spoken about the wide-ranging nature of the Butler inquiry and the inquiry by the Intelligence and Security Committee. He knows that the previous Prime Minister admitted at the Dispatch Box that he did not know that weapons of mass destruction, which he was going to destroy, were in fact defensive weapons. We went to war without the Prime Minister knowing exactly what the threat was. How could that possibly happen? The Prime Minister did not know—he was not briefed—yet those questions were not posed by either the Butler inquiry or the ISC inquiry.
I have listened carefully to the Foreign Secretary’s speech. Does he understand that the impression that he is giving is less a concern about the effectiveness of British operations in Basra and much more a determination to try to protect the Government from embarrassment in relation to the decision to go to war?
With all due respect, I believe that the right hon. and learned Gentleman thought of that line before the debate began.
Given the events in Basra, it is important that I update the House on our understanding of the clashes that have taken place. In the hour between oral questions and the debate, I have spoken to our acting consul general in Basra and to our ambassador in Baghdad, and I should update the House on that, because it is relevant to this issue. Over the past two days, the Iraqi Government have launched a new phase in their efforts to assert full authority over Basra. On Monday, Prime Minister Maliki broadcast a message to the people of Basra, emphasising that the Iraqi state was responsible for security.
Order. I may have anticipated the point of order the hon. Gentleman was about to raise. The Foreign Secretary should be careful on this matter. If he seeks to insert in his speech a statement about a situation that would ordinarily be subject to questioning, that ought to be done in a specific way. It is not normally accepted procedure to combine a statement of information to the House with a speech in an Opposition day debate.
I think that the hon. Gentleman knows that that is not a matter on which the Chair can pronounce. I have suggested that the Foreign Secretary follow the normal way of proceeding in cases of this kind. It is up to the Government to decide how they deal with that.
Let me conclude, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by addressing the finely balanced position that continues to exist in Iraq, and which the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks himself argued in 2006 militated against an inquiry.
In the past year, there have been significant improvements in the security situation in Baghdad, as the right hon. Gentleman said. That is a reflection of various factors, not least the growing capability of the Iraqi security forces and the rejection by many Iraqis, particularly Sunnis of western Iraq, of al-Qaeda. However, it is also clear that to sustain that progress, Iraqis themselves need to use the opportunities provided by improved security to take forward the political reconciliation process. It is important, too, to use the breathing space provided by improved security to progress broader reconciliation at the local level, which is directly relevant to the position of our troops and the training of the Iraqi security forces in southern Iraq.
In Basra, real progress had been made by General Mohan, head of Basra operations command, and by General Jalil, Basra police director, in developing ISF capability since their appointment last summer. On the economic front, the Prime Minister’s announcement on 8 October of a Basra development commission has been taken forward, and meanwhile, hundreds of corrupt or militia-affiliated police officers have been dismissed by General Jalil. The sovereign decisions of the Government of Iraq in respect of the Iraqi security forces and their work with our troops in southern Iraq reflect the progress that has been achieved since provincial Iraqi control in Basra.
We have commitments to the Iraqi people, rooted in UN resolutions. We are continuing to devote substantial diplomatic, development and military resources to honouring those commitments, against a background of promising but still fragile progress. In that context, all the efforts—
No. All the efforts of our most senior people, from soldiers to diplomats, need to be focused on creating the best possible future for Iraq, not on concentrating on the past. That is what the Government will be doing. I believe that is what the House should be doing as well. Let us have an inquiry, but when our troops are safe. I urge support for the Government amendment.
I begin by associating my right hon. and hon. Friends with the initial comments of the Foreign Secretary about the bravery and dedication of British servicemen and women. Whatever our differences on the war or the inquiry, at least we can all agree on our joint pride in our armed forces.
Apart from those comments, however, I am afraid that the Foreign Secretary’s speech was totally unconvincing. Although I enjoyed his exploitation of the inconsistencies of the Conservative position, his argument on the substance was pitifully weak. The case for an inquiry into the Iraq war is overwhelming, and the case for it to be held now is at least as strong. One would have thought that an inquiry ought to be automatic when a decision of the magnitude of going to war goes so catastrophically wrong. To put such an inquiry off, even five years afterwards, is nothing short of a scandal. So just as the Liberal Democrats have proposed an inquiry and supported all past calls in the House for an inquiry, we will do so again tonight.
Yet in supporting the Conservative motion, we feel that it is only right to remind the public that the Conservative party still refuses to admit that it made a gross error of judgment on Iraq. If the Conservative party were to admit that tonight, my hunch is that their motion would be more likely to succeed. In past such debates, more than 40 Labour MPs who had voted against the war voted against an inquiry, partly because the Tory position looked so opportunistic. A long overdue expression of regret from those on the Conservative Benches could serve a useful parliamentary purpose and defeat the Government tonight. Judging from the speech of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), it seems that they are still believers in the war.
I can therefore appeal only to Labour MPs—those who were brave enough five years ago to vote with us against the Iraq war. Yes, the Conservatives may be playing politics with the issue. Yes, I can understand that those Labour Members do not want to be seen to play games with the Tories. But surely the logic of their opposition to the war means that the only rational place for them to be tonight is in the Lobby with the other 15 Labour MPs who previously voted for an inquiry.
We need an inquiry because those who took that decision, including the Conservatives, need to be held to account. We also need it because, as the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks said, we need to be sure that the lessons are learned for Afghanistan and all future conflicts, and for the work of the intelligence services.
Has not the hon. Gentleman given his game away by asking for hon. Members to be made to give account of themselves? Surely this is wider than a party political debate. Of course, I should be interested to know what happened with the Government, with my own party and with his party in the discussions, but this is a matter for the country. It is not for the Liberal Democrats to try to use it as their little toy.
That is rather rich, coming from the Conservative Benches. I agree with the hon. Gentleman on one thing—the debate goes wider than party politics. That is what we have argued for many years.
The Government position used to be to oppose an inquiry completely, claiming that four inquiries had already been held. When I intervened on the Foreign Secretary tonight, we heard a volte face from the previous Government position. His argument tonight destroyed the argument that they made in the past, which we always thought was threadbare. At least tonight the right hon. Gentleman had the decency to admit the fiction.
Early this week, it seemed refreshing when we appeared to get a promise from the Prime Minister, repeated in the Government’s amendment tonight, that the Government were no longer against an inquiry in principle. Indeed, the Foreign Secretary said that again today. It seems that the only issue in this debate is the timing of that inquiry. Are the Government correct in saying that an early inquiry would be wrong and that we must wait while, as the Government amendment puts it,
“operations are underway in Iraq to support the people and government of Iraq”?
Absolutely not. The Government have got themselves into a ludicrous and untenable position. In this debate, the Foreign Secretary has never explained why the ongoing operations in Iraq are an obstacle to the inquiry. He mentioned that a few diplomats, soldiers and commanders might be needed for the inquiry. However, as I shall endeavour to show, most of the people who will need to go before the inquiry will have moved on and will not be involved in Iraq today.
If my hon. Friend speaks to senior members of Congress who were involved in the Baker review, they will tell him that Congress was able to carry out a thoughtful and full-ranging review of the US commitment in Iraq with no negative effect whatever on troops on the ground or the diplomatic service. If the Foreign Secretary is suggesting that they were put at risk by the review, he is, frankly, wrong.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He will know that there have been many American investigations into a whole range of issues in Iraq—not least, many of the audit reports. There have been more than 60 audit reports on different aspects of the reconstruction. How have they got in the way of the major work going on in Iraq?
The Foreign Secretary tried to make the point that many potential participants in the inquiry may be too busy to take part in it. Is it not the case that the key witness—the most important person from whom we wish to hear—has plenty of time on his hands at the moment? In a few months’ time, however, he may be too busy as president of the European Council.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but he anticipates my speech; I shall deal with his point in a second.
The main remaining public justification for UK troops staying in Iraq is that they are there to train the Iraqi security forces—an important task that our armed forces have been doing for some time with distinction. However, does the task of training prevent an inquiry? I think not. [Interruption.] From a sedentary position, the Minister for the Armed Forces is saying that the troops are doing far more. However, the Iraq Commission, co-chaired by my noble Friend Lord Ashdown, made it absolutely clear that the training function was the key and critical issue during the overwatch stage. If the Minister wants to deny that, let him get to the Dispatch Box.
Furthermore, even when questioned about the action in Basra today, the British military are clear that it does not involve our forces. Action is being taken by the Iraqi armed forces and the Iraqi police, who have been trained in the past by the British security forces but who have no help from British forces today. That is the point; we are now handing over.
One can only go on what the military spokesmen are saying.
Even if the limited military operations mentioned by the Foreign Secretary are ongoing, I still do not see how they would be an obstacle to an inquiry. He went on to talk about the attention and focus of our armed forces and diplomats. However, if that is the argument, our engagement in any military operation anywhere in the world—Afghanistan or elsewhere—would hinder an inquiry. The argument is palpably absurd.
I was grateful for the history lesson given by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson); it really holed the Foreign Secretary beneath the waterline, and he failed to answer the hon. Gentleman’s point. He was also wrong in his refutation of the precedent of the Dardanelles commission of 1916-17, cited by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). That was sitting during the first world war. The actions in Gallipoli may have finished, but let us face it, our armed forces were hugely involved in northern France. The idea that because the action had happened in Gallipoli, those involved were freed up so that the inquiry could take place is absurd.
To compare a war that was taking place in 1917 with one that has taken place this century—in the age of the internet and of people flying around on easyJet, when propaganda can fly around the world in a split second—is to look at the whole issue totally out of context.
If I had understood the logic behind the hon. Gentleman’s argument, I would answer his intervention. However, I am afraid that the House has already shown that that point is not worth addressing.
If the House is to vote against the Government’s amendment and for the motion, it will have to try to understand more the nature of the inquiry. Who would be called? What would be the inquiry’s focus? The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks rightly said that it would focus on the run-up to the war, the invasion itself and the immediate aftermath far more than on actions going on in Basra and the southern provinces on the Iran-Iraq border in 2008.
Let us think about who would come to the inquiry—one Tony Blair comes to mind. I suggest that he is not that busy at the moment; I do not believe that he is involved with our troops in the Iraqi operations in Basra. He may be attending a few board meetings. One or two days a week, I believe, he helps to create peace in Israel-Palestine, although he has a bit of work to do on that. Nevertheless, he ought to come to the inquiry. He ought to be called now, not in a few years’ time. He is the central witness and he is available. Many of the main actors in the civil service, the armed forces or the Government have moved on from the responsibilities that they held in 2003. Even if they are still in place, they are not working in the theatre of operations, but are here in London or somewhere else in the UK. On the issue of those very few witnesses in Iraq whom the inquiry would wish to call, I cannot believe that a temporary leave of absence would bring training work or any other operations to a dramatic standstill that would somehow undermine our efforts. The argument is ludicrous.
The case for delaying the inquiry is weak, but the case for an early inquiry could not be stronger. It has been five years.
The hon. Gentleman anticipates me; it is longer than the first world war, and almost as long as the second world war, since the invasion. The Foreign Secretary dismissed the notion that memories could fade and recall could be hazy. He may be right; Tony Blair’s memory of what he has said to the House or his colleagues is often hazy, but it will not improve with the passage of time. Unless they have been recorded accurately, which I doubt, recollections of who said what to whom will be far less precise.
The Foreign Secretary dismissed the point about e-mails. The Government do not have a good record on archiving and management of electronic records, so I hope that he understands why the Opposition are unconvinced by that argument. I ask him, and whoever will sum up in his absence tonight, what is happening in respect of preserving the electronic and written evidence. In anticipation of the inquiry that they now support, have the Government set up people to make sure that all the evidence is available to it? I hope that there will be an answer to that. Continuing this farcical delay does the Government no credit at all.
The hon. Gentleman is, of course, right that if we are to restore public confidence in the democratic process, it is essential that we initiate an inquiry as a Parliament this side of a general election. If we are unsuccessful on this third occasion—three tries for a Welshman; the shadow Foreign Secretary is an honorary Welshman, at least—will the Liberal Democrats consider supporting the proposal made by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) that they use some of their parliamentary time for this purpose? Alternatively, they could use the amendment that they are allowed to put to the Queen’s Speech motion. If an inquiry is not proposed by the Government, would the Liberal Democrats support a Back-Bench initiative from the Labour side so that we as a Parliament, on a cross-party basis, can get the inquiry that the public demand?
I certainly think that all the Opposition parties in this House should work together on that and work with those Labour Back Benchers who are prepared to be open-minded about the issue, as many of them were. Five years ago, more than 100 of them bravely went against very hard whipping from their Front Benchers to support our arguments against the war, so I am sure that that could be brought about by people of good faith.
Given the scale of the disaster in Iraq, it is perhaps understandable that the Government are reluctant to open their files. There was a chance during the change of Prime Minister to seize the moment, draw a line and have the inquiry, but I am afraid that once again the new Prime Minister ducked that opportunity—as in so many things, he is blowing his chances.
We owe an inquiry to the people who have died—the 175 British servicemen and women and the 4,000 American troops, and the countless Iraqi civilians. Whether that figure is the latest UN estimate of 0.25 million or the higher figures of The Lancet and other surveys, those deaths demand an inquiry, as do the injured, the tortured, the refugees, the internally displaced, the kidnapped, the people whose lives have been ruined—the millions of people affected by the decision to go to war. When we begin to count the cost of the war in the lives lost and in the damage to security, stability and the rule of international law, it is, frankly, frightening. That is before we get to the cost to the taxpayer, the cost to our friends and allies in the region—countries such as Turkey, Israel and Jordan—and the cost of making less friendly countries in the region much stronger, such as Iran and Syria, which have been strengthened by the failures in Iraq. Then we should think of the cost to the United Nations and its credibility. How can anyone say that there is no need for an urgent inquiry?
It is low down on the list, given all the deaths that have occurred, but it is one of the many reasons for the inquiry.
Liberal Democrat Members will vote for the motion, but I cannot let the debate go by without a slight comment on the Conservatives’ position. They are right to push again for an inquiry, as the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks did well, but even he must understand that his position is much weakened by his refusal to admit that the Conservatives were wrong to back the war in the first place. Of course, the Conservatives are desperate that people should not be reminded of their complicity. Their call for an inquiry has long been part of their tactics in seeking to distance themselves from responsibility for this catastrophe. Yet they cannot escape their past, for they are guilty on three counts for aiding and abetting the war.
First, the Conservative party leadership argued the case for military action, at times with far more enthusiasm than Tony Blair. On 1 September 2002, the then Conservative party leader said that
“we can choose to act pre-emptively or we can prevaricate”.
If that was not a call to war, I do not know what was. Then he added:
“Those who genuinely seek evidence in support of potential military action in Iraq will find there is plenty of it; those who oppose intervention at all costs will never find enough.”
In other words: “Suspend your rational faculties and go with your prejudices.”
The second count on which the Conservatives are guilty is that of failing to ask the pertinent questions. So convinced were they that the war was legal that they left it to the Liberal Democrats to push for the true legal opinion.
I am afraid that I made a mistake in allowing the hon. Gentleman to intervene. I will listen to my hon. Friends more in future.
So convinced were the Conservatives that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction that they attacked our view that the UN weapons inspectors should be given more time. So convinced were they that the war was right that they failed to join the Liberal Democrats in demanding to know what the exit strategy was and for how long UK troops would be committed. Failing to ask those searching questions before a decision to go to war is a failure to perform the constitutional duty of an Opposition party.
The third charge against the Conservatives is that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks and 144 of their Conservative colleagues voted for the war. It is just possible that some of them regret their decision and believe that it was a mistake, although the official Conservative Front-Bench position is still that the war was right. I find it astonishing that even five years after the war, with all the evidence that it was so wrong, the Conservatives will not give their regrets. Of course, some of them may try running the line that they were misled by Tony Blair, and that with the truth now available and the benefit of hindsight, and now that we know that there were no weapons of mass destruction, they can somehow escape the blame for voting for the war. However, that was not the argument of the Conservative leader and his Front Benchers at the time. In October 2002, he said at his party’s conference:
“We cannot wait until we have irrefutable proof that Saddam has nuclear, biological and chemical weapons targeted on the British people.”
The truth is that the Conservatives at no stage relied on the Government’s dossier of September 2002 to make their case for war. That is why we believe that when the inquiry comes it must be a comprehensive one that will be free to question all Members of this House from whatever party.
I hope that the House will vote for an inquiry tonight, but if the Government really do try to put it off, they must know that their day of reckoning will come.
I think that I have been quite consistent during the time that I have spoken about Iraq in this Chamber. I argued for one thing—for the removal of a regime that persecuted its own people and was responsible for 5,000 deaths in Halabja, for the deaths of tens of thousands of Kurds throughout Kurdistan, and for the deaths of tens of thousands of Shi’a in the south. It was for humanitarian reasons that I always argued for the removal of the regime, and I did so in 2003 when I spoke in favour of the war. I did that because I had failed—and I would suggest that we had all failed—in looking at the alternatives to war in the removal of the Saddam Hussein regime. There were alternatives. There was an alternative that I spoke about here for at least seven years; in fact, I continually bored myself by talking about it so often. I was very pleased that 201 people in this Chamber—my colleagues in all parts of the House—voted at that time to indict the regime and to remove it by international law. That would have been possible.
I support the inquiry, but I would like it to include the question of why nobody took the indictment of the regime seriously at that time. I chaired an organisation called Indict, which had collected evidence of Iraqi war crimes over a period of seven years. We had three researchers who went to 15 countries all over the world and collected that evidence in case anybody forgot about it. Some of the evidence went back further back than seven years; it went back for more than 30 years, because it was for 30 years that that regime persecuted its own people. We employed researchers and lawyers to take testimony from Iraqis all over the world. We gathered evidence, carried out interviews and prepared legal briefs detailing the monstrosity of the Saddam regime as told to us by individual Iraqis. We took many more testimonies than we were able to use; some of them, unfortunately, would not have stood up in a court of law. The crimes committed by the regime were truly appalling.
The right hon. Lady argued for military action on humanitarian grounds, but would she agree that one of the disasters of the Iraq war is that—without an inquiry—it makes military action for humanitarian purposes in future even less likely?
I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman is completely missing my point, which is that there was an alternative to war, but nobody took it seriously enough. At that time, it was possible under international law to indict leading members of the regime, particularly Tariq Aziz, on the taking of hostages. We presented evidence to the then Attorney-General, who passed it to Scotland Yard. I remember saying to him, “You’re kicking it into the long grass,” and in the long grass it remained, because, as far as I know, Scotland Yard took no action at all. In fact, we were ridiculed in the press for wasting police time. There were very few people in this House who supported alternative action; I have mentioned the 201 who did.
On the board of Indict—much to people’s surprise, I am sure—were leading members of the Iraqi opposition. They also believed that indictment was the way to remove leading members of the regime, and they believed that the regime would fall as the result of that action. Those members included Latif Rashid, who is now the Iraqi Water Resources Minister, Ahmad Chalabi, who now chairs a committee on reconstruction in Baghdad, and Hamid Al-Bayati, who is now Iraqi permanent representative to the UN in New York. By 2003 we had enough evidence to indict Tariq Aziz. I personally attempted to get the indictment in Belgium, Norway, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. We were funded by the Americans because, at that time, their statute of limitations did not enable prosecutions or indictments to take place in the United States, but they were possible in Europe.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point, but does she regret—as those who shared her concern but still voted against war do—that when the trial of Saddam Hussein finally took place, it was framed in such narrow terms that none of the charges about which she had collected evidence were allowed to be addressed? The British and American Governments felt that evidence of our own complicit involvement in supporting and perpetrating those atrocities would be unearthed .
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I would have liked a full-scale indictment where all the charges against Saddam Hussein could have been heard. I hope that they will be heard in other cases; do not forget that the trials are still going on. My point does not concern those trials, however, but the opportunity that we missed in this place for an alternative to war. I was not somebody who supported war; I did so only on rare occasions. I was active in the peace movement. I supported war as a last resort because we failed to get those indictments. I hoped that in the United Kingdom most of all, we would have seen how to use international law to avert a war, but we failed to do so. I would like to see that dealt with in an inquiry.
Some of those on the other side of the House are asking for an apology from those of us who voted for military action in 2003. I do not apologise, because I still think that it was the right thing to do to remove that regime. However, it is quite right to ask what went wrong. Unlike many Foreign Office officials, I have not yet put my memoirs on paper. However, I have been closely involved with Iraq for more than 30 years. I have my own criticisms of how things progressed after the war—[Interruption.] I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) wants to intervene. I do not need him pointing out, thank you; I am not deaf. We should have examined certain possibilities to the full, and we did not do so.
Does my right hon. Friend consider that any inquiry held should also look at the role of the Foreign Office and Ministers in relation to the refusal to allow weapons inspectors to return to Iraq just after Christmas 2002? The inspectors had clearly made enormous progress in disarming the regime. As she knows, I supported the idea of indicting the regime before that. The inspectors were not allowed to return, and instead we rushed into war, with all the consequences that followed.
My hon. Friend was one of those few people who, in 1988, came with me to the Foreign Office to complain about the actions of the Conservative party in its dealings with Iraq. In particular, when the events at Halabja occurred, the then Foreign Office Minister said that there was no evidence. We said at that time, “We insist that you get the evidence, because it is there.” My hon. Friend has played an honourable role in pursuing these matters for a long period.
I go to Iraq frequently—I was there in December—and at the moment there are green shoots of optimism. There is no doubt about that; even the sternest critic of the war would have to admit that there is progress and optimism. There are positive developments, but what is happening in Basra at the moment is very unfortunate. It is a pity that we could not hear from my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary about the events that are taking place there as we speak. I understand that British jets are involved in some sort of surveillance and in giving information to Iraqi forces fighting on the ground. We are not quite as detached from what is going on there as some people may suggest, which is why it would not be helpful to have an inquiry now, next week or the month afterwards, although I do think it essential to have one at some stage. In particular, I would like the inquiry to ask why we did not make more of an effort to get an indictment when we had the evidence to do so.
The right hon. Lady says that she voted for the invasion reluctantly, because we could not get the indictment. However, would she accept that invading a country for regime change is illegal under international law, and that that was not the reason given for the vote in this House? On 25 February 2003, the Prime Minister told us:
“I detest his regime…but even now, he could save it by complying with the UN’s demand. Even now, we are prepared to go the extra step to achieve disarmament peacefully.”—[Official Report, 25 February 2003; Vol. 400, c. 124.]
In other words, if Saddam Hussein had given up the non-existent weapons of mass destruction that Hans Blix could not find, he would have been allowed to stay in power, and it was not about regime change.
That may be the case, but it is not my case. My point is that for more than 25 years, senior Iraqi officials committed genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The list is long, and people need reminding of it; I sometimes think that people have conveniently wiped it from their memory. It was important to get regime change; I have not changed my mind one little bit.
My right hon. Friend knows, because she has been involved in the campaign longer than I have, that we have just marked the 20th anniversary of the terrible Anfal atrocities that Saddam carried out, but where has that appeared on the BBC? Where has the “Today” programme been? When did John Humphrys talk about that yesterday? There has not been a word.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. He is absolutely right. I tried to talk about it last week on a BBC programme and I was continuously told, “It’s Basra we’re talking about. Basra.” We need to assemble all the facts; we cannot take something in isolation and talk about only one specific case. The genocidal Anfal campaign against Iraqi Kurds in 1987-88, the invasion of Kuwait, the killing of more than 1,000 Kuwaiti civilians and the violent suppression of the 1991 Kurdish uprising led to 30,000 or more civilian deaths. I am interested to know what the Conservative party’s solution would have been. Would it have allowed Saddam to continue to persecute his own people?
The right hon. Lady makes the case for regime change and says that the war in Iraq was all about that as far as she was concerned. Why was the case for regime change different in Iraq from the case that could be made against dictators and despots the world over? What is the difference between the position in Iraq that she has outlined and the position in Zimbabwe, where there is the most awful dictator, Robert Mugabe? Why is it right to invade one country to change the regime and not another?
Because Iraq had ignored 17 UN Security Resolutions—[Interruption.] I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has ever sat in the UN and listened, as I did for several years running, to the report of the UN rapporteur on human rights in Iraq, who detailed all the things that I have mentioned today. The UN Security Council sat there and did nothing. If the UN is to mean something, surely ignoring 17 UN Security Council resolutions is important.
The right hon. Lady has been a tireless campaigner and I respect the fact that she has been consistent in her arguments. However, does she accept that the humanitarian reasons were not those given to the House or the country to justify going to war with Iraq? That is why we urgently need an inquiry into the Iraq war now.
I agree that humanitarian arguments were not presented. I think that they should have been, and that we should ask why they were not. I know the slick answer to that question, but some of us, including many of my hon. Friends who opposed the war, presented the arguments for regime change for many years. We consistently said that something should be done about the Iraqi regime. I believed that the regime should have been indicted under international law. It was possible in the case of Milosevic, so why not in the case of Saddam Hussein, Tariq Aziz and many others on our list who are in jail awaiting trial?
To take up the point that the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee made, it is important to remind people why the regime was so bad. The people of Iraq deserve to hear that themselves, and the people who lost family during those years need to hear the people who perpetrated those crimes answering for them.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who speaks with such experience and knowledge of Iraq. I am sure that the points that she made could be accommodated in the terms of reference of the sort of inquiry that the motion envisages, and I hope that she will perhaps reconsider her intention to vote against the motion, because the logic of her speech is that such an inquiry should be held and that the best time for it is now.
I agree with many speakers, including the Foreign Secretary, that we should pay tribute to the way in which our forces have performed in Iraq. That unites us all. Many of them were trained at Lydd and Hythe in my constituency, and several were trained in Shorncliffe, also in my constituency, before they went to Iraq. They have performed superbly and we owe them a deep debt of gratitude.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary on a powerful, compelling and, in my view, unanswerable speech. I sympathise, in his absence, with the Foreign Secretary for the task with which he was saddled. I was a practising barrister for 21 years and during that time I had to argue some pretty thin cases. I had the privilege of being a Minister for 12 years and I readily confess that there were one or two occasions—very few—when I found myself defending from the Dispatch Box one or two positions that were perhaps a little thinner than I would have liked. However, I am happy to say that I have never had the experience of attempting to advance such threadbare arguments as the Foreign Secretary was obliged to present today.
May I take the right hon. and learned Gentleman back to the late 1980s when he was a Minister? Since he supports an inquiry, as I do, does he accept that it should include a thorough investigation of those Ministers, civil servants and others who authorised selling arms to Iraq, even after the events at Halabja, and of British participation, which Ministers approved, in the Baghdad arms fair the following year?
That is exactly what the Scott inquiry examined at length. It was right to hold an inquiry into those matters. The previous Government set it up and it duly reported.
Our debates about the need for an inquiry into events surrounding the invasion of Iraq before and after it took place were clothed in a language that had an arcane theology of its own. That was when the former Prime Minister was still in office and before the Defence Secretary’s announcement in 2006, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) referred. The Government position then was that no full inquiry was needed because of those that had already taken place.
Those debates were punctuated with obscure arguments about the precise terms of reference of the previous inquiries and the extent to which they had been implemented. The Government’s position at that time and in the context of those arguments was not only inconsistent with that which the Foreign Secretary advanced today but directly contradicted it. Their argument then was, “We’ve had all these wide-ranging and comprehensive inquiries—there’s nothing left to inquire into.” Fortunately they realised—I suppose that they deserve some credit for it—that that position was untenable. They therefore changed it and accepted that the case for an inquiry was unanswerable. So far, so good.
Unfortunately, as we have heard today, the Government’s position is, “Yes, we’ll have an inquiry, but not yet. We won’t tell you when or precisely what circumstances must be satisfied. It’ll happen sometime, but not yet.” That exposed a vulnerability in the Government’s line, which, as we have witnessed this evening, was obvious, clear and wholly indefensible. There is no good reason for not holding an inquiry now, and everyone, including the Government, knows it.
It is interesting that when the Prime Minister responded to the case for holding an inquiry that the Fabian Society put forward, he limited himself to just one reason. He said that it is
“vital that the government does not divert attention from supporting Iraq’s development as a secure and stable country.”
That prompts the question, which has already arisen in this debate: whose attention would be diverted from that task? It would not be our troops on the ground in Iraq whose attention would be diverted. Indeed, it is difficult if not impossible to see how they would be involved in such an inquiry, so there is no cause for concern there. The Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary, who we hope are spearheading the United Kingdom’s support for Iraq’s development as a stable and secure country—they have the political responsibility for that task—were not involved in the events surrounding the invasion, so they are not likely to have their attention diverted from that important task, either.
The House is entitled to know whom the Prime Minister had in mind when he uttered those words. We are entitled to an answer. Who are the people whose attention would be diverted from that task? I hope that the Minister, who has the unenviable task of replying to this debate, will respond to that question. If the Prime Minister says that the reason for not holding an inquiry now is that we must not divert people’s attention from that task, we want to know whose attention would be diverted.
That is not what the Prime Minister said. He did not say, “We can’t have an inquiry because there are lots of Ministers who have important business to attend to and we mustn’t distract them.” He said, “We can’t have an inquiry, because we mustn’t divert people from the responsibility of what they need to do in Iraq.” That prompts the question that must be answered if we are to give any credence at all to the position advanced by the Government.
The truth, of course, is that there are lessons that could be learned from such an inquiry and from which we could benefit. Those lessons could benefit what we are doing in Iraq and in Afghanistan now. It is a disgrace that we should be deprived of those benefits for no good reason at all.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that many military personnel would welcome an inquiry now? Many in the military feel that they were left with a huge burden, in moving into Iraq and creating a level of peace without back-up from other Departments—namely the Department for International Development, which did not undertake the reconstruction and redevelopment that was so needed. However, it is the military who receive the brunt of the complaints about what has gone wrong.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: that is one of the many reasons why we need an inquiry.
I did not intend to intervene on the right hon. and learned Gentleman, but following the point raised with him by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) does he not accept—I raised this point earlier with the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman—that were an inquiry to take place now or in the months ahead that indicted the Government and was critical of the conditions in which the troops had found themselves, and that was published while the troops were still there, the leadership of those troops would become almost impossible for the officers, because they would lack the political credibility enabling them to be there in the first place? Is that not the real reason why it is important not to hold an inquiry now?
No, I do not accept that reasoning at all. My right hon. and hon. Friends have cited the precedents. It is inconceivable that the results of any such inquiry could have that effect on the limited role that our troops are currently carrying out in Basra. The argument does not begin to make sense. We know what the troops are doing and what they are there for. It is inconceivable that the results of any such inquiry could in any way damage their position. Also, that argument was not the reason put forward by the Prime Minister—it may be the hon. Gentleman’s reason, but it is not the Prime Minister’s.
So what is the reason? Why are the Government proving to be so obstinate? What is the real reason for their procrastination? I suppose that some people may be tempted to put it down to the Prime Minister’s natural tendency towards procrastination—we know that he finds it difficult to make decisions about all sorts of things. However, I believe that a more specific reason is at play in this case. I believe that there is only one conclusion that we can draw from the Government’s behaviour: that they do not want an inquiry that will report before the next general election. The Government do not want any inquiry’s findings to be available to the electorate when they come to give their verdict on the Government. The Government do not want those findings to be taken into account when that verdict is delivered. In short, they are running away from the principle that should be central to our parliamentary democracy: the principle of accountability.
Earlier this afternoon, the Justice Secretary introduced a White Paper from the Dispatch Box. Practically the first sentence that he spoke was, “Accountability is fundamental to the health of our democracy.” The Government’s attitude to the motion before the House in this debate gives the lie to what the Justice Secretary said just that short time ago.
Let me finish by giving the Foreign Secretary a word or two of advice in his absence—I hope that it will be transmitted to him. This issue will not go away. This will not be the last time that it is debated in the House, and if the Government stick to their line, this will not be the last time that the Justice Secretary is so painfully embarrassed in the studios of the “Today” programme as he was this morning, or the last time that the Foreign Secretary is so humiliated at the Dispatch Box as he was this afternoon. I urge the Foreign Secretary to use all his persuasive powers to get the Prime Minister to see how ludicrous the Government’s current position is. The Government have changed their position once; they can change it again. The sooner they do so, the better.
Since 2003 there have been four inquiries into the events leading up to the war in Iraq, as has been stated. There has been the Butler inquiry, the Hutton inquiry, the Intelligence and Security Committee inquiry and the Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry, which was agreed in June 2003.
However, there is a need for ongoing investigation and inquiry, and for lessons to be learned. I gave evidence to Channel 4’s Iraq Commission inquiry a few months ago. That was a valuable exercise and the report of the commission, which is chaired by Lord Ashdown, was a valuable piece of work. However, that is not what today’s debate is about. In today’s motion, hon. Members are pressing for
“an independent committee of privy councillors”
to conduct an inquiry. We might ask whether one can find such a thing as a genuinely independent Privy Councillor, but that is a debate for another time.
Reference has been made to the US Baker-Hamilton inquiry. That inquiry was composed not only of current members of the US House of Representatives and the Senate. It was a body that brought in academic experts and former diplomats, as well as Lee Hamilton and James Baker as its bipartisan chairs.
My first criticism of the motion before us relates to my belief that we need to widen the focus of any such inquiry, when the time comes. We also need to take account of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) referred to as the long history of events in Iraq that led to the decisions made in this House in March 2003. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who is not in his place at the moment, said that an inquiry should concentrate on 2002, 2003 and 2004. I would ask why, and I would do so for two reasons. Reference was made earlier to the Scott inquiry. That inquiry did not deal with the terrible crimes of Saddam against the Kurdish people in Halabja. Instead, it took a narrow focus on the supergun, Matrix Churchill and the way in which public immunity certificates were used in a legal process to stop the truth coming out under the previous Conservative Government. The late Robin Cook did a fantastic job of demolishing the Conservative party and its role in that debate, after the Scott report was published. Any inquiry that takes account of the recent past would also have to take account of the previous history.
Reference was also made to the arms sales policies of the 1980s, when some of the Conservative Members who are here today were members of the Government who were selling arms to Saddam. We can look back to 1980, when Margaret Thatcher and the right hon. and learned Members for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) and for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) were all part of that British Conservative Government. They made the decision to support the Ba’athist fascist regime in Iraq, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, as well as supporting Osama bin Laden and other disreputable people whom we now regard as beyond the pale. At that time, however, for reasons of state, certain decisions were made. We need to look at the whole context.
If there is to be an inquiry, let it not be partisan. Let us have an inquiry into the UK’s relations with Iraq over the past 30 years. Let us really dig up the stones and look at the way in which those on the Conservative Benches who are now taking a holier-than-thou position on these matters were conspiring to support that Ba’athist regime while my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley, my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and I were campaigning against the arming of Saddam. Let us not forget that as we discuss what kind of inquiry we should have.
If the motion before us today proposed an inquiry into all aspects of UK relations with Iraq over the past 30 years, I would indeed support it, speak to it and vote for it. However, that is not the focus of the narrow motion that we are debating today. I will therefore not support it.
My friend is becoming very animated. Did he know that the Public Administration Committee will be taking evidence next week on the possibility of initiating a parliamentary inquiry into the circumstances leading to the war in Iraq? Given that such an inquiry would not be partisan—the Opposition motion is, by nature, partisan—would he support an inquiry couched in those terms?
I am always in favour of Select Committees of this House initiating inquiries. I was a member of the Defence Committee, which carried out an inquiry into the lessons of Iraq. It was published in 2004 and, incidentally, was very critical of the then Secretary of State for International Development for failing to get her officials to prepare for the aftermath of the conflict. If I remember correctly, she criticised us rather robustly in a debate on that report in the House. I believe that all Select Committees should take the initiative in holding the Executive to account, both for what they are doing now and for what they have done in the past. That is the appropriate route to take if we are to strengthen the power of the Committees of this House against the Executive. That is what we should be doing.
I am grateful to my Chairman for giving way. Thanks to the procedures that we have in this House, we can now be texted by our constituents. One of mine is watching this debate in Basra, on the BBC Parliament channel, and he simply wants to know why he is there. I accept what the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) have said, but surely the real question for today’s debate is: why did we deploy troops in 2003? Will the Chairman of the Select Committee support this motion calling for an inquiry? The recent past that he is describing has nothing to do with the argument that the rest of us in this Chamber are engaged in.
I am afraid that I will not support the Conservative motion tonight. Nor, unfortunately, will I be able to vote against the Liberal Democrat motion, as far as I am aware. I believe that simply to call for an apology from the Conservatives or from the Labour party needs to be balanced—
I shall take your advice, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I would simply say that there needs to be a recognition that some of us, whichever side we took in this debate, are glad that Saddam is no longer in power. That would not have been possible without the intervention that took place in 2003. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley made the point very strongly that some people tried to find other ways to get rid of the Ba’athist regime in Iraq. They tried to do so in 1991, when the Shi’as in the south rose up and were massacred. They rose up with the encouragement of the first President Bush, and ended up being slaughtered, and the Kurds were driven into the mountains. I pay tribute to the role that John Major played at the time, when the previous Conservative Government brought in the no-fly zone to protect the Kurds.
Some people, having taken the position of saying that those crimes were terrible, did not follow the logic of saying that we had to get rid of the regime that had made them possible. I always took the view, as I do today, that regime change in Iraq was the right way to go. That was what I argued in the debate at the time, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley. However, that was not the position taken by the Government or by those on the Opposition Front Bench. It was also not a position taken by many others at that time, who took a narrower focus.
However, many of us had fought and campaigned against the Ba’athist regime for many years. I had friends who were students in this country, and who had come here as refugees from Saddam in the 1970s and 1980s. They told me about the terrible crimes that his regime had carried out. Some of those people went back to Iraq, and some are now in the Iraqi Parliament or in the Iraqi Government. They would not be alive today if this country had not welcomed them as refugees and supported them later on.
I am grateful to the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee for giving way. I think that the record will show that, a moment ago, he said that he was in favour of regime change in Iraq. Will he therefore explain how it is possible to be the Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and to be in favour of something that is actually illegal in international law?
The problem with the crude, simplistic view of the world is that it does not take account of facts. The fact is that over 12 years Saddam’s regime was, as already stated, in breach of 17 successive Security Council resolutions. There was and there remains a very strong argument—unfortunately, it was not tested—for intervention to remove that regime—[Interruption.]
The Scottish National party is at least being consistent—[Interruption.] Consistently wrong, but consistent. There needs to be a serious debate about humanitarian intervention and when it is right to exercise a responsibility to protect as called for under the UN system by the Canadian commission and as debated at the millennium summit. We need to look at the issues surrounding Iraq in that context.
I am grateful. The hon. Gentleman has just paid a generous and proper tribute to Iraqi politicians who literally take their lives in their hands by participating in the politics of that country. He is a senior Member of this House, the Chairman of a Select Committee, and he also served on the Defence Committee when I did. That Defence Committee reported:
“We regret that MOD has failed to provide us with certain documents which we have requested and has demonstrated on occasion less co-operation and openness than we have the right to expect as a select Committee of the House of Commons”.
Is it not sad that, in advancing his arguments this evening, the hon. Gentleman is not prepared to stand up for the rights of Parliament against the Executive? Is that not a very sad example to show to the Iraqi politicians he mentioned?