I beg to move,
That this House welcomes the Prime Minister’s announcement of 18 December 2008 that a fundamental change in the British forces’ mission in Iraq will occur by 31 May 2009 at the latest and that at that point the rapid withdrawal of the British troops will take place, taking the total from just under 4,100 to under 400 by 31 July 2009; notes that following this announcement there remains no reasonable impediment to announcing an inquiry on the war in Iraq; and calls for such an inquiry to be conducted by an independent committee of privy counsellors, and 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.
This is the third time in this Parliament that I have proposed this motion—or something very similar to it—and it is the fourth time that the House has debated the need for a full-scale and wide-ranging inquiry into the origins and conduct of the war in Iraq. It will come as no surprise to anyone that with the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq now imminent and the political and security situation in that country substantially improved in recent times, we are once again returning to this issue a year to the day since we last did so and six years this week since the start of the conflict.
Although it is therefore now a familiar topic for the House, the content of our debate today may be somewhat different from that in previous years, for we are now approaching a new situation in which Government arguments against an inquiry, which have grown steadily thinner as these debates have gone by, have now all but evaporated. In previous years, we made the argument that an inquiry should be commenced irrespective of the circumstances prevailing at the time, but now even those circumstances no longer provide the excuse for not commencing it.
This is not to say that we have been wasting our breath entirely in previous debates, for in each debate the common ground in the House has grown larger as the arguments against an inquiry have been diminished by the passage of time. It is now common ground, I think, that the events surrounding the Iraq war have been so important in shaping world affairs in recent years, made such an impact on the lives of millions, involved our armed forces in such effort and sacrifice, been so fraught with accusations of mistakes made and planning inadequately done and become so relevant to what is happening elsewhere in Afghanistan or to what might happen in other places in the future that it would be inconceivable to turn our minds for ever against inquiring into those events and trying to learn from them.
That is absolutely right, and it is a point that I have made in at least one of the previous debates, and the hon. Gentleman may have made it, too. Yes, it is now six years since the start of the conflict, which is longer than the duration of the entire second world war.
Faced with enormity of these issues and the extent of public expectation that an inquiry will be held, the Government have long since given up the argument that no inquiry may be necessary at all, although it was their starting point in 2006, when this series of debates began—a debate that was launched by the nationalist parties. At that time, the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), who was Foreign Secretary, was very careful not to commit the Government to an inquiry at all, saying that
“this is not the time for making these decisions.”
She also said:
“Unlike at the time of the Falklands war we now have a framework of Select Committees that carry out independent inquiries.”—[Official Report, 31 October 2006; Vol. 451, c. 172.]
True enough, that careful stonewalling was breached within minutes of the end of that debate by the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), who was Secretary of State for Defence. He went out to St. Stephen’s entrance and said:
“When the time is right, of course there will be such an inquiry”.
Government sources then said that he had made a “slip of the tongue”. However, it was not many months—16 May 2007—before the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), showing early on in the Labour party’s deputy leadership election the skill that she is now employing in the leadership manoeuvring, said:
“I think that when the troops do finally come home, which we all hope will be as soon as possible, there will need to be an inquiry and I think that we also need to look at the circumstances in which we went in but at the planning and preparation for the aftermath as well, and we will need to learn lessons from that.”
By the time that we returned to the issue on the Floor of the House in June 2007, ministerial resistance to the idea that an inquiry might be necessary had totally collapsed.
Does my right hon. Friend, like me, deprecate the evidence prayed in aid in the Government amendment that it would be improper to have an inquiry while our troops are in the field, given that historical precedent shows that, for example, in 1940 the Norway campaign was the subject of a full parliamentary debate in the House, and indeed precipitated the downfall of the then Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain?
Yes, my hon. Friend makes one important analogy, which is very attractive to us as it involves the downfall of a Prime Minister. Come to think of it, that idea is probably quite attractive to the Foreign Secretary. There are closer analogies, which I will come to in a moment.
I was going back two years to June 2007 and the Government’s arguments of that time. Their claim that four separate inquiries had already taken place, therefore obviating the need for any further inquiry, met ridicule in this Chamber and outside it, given that one of those was the Hutton inquiry into the death of Dr. David Kelly, another was the Butler report on the use of intelligence and the other two were deliberations by Select Committees, at least one of which had complained loudly that it had little access to information and no co-operation from the Government.
When Ministers were brought back to the Dispatch Box that June, they had themselves occupied a new defensive position, now insisting that there would of course be an inquiry at the appropriate time, but that to commence it there and then would, in the words of the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Derby, South, send a message of “disunity” and possibly
“convey to others”
the much wider
“impression that this country’s commitment to Iraq is weakening”.
That was a bogus argument, but it was a new bogus argument and therefore quite interesting on those grounds. The idea that a militiaman in a Baghdad suburb would be emboldened by the news that the British Government were trying to learn from mistakes—when he could already have read about adverse opinion polls, huge demonstrations and serious divisions among western nations at the UN Security Council as plentiful examples of disunity—did not constitute a serious argument.
Did my right hon. Friend note that, at the beginning of the debate, there were only eight Labour MPs present not on the Front Bench, including the Parliamentary Private Secretary? Does that show that Labour MPs are ashamed of their Government’s position? Does the absence of the Leader of the House show that she is ashamed of the position and wishes that the Government would change it?
I do not think that those on the Government Benches now take enormous pride in the Government’s position. Indeed, the variants on this motion that I have tabled in recent years were defeated only by quite narrow majorities, given the balance of parties in the House. I am sure that a huge number of Labour Members want an inquiry to commence, and commence now, as I shall come to argue.
To be fair to the then Foreign Secretary, in 2007, she made the further and more substantial argument that
“while our troops remained actively engaged and facing real danger in Iraq, it would be wrong to launch such an inquiry.”—[Official Report, 11 June 2007; Vol. 461 c. 539-45.]
Many of us in the House have never agreed with that line of argument. Those of us who talk regularly to members of our armed forces, as I do at Catterick garrison in my constituency, have formed a clear view that most of them would welcome an inquiry at any time, since they, above all, are the people who have had to wrestle with the consequences of mistakes that have been made and are extremely interested in ensuring that such mistakes are not repeated. Their morale would be raised, rather than lowered, by knowing that an appropriate inquiry was going on.
There is the further consideration that in an extended conflict—as the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) said, the Iraq war has gone on for longer than either of the world wars of the 20th century—waiting for the end of all hostilities before learning from any mistakes is a grievous error. Our predecessors in the House launched an inquiry into the Dardanelles campaign while the first world war was raging, and indeed into events in Mesopotamia in 1916 while military operations continued there. Nevertheless, that was an argument until, in the course of last year, our troops were no longer actively engaged on a daily or large-scale basis.
At that point, the Government’s defence against starting an inquiry changed again and was redefined on 10 December last year by the current Foreign Secretary, who said that
“we do support an inquiry into the origins of the Iraq war, when our troops are safely home.”
So, the mantra that an inquiry could not begin while our troops remained actively engaged has turned out not to represent the real reason the Government would not set up an inquiry in recent years; it was simply one of a number of excuses, and its ceasing to be relevant has led them to abandon it in favour of another, much weaker excuse.
Even now, it seems that the Government have to be dragged slowly to the course of action that they know is right and inevitable. The Foreign Secretary said, also on 10 December:
“We are not going to hide behind the idea that the last troop must have come home”.—[Official Report, 10 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 565-6.]
but given their record of steady retreats from one excuse to another, it would not now be surprising if they tried to hide behind that.
Is not my right hon. Friend’s point reinforced by the wording that the Government have chosen for their amendment, which talks not about the return of our troops, but says that it would be inappropriate to have an inquiry
“whilst important operations are underway in Iraq to support the people and government of Iraq.”?
As it is the Government’s intention to help the people in government in Iraq over the next few years, does that not imply that the Government have, yet again, changed their criteria and are grasping anything they can to prevent having any inquiry at all?
As usual, my right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely on the nail. I have pointed out how the Government have retreated from one argument to another. It may be the next stage of the retreat to argue that an inquiry cannot begin even when the troops are safely home, but I think that the Government know that they are in the last stages of their retreat—perhaps it is the last stage—on this matter.
The Government have started to indicate that some kind of inquiry may be established later this year, but rather fittingly for a Prime Minister who said that he would end the culture of spin and treat Parliament with greater seriousness than his predecessor, the suggestion that they will hold an inquiry has been made not to Parliament, but to the News of the World on Sunday.
It was reported on Sunday:
“Gordon Brown is set to order an inquiry into the war in Iraq, the News of the World can reveal. Senior sources”—
this is the end of the culture of spin—
“at the Ministry of Defence suspect the review will be announced”—
[Interruption.] I used to write an excellent column in the News of the World, but the Prime Minister of the nation is meant to announce things to Parliament, not in a column in the News of the World.
The News of the World continued:
“Senior sources at the Ministry of Defence suspect the review will be announced in Mr. Brown’s speech to the Labour Party conference this autumn.”
This “review”—notice it will be a review rather than an inquiry—will, said the paper,
“have access to intelligence used to justify the invasion and records of the Cabinet’s discussions before the war. It is also expected to review the Army’s performance in the invasion and its aftermath.”
This is a small classic in trying to use spin to wrong-foot the intentions of Members of Parliament, suggesting that the matter is all in hand while already seeking to water down what an inquiry would look at, and indeed whether it would be an inquiry at all.
If Ministers think that they will get away with a “review”, which looks at the decisions made before the war and the performance of the Army, they have another think coming. When somebody as senior as Sir Hilary Synnott, the diplomat who was put in charge of governing southern Iraq, says in his book—[Interruption.] I did refer to that book last year. Sir Hilary Synnott was so pleased that I did so, I thought that I would please him by referring to it again, because this part of the argument remains the same:
“Hardly any Whitehall departments got involved with Iraq. There was none of the mobilising of the government machine—with cabinet committees, ministers and individuals nominated to deal with specific tasks, and taskforces—such as happened during the second world war…Instead, there was an ad hoc cabinet committee, where both chairmanship and participants changed.”
When someone like that presents such an argument, it is clearly vital for a real inquiry to be able to look at the functioning of Government across the board, and to do so in the period after the invasion of Iraq as well as before it.
I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend. Is not the point that he is making particularly relevant to the conduct of Government policy in Afghanistan? It is being conducted by a Cabinet Committee that meets once a fortnight, rather than the whole Government being engaged in the effort.
What I am saying may be relevant to that. We do not know what an inquiry will say. However, I think that there are grounds for concern about the way in which Government have made important decisions about national security in recent years. Certainly, it appears from recent deliberations about Afghanistan that several different reviews are in progress in Whitehall at one time—some within different Departments, some between officials of Departments, and some between Ministers, including the Foreign Secretary—rather than the issue being looked at as a coherent whole. That may well be one of the lessons to be learned for the future.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating 7th Armoured Brigade, who did a fantastic job in moving into Basra during the invasion and creating a relative peace? What happened then was that they looked over their shoulders expecting some form of stabilisation and reconstruction plan, and there was none to be seen. Is not the reason we require an inquiry the fact that other Departments, especially the Department for International Development, were not there in strength to support the good work that our military had done?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is a reason for an inquiry. It appears from what has been said and written about the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq that the Department for International Development was indeed not ready to follow up what other Government agencies, and the Army, had achieved, and that it had been decided at the highest ministerial level that it would not co-operate in the planning for the aftermath.
The right hon. Gentleman said that the News of the World had mentioned the possibility of an inquiry. Does he recollect some of the news headlines at the time, which set the mood of the nation in the run-up to the war? The Sun carried the headline “Brits 45 mins from doom”, while another newspaper carried the headline “Ready to Attack: 45 Minutes from a Chemical War”. What is in a newspaper can set the mood of the nation. The mood has changed, however, and I think that therefore people need the inquiry.
Of course the mood has changed. The circumstances have moved on in six years. But I think that people who opposed the war in Iraq, of whom I imagine the hon. Gentleman was one, and people who supported it—all those people—want to make sure that we have learnt from whatever mistakes are made. That is why there is such common ground on this issue.
I am enjoying my right hon. Friend’s speech very much. Does he agree that the contribution made by north Yorkshire has been exceptional? Will he argue that we should broaden what the motion says about the aftermath to include those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and the way in which they are being dealt with in the north of England, where there is no treatment available?
Of course that should be looked at as well. Because we both represent constituents in north Yorkshire, my hon. Friend and I are extremely conscious of the role of our armed forces and the circumstances in which they work. Perhaps that should be examined even more urgently than, and separately from, the conduct of the war in Iraq.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way again.
Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett), I imagine that if the headlines had said the exact opposite of what the Government wanted them to say, the Government would have got up and countered them.
When the right hon. Gentleman quoted from a book to which he had also referred in a debate last year, the mirth on the Government Benches betrayed the Government’s attitude. They hope that the passage of time will lessen the need for and the consequences of an inquiry. The reality is, however, that the inquiry is needed not just for the past and not just for the present, but as much for the future, to prevent such errors from happening again and, importantly, to prevent other countries from acting in the same way.
I think that we got the point, Mr. Speaker. Yes, of course that supports the case for an inquiry—and yes, there was a bit of mirth on the Government Benches, but many of the arguments for an inquiry do remain the same. One of the points I am making is that it is the Government’s arguments that have changed. They have become steadily thinner over time, and now they are very thin indeed.
An inquiry should be at Privy Council level, and should be able to study how relations with our key ally were managed; the use of intelligence; the functioning of the machinery of Government; why poor decisions were made in some cases, and dissenting opinions were overlooked; why expectations of what would happen in Iraq turned out to be wrong; why the insurgency was not anticipated; and why—in the words of Jonathan Powell, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff at the time—
“There was planning, but it was planning for completely the wrong thing.”
It should also study our success or otherwise at nation-building. It should examine the way in which the Department for International Development, the Foreign Office and the armed forces work alongside each other. That point has already been made by many of my hon. Friends.
It begins to look as if Ministers have it in mind to set up an inquiry that would perhaps be more limited than most Members of the House and the vast majority of people in the country would wish. Moreover—importantly—it looks as if they want to set it up at such a time that its proceedings could reasonably be concluded only after the latest date for the next general election, after they can be held accountable for the results. There is no other explanation for their behaviour, since there is no reason on earth why an inquiry of the necessary wide-ranging kind cannot be established now.
I have put before the House in previous years arguments that grow stronger with the passage of time. I have argued that memories will be weaker, and relevant documents more likely to have been dispersed, with each year that goes by, particularly as some of the events and decisions to be inquired into took place as long ago as 2002. The Foreign Secretary has tried to deride that argument in the past, but the idea that the recollection of Ministers and officials remains perfect, however many years go by, is not credible. It suggests that they have powers of retention and memory that would have to be superhuman.
Even when an inquiry is announced, it will doubtless take some weeks or months to assemble its members, to recruit its staff, to prepare its programme of work, to identify where it must seek relevant material, to create a timetable for evidence-taking, and so on. If Ministers really wanted an inquiry once our troops were no longer actively engaged, they would have announced one already, but even if we accept that they want to have one when the troops are safely home, the fact remains that there would be nothing to stop them nominating the inquiry, giving it its powers, and starting it on its preparatory work now, so that the taking of its evidence could begin this summer.
Last time we debated this subject, the Foreign Secretary said:
“The Franks inquiry was set up after the end of the Falklands conflict...only after all the troops had come home from the Falklands.”—[Official Report, 25 March 2008; Vol. 474, c. 56.]
It may have escaped the Foreign Secretary’s attention, but at no time have all the troops come home from the Falklands. There is still a detachment of troops there now. When Baroness Thatcher first announced the inquiry to the House on 8 July 1982, there were far more British troops deployed in the Falkands than there are in Iraq today, along with many warships.
The Prime Minister has already announced—on 18 December—that a “fundamental change of mission” will take place by 31 May at the latest, and that by 31 July only 400 British troops will be left in Iraq, the majority of them dedicated to naval training. In any case, our legal authority to be in Iraq expires at the end of July. The timetable for withdrawal has therefore already been set. The UN mandate by which we were in Iraq in recent years has, of course, already expired. Our troops are no longer engaged in combat activity. The statement by the Iraqi defence spokesman on 31 December made it clear that the agreement superseding the UN mandate stipulated
“that they will not be engaged in combat activity, and that their activities will be exclusively confined to the purposes of training and support.”
The head of the Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, said at Christmas:
“We have now concluded the operation, or are about to conclude the operation, in Iraq, on the basis that the job is done.”
When we take all those facts together, we can see that no substantial argument remains against the immediate announcement and rapid establishment of the inquiry that the nation demands. If it is necessary to have an inquiry, as Ministers have accepted, there is no longer any reason linked to the safety of our troops to delay one, and every reason of scrutiny, accountability and learning for the future to begin one as soon as we can. The only remaining explanation for the non-appearance of an inquiry is either ministerial self-interest in delaying its onset and therefore its outcome, or a reluctance to get around to it at all.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the need for an inquiry now. Does he agree that it is important that the accountability of that inquiry runs to Parliament and not to the Executive, given that Parliament was, in my view, given misleading information in the past? I remember the former Prime Minister saying, “If only you could see some of the things that come across my desk, you would vote for the war.” If only we had seen them, because then more hon. Members would have voted against.
I think that it is important for it to be a Privy Council inquiry because the results would be laid before Parliament. The hon. Gentleman and I have had a small difference on this matter in the past, in that he originally proposed a reinforced and special Committee of this House. That would suffer the disadvantages that its membership would comprise only Members of this House, and that it would probably have to have a governing party majority, so it would not be the independent inquiry that I am advocating, able to draw on the expertise of people from outside Parliament. I do not think this needs to be an inquiry conducted in Parliament, but its results need to be laid before Parliament.
Does my right hon. Friend share my sadness at the fact that we need a full Falklands-type inquiry because our Select Committees are so weak? Under the Osmotherly rules, we cannot insist on particular officials appearing before a Committee and we cannot look at advice given to Ministers. Our Select Committees are therefore not strong enough, unlike congressional committees.
Does my right hon. Friend also agree that we need an inquiry because since even the Hutton inquiry a wealth of material and information has come out by way of freedom of information requests and other means, which clearly show that the intelligence reports were misrepresented and mispresented by the Government at the time? For example, we have only recently discovered that there was a body called the coalition information centre, a propaganda unit within the Foreign Office; it has since disbanded, but that body played a key role in the drafting of the dossier.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, and he has been instrumental in making sure that some of these documents come to public attention. It is when we take together the mixture of freedom of information items that have come out into the public domain—as well as freedom of information decisions that have been overturned by the Justice Secretary in respect of Cabinet minutes—and all the memoirs and other statements that have been written by so many people, that we see that it is important to look at these matters in the round, and for an inquiry to be able to consider them together.
I shall now sum up.
Yes, I think there probably is a good case for that. Provided that they are respected for independent judgment, their being able to bring military expertise would be a very valuable asset. That is all for consideration, however, and what we should be deciding today is that such an inquiry should be established.
I repeat today that if no inquiry is established by the time of the next general election, one of the first acts of a new Government will be to establish one. Additionally, I wish to make it clear to the Foreign Secretary that if an inquiry is established that is merely a review, or that has inadequate scope and powers to carry out the necessary tasks, and it is still continuing its work beyond the next general election, an incoming Conservative Government will reserve the right to widen its scope and increase its powers as may be necessary. Ministers may delay in an effort to reduce the force and relevance of what they know must come, but in the end we will learn the necessary lessons, and we will learn from what went wrong in the functioning of the machinery of government itself.
There is an utter determination in most quarters of this House that we will get to the heart of these matters and that the processes and functioning of government—and maybe of Parliament—will be improved as a result. It can only be to the discredit of current Ministers that they have no wish to see such learning and improvement commence, even though they have now run out of reasons for that not to commence. The House of Commons would be doing them a favour if it pushed them today into the right, necessary and complete course of action, and it would be doing what is right for this country as well.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:
“notes the Resolutions of this House of 31 October 2006, 11 June 2007 and 25 March 2008 on an Iraq inquiry; recognises the heroic efforts of the British armed forces in Iraq who have a continuing role which this House should be careful not to undermine; 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.”
I have recently had the privilege of meeting some of our troops and their commanders in Basra. Their dedication to duty, their commitment and comradeship and, above all, their immense bravery should be an inspiration to us all, and is a credit to the country. Whatever the divisions of this debate, nothing should—or will, I am sure—divide us from saluting them together for the way in which they have carried out their tasks in Iraq.
This Government amendment makes the same point as the Government amendment that the House supported at this time last year. The reason is simple: the situation in Iraq has changed, in the main for the better, since the debate last year—I will set that out—but the number of British troops, and their role and position, has not changed. Until it does, the case for caution against declaring “mission accomplished” and turning our attention to an inquiry remains strong.
No. I will do so in a few moments.
In important respects the work of our troops carries dangers, especially—I say this although it is paradoxical—as the date for the completion of their work comes closer. One civilian was killed at the Basra airbase in a rocket attack earlier this month, so the sole focus of Government activity at this time—across the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development—is to secure the most smooth and effective conclusion to the bulk of British military engagement in Iraq, and the most smooth and effective increase in British economic, political, educational and cultural engagement in Iraq.
I will be very happy to give way in a moment, after I have set out my argument.
The Government amendment says clearly and unambiguously that there should be an inquiry. The reason is simple: there are important lessons that could be learned. Indeed, as the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) pointed out last year and has repeated in his speech, Iraq has involved British troops for a longer period than world war two. Every country is unique, and the Iraq experience of post-conflict reconstruction is important. We all know that building the peace in Iraq has been much more difficult than winning the war. The debates about de-Ba’athification and the disbandment of the Iraqi army have been well aired and it is right that they are looked over again.
No. I said I will give way in a few moments, after I have set out my argument.
The time to focus on an official inquiry is when the troops come home to safety, not when they are still exposed to danger in Iraq. Precedent supports this, and so does common sense. For the avoidance of doubt, I was asked on 10 December if that meant every troop coming home, and I gave a very clear answer: we are talking about combat troops, not every troop, and I will set out the timetable again in a moment.
I am now very happy to take interventions from all those Members who sought to speak, but I shall give way first to the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh).
The Foreign Secretary seems to be living in a parallel world in terms of what is actually happening with our troops at Basra airport. They are not going out on patrols, and they are not involved in operations in Basra. They are bunkered up at the airport itself. They are doing some work with the Iraqi army, but in fact they are busy handing over not to the Iraqis, but to the Americans. Will he spell out exactly what he is trying to justify by saying in his amendment that we are involved in operations when we are not?
The Foreign Secretary said a moment ago that the precedent is for the inquiry to be established after all the troops—or the vast bulk of them—have been withdrawn, rather than, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) suggested, the initial steps being taken before they are withdrawn. Would the Foreign Secretary care to tell us of one occasion on which that precedent occurred?
No, the hon. Gentleman has not killed that one off, with respect. British troops will remain in Iraq after 31 July if all goes according to plan, but they will not be combat troops. In the case of the Falklands, the enemy had surrendered, so by definition the troops were no longer in danger in the Falklands when the inquiry was set up in July 1982.
I am sure that the whole House shares the Foreign Secretary’s admiration for those who have served and are serving in Iraq. He very much admires their courage, so why are the Government not showing the same courage and saying “We have nothing to hide, we are not hiding behind anything and we agree to this inquiry”? Why are they not being as courageous as our soldiers have been?
I do not think that any Foreign Secretary should come to this place claiming that he is being as brave as the people who are serving in our armed forces around the world—I certainly do not make that claim, and I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman reduces the argument to that point. The Government have taken a very consistent position since the debate last year and we will take it again in the debate this year. The right time for an inquiry is when our combat troops have come home, and I am happy to detail why the situation in Iraq requires that.
The Foreign Secretary said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) that an inquiry would be announced after 31 July. He will, of course, be conscious of the fact that that will be about a week after this House rises for the summer recess. Will he therefore give an assurance today that a statement will be made to the House before it rises for the summer recess confirming that the inquiry is to go ahead? If he is not prepared to give that assurance, will he explain why not, given that we know that 31 July is the decisive date?
The former Foreign Secretary should know better; the idea that we decided on a troop withdrawal plan and chose 31 July as the date for its conclusion because Parliament will not be sitting at that time is, frankly, risible. [Interruption.] We will do this after British combat troops have been withdrawn, and that is the right thing to do. [Interruption.] That has been the position that we have set out over the past year, and I believe that it is the right position to hold. It has nothing to do with the Labour party conference; it is a simple position that the Government have articulated again and again and again.
The Foreign Secretary will know that I made no reference to the Labour party conference. I simply said that he had confirmed that the combat troops would be back by 31 July, so there would no longer be an obstacle to announcing a statement. He must know that an inquiry of this importance ought to be announced to the House of Commons. There cannot possibly be any objection to announcing on, shall we say, 20 July—10 days or so before 31 July, when the House is still sitting—that the inquiry is to be established and what the terms of reference will be. He must appreciate that if he declines to give that assurance, it would appear either that he is going to make that statement when the House is not even sitting—that would be a disgrace—or that he is looking for an excuse to leave it until the autumn, thereby delaying the time by which the inquiry would ultimately report. He must realise the suspicion and deal with it now if he is to command the respect of the House.
I am sorry that the right hon. and learned Gentleman puts it in that way. We have been completely clear, in last year’s debate and in this year’s debate, about the Government’s position on this point. Our position is that once combat troops come home is the right time to establish an inquiry. We will establish that inquiry with the full respect for Parliament and all of its Members, for precedent and for the need for the inquiry to look into both the conduct of the war and the conduct of the peace-building afterwards—that is precisely the sort of comprehensive look that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, who speaks for the Opposition—
After I make some progress I shall be happy to bring in further hon. Members.
The UK has a strategic national interest in a strong, stable, non-hostile Iraq, confident in its territorial integrity and acting in accordance with international law. As the first majority Shi’a democracy in the Arab world, it can help to bridge the Sunni-Shi’a divide in the middle east. As one of the traditional places of Shi’a authority in the world, with a track record of a humane tradition, a revived Najaf can offer an alternative to the radical Shi’ism expounded by some in Iran. It is important, therefore, to recognise the progress that has been made in Iraq since our debate last year. The change from the savage conflict of three years ago is remarkable, and the progress is to be welcomed. It brings withdrawal closer and, for the purposes of this debate, it brings an inquiry closer, because, at every stage the key for us has not been dates; it has been what our troops are doing in Iraq.
I shall make some progress and try to bring in the hon. Gentleman a bit later.
Thanks to the brave work and dedication of our troops and their coalition partners, as well as the improved capacity and commitment of the Iraqi security forces, the number of security incidents across the country is down to its lowest level since 2003. The provincial elections held on 31 January passed without major incident and included the Sunni parties and Sunni voters. Although key pieces of legislation are still outstanding, in the past year the Iraqi Parliament has agreed new laws on investment, de-Ba’athification, detainees and the powers of provincial government.
Although that progress is significant, anyone who has spent any time in Iraq will say that in some parts of the country the security situation is still fragile and reversible. The threat from extremist groups—that seems to be dismissed by the Conservative party—as well as from militias and terrorists, remains. Roadside bombs and suicide attacks are still a danger to the lives of ordinary Iraqis. Attacks this month in Mosul, at a Baghdad police academy and at a market in Babil remind us of the enduring dangers posed by terrorism in Iraq.
Although progress has been made in politics, compromise is painfully slow and, as in the rest of the world, the global economic downturn is having an impact in Iraq. So, after the loss of many thousands of lives, including 179 British defence personnel, and the spending of billions of dollars, Iraq needs careful and deliberate international support as it moves to be fully in command of its own affairs.
No, I just want to make a bit of progress.
That is why some 4,100 British troops are deployed in southern Iraq—that is more or less the same number as were there this time last year. As agreed with the Government of Iraq, they still have a number of tasks to complete. Their work to mentor and train the 14th division of the Iraqi army is ongoing. The Royal Navy continues to patrol the Gulf area and to contribute to the defence of Iraqi territorial waters and oil platforms, and the Royal Air Force provides vital support, both to UK troops and as part of the coalition air effort. Each of those tasks is vital in order to ensure that Iraq continues the progress of recent years.
We are now, however, approaching a key moment in the timetable for the draw-down of British troops. In July last year, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out how UK troops would move carefully and deliberately, guided by the situation on the ground, from a lead role to an overwatch role. Next week, on 31 March, the first step will be taken, with the absorption of Multi-National Division (South-East) within Multi-National Division (South). This is not the replacement of British commanders by Americans, but a new coalition force structure reflecting the changes going on in Iraq and with a larger geographical responsibility. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister told the House,
“the fundamental change of mission ... will take place by 31 May 2009 at the latest. At that point, we will begin a rapid withdrawal of our troops, taking the total from just under 4,100 to under 400 by 31 July.”—[Official Report, 18 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 1234.]
The Government of Iraq have indicated that they want the UK to continue to provide military training and education. We are offering to provide support to officer training through the NATO training mission in Iraq, and to supplement that with attendance at staff and other training. We are also discussing with the Iraqi authorities how we can best meet their ongoing requirements for maritime support and naval training. Our plan, which has been agreed by the Government of Iraq, is to withdraw combat troops by the end of July. As we draw down our military engagement, we will step up our effort to support and rebuild the Iraqi economy and to help Iraqis ensure that their critical infrastructure works. Of course, our diplomatic relationship will remain essential, and we will maintain both a substantive embassy in Baghdad, and missions in Basra and Irbil.
I shall give way after I have finished this paragraph. The planning for the safe withdrawal of most of our troops, and the development of a plan for the role and position of the remainder, is being undertaken with great care in the Ministry of Defence. The Foreign Office is orchestrating, week by week, the realignment of Britain’s relationship with Iraq as military forces are reduced. The Department for International Development is continuing to work to help the Government of Iraq to deliver services to their people and to be in a position to take advantage of the strong interest of international investors. I said that I would give way to the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway), so I shall now do so.
I am always wary of the attempt to put Iraq and Afghanistan in the same paragraph, as I believe they are fundamentally different theatres. However, there are important lessons from the Iraq experience. As I will say in a moment, the MOD has carried out significant internal reviews, as well as having the benefit of external reviews, as has the Foreign Office, and those are fed in week by week. The hon. Gentleman may well have important points about the way in which strategy and tactics are being put into practice. We should certainly be learning the lessons, but that does not require us to wait for the full-scale official inquiry that we are debating today.
Yesterday, I met a delegation of Iraqi Members of Parliament, representing all the diverse communities in that country, and they wanted a message sent to the British people to say, “Thank you for what you’ve done to get rid of Saddam Hussein and please keep supporting us in our transition to democracy.”
Will the Foreign Secretary ensure that the inquiry, when it happens, is not narrowly focused, but looks at the totality of the UK relationship with Iraq before, during and since the conflict, and includes the complicity of the Conservative Government of Baroness Thatcher with Saddam’s regime during the Iran-Iraq war?
I sincerely thank the Foreign Secretary for recognising in his speech and in the Government amendment the professionalism and bravery of our troops, which the Opposition failed to do in their motion. Will he confirm that any inquiry will not reveal the identity of any individual member of the troops so that nobody is put at risk?
The Foreign Secretary has conceded that an inquiry will take place. Will he assure the House that all the papers prepared for the Cabinet before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 will be revealed to that inquiry so they may be properly studied, unlike the decision that was taken to challenge the Information Commissioner’s decision that they should be released to the public?
The Foreign Secretary mentioned the operations of the British forces in Iraq. Can he say how many personnel, based in Iraq, London or elsewhere, would be involved in any inquiry? What would be the problem with replacing those people so that they were free to engage in an inquiry now?
I have not mapped that out, but it would be a substantial number. In the Foreign Office, it would involve people who are working in our Iraq unit at present who are resolutely focused on this delicate passage of time. As British troops withdraw, we have to make it clear to the people of Basra that we are not abandoning Iraq, but are continuing to remain engaged with it. I am happy to confirm that substantial effort will be dedicated to an inquiry. It would be important for the Government to co-operate fully with it across Departments.
I do not accept that development and planning have been compromised by the absence of an inquiry. There have already been four inquiries into aspects of the war in Iraq, although they were not official inquiries with access to all the papers. In 2003, both the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Intelligence and Security Committee, and then a year later the Butler inquiry, examined the decision to invade Iraq, focusing on the accuracy and adequacy of the intelligence, and of course the Hutton inquiry looked into the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr. David Kelly.
Our military, diplomatic and development strategies have consistently been adjusted and updated in the light of events and those inquiries, and in the light of reviews that we have undertaken inside the Government. Some of them have been made public, but others, for obvious reasons, have not. For instance, the Ministry of Defence carries out regular reviews of operations from the strategic to the tactical level. Its reviews have made recommendations on matters ranging from the military kit to counter-insurgency strategy or the relationship of security to economic and political change. DFID’s approach in Basra has evolved significantly over time, from the initial priority of focusing on the dilapidated infrastructure—work that has benefited more than 1 million Iraqis—to a focus on developing Iraqi economic capacity.
Of course our experiences in both Afghanistan and Iraq have had a significant impact on the workings of the Foreign Office, with greater emphasis on cross-departmental planning and working, including through the tri-departmental stabilisation unit. More resource is being devoted to post-conflict planning and delivery as well as the development of a much smarter approach to risk management. The accumulation of internal lessons learned over the past six years, as well as internal reviews conducted, is all material that an inquiry could draw on.
I was interested to hear the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks say last year that he favoured an inquiry along the lines of the Franks inquiry, which he referred to as “the model inquiry”. The Franks inquiry was set up after the end of the Falklands conflict. The fact that it was conducted in private meant that it had access to all the relevant papers. In that respect, it was significantly different from the US Baker-Hamilton report. Franks was not a judicial inquiry so it did not require its witnesses to have lawyers. There were no leaks or interim findings to distract from the final conclusions and recommendations.
Of course, it is important to remember that Franks looked only at the run-up to the Falklands war in the wake of Lord Carrington’s resignation. Most discussion of the case for an inquiry into Iraq has not favoured limiting an inquiry to the lead up to the war, but is instead more interested in the conduct of the war and its aftermath. The Government have never demurred from that view.
Can the Foreign Secretary give an assurance to the House that when an inquiry is eventually held, it will not be confined just to the conduct of the war and events afterwards, but will focus—as part of its terms of reference—on that very important period of the run-up to the war and what was told to this House and the nation, which was clearly less than the whole truth about the nature of the so-called threat and our potential response to it?
I have been very careful not to start placing limits on what an inquiry could look at. The purpose of the inquiry will be to learn lessons. I do not see any point in repeating what other inquiries have done, but it should be a comprehensive look at the planning and conduct of the war, as well as the peace-building afterwards.
Does the Foreign Secretary understand that the main interest of the country will be in the run-up to the war, because it is widely believed that in the summer of 2002 the then Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, and President Bush entered into a conspiracy to invade Iraq and spent the succeeding months until March 2003 manipulating public opinion, falsifying the intelligence information and deceiving the leaders of the Conservative party? That is one of the most shameful episodes in British history, if it is proved to be true—as a proper inquiry would prove.
I do not accept that caricature of the period before 2003. Nor do I accept that the vast bulk of interest is in the run-up to the war. For those with conspiracy theories, that may be their interest, but those of us concerned with British operations in the future are interested in the lessons of the war itself and the peace-building effort afterwards. It is important to emphasise the post-war aspects as well as the wartime conduct.
Can the Foreign Secretary explain why our major ally, the US, continues to examine and review the lead up to the war and the lessons to be learned, and to do so in public? It is not a bogus argument; it is a fact. Many Americans are amazed that we do not do the same.
That is a bogus argument. As I have just said, the Baker-Hamilton inquiry did not have access to the sort of secret papers that everyone in this House believes that an official inquiry should have access to. Although it is correct that America is a country that conducts numerous internal reviews—as we do, too—America has not had the sort of official inquiry that the hon. Gentleman’s party is asking for.
Iraq was a source of great division in this House—within parties and between them—as well as in the country. Those divisions will not be erased; nor, above all, will the loss suffered by the bereaved families of our troops lost in action; nor, indeed, will the loss of Iraqi lives. We can never pay tribute to them often enough.
The future of Iraq should engage us all, whatever position we took on the war, because peace and security in Iraq is not only vital to regional stability but critical to the UK’s interests on human rights, counter-terrorism and energy security. Once our armed contribution has concluded and our combat troops have returned home, we should invest the time and effort to learn thoroughly any further lessons. For now, all the efforts of our professional and experienced staff—from our soldiers to our diplomats and aid workers—need to be focused on creating the best possible transition from a predominantly military relationship to a predominantly economic, diplomatic and cultural relationship with Iraq. That is what the Government will be doing and I believe that it is what the House should be doing, too.
The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) forensically showed how the Government’s position on an inquiry has evolved over time. I hope to add to his analysis by showing that each of their arguments along the way was bogus. I have decided that that is the right approach, given the speech that we have just heard from the Foreign Secretary, who was still unable to make any strong argument for delaying the inquiry.
Indeed, in last year’s debate on the subject the Foreign Secretary set out all the arguments for an early inquiry and then proceeded to try to demolish them, in much the same way as Tony Blair set out the arguments against going to war with Iraq and tried to demolish them in that famous debate. Both attempts were flawed, although it is interesting to note that Tony Blair and the Foreign Secretary used different debating tactics.
In seeking to undermine our case against the Iraq war, Tony Blair adopted the Aunt Sally approach. He never dealt with the precise arguments against the war, but instead tackled inexact interpretations and caricatures of those arguments, whether they were on the legal position, the option of letting UN weapons inspectors continue or warnings that war would simply create a worse problem. He got away with it, of course, primarily because the vast majority of Conservatives were taken in by the dodgy dossier and the dodgy arguments.
To be fair to the Foreign Secretary, he did not take that Aunt Sally approach last year. If one re-reads his speech in Hansard, one sees that he took the arguments head on. The problem was that he utterly failed to make his case. He got away with it that time because Labour MPs who had previously bravely voted against the war could not bear to support a motion tabled by an unrepentant Conservative party. I feel increasingly sorry for the Foreign Secretary as he has to defend the impossible legacy of his right hon. Friends, yet such sentiments cannot get in the way of our scrutiny of his position.
Let us remind ourselves just how spectacularly bad the Foreign Secretary was in the debate on this subject last year. He said that there were four arguments for an early inquiry: precedent; the alleged limited activities of our troops, which meant that an inquiry would not get in the way; the need to learn lessons; and the fact that memories will fade.
On precedent, there was an interesting history debate, spanning the Dardanelles in 1915, the Norway campaign in the second world war and the Falklands. We have heard those arguments again today. However, it was the Conservative hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) who took out the Foreign Secretary’s middle stump with his reference to the inquiry set up into the ill-fated Anglo-Indian campaign of 1916 in Mesopotamia, which we of course know as Iraq. I can now see why the hon. Gentleman is in charge of summer holiday reading lists for Conservative MPs; he certainly sent the Foreign Secretary packing.
The Foreign Secretary then tried to demolish the second argument for an inquiry, which was that our troops’ role in Iraq has for some time been rather limited, so an inquiry could not possibly prejudice their position. The Foreign Secretary thought he was on stronger ground—after all, the current Prime Minister’s main argument is that nothing should divert us from restoring stability in Iraq. To make his case, the Foreign Secretary listed the training, monitoring and mentoring role of our troops and their work in their overwatch role, as he has done today.
Under fire, the Foreign Secretary simply ran away. He failed totally to answer any of the counter-arguments—put from both sides of the House—to his specious arguments. The hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) asked which British army commanders had advised that an inquiry would undermine our troops. The answer was, “None”. The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) noted that very few of the forces stationed in Basra would be needed for the inquiry, given that few, if any, of them would have been involved in the political decision making or indeed the invasion and its immediate aftermath. That killer point was totally ignored then and has been totally ignored today.
When I asked the daft wee laddie question about exactly how our troops’ operations would be hindered by an inquiry, the Foreign Secretary failed to enter the cut and thrust of the debate. Even today, when I pressed him on the same point, he was unable to be in any way precise about the impact of an inquiry on operations in practice.
I am very glad that my hon. Friend is laying out the specious nature of the argument that nothing must distract the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence from their essential tasks in Iraq. Does he believe, as I do, that the fact that when our troops come home from Iraq they will almost certainly be redeployed to a conflict in Afghanistan makes that argument particularly absurd? If we are not focused on Afghanistan, what on earth do we have these Departments for?
My hon. Friend has strengthened my argument. The argument that an inquiry would somehow get in the way of the operations of our troops, the Ministry of Defence or DFID would apply equally to the fact that we have operations ongoing in Afghanistan. Indeed, those operations are far more serious than those under way in Iraq. My hon. Friend makes a powerful point and the Government have no answer to it.
The hon. Gentleman may be aware that five years ago, another of the United States’ very junior parties carried out an independent inquiry, in February 2004, into the pre-Iraq intelligence and the threat of weapons of mass destruction. That inquiry felt that that evidence may have been “overstated”. It also felt that the conservative Government in Australia were “more measured” than their alliance partners, who had not always accurately portrayed the intelligence that they had received. Which of the alliance partners does the hon. Gentleman think the Australian Government may have been thinking about?
I think the whole House knows the answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question.
Let me return to the Foreign Secretary and his rather inadequate performance last year. Having failed to deal with the argument that an early inquiry would get in the way of our troops’ operations, he then said we did not need an inquiry to learn any lessons because, somehow, miraculously—in a way that everyone else had clearly missed—the lessons had already been learned. According to the Foreign Secretary, there had been two studies by the Ministry of Defence of the operations in Iraq. There had been internal reviews. The Foreign Secretary said with a straight face that the civil service and armed forces continually adjusted and updated their strategies in the light of experience. I am not joking. That argument was served up to us a year ago by the Foreign Secretary. He was effectively saying that although the Government supported an inquiry at some stage in the future, that inquiry would not be about learning lessons because they had already been learned. That was an astonishing argument to make and showed how weak the Government’s position is.
I think they would. I am not so sure whether that would fit in with this particular inquiry, as I shall discuss later. We need to be careful about the remit of the Iraq inquiry. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point and the Liberal Democrats are very much in favour of a strategic defence review that might deal with some of the points to which he alluded.
The Foreign Secretary tried to deal with the fourth argument for an early inquiry, which was that memories might fade and records be lost. We heard that argument once again today from the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks. Last year, the Foreign Secretary started well, pointing out that much had already been produced for the previous four inquiries. He conceded that these inquiries had been narrow and limited, but the implication was that they had helped to conserve the information and gather it together so that it would be ready for the full inquiry. I would almost give him half a point for that exchange. Since then, we have had revelations through freedom of information requests of documents that it would seem Hutton definitely could not have seen—and that Butler either did not see, or failed to focus on.
As the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks reminded us, it is indisputable that, with the passage of time, memories fade and people die. So the Foreign Secretary did not even win his strongest position. In other words, in opposing the case for an early inquiry last year—12 months ago—the Foreign Secretary failed.
Yet here we are a year later, and the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary are still playing for time. However, we need to be careful and look at what they said, and in that regard the intervention from the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) had the Foreign Secretary on the ropes. The Government’s position is that there will be an inquiry when the combat troops have returned, but there is no precision about when it would be set up at that point. Indeed, Hansard shows that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary said that the case for an inquiry would be “considered” when the troops had returned. There is no specific timetable: the Government are still wriggling about their position, and that is simply not acceptable.
The case for setting up an inquiry immediately, with no more time wasted, is, in our view, watertight. It has been so for a long time, yet the Government’s continued resistance invites the question, “If not now, then when?”
The logic of the Government’s position, which was again drawn out by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, is that the inquiry should be announced now and begin on or around 31 July, when the troops are supposed to be coming home. My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) pressed the Foreign Secretary on the timing of the inquiry during the Queen’s Speech debate on foreign affairs. He asked whether it would have to wait until every last man was out of Iraq, and the right hon. Gentleman’s response was absolutely clear. Indeed, he was as precise as any member of the Government has ever been about the matter when, on 10 December last year, he said:
“No…We are not going to hide behind the idea that the last troop must have come home. We have always made it clear that our commitment is in respect of combat troops”—[Official Report, 10 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 566.]
To be fair to him, the Foreign Secretary repeated that today.
As the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks set out, even the lame excuses of last year can have no force now. On the face of it, if we are to have faith in anything that the Government say, they must announce the inquiry before the summer recess, at the very latest. If they do not, it could—and it certainly should—have serious implications.
Already, the Secretary of State for Justice, the former Foreign Secretary, has vetoed a decision by the Information Tribunal and blocked the publication of the minutes of the key Cabinet meetings. He has been judge and jury in his own trial, and that makes it look as though the Government were guilty of covering something up. However, if the Government fail even to set up the inquiry that they have promised, then the charge that the Prime Minister and others have something more sinister to hide will become very toxic.
Let us assume for a moment that even No. 10 now knows that further prevarication is impossible. When the Government eventually get around to setting up the inquiry, questions will arise about its nature. The Conservatives today proposed the Privy Council approach, along the lines of the Franks inquiry, and that has some attractions, with the greatest being that such an inquiry would be able to receive top secret material and ensure access to all papers and persons.
Yet that approach has one big disadvantage—that it would meet, as I understand it, in private all the time. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) has argued, one of the purposes of an inquiry is to restore the public’s trust and confidence. That demands an inquiry in the open.
So what should the Government do? Well believe that a Privy Council approach is better than a judicial inquiry in this case. The key questions and the key judgments that will have to be made are essentially political, not legal—and, above all, we do not want a repeat of Hutton. I can see no reason why a Privy Council inquiry could not hold many of its meetings in public, as long as clear rules were established from the start for when it goes into session in camera.
There is huge experience now in the courts and other tribunals about managing the balance between public and private hearings. Not least with the new procedures for dealing with terrorist cases, there is up-to-date and recent experience in a variety of procedures about how to strike the balance in different ways. So when the Government eventually announce the inquiry, we will want to know how it proposes to strike that balance. We believe that the inquiry must lean as much as possible towards total openness and transparency.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for letting me intervene; I would have to go to the Foreign Affairs Committee to deal with similar matters. What troubles me is that, whatever the nature of the inquiry, the oath must be administered to those who give evidence. Not only would that make it clear to witnesses that they must tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but it would afford them some protection from Departments and agencies that might lean on them to be less than frank. The process will remain seriously flawed until people are compelled to tell the whole truth, with the possibility of committing perjury if they do not.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very strong point, and I hope that Ministers will impose that requirement when the inquiry is eventually announced. When that happens, of course, we will want to hear about the inquiry’s remit. Although there would be no point in an inquiry that did not have a wide remit to investigate all aspects of the matter—from the decision to go to war to the pre-planning for post-conflict, as well as the invasion itself and its aftermath—it is surely a matter of debate as to exactly what the focus of an inquiry should be.
The inquiry could, for example, be focused on military tactics, decisions, equipment and so on. Although we believe it is essential that we find more and better ways of protecting our troops in conflicts, and of caring and supporting them and their families both during and after those conflicts, we emphatically do not think that this inquiry should be about the military.
Our armed forces were fantastic. They should have the support of all sides of this House, and it should be made crystal clear that an inquiry will not focus, to any large extent, on the role of the military. Yes, we need evidence from those who have served, especially the commanders, but the primary objective must be to probe the political rather than the military decision making. For it is British politics that will be under the spotlight. That light will focus on the former Prime Minister, of course, but also on his key advisers and members of the Cabinet and the civil service. Parliament will also be examined, including the role of Opposition parties and individual MPs.
Whether one agreed with the Iraq war back in 2003—or whether, with the benefit of hindsight, one agrees with it now, or thinks that today’s world is safer as a result— no one can doubt its historic significance, heavy costs and implications for the future. What went right with the political process over Iraq, and what went wrong, could not be more significant. It is to those questions that the inquiry must be directed.
The hon. Gentleman is coming to a very important point in his speech. Does he agree that one of the crucial aspects of any inquiry is that the entire nation, and our magnificent serving soldiers, need to know that the rationale behind any future conflict is defensible, justifiable and durable for the future?
I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman.
Let me be clear, however. I am not suggesting that the inquiry’s remit should be over-prescribed—tempting though that might be, and even more so if Liberal Democrats were alone able to write it. However, its remit must be flexible enough to try to get the truth behind the many unanswered questions and serious allegations. They include, for instance, the question of how and why the Attorney-General’s legal advice changed, and how and why the expert intelligence was abused and politicised in No. 10.
For the sake of brevity, let me give just one example of the questions the inquiry must be able to tackle. This question goes to the heart of the legal and political case made for war, and it is one that could have massive implications in the future. I am referring to the issue of how close Iraq was to manufacturing nuclear weapons.
Much attention has focused on the notorious 45-minute claim, yet there has been much less publicity over what seems to me to be the critical question of the validity—and, indeed, the veracity—of the claims made by Tony Blair, in the dossier and in Parliament, that Saddam Hussein was between one and two years away from producing a nuclear weapon.
Understanding how that assessment was made could be critical for future policy, given the huge and pressing problem of Iran’s nuclear capabilities. People often talk about the parallels with Afghanistan, and the lessons that can be learned for that conflict, but the parallels and lessons in respect of Iran are at least as important. So if there is one question that I think it essential for the inquiry to consider, it is this nuclear question.
It is also essential that the inquiry look at that question for the reason that it was fundamental to the case made by Tony Blair for going to war. The evidence, as far as we have it today, is extremely damaging for him. If one pieces together the various drafts of the dossier as we now have them, and reads them in the light of the memos and emails that have been obtained—mainly through the assiduous freedom of information requests made by the superb investigative journalist, Chris Ames—it becomes clear that there was a concerted and politically driven effort to alter the assessments made by Britain’s intelligence experts.
The Butler inquiry revealed some of that information; it showed that the Joint Intelligence Committee’s last major assessment of nuclear capability was that
“it would take at least five years to produce a nuclear weapon.”
There was a rider that the
“timescale would shorten if fissile material was obtained from abroad”,
yet no serious evidence—even in the dodgy dossier—was advanced for that. Instead, in just three days, the “at least five years” time scale was more than halved, with no evidence.
Butler questions that, but makes no attempt to explain it. There is no attempt to apportion responsibility despite the centrality of the issue. An inquiry must provide an explanation. Was it, as some of the recently published memos suggest, because the Americans had changed their assessment? Between the publication of the two key dossier drafts, in a speech made on 12 September, George Bush claimed that Iraq would have nuclear weapons within a year. Was it the request made by a senior Cabinet official, Desmond Bowen, in an e-mail to John Scarlett of 11 September to reduce or remove any caveats or hedged judgments? Whatever the answer, we need to know how such deceptions can be prevented in the future, and the inquiry’s remit must be wide enough to enable that to happen.
The hon. Gentleman rightly pinpoints one example, but he will accept that there have been many others since the Hutton inquiry, born of FOI requests that raised further questions about how intelligence was misrepresented. Does he not believe that that leads us to the view, as revealed in a leaked Cabinet Office memo of 21 July 2002, that the Prime Minister and President Bush had already decided to go to war, but that one of the conditions was that public opinion in the UK had to be prepared during the lead-up? That was the importance of the dodgy dossier.
Does my hon. Friend believe it is important for the inquiry to consider the fact that the then Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Boyce, would have resigned had legal justification for the war not been presented to him? That would have put the Government in a very embarrassing position. One of the reasons the legal opinion was changed was to satisfy the head of the armed forces and give him a firm assurance that there was legality for the operation.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. By giving the example of the nuclear question, I wanted the Foreign Secretary to ensure that when the inquiry is announced in due course it will not be restricted in any way when dealing with all those key questions.
Time is running out for the Government. I am sure Ministers and ex-Ministers are thinking about what will happen—the legacy question—if and when Labour loses. The Prime Minister had the chance to clear the decks immediately he came to office. He could have broken with Tony Blair’s Iraq war legacy and started to rebuild public trust with an inquiry into the war. In the process, he would have built a stronger legacy of his own, but he failed; he ducked that chance and increasingly it seems that the legacy of Iraq is one that he will share with Tony Blair.
I very much enjoyed the speech made by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who is just leaving the Chamber. As I always do, I am now in a devilish way detaining him.
The only note I thought was missing from the right hon. Gentleman’s speech was humility. If we take ourselves back to those days in 2002 and 2003, I am afraid that the people in this place who were the great cheerleaders for war were not interested in exploring the kind of questions being asked from the Labour Benches about the legality of the war, and whether there were in fact weapons of mass destruction or whether a false prospectus was at work. None of those questions was at all interesting to the Opposition—[Interruption.]—to the official Opposition, who simply wanted to go further, faster.
The courage was shown on the Labour Benches—[Interruption.]—and the Liberal Democrat Benches, where Members interrogated the arguments, and huge numbers of Members on the Labour Benches found they could not go with the Government. If there is to be an inquiry, the one inquiry the official Opposition could set up immediately would be why they failed during that critical period—the one time when they needed to be effective. As we now know, they had it within their power to prevent British engagement in the Iraq war. The Conservative party should immediately put in place an inquiry as to why the official Opposition failed during that period.
I suspect most of us are quite anxious not to relive all those arguments in our few minutes’ speeches. I was simply making the point that the arguments were intense at the time on the Labour Benches and on the Liberal Democrat Benches and not at all on the Conservative Benches, with a very few—
With a very few honourable exceptions. It is worth inserting those observations into the call for an inquiry now.
I want only to say something about Parliament’s role in the whole business, because that matters hugely. Just last week, two people gave evidence to the Public Administration Committee. One was Brian Jones, who was the leading defence intelligence expert at the Ministry of Defence. He said in terms that he thought Parliament had completely failed to ask the questions about Iraq that needed to be asked. He was followed by Mr. Carne Ross, a Foreign Office diplomat with experience in Iraq and in dealing with Iraq issues at the United Nations on our behalf who resigned from the Foreign Office over Iraq. He said in terms that he thought Parliament had been simply pathetic in its failure to get to the bottom of what happened.
The question is whether we are content for that to be the case or whether we are not content and want to do something about it. The Committee, which I have the privilege of chairing, has explored the issue in enormous detail in recent years. In 2005, we carried out an inquiry into inquiries called “Government by Inquiry”, which covered the sort of issues that are being raised today about the kind of inquiry one might have and about the benefits or demerits of certain types of inquiry—public or private, led by judges or led by other people. Those are proper arguments and I think the House would find our report helpful in thinking its way through some of the issues.
The Committee found that Parliament had given up the ability it routinely had in the 19th century, but has lost in more recent times, to commission inquiries. That has been a retreat on the part of the House. We proposed a device, which we called a parliamentary commission of inquiry, to insert Parliament back in the picture. In the Inquiries Act 2005, we formally gave away any residual rights we had when the role that Parliament used to have under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921 was removed. At least then there could be parliamentary resolutions to set up inquiries, but that power has gone. That is a huge retreat on the part of Parliament.
We now have a situation that the public find inexplicable. As we now know, there is a huge majority in this place who think there should be an inquiry on Iraq—the biggest issue in foreign policy since the second world war—where something important seems to have gone wrong. A huge majority in the House think an inquiry needs to be set in motion, yet it seems that it is not within our power to commission such an inquiry.
This allegedly sovereign Parliament cannot do anything other than keep requesting of the Government that they—the Executive—set up an inquiry. That cannot be satisfactory. The House has to find a way, a time, and a device, on a cross-party basis, that enables us to get such an inquiry, on behalf of Parliament, the people that we represent and, possibly crucially, our armed forces. I suspect that the people who most want an inquiry are those who have been associated with military activity and their families. We have to find a device that enables such an inquiry to take place. If we do not find such a device, but simply sit around requesting that one day an inquiry be commissioned, we as a Parliament are not doing our job.
I say to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, whom I like and respect enormously, as he knows, this is the very last time when he can make the arguments that he made today. Unless he comes to the House before the summer recess and says that an inquiry is to be commissioned, Parliament is entitled to insist, before the summer, that that is done.
First, I concur with the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) that it is probably members of the armed forces who served, and who are still serving, in Iraq who want an inquiry more than anyone else. They want to know the answers to certain questions to do with why this country went to war, because they have done everything that we have asked of them. The fault, if there is a fault with regard to the war, lies with us in this place.
No one could doubt that we need an inquiry now. We have seen the scale of the foreign policy disaster, and the scandalous presentation of the intelligence information in the lead up to the war, and now the troops are returning. Now is a good time to have that inquiry. I do not think that anybody can dispute the fact that the war was an act of great folly. We went to war on a false premise; there were no weapons of mass destruction. We removed a tyrant, but that was never the justification for the war. It has never been the justification for any war. The intervention has brought about the involvement of foreign fighters in Iraq, some of them al-Qaeda. It has meant that the balance of power has been disrupted, to the extent that Iran is now the predominant power in the region. It has radicalised parts of the Muslim world against us, and we have seen for ourselves the great sacrifice of our troops in theatre.
All that was done, I would suggest, to satisfy the hubris of a former Prime Minister who still to this day believes that it is better to err with the United States than to stand up and say to a friend that they got something wrong. An inquiry is required to examine not just the misrepresentation of intelligence in the lead up to the war, or the lack of post-war planning, but, to return to the point made by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase, our collective failure to reign back, or at least challenge, the hawkish ambitions of someone whom I certainly consider to be a rogue politician.
Nowhere is the failure—our failure—better illustrated than in the Iraq dossier of 2002. A good number of hon. Members present will remember that we were recalled in September 2002 to hear about what was supposed to be a very important document. It was an opportunity for the Government to share with the public, as well as with us, for the first time internal advice given to Ministers by the security services.
As a result of freedom of information requests made since then, and since Hutton, two things have become clear. First, the dossier was not, as our former Prime Minister claimed, solely the work of the Joint Intelligence Committee. Spin doctors were heavily involved on the inside of the process, drafting material, making suggestions and influencing the way in which the document was presented. Secondly, it is now possible, because of the wealth of information that we have received, even since the Hutton inquiry, from freedom of information requests, to piece together exactly how the intelligence reports were, to use that unfortunate term, sexed up.
Let me briefly touch on the role of the spin doctors. We have long known that the dossier requested by the Prime Minister was, in reality, commissioned from the chairman of the JIC by Alastair Campbell, who chaired the two planning meetings on the dossier on 5 September and 9 September. We now know that spin doctors were also on the inside of the drafting process. Nothing illustrates that more clearly than the fact, which we have since learned, that one of the press officers, John Williams of the Foreign Office, actually wrote a preliminary draft dossier one day before the official draft was circulated under the name of the JIC chairman, John Scarlett, on 10 September.
The significance of that document was downplayed by the Government during the Hutton inquiry. The Foreign Office was finally forced to make the dossier publicly available only last year, following a ruling of the Information Commissioner—a point that I raised in Prime Minister’s questions with the then Prime Minister. As a result, there is every reason to think that Williams was part of the formal drafting process, and that his influence was formative. For one thing, John Scarlett’s draft of the following day was circulated with an acknowledgment of
“considerable help from John Williams”.
Indeed, it is possible to identify passages that appear almost verbatim in both versions. Drafting notes and instructions apparently originated by Williams also appear in Scarlett’s draft.
Out of fairness, I have asked the Foreign Office to publish any information that both people could have used as a common source of material, because one could theoretically suggest that such material was the reason the spin doctor or press officer’s draft, and the subsequent draft of the JIC chairman, were the same or very similar. However, the Foreign Office has continually refused to publish any such information. One can only infer that John William’s draft played a major role in the production of the draft produced the next day by the JIC chairman.
It is important to remind ourselves why the involvement of those press officers is so important. Lord Hutton cleared the Government of sexing up the intelligence only because he believed that
“The dossier was prepared and drafted by a small team of the assessment staff of the JIC”
“was issued…with the full approval of the JIC.”
All the evidence suggests that that is simply not true. Once the spin doctors became involved, the dossier process took on a life of its own, and the JIC retained only a distant, supervisory role.
That the dossier was sexed up there can be no doubt. We have long suspected that balanced judgments and reservations expressed by the intelligence community were transformed into near-certainties, and now we have some of the evidence. One clue was given away in a response to an FOI request made only this month. An internal minute from Desmond Bowen, deputy head of the overseas and defence secretariat in the Cabinet Office, to John Scarlett, copying in Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell, reads:
“In looking at the WMD sections, you will clearly want to be as firm and authoritative as you can be. You will clearly need to judge the extent to which you need to hedge your judgements with, for example, 'it is almost certain' and similar caveats…I appreciate that this can increase the authenticity of the document in terms of it being a proper assessment”.
He goes on to say that that is absolutely necessary. That is a damning summary of what went wrong in the dossier-drafting process.
The hon. Gentleman is constructing an admirable alibi to justify his party’s complicity in the decision to go to war with Iraq. If he was not involved in that, then clearly my comments do not apply to him. Some 140 Labour Members voted against going to war with Iraq, as did virtually the whole Liberal Democrat party and a number of other parties. However, only six members of the Conservative party did so, although so many Members across the House weighed the evidence that was before them at the time and drew a completely separate conclusion. Is this exercise not partly about getting his party off the hook?
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has only recently come into the Chamber. As one of those six who voted against the war, I will not bother answering that.
I am trying to build up a case for to why the intelligence was misrepresented to the House. That is one good reason why we were misled. I have no problem with any Member who voted for the war, because the Prime Minister was fundamentally misleading the House in presenting the intelligence that he did. It was very excusable to support the war at that time, when we were being told by our Prime Minister that the intelligence available to him had built up such a strong case for war.
But I accept that we as a Chamber and as a Parliament failed in our duty to question that Prime Minister strongly enough, which is why the inquiry should have available to it all the Cabinet papers leading up to that decision, because that will reveal that the decision was taken in July 2002 to go to war, the precondition being that public opinion had to be prepared in this country. That is why the dodgy dossier had such an important role.
Time is short and I know that others want to get in, so let me summarise. There is a clear indication that spin doctors played a fundamental role in the production of that intelligence, and that it had a mission to persuade a sceptical House and a sceptical public of the need for war. As I have suggested, the decision to go to war had been taken well before. There is a leaked Cabinet Office memo of 21 July 2002, which the Government have refused to dismiss as untrue and which was published in The Sunday Times. It makes the point that the decision had been taken, but a precondition was that the then Prime Minister had to persuade a sceptical public that war was needed. That was the importance of the dodgey dossier.
In conclusion, speaking from Iraq in June 2007, the Prime Minister said that lessons must be learned on the use of intelligence in the run-up to the war. Almost two years after that, the troops are returning home. Now is the time for action, not words.
May I put on record, as I always do in such debates, the fact that I recognise the courage, professionalism and bravery of our armed forces and the amazing job that they do. We must never forget how many of them have lost their lives in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, and we must never forget those injured and the many thousands of Iraqi civilians who have been killed as part of the invasion of Iraq and the aftermath.
I have been to Iraq on a number of occasions to visit our armed forces personnel and my admiration for them knows no bounds. The last time I went we were in 50º heat going into Basra, and the fact that they were able to operate, work and fight in such conditions is quite remarkable. They have achieved much, and we should not lose sight of that in the debate. Often they said to me, “We are not sure the Government or the country appreciate what we were doing out here. We feel we are doing a job.” Development is taking place, the Iraqi army has been trained and even the police are getting better. That is taking place to this day and has been outlined in the Front-Bench contributions. We should not forget the dangerous work that our armed forces personnel are still doing.
I, for one, will not run away from my responsibility for voting for the invasion of Iraq. I still believe that that was the right decision. If it had not been based on the issue of weapons of mass destruction, I believe that Saddam was such a destabilising influence in the middle east that, given his track record, we should have done all we could to remove him in any case. However, I accept the accuracy of some of the information that we have been given, and there have been a number of inquiries, so I will not go over all that again.
That was a man who was completely untrustworthy, with a track record of causing conflict and thousands of deaths in the middle east. He was a dangerous, dangerous man, and I think the decision to remove him was the correct one and Iraq is a better place for it.
As I said, I will not run away from my decision to vote for the war, but I take exception to those who are trying now to blame the Government for the fact that we went to war, and those who do not accept their responsibility for not asking the right questions or for not taking the decision that they would have taken if they had known what they know today. I respect those who voted against the war. I did not agree with their position but I respect them for it, and they have every right to make the points they do, unlike the Opposition, who are trying to wriggle their way out by blaming it all on the Government.
Iraq is still a very dangerous place. There is a lot of hard work going on there. I support the Government’s position on when a public inquiry should take place—in other words, that we should not announce it at this stage. We will have to announce one; that is the right thing to do.
I am struck by the fact that the Opposition have been telling us for years that our armed forces are overstretched, are too busy and have too much to do. There is no doubt that they are amazingly busy and have an immense amount to do, but the Opposition want us to start an inquiry and put more pressure on the armed forces at a time when we are talking about a draw-down from Iraq and changes in Afghanistan, with the American surge and the discussions that will take place between the Americans, the EU and NATO about our future policy and role in Afghanistan.
It would be wrong to announce an inquiry now. The key thing is to get on with the draw-down in Iraq and with the plans for Afghanistan, and not distract our armed forces and those in charge of them at this time.
The argument has been put forward from the Opposition Benches on a number of occasions that our armed forces personnel—the soldiers, sailors and airmen and women—are demanding an inquiry. That has not been my experience. In my many trips around the world to visit our armed forces personnel, I can hardly remember an occasion when someone raised the issue. I do not accept the suggestion that our armed forces also want an inquiry.
There is no doubt that we should hold an inquiry. I support that for various reasons, but I have explained to the House why I believe the Government’s position is the correct one at this stage. There is some suggestion that we are trying to cover things up or hide them away. Several inquiries have already taken place—Hutton, Butler, the Intelligence Committee and the Select Committee. There have been numerous debates in the House about the reasons for the invasion, the aftermath, the way we have dealt with it, the military operations and so on. The suggestion that we are trying to hide from debate is plain wrong.
We already know about some of the issues, such as the 45 minutes and the weapons of mass destruction. I recall that Butler said in his report that it would be a rash person who claimed that stocks of biological or chemical weapons would never be found in Iraq. I do not know whether they will or not, but we do know that mistakes occurred there. We know about the problems caused by the disbandment of the Iraqi security forces, the army and the police, and no one doubts that that was a mistake. We know that some of the tactics that we employed in the counter-insurgency war, and the development issue, the lack of civilian involvement and the slowness in moving things on were mistakes. That is not hidden away, so I am not sure what the inquiry will reveal that we do not already know about those aspects.
We know what the intelligence failings were. I disagree that the then Prime Minister or the Government deliberately misled the House. There is no evidence to support that from the inquiries that have already taken place. It is a smokescreen used by people who opposed the war or want to be seen to have opposed it because they did not believe the information that was given to them.
If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, time is tight and many of my hon. Friends wish to speak.
The House had ample opportunity to question the Government and Ministers about the issues before the invasion and since. I do not accept that the Government are hiding anything in any way.
I can think of few perfect wars. There are always problems when military action is taken, for whatever reason. I shall not go into all the historical reasons, but the planning can go wrong, things can go wrong on the ground and there are issues of equipment and supplies. Over the centuries, there have always been such problems in war and it is wrong to suggest that there is such a thing as a perfect war. However, we should always learn lessons. One obvious issue is whether mistakes in previous wars from which we should have learned have been made again; the inquiry that has to take place should look into that important issue. That inquiry should not only take account of the decisions leading up to the war and the discussions that took place, but go back well before that to consider our relations with Iraq and Saddam’s regime.
For me, the key thing is that the inquiry should draw in all those elements and put them together in a full report, so that we can see what happened stage by stage. All the published reports to which I have referred should be included, as should be the additional information that might well come out of the inquiry’s investigation. I am sure that the House would have ample opportunity to discuss such issues when the inquiry report was published.
As I said, I still believe that the decision to go into Iraq was right. Saddam was a terrible destabilising influence in the middle east; he was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of his own people and others in the region. I believe that history will show that we did the right thing. Iraq still has lots of difficulties and problems, but it is in a position to move forward again on its economic development, its schools and its democracy in Government. We must give it our full support.
I finish by saying that whatever happens and however the House deals with this issue, we must always bear it in mind that when we send our armed forces out there, they are doing the bidding of the Government. They have gone out and done a remarkable job, and many rightly feel that they have achieved much amid terrible sacrifice and terrible conditions. I would not like our armed forces personnel, who have been fighting, working hard and supporting development in Iraq and Afghanistan, to feel in any way that their efforts have been worthless—they have not been—or that their efforts have not been fully appreciated by the country. I am sure that they have been. They are the finest armed forces in the world, and we should continue to support them in all the ways we can.
How did we stumble into this war without understanding how it would evolve, without a strategy for success and without the resources necessary to achieve that success? The Government narrative claims success in Basra—and it is a success, despite everything. However, the Government claim that it is due to some sort of British master plan and is a triumph for British strategy. Some amazing things have happened, including those involving my constituent Colonel Richard Iron, who was recently described as the saviour of Basra, but that Government claim is just not true.
The vast majority of our population are not as stupid as the Government think. Every time the Chief of the Defence Staff or another senior officer stands up and reads out the Government-approved narrative, the reputation of our armed forces suffers, we further damage the reputation of the UK, and we drive radicalisation across the Muslim world. Huge questions arise in all sorts of important areas. Furthermore, and importantly, while we continue the delusion that we got things right, we repeat some of the mistakes made in Afghanistan, where British troops are still being killed and many more maimed for life.
Those who claim that we should not expose things that went wrong while we are in the midst of war say that to do so would undermine the morale of our armed forces, who are committed to battle. Nothing could be further from the truth. Take the example of the United States, which was virtually beaten in Iraq in 2006. By 2008 its armed forces had been radically reformed and it had turned what had looked like defeat in Iraq into near-victory. The Americans engaged in open debate, encouraged criticism and involved the American public, media and academia.
I understand that bits of any inquiry might have to remain private, but its purpose would not be to embarrass the Government, although it probably would. With a new President in the White House, we have a gigantic opportunity to remould what has become known as the “war on terror”.
My hon. Friend mentioned President Obama. General David Petraeus is one of the most influential generals speaking to President Obama, and his big statement has been that it is no longer acceptable simply to defeat the enemy; we also have to enable the local. Do we not need an inquiry into the Iraq war because we have failed so badly to enable the local? Our military did a fantastic job in defeating the enemy, but Government Departments failed to enable the local and to reconstruct the post-conflict environment.
I totally agree. This is an opportunity to reset the conditions needed to win our struggle against political Islam. We will not be able to do that if we do not try to understand what happened. If we had sat down on 12 September 2001, written on the back of a cigarette packet a plan called “How to lose the war on terror” and acted on it, we would have done many of the things that Britain and America have done. The invasion of Afghanistan, of course, was brilliantly executed and our troops and intelligence services have done an amazing job. However, overall there has been no grand plan or strategy. We started okay: we invaded Afghanistan and quickly achieved our primary objective of getting rid of al-Qaeda and pleasing the Afghan people by removing the Taliban from power.
Then, however, our focus switched to Iraq. The decision to offer UK support to a US invasion was made pretty much alone by the then Prime Minister at the so-called Crawford summit in April 2002. The only thing on Tony Blair’s mind at the time seems to have been to win influence over the United States. There is no evidence that at that point the Prime Minister sought or received any guidance from the Ministry of Defence, so he was unable to set military conditions over US war plans. Remember the pictures of Churchill and Roosevelt with the chiefs of staff standing behind them during the second world war? I do not think that any such picture exists of Mr. Blair and President Bush.
Mr. Blair is reported to have returned to the UK and asked the Ministry of Defence to come up with a plan to support an American invasion. On the day of the invasion, we still had no agreement with the US on a political end-state for Iraq. In fact, as I have said before in the House, we ended up in Basra only because of a decision by the Turkish Parliament, not the British one. The Turks voted not to allow us to use their territory as a launching pad for entry into Iraq. So we involved ourselves in a US invasion through a decision by our Prime Minister at a ranch in Texas without reference to the people who would have to carry it out, and we ended up taking responsibility for southern Iraq almost by accident.
Once we got ourselves in, our objective was to get out, initially by reducing our force numbers as soon as possible from 40,000 to 15,000. At the same time, we were wandering around telling anyone who would listen that the UK were the best at counter-insurgency warfare. What of that so-called comprehensive approach, or elements of it? Our focus was not on the development and restoration of security in Basra, although that was required of us under the Geneva convention, but on cutting down force numbers.
Even today, Baswaris ask what the UK has done for them; there is very little recognition of the UK’s effort. Although we were slow to get going and we lost millions through corruption, it is fair to say that most of Basra’s infrastructure, such as it is, is there as a result of British money. However, the Baswaris do not appreciate that. We had no clear strategy at that point in the transitional period, so things went over to Jaish al-Mahdi militia control. In much the same way, we are losing and have lost the consent of ordinary people in Helmand province. We need to learn the lessons of Iraq, not least in respect of the structural problems of the comprehensive approach.
We also need to consider equipment and overall defence procurement. Are the wars that we have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan the wars of the foreseeable future? Is state-on-state war now less likely? Will armoured divisions ever be fighting for their lives on the plains of north Germany? Do we need to look very hard at the whole structure of our armed forces in order to win this new war?
We must also consider what friends of mine who are at a senior level in the armed forces have described to me as the failure of generalship. As one member of our foreign intelligence service put it to me, “No one gets promoted for saying things are going badly.” We need to think carefully about the problem of officers providing what has become known as “politically aware military advice”. It is extremely dangerous when that starts to fit with the policy narrative. That has seriously hindered us in Afghanistan, and it is a major contributor to the very difficult situation that we now face there.
The Government’s narrative is that the job is nearly done in southern Iraq, but they are choosing to ignore reports of new evolving terror networks. Our troops and commanders on the ground have done a great job, but the problem throughout has been a lack of strategy coming from London. We had no serious strategy for Iraq. We had no strategy for Afghanistan—although, to be fair, I believe that the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary do now “get it”. There are huge lessons from Iraq that we have not learned and are not applying. We have no serious strategy for how to win the so-called war on terror, which I personally would quite like us to win.
The truth is Iraq remains a disaster for us. As well as all the lives lost through the decision made at that ranch in Texas, it stands as a huge driver of radicalisation right across the Muslim world, and it is into this mix that dozens—possibly hundreds—of Britons of Pakistani origin have been gravitating. An Army friend said a couple of months ago that they had been tracking someone speaking into a Taliban radio set in Arabic, but with a Yorkshire accent. What are we to do? I think that we should declare a new war on the drivers of radicalisation, which my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) spoke about. One does not deal with a cancer by bombing it from 20,000 ft and distributing it across the globe, but by making the body as healthy as one can and cutting it out. We have to refocus and stop it dispersing its cells all around the world.
We have nothing to be afraid of in a wide-ranging inquiry. It is not about criticising the Government or an individual, whether a soldier or a civilian, and it is not about criticising the Army, which has done an incredible job despite a woeful lack of strategy. It is about learning lessons for the future: lessons for Afghanistan, and lessons on how we manage relationships between Ministers and the chiefs of staff, between the armed forces and the British people, and between the UK and our ally, the US. This is far too important to ignore; that is why we need to have an inquiry as soon as we can. We must give ourselves the best possible chance of winning the long war.
Last week saw the sixth anniversary of the parliamentary debate that took us into the war in Iraq. Those of us who took part in that debate will never forget that day. Pressures were put on Members of Parliament on both sides of the House by their Whips, who told them that the case for war was overwhelming and that they should therefore support the Government’s proposals on that matter. The result was that 140 Labour MPs voted contrary to what the Government wanted, as did all the Liberal Democrats and Members from the nationalist parties, and a small number of Conservatives. Nevertheless, this Parliament voted to take us into war, and every MP who took part in that vote must bear some responsibility for the decision they took that day.
It is also important to remember that in putting the Government’s case, the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, made it very clear, among other things, that this was a war to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, not a war for regime change—but the situation turned out to be somewhat different. We need to have an inquiry not only into what has happened in Iraq since the war but into all the decision making that led up to that war.
I reiterate the point that I made in an intervention on the Foreign Secretary: all the relevant papers—the Cabinet papers, the Cabinet papers that were not delivered to the Cabinet but prepared for it, the legal advice that was prepared but not given, and the legal advice that was given—must form a part of that inquiry. When the Information Commissioner ruled that those papers should be made public because that was overwhelmingly in the public interest, the Justice Secretary decided that there was an overwhelming national security case for their not being revealed.
We have been complicit in starting a war in Iraq in which well over half a million people have died, including, tragically, many service people of all countries—and the instability continues. The ramifications of this war are absolutely enormous, and the case for an inquiry is overwhelming. I welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary appears to have conceded that there will be an inquiry at some point, but I honestly do not see what the delay is all about. There is plenty of precedent for inquiries while troops are still on deployment; many examples have been given, so I will not go through them all again. I do not understand the idea that we should wait until the last British soldier is out of Iraq, if that is what the Foreign Secretary was saying. I suspect that some kind of training element will be there for a long time, and that will be used ever more as an excuse.
Let me remind my hon. Friend—I am not sure whether he was here at the time—of what the Foreign Secretary explicitly did not say. He did not say that we needed to wait until every single British soldier was out of Iraq. He said that we needed to wait until the combat operation had finished, and it is due to finish in the summer of this year.
Does my hon. Friend recall that in his introductory remarks the Foreign Secretary also explicitly did not say that the terms of reference of an inquiry would include the very matters that my hon. Friend is discussing: the events that led up to taking us into Iraq and the way in which the House and the nation were duped at that time?
Absolutely. A series of dossiers and bits of information were produced for the benefit of Members of Parliament and the media. Who can forget the map produced by the Evening Standard, which indicated that just about everybody was under an immediate and ever-present threat of attack by Iraq? Who can ever forget that Hans Blix and Mohamed el-Baradei were withdrawn from Iraq in December 2002 and not allowed to return? Many Members of this House were present during a very interesting and lengthy meeting with Hans Blix upstairs in one of the Committee Rooms, in which he explained that he was 99 per cent. certain that all weapons of mass destruction, and all weapons with the capability of attacking other countries, had been removed and destroyed. The then Prime Minister apparently went with the 1 per cent. option; the President of France went with 99 per cent. and did not allow French participation in the invasion.
Let me go back to the point made by the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) about the antecedents of the decision making surrounding the war. We went into Afghanistan in 2001; eight years later, we are still there, apparently about to win that particular conflict. Given the current rate of progress, I suspect that in another eight years we will still be in Afghanistan about to win that conflict. We have to think of something different in that respect.
The Iraq war came out of President Bush’s “axis of evil” speech of January 2002. Then there was the rather curious summit around a barbecue in Crawford, Texas, where the then Prime Minister and President Bush had a discussion about it. If minutes are kept of discussions that take place around barbecues, I would like to see at least some kind of report of what happened and what instructions were given by the then Prime Minister to the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office afterwards.
We then had the preparations for the deployment of forces, the build-up of forces, and the arguments in favour of Iraq’s posing a threat, and we ended up with the huge degree of public disquiet. Even if Members of this House are not capable of asking questions, the fact that 1 million people turned up in Hyde park on 15 February 2003—the biggest ever demonstration in British history—should have triggered some mode of inquiry in their minds. If 1 million people are prepared to give up a day to come to London to demonstrate, they probably feel strongly about the issue, so notice should be taken of the views that they put forward. Any inquiry has to go into the background of those matters.
The effects in Iraq must also be looked into. I have been in this House long enough to remember the days in the 1980s when Britain was happily selling arms to Iraq, and a very small number of us opposed those arms sales. Indeed, we were told in the corridors that it was important to support Iraq because it was against Iran, and therefore one of our allies, and we were told that the arms sales were good for British business and British jobs. Even after Halabjah in 1988, Britain still took part in the Baghdad arms fair a year later. An awful lot of background needs to be looked into.
I am not here to defend the regime that existed in Iraq before—I was one of those privileged to be able to offer my opposition to it. However, the result of this invasion and the instability that has followed has been the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Some 4 million Iraqis have been forced into internal or external exile, and have had their lives ruined as a result. A large number of British soldiers have lost their lives and the grieving families continue to grieve. They ask, “Why were we sent there? What deception led to this war, and did our son or daughter die in vain because of it?”
I conclude with this thought. The other issue that I want an inquiry to deal with is the legality of the war. There were discussions at the United Nations, and a determination by the Foreign Secretary to get a second UN resolution. The second UN resolution never came, because there was so much opposition to it inside the Security Council, which would have to take that decision, and in the General Assembly. We went to war on a premise that had no legal basis, and on information that proved to be incorrect, and as a result we unleashed some horrible forces and some terrible effects on the people of Iraq. If we respect international law, we should abide by it. If we respect the decisions of the UN, we should abide by them. A war of aggression for regime change is illegal under the terms of the UN charter. The former UN Secretary-General said as much.
It is up to us, as Members of Parliament, to do two things. First, we should ensure that in future we have real war-making powers, so that Parliament makes such decisions. It should not be done by the Prime Minister using the royal prerogative on behalf of the Head of State. We got the debate in Parliament because of the enormous number of people opposed to the war. The Prime Minister felt pressurised into having that debate and wanted to drag us into that decision. Secondly, we have a duty to say, “Enough is enough. Now is the time to have an inquiry.” We must have a more open inquiry than the one described in this motion, but no matter—it is moving in the right direction. I hope that we make the decision today to have an inquiry, not in order to change what happened—we cannot do that—but at least to understand what happened. We need to understand the horrors that have come out of this war and try, above all else, to prevent the same thing from happening to some future Parliament and some other country.
I will not detain the House for long. I would like to deal with why we need an inquiry into the Iraq war, and why the issue is so important. As we know, and has been said by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and many others, the war was based on a lie, propaganda and hype. Perhaps people watching outside this Chamber have bought into the idea that politicians lie perpetually. I know, and we know, that that is not so. There can be arguments on emphasis and shades of grey, but since I have come here in 2005, there have not been any big whopping factual lies. The claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that could reach us in 45 minutes was a big whopping factual lie. It was the lie on which the propaganda and hype was based. It was the first time that the UK went to war on the grounds of dodgy, unsound intelligence—and I hope that it will be the last. That alone is enough to justify an inquiry: for a state of 60 million people to be so utterly misled should be enough to justify an inquiry.
On 18 March 2003, the Prime Minister gave a speech to goad the country to war—that is also enough to justify an inquiry. I encourage Members to look back at that speech in Hansard, column 761, to see the linguistic gymnastics employed. The speech becomes more absurd in the reading with the passage of time. The Prime Minister made mention of “unreasonable vetoes”, which was a real Blair classic of true linguistic gymnastics. He was, of course, referring to France, which had opposed the war at the UN Security Council. In his actions and in his words, Blair made France right and he made the UK wrong.
On 18 March 2003, the Prime Minister stood at that Dispatch Box—I saw it on television; I was not a Member—with his macho, starry-eyed posturing, challenging the House of Commons to stand down British troops and turn back. The fact was that he had already marched them up to the top of the hill, and he was relying on the base, gut instincts that many in this House unfortunately had in order to carry on. People voted for war, feeling that they were already too far in. Of course, people should not have thought with their guts. Many people got shot in their guts as a result.
One of the reasons we should have an inquiry is that this House regularly pays homage to those who have had their lives damaged or have lost relatives in this war. Today I was given a letter by the military families who have lost people in the war. They want an inquiry, and I am grateful to Rose Gentle, Reg Keys and Chris Nineham for a copy of their letter. If the families want an inquiry, surely that should be enough for the Government, who regularly pay homage at the Dispatch Box to the families and their loved ones who have been lost in this war. In their letter to the Prime Minister they say:
“Our sons believed that the conflict was to neutralise the WMD threat.”
That belief was fed by grafting—playing on the innate jingoism of some journalists and newspapers, and some Members of this House, who swallowed the 45 minutes spin hook, line and sinker. The 45 minutes headlines in the newspapers went unchallenged by the Government, and that is significant. I would wager that had the headlines said the opposite—that the Government were lying about 45 minutes—they would have indignantly challenged and bullied. Their complicity with headlines about the 45 minutes claim shows exactly the game that they were playing.
This war, as has been said by others, has taken the lives of 150,000 people directly, and according to some estimates its consequences might have led to the deaths of another 600,000. The dead and injured, and their families, should be honoured in this House by an inquiry that will answer the fundamental question—why? I was not in the House at the time, but my answer to that question is that it was an odd, sycophantic desire on the part of Tony Blair to appease the discredited former US President George Bush. In my view, it is as simple as that. That is also in line with the intervention made by the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) on his feelings about what happened at the US ranch, where the two men connived for war.
The case for war did not last long. Four months after it started, the UK’s fig leaf of an excuse was starting to fall apart. After Blair had spoken to Congress, my right hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) said:
“Inch by inch, Tony Blair is moving away from the ground that he stood on when he dragged an unwilling country into war.
The Government should be holding an independent…inquiry into…how the country came to be misled about Iraq’s arms capability.”
That was six years ago. The Government have been ducking and diving, dodging and weaving, for six years over an inquiry into the Iraq war. Five years ago, as was mentioned earlier, Australia held such an independent inquiry, which criticised their own Government, but criticised other allied Governments far more greatly. At the time that the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was telling the House that we should not hold an inquiry, he went into a broom cupboard for a video conference with Congress in the Baker-Hamilton inquiry.
I have mentioned lives, which are important, but in these credit crunch times I would also like to consider the financial cost of the war. Last year, the cost of military operations in Iraq was £1.5 billion, which equates to £4 million a day. Approximately £6.5 billion has been spent since the war began, and I often wonder for what else that money could have paid in health, education and infrastructure, rather than being spent on destroying health, education and infrastructure. If ever there were a case for turning swords into ploughshares, the Iraq debacle of the Labour Government of 2003 makes it.
We need an inquiry to stamp out such behaviour among world leaders and aspiring world leaders. Let us just imagine, as the superpowers of China and India grow, their feeling that they could interfere in European matters the way that we felt we could interfere in middle eastern matters in the case of Iraq. What future do we bequeath our descendants if we leave them a world in which such behaviour on our doorstep went unpunished, or at least uninvestigated?
I draw hon. Members’ attention to an extract from, of all people, a former Ministry of Defence permanent secretary, Sir Michael Quinlan, who said of the former Prime Minister:
“He exerted or connived… to mould legal advice to his preference and failed to disclose fully… even that moulded advice; and… so arranged the working of the Cabinet that colleagues had no timely or systematic opportunity to consider the merits of his policy in an informed manner.”
The hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) first drew that to the House’s attention in the debate that Plaid Cymru and the SNP led on 31 October 2006. It was damning then and it remains so; the passage of time does not diminish it. The very least that the families and the dead deserve from the House is a full inquiry into the war in Iraq. I say, therefore, get it going soon.
My friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) talked about pressure on the day, way back in March 2003. At that time, the Prime Minister was having one-to-one meetings with Labour Members he thought could be persuaded to support him. After the vote, a colleague who had voted for the war said to me in the Tearoom that he thought he had made the biggest mistake of his life.
My friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) invited the Conservatives to show some humility about their role, because without them we would never have gone to war. Their fingerprints are all over the decision. Only six Conservatives voted against the war, whereas 140 Labour Members voted against it, as well as, creditably, the Liberals and the other minor parties. That is where we are. I have read the Conservative motion two or three times. It contains nothing with which I disagree, so I will vote with the Conservatives to support it.
Why do we need an inquiry? The answer is self-evident. The country was comprehensively misled, and we have been misled ever since. “Lessons on Iraq”, the Defence Committee’s report in 2004, stated that the
“MoD has failed to provide us with certain documents… and has demonstrated… less co-operation and openness than we have the right to expect as a select committee of the House of Commons.”
The Foreign Affairs Committee stated:
“Powers to send for papers, persons and records are, in practice, unenforceable in relation to the Executive”
when the Executive do not want to co-operate. Butler had a narrow remit. The report spoke of the deficiencies of Cabinet Government, saying that Cabinet Ministers were spectators rather than active participants. It was as though Cabinet was a vegetable patch.
Has not Lord Butler’s report done an important thing, which has enabled the House to set the Prime Minister’s public statements against the private Joint Intelligence Committee information that he received? It is clear that the Prime Minister omitted all the qualifications and provisos in the JIC material in his public statements.
As I said, Butler had a narrow remit and what has subsequently come out tells a different story from what Butler said at the time.
The Hutton inquiry displayed the hidden inner wiring of the British Government, but it failed to take evidence under oath, as my friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) said earlier. When Lord Hutton appeared before the Select Committee on which I served, I asked him why he did not take evidence under oath. The Prime Minister was, famously, called before him. Lord Hutton replied that he did not think it was necessary. I believe that it is, and that the new inquiry needs to take evidence on oath to get to the truth.
There has been a cascade of memoirs. Of course, memories are beginning to fade, but some memoirs have been blocked. Sir Jeremy Greenstock, who was our man in Baghdad in 2003-04 and served in the United Nations five years previously, right through the run-up to the war in Iraq, has written a book called “The Cost of War”. It has still not been published. When he appeared before the Committee in January 2006, he told us that his memoirs were
“in the fridge not the freezer.”
They are in the freezer and should be defrosted. Last week, the Justice Secretary, a former Foreign Secretary, told us that the minutes of the critical Cabinet meetings could not be published, although he went on to say that they would be released to any inquiry that was set up.
We need an inquiry. My friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), with all his experience as a former Armed Forces Minister, said that in his travels around the world he did not meet military people who were calling for an inquiry. However, the military top brass are calling for one. Lord Bramhall, no less, said that the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, failed properly to consult the chiefs of staff or his Cabinet colleagues before going to war. It is perfectly proper to have a senior military person on the commission of inquiry, as happened a lifetime and more ago in the inquiry into what happened in the Dardanelles. Lord Craig, former Air Marshal of the RAF, supports an inquiry. He said:
“It is very timely to have an inquiry before memories fade.”
Memories do fade, as the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) said. With every passing year, they dim. My friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) has just published a book, “A View from the Foothills”, in which he recounts discussions we had with Tony Blair way back in 2002-03. I remember them, but one starts to forget the expression on a person’s face, the people who spoke and those who chose to stay silent and so on. Those things are all part of the story. General Sir Mike Jackson wants an inquiry now, not after all the soldiers have come back from Iraq.
We need an inquiry to establish the facts. We need to learn from what happened, and, most important, we need to ensure that it does not happen again. We must also rebuild public confidence. My friend the Member for Cannock Chase referred to the Public Administration Committee’s various reports on inquiries. Most recently, it produced a report recommending that Parliament set up its own parliamentary commission of inquiry.
Why do we have to wait on the Executive to act? We are told that Parliament is supreme. Why is it beyond the wit of MPs in all parts of the House who were against the war to come together and table a motion to force the Government to bring about such an inquiry? When Lord Justice Scott held his inquiry into arms for Iraq, which took four years, even he said that if Select Committees had had all the information that he had,
“A select committee might have been a better form for the Inquiry to have taken.”
However, as everyone knows, Select Committees have their flaws. The answer is a properly constituted parliamentary commission of inquiry.
It is very important to take evidence on oath. The inquiry should meet in public, but with provision to meet in private if sensitive material needs to be considered. Civil servants and diplomats should be invited to give evidence when they feel they have something relevant to say. We had a diplomat and a civil servant before the Public Administration Committee last week. Brian Jones was our top man for chemical and biological warfare. He told us that before the dossiers were published, he had huge reservations about the claims that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and he was the man who should have known. He wrote to the deputy chief director of intelligence to register his misgivings. He thought that there very probably would be no weapons of mass destruction.
We also heard persuasive evidence from a former diplomat who resigned from the Foreign Office over the decision to go to war in Iraq. He was a man who loved his job and wanted to be a diplomat. He said that in the run-up to war
“there was such a momentum towards war, such urgency about it, that anyone who put their hand up at that point would have been crushed.”
I do not have the time, unfortunately.
That diplomat told us:
“I had read the intelligence on Iraq for four and a half years, been part of the Joint Intelligence Committee process, had taken part in US/UK bilaterals every quarter for four and a half years, and during that time the assessment of Iraq and the assessment of our intelligence on Iraq was very clear. It was that there was no significant threat from Iraq. From WMD, or from anything else.”
We were comprehensively led up the garden path and we need an inquiry. I do not know why the Government want to divide the House on the issue, because we all want an inquiry. If the question is one of timing, the combat troops will be out of Iraq in a few months’ time. Why can the Government not just break the habit of a lifetime and support what the Conservatives are proposing?
It is a pleasure to participate in this important debate. Let me begin with a quotation from page 81 of “State of Denial”, a book by Bob Woodward, famed for Watergate:
“On November 21, the day before Thanksgiving, 71 days after the 9/11 attacks, Bush asked Rumsfeld to start updating the war plan for Iraq.
‘Let’s get started on this,’ Bush recalled saying that day. ‘And get Tommy Franks’”—
General Franks, who is in charge of the United States Central Command—
“‘looking at what it would take to protect America by removing Saddam Hussein if we have to.’”
That was in November 2001. The hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) made an important point. Memories may be fading, but memoirs are slowly coming out and more and more information is leaking out, so we are slowly getting more of the truth about what happened leading up to the war in 2003 and after.
Let me make my position clear. I was not in favour of an invasion at that juncture. I am a military person by background and I did not feel there was any evidence that we were under threat. That did not necessarily mean that we would not invade at a later juncture, but with everything that was in place at that point, I did not feel there was the evidence to say that an invasion should happen then.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, because that assertion has now been questioned. Any Prime Minister now coming to the House saying, “We must now go to war,” will certainly be questioned in more detail. It is all the more clear why we need an inquiry into Iraq. What were the decisions? What evidence was the then Prime Minister seeing that made him come to the House and say, “You must follow me and we must send our armed forces to Iraq”?
I never got an answer from the then Prime Minister to my question about why suddenly, in 2003, Saddam Hussein was considered a threat, whereas in all the years leading up to President Bush’s “Axis of evil” speech, in 1997, 1998 and 1999, there was no mention of Saddam Hussein being a threat.
The hon. Lady’s views are now on the record.
It was interesting to hear a former Defence Minister say that, even with everything he now knew, he still believed that war was the right decision, because Saddam Hussein was a bad man. Yes, we knew he was a bad man, but I thought that regime change was in fact illegal.
The second document that I wish to bring to the House’s attention was released today and is called “Pursue, Prevent, Protect, Prepare: The United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering International Terrorism”. Perhaps “Plan” should be added—that is, we should plan for what to do if we invade a Muslim country, because if we do not have a plan when we invade, we leave a vacuum and extremists take over. That is exactly what has happened in Iraq and, unfortunately, something very similar is taking place in Afghanistan.
There are many questions that need to be answered. First, there are questions about going to war, weapons of mass destruction, intelligence, claims about 45 minutes, what Alastair Campbell’s role was and the absence of a second resolution. The resolution that we voted on in the House was 10 years old. How can we allow our military to go to war on the back of a resolution that is 10 years old?
That aside, it may be that Parliament in fact votes in favour of war. The more important question then is: how do we conduct ourselves in the aftermath of that attack? That is where we fundamentally failed our military. We went into Iraq—I pay tribute to 7 Armoured Brigade, which did a fantastic job in bringing Basra to peace—the dust then settled and our armed forces looked over their shoulders and said, “What next?” I believe that Tony Blair would probably still be in office had there been a proper plan and had we been able to move Basra forward and make it a safe and prosperous place.
The absence of a plan meant that nothing happened, and six years later we were still there, trying to work out what to do. That is not the way to conduct counter-insurgency; it is not even the way to get rid of a dictator, but it is the way the Government proved there was no planning. That is why we are calling so vehemently for an inquiry into Iraq. We had no plan, there was no strategy and there was no idea. There were no efforts to harness the euphoria of the fall of Saddam Hussein and to sow the seeds of governance. Without a plan, nothing happens and we turn ourselves from liberators into occupiers.
I ask the Minister: where was the army of civil servants, the linguists, the engineers and the planners? There were none. Where was the post-conflict construction plan that would lead Iraq into prosperity? There was none. I am afraid that I place a lot of the blame not on the military, but on another Department—the Department for International Development. Where was the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short)? I understand that she sent a memo round her Department on 23 March 2003, the day of the invasion, saying, “We’re not sure if this war is actually legal. Do nothing. Do not get involved.” The Department therefore sat on its hands for two months until eventually she resigned and a new person was put in, at which point the Department woke up and said, “My God, we should get involved here.”
That is where we let down our military. It meant its job got harder and harder, week after week, month after month and year after year. Looting turned into the development of militias, people grouped together to try to salvage some sort of livelihood and we became the problem. The thing that united these militias as we went in and around Basra and the palace was the fact that they all had a pop at our military, showing how we were regarded—as actual occupiers by that time. I am thus astonished that the Defence Secretary had the audacity to come to this House on 14 January this year and state:
“I am proud to say that we are at the point of completing the UK mission… our forces can return home with their heads held high.”—[Official Report, 14 January 2009; Vol. 486, c. 244.]
How far from the truth is it possible to be? I believe that not since Suez have we had such cause to hang our heads in shame and also to scratch our heads over the political failure—not a military one. It was a political failure, in which we cut troop numbers too fast, reconstructed too slowly and eventually lost control completely.
I am not saying that war was avoidable, but I am saying that there was no planning for the peace. The truth came out when Colin Powell admitted in his Adlai Stevenson moment that when he went to the United Nations on 5 February to explain why the invasion was justified, it was one of the lowest points in his career—he had to defend the indefensible at that point.
The atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein might well have meant an eventual invasion, but as a military person, I say to the House that there are many ways of getting rid of a tyrant other than a full invasion. If we choose a full invasion, we should make sure that we have a second wave of reconstruction and so forth backing up the Army to take advantage of that invasion. The 7 Armoured Brigade went in there, looked over their shoulders and said, “Where is everybody else? My God, we’re stuck here on our own.” I am afraid that that is exactly what is happening in Afghanistan.
I am grateful that Richard Holbrooke, now a responsible special adviser on Afghanistan, is about to announce a civilian surge, finally to catch up with the military one and help the people on the ground. It is important to win over hearts and minds on the ground so that people do not turn against us. I appeal to the Government to listen and relieve the military of the blame being placed on it for the length of time it has taken for us to get to where we are today.
I question whether where we are today is where the Government wanted us to be six years ago. Did we really want to be handing Iraq over to the United States armed forces rather than to the Iraqis? That cannot be the objective that we set six years ago—absolutely not. This word “overwatch” is one that I never heard during my long military career. This is another example of the Foreign Secretary proving how out of touch he is with what is actually happening on the ground. I believe that General Andy Salmon is in charge now and he is doing a fantastic job: he is doing a bit of training with the Iraqis, but the emphasis is on going home. The forces have consolidated themselves at the airport and they are doing absolutely nothing else. They are doing no patrolling whatever.
I hope that the Government will wake up and not wait—this is what I believe their tactics to be—until we are so close to a general election before allowing a full inquiry that none of the current Ministers will be in office or probably even in Parliament to hear the results of such an important inquiry.
The 7 Armoured Brigade through to my battalion—the 2nd Battalion The Rifles—had to retreat from Basra palace to Basra airport with their tails between their legs. That is not the way our military forces should be leaving Iraq. It came to the point when the Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki actually said that Basra was being left to the mercy of the militiamen, because we were not providing the necessary assets for the military to do its job properly and a civilian force to back it up.
I conclude by stating my belief that in our long history of military engagement, Iraq was certainly not our finest hour. That is absolutely no fault of our military; it is wholly the fault of those who work and operate in Whitehall, who failed to plan for the peace. Consequently, the UK’s reputation as a reliable and competent country, willing to step forward when others are unable to do so, has actually suffered.
An inquiry into the war in Iraq will show that the way we fought the war was not the fault of our military but due to the incompetence of this Government in managing the peace. That is why the Government continue to find excuses to delay this important review of what went wrong. I believe there are many lessons to be learned and I am horrified to see that we are repeating the same mistakes in Afghanistan. Until we wake up to that, I am afraid that we are going to be asking questions about what went wrong in Afghanistan in five years’ time. That is going to be a horrible place to be.
We could not have stopped the war in Iraq, as it was predetermined, but what we could and should have done is stopped Britain’s involvement in it. I believe that we, as Members of Parliament, should now confront that dreadful mistaken decision.
The most insistent voices calling for an inquiry are those of the loved ones of the fallen. They want to believe that their loved ones died in a noble cause. Many of them are haunted by the possibility that their loved ones died in vain.
Perhaps the most appropriate way that we can face up to the results of our decisions would be now to recall and honour the names of the fallen: John Cecil, Llywelyn Evans, Philip Stuart Guy, Sholto Hedenskog, Les Hehir, Ian Seymour, Mark Stratford, Jason Ward, Philip Green, Antony King, Marc Lawrence, Philip West, James Williams, Andrew Wilson, Kevin Barry, David Rhys Williams, Luke Allsopp, Simon Cullingworth, Steven Roberts, Barry Stephen, Stephen Allbutt, David Clarke, Matty Hull, Steve Ballard, Christopher Maddison, Shaun Brierly, Chris Muir, Alexander Tweedie, Karl Shearer, Kelan Turrington, Ian Malone, Christopher Muzvuru, James McCue, Andrew Kelly, Duncan Pritchard, David Shepherd, Leonard Harvey, Simon Hamilton-Jewell, Russell Aston, Paul Long, Simon Miller, Benjamin Hyde, Thomas Keys, James Linton, Jason Smith, David Jones, Matthew Titchener, Colin Wall, Dewi Pritchard, Russell Beeston, John Nightingale, Ian Plank, Ryan Thomas, James Stenner, Norman Patterson, Andrew Craw, Vincent Windsor, Robert Thomson, Richard Ivell, Gordon Gentle, Kristian Gover, Christopher Rayment, Lee O’Callaghan, Marc Ferns, Paul Thomas, Stephen Jones, Marc Taylor, David Lawrence, Kevin McHale, Denise Michelle Rose, Stuart Gray, Paul Lowe, Scott McArdle, Pita Tukutukuwaqa, Paul Connolly, Patrick Marshall, David Stead, Andrew Smith, Paul Pardoel, Gary Nicholson, Richard Brown, Mark Gibson, Robert O’Connor, David Williams, Steven Jones, Mark Dobson, Anthony John Wakefield, Alan Brackenbury, Paul William Didsbury, Richard Shearer, Leon Spicer, Phillip Hewett, Donal Anthony Meade, Stephen Robert Manning, Matthew Bacon, Ken Masters, Chris Hickey, John Jones, Allan Douglas, Gordon Alexander Pritchard, Carl Smith, Richard Holmes, Lee Ellis, Richard Palmer, John Coxen, Darren Chapman, David Dobson, Sarah-Jayne Mulvihill, Paul Collins, Joseva Lewaicei, Adam Morris, Tom Mildinhall, Paul Farrelly, John Johnston Cosby, Matthew Cornish, Samuela Vanua, Stephen Robert Wright, Lee Thornton, Dennis Brady, Tom Tanswell, Jamie Lee Hancock, Lee Hopkins, Sharron Elliott, Ben Nowak, Jason Hylton, Jonathan Hollingsworth, Graham Hesketh, Wayne Rees, Alex Green, Michael Tench, Jonathan Carlos Bracho-Cooke, Luke Daniel Simpson, Daniel Lee Coffey, Johnathon Dany Wysoczan, Kingsman Wilson, Aaron Lincoln, Joanna Yorke Dyer, Kris O’Neill, Eleanor Dlugosz, Adam James Smith, M.L. Powell, Mark J. McLaren, Ben Leaning, Kristen Turton, Alan Joseph Jones, Paul Donnachie, Nick Bateson, Kevin Thompson, Jeremy Brookes, Rodney Wilson, James Cartwright, Paul Harding, John Rigby, Paul Joszko, Scott Kennedy, James Kerr, Edward Vakabua, Ryan Francis, Christopher Read, Matthew Caulwell, Christopher Dunsmore, Peter McFerran, Timothy Darren Flowers, Steve Edwards, Craig Barber, Martin Beard, Chris Casey, Kirk Redpath, Eddie Collins, Mark Stansfield, Sarah Holmes, Lee Fitzsimmons, John Battersby, Duane Barwood, David Kenneth Wilson, Lee Churcher and Ryan Wrathall.
May they rest in peace.
One other person who has sadly passed away since the time of the decision to go to war and who would have made an eloquent contribution to the debate today is the late Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook. If he is looking down on us, he will be adding his voice to the argument for an inquiry on Iraq. Every speaker today has agreed that there ought to be an inquiry. The only question is exactly when it should be held. There have also been minor concerns expressed over the remit, but every single speaker has agreed that there should be an inquiry. I hope that the Government will take that on board.
When we listened to the Prime Minister at the time when he was making arguments that we should go to war, he always sounded as if he knew something that we did not. His answer to many questions was, “Trust me.” We heard at the time that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that 45 minutes’ warning was all that it would take before they could be launched.
There was a drive toward war in the media in the USA, by the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and, to a large degree, in the House, but many questions were unanswered. There was no United Nations mandate. The weapons inspector, Dr. Hans Blix, was asking for more time to conclude his search for those elusive weapons of mass destruction. When a million people marched in the streets, I was proud to be one of them, but in all honesty, at that time I did not believe that we would be listened to. We were not.
The justification for going to war changed from Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction to ridding the world of a tyrant and restoring democracy, but many in this place remember the Government saying that Saddam Hussein could stay in power if he gave up his weapons of mass destruction.
What we need to do now, however, is not just look back but find out the truth of what happened—find out what took us into that nightmare—so that we never repeat the mistake. Time may be a healer, but there was a long period of time during which if either President Bush or the Prime Minister had found their nations under threat and had had to say to the public, or the House of Commons, “We are in real danger and we need to go to war again”, people would not have believed them. They had lost the trust of their people that they would perform the most basic function of a Government: to keep their country safe. At the heart of the need for an inquiry into the war in Iraq is the need for an examination of the process whereby this country went to war in the first instance.
We have heard today the names of 179 UK soldiers; 4,260 US personnel have also lost their lives, along with a number of civilians. When I asked the Prime Minister—the current Prime Minister—at Prime Minister’s Question Time how many civilians had died, he said that it was not his job to count them. As has already been said, the financial cost has been estimated at up to £8 billion, and the United States has spent an estimated $3 trillion on this folly. The risks for the future are well known: the world is less safe now than it has ever been, and the middle east is a source of more terrorists and terrorism training.
The decision to invade Iraq ranks as one of the worst foreign policy errors in recent memory. Its impact on Britain—on its international standing and domestic security—has been more significant than that of any other military act since the second world war. That being the case, I should have thought that the need for a full inquiry was obvious. However, just as we were spun into the war in Iraq, it seems that we are now being spun into a reason for delaying the argument.
I suspect that both the Government and the Conservative party hope that the inquiry will absolve them of guilt and pin the guilt on the former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who will rightly be judged harshly by history for his role in the decision. However, members of the Cabinet who supported him and members of the Conservative party who backed him in the Lobby must all shoulder their share of the responsibility. While it is important to establish who did what, we do not need the inquiry just to apportion blame or responsibility; we need it to ensure that we learn lessons from the disastrous decisions that were made in the lead-up to the conflict. We committed tens of thousands of troops to the campaign, and 179 were killed. Many more were seriously injured. Thanks to the accounts of former officials and soldiers, we know that planning for a post-invasion Iraq was almost non-existent.
I have heard it argued that to hold an inquiry while our troops are stationed in Iraq would undermine our soldiers and the sacrifices that they make. The far greater tragedy would be to leave Iraq with nothing learnt from the experience, and their sacrifices. It is for that reason that an inquiry today is so important.
I am aware of the time constraint, so I shall be very brief.
I spoke in the debate on the inquiry a year ago and gave my reasons for feeling that the Butler inquiry and the Intelligence and Security Committee inquiries were completely inadequate, so I shall not rehearse those arguments. What I want to do today is draw the House’s attention to an allegation by Ron Suskind, a United States investigative author, in his book “The Way of the World”.
Mr. Suskind’s information is based on conversations that he had with none other than Sir Richard Dearlove, head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, and his deputy Nigel Inkster. From those conversations, Mr. Suskind learned that one of the United Kingdom’s top agents, Michael Shipster, actually met—in Amman in 2003, just before the war—Tahir Jalil Habbush, who was Saddam Hussein’s head of intelligence. Apparently, Mr. Habbush was a well-established source of intelligence. I should be interested to know what has happened to him, because he is not one of the members of Saddam Hussein’s former regime who have been apprehended or brought to justice in any way. In fact, it has been suggested that he has been protected by western intelligence sources.
Mr. Habbush told Michael Shipster that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, and that far from seeking to conceal the presence of such weapons, he actually wanted to conceal their absence because he was more concerned about a possible invasion from Iran than about an invasion from the United States. The sources of that information—Richard Dearlove and Nigel Inkster—have queried the exact recollection of those conversations, but they have not denied the substance of the allegation that one of our top agents obtained information that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. It would appear that that intelligence was ignored, and we also know from other sources—such as Brian Jones, the former branch head in the Defence Intelligence Staff, and more recently, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), Carne Ross, who was First Secretary at the United Nations for the Foreign Office until 2004—that there are lots of facts in the run-up to the Iraq war that have yet to come to light.
We should be grateful to Ron Suskind for beginning to shine a light on some of the sources of intelligence that were not drawn to the attention of the House, and were not mentioned in the Butler report or by the Intelligence and Security Committee. I wrote to the Chair of that Committee at the beginning of this month asking for an investigation into this evidence. I have received an acknowledgement. I spoke to one of the assistant Clerks today, who told me that I will receive a reply and gave various reasons why I have not received more than an acknowledgement so far despite the fact that other people have written to the Committee drawing attention to this information.
It is clear that there were people in the intelligence community who knew the truth: that Saddam Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction. Somehow, their views were suppressed and we were given a completely false view of what the intelligence said. For that reason, I believe we need a full inquiry under the kind of conditions that my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle outlined, with witnesses required to give evidence on oath.
Whether to send armed forces into combat is one of the most important and difficult decisions faced by any Government—and in the case of Iraq, by Parliament. Whether Members think the decision to go to war in Iraq was right or wrong, members of our armed forces fought, and in some cases died, believing that what they were doing was a just and noble cause. We must remain very sensitive to that, and to the feelings of their families, as we discuss these issues, and I think today’s debate has been conducted very much in those terms. Whatever else is in dispute today, the bravery and commitment of our armed forces is not.
In announcing in his opening speech that an inquiry will be undertaken as soon as practicable after 31 July, the Foreign Secretary admitted that the Government are now being dragged incrementally and unavoidably towards the inevitable will of the House, but the Government are doing this with the least possible grace and in a way that brings the least credit to themselves and reflects least well on the institution of Government. The House will not be sitting on 31 July, so will this inquiry be set up without an announcement to Parliament and without Members having the ability to question the Government, or will we have to wait until October, with the utterly unnecessary delay that that will entail? Tonight, Members have the chance to bring forward what now appears to be the Government’s own timetable, and to avoid an unjustifiable delay on this issue.
A number of matters will need to be considered, among them the scope and remit of the inquiry, which has been widely debated by Members today. If public and parliamentary concerns are to be met, there must be the fullest remit, including the run-up to the war, the conduct of the war, and the preparation for, and conduct of, the post-conflict period. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) said, if these matters have not been addressed when we reach the next general election, they will be subsequently.
I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) said in his speech, but I profoundly disagree on one point. He said that he did not wish to see any inquiry into the military. I understand what he meant by that, but I think the House and the country would want to know the military advice that was given and whether it was accepted—and, indeed, whether there was at any point any political interference in decisions made by the military. If that was what he meant, that is entirely fine. I hope that this would be within the scope of an inquiry, because not to consider it would leave a major piece of the jigsaw missing and a major piece of understanding lost to history.
There are two main reasons why we need to go ahead with this inquiry, the first of which relates to holding the Executive to account. We have heard a number of passionate speeches from hon. Members on both sides of the House, and one of the main charges that has been repeatedly made in this debate is that Tony Blair, as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, deliberately misled the British people in order to take them into a war that they otherwise would not have supported—there can be no more serious charge. I walked into the Division Lobby after Tony Blair that night and said to him, “That was a very impressive speech. I hope you are right.” He must also be given every opportunity to be vindicated by an inquiry. Although many people in this country still find it hard to believe that a British Prime Minister would ever behave in the way that has been suggested, we need to restore trust and integrity in our system. Seldom in this House, and certainly never in my 17 years here, has the integrity of a Prime Minister been attacked in the way that it has been today, and it is in everyone’s interest to have this cleared up. Several hon. Members, not all of whom are in their places, raised the issue of whether Parliament would have the chance to set up an inquiry of its own—well, in just a few minutes, that is exactly what this House of Commons will have the chance to do.
The other main reason we want an inquiry is to learn the lessons. The Foreign Secretary was right to say that we cannot draw a simple parallel between Iraq and Afghanistan, but that does not mean that there is not a huge read-across. On time scales, what have we learned from our experience in Iraq that we can apply to Afghanistan about the speed with which the reconstruction can take place? Iraq was about reconstruction, but Afghanistan is about construction. If Jeffersonian democracy cannot be applied to Iraq successfully in a decade, how long will this take in Afghanistan? Surely it is in everybody’s interests for us to be very clear about that.
What about the reconstruction plans? Was there indeed institutional resistance from the Department for International Development because of the then Secretary of State’s attitudes at that time? In a debate in this House, my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) said that
“in a written answer on 15 October last year,”—
“the Secretary of State told me that she was not actively discussing a humanitarian strategy for Iraq with the UN, the US or the European Union.
It is surely not acceptable for the Department for International Development to adopt an ostrich stance, sticking its head in the sand and hoping that war will never happen. There are leaked UN reports of UN contingency planning, but at the end of last month still no funds had been made available for even the basic preparations to begin.”—[Official Report, 30 January 2003; Vol. 398, c. 1047.]
What have we learned about insurgency and counter-insurgency, and how we deal with them? My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) made a passionate speech about how we went into Basra believing that we knew what we were doing about counter-insurgency. We believed that our experience from Northern Ireland could be directly translated into the south of Iraq, but we had some big lessons to learn. How exactly will we take those lessons and transfer them into Afghanistan, so that we do not make similar mistakes again? We cannot afford the time to wait—the delay—for such an inquiry to take place, because these things are already happening in real time. We need to ensure that those lessons are learned, for the well-being of our armed forces and of the people in Afghanistan.
We need to learn these lessons while memories are fresh. The hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) and my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) made the point graphically that this is not just about the facts on paper, but about the recollections, the pressure, the tone of conversations and the whisperings in corridors about when people knew what—all those things are extremely important.
We also need to see what lessons we have learned on procurement and the equipment for our armed forces. Many bereaved families who lost loved ones in Iraq will expect the inquiry to address this key issue: why did the Government hold back on authorising the acquisition of sufficient equipment to protect our soldiers? On 9 December 2003, the National Audit Office said:
“Some key shortfalls and lessons were, however, identified. Many arose because of a combination of not having enough operational stock on shelves, enough time to make good the shortfalls and difficulties in ensuring supplies were delivered.”
A report in The Guardian on 22 January 2004 about Sir Kevin Tebbit’s evidence said that the Government did not order crucial equipment for British troops because of
“the fear among ministers that a decision to order ‘urgent’ operational requirements would provoke anti-war Labour MPs.”
To put the matter in a more personal context, in the inquiry into the circumstances that led to the death of Sergeant Roberts, the coroner, Andrew Walker, said:
“Sergeant Roberts’ death was the result of delay and serious failings in the acquisition and support chain that resulted in a significant shortage within his fighting unit of Enhanced Combat Body Armour and none being available for him to wear.”
What lessons do we still need to learn? Why have we had this unnecessary delay when we still have troops fighting in Afghanistan and those lessons may be literally vital for them?
The Government today have not even pretended to hide behind their previous discredited excuses for delay. It is now a simple, nakedly political delay, designed to prevent the truth from emerging before the general election. The Government should now bow to the inevitable. This House and the country need to learn from what went wrong so that we do not repeat those mistakes in the future. For the sake of the sacrifices already made and the wellbeing of our military and civilians alike, we should have no further delay for blatantly party political reasons. Members on both sides of the House must ask themselves whether they are willing to tolerate naked partisan prevarication or whether they want the truth to emerge.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), with whom I often disagree, brought home the gravity of the decisions with which we were all confronted back in 2003 by the simple act of reading out the names this afternoon of all of our people who died in the operation in Iraq. Acknowledging that gravity is something that unites the House.
A couple of other things also unite the House. The first is the need for a full investigation of our involvement in Iraq. That should be comprehensive and should look at the reasons leading up to the decision to invade Iraq. It should also look at the aftermath and the full agenda that applied after the initial invasion in order to try to capture all the lessons that we owe it to people—most of all our armed forces—to learn for the future. No hon. Member would disagree with that.
We can also unite on the ground that we need to be able to say that those people did not die in vain. I do not believe that they did die in vain. I firmly believe that our armed forces have displayed a phenomenal capability and an indomitable spirit in Iraq, and that they have achieved massively. I have heard only one hon. Member this afternoon question whether they will be able to leave Iraq, irrespective of political arguments, with their head held high, having achieved a great deal.
It is important to acknowledge the improvement that has occurred. The situation in Basra, the area for which we have operational responsibilities, is phenomenally improved. We have had elections, which went off peacefully and in which people were free to vote. I have been able to walk around Basra and people have talked to me about the same kind of things that worry us here in Britain—jobs, the economy and the future of their families—and not the abject fear that dominated them a couple of years ago and throughout the reign of Saddam Hussein.
If all those things unite us, as I think they do, what divides us? We are divided, simply, on the timing. The Conservatives are trying to say—the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) said it, in his usual amusing way—that it is an issue of time. He did not allow the facts to stand in the way of a good joke when he put his case. He was determined repeatedly to suggest that we no longer have people actively engaged in Iraq. He said repeatedly that our people are not actively engaged in Iraq. That is not so. There was an attack on the contingency operating base only a couple of weeks ago that killed not a member of the British armed forces but a civilian contractor. There are, albeit at a far lower level, improvised explosive device attacks taking place in the south-east as well as in the rest of the country. Our people—more than 4,000 of them—are still in danger at this moment. There are still malevolent forces intent on doing them harm.
It is our duty—I worry about this in my role as Minister for the Armed Forces—to ensure that no complacency creeps in during this final period of our active engagement in Iraq that could possibly lead to unnecessary deaths. I put our people at the forefront of my mind, but there should be no distractions either. It is no good saying that only the military would be distracted. I do not want the top of the shop—both on the military side and the civil service side in the MOD—to be distracted from the task at hand while we still have people in harm’s way. All we are arguing about is the timing. The timetable is not a political one, but is simply a matter of our people still being actively involved in Iraq.
The Minister knows that I voted against the war and that I want to see an inquiry. Is there not a way out of the timing problem that he is putting to the House? The inquiry will take some time, so could we not split it? Part of the inquiry could look at what went before the war and at the diplomatic and political issues. We could get on with that now. Nothing in our involvement in Iraq at the moment would stop us considering those pre-war issues. By the time that we are finally out of Iraq, as the Minister says, we could come to the military side. We should get on with the inquiry now, but split it into two halves.
My hon. Friend has put that argument to me privately and he now puts it to me publicly. I do not believe that there is a case for splitting the inquiry into two halves. We need a group of people to sit down and seriously to consider the issues in the round. They need to consider all the measures that are to be taken. Of course, there are people who want an inquiry in order to score political points, but most people in the House, including those on the Government Front Bench, want an inquiry in order to learn the lessons that we badly need to learn from our involvement in Iraq. Many lessons that will need to be learnt will be appropriate to other engagements—not least, as has been said, to our involvement in Afghanistan. Not all the issues are transferable, but some of them potentially are. We need the inquiry to be comprehensively involved.
I do not necessarily think that the date of 31 July is set in stone. The issue that is set in stone is whether or not we have combat troops actively engaged in Iraq. Once that action has ceased, we can move on to what is a very important agenda. However, that agenda is not for today: it is for tomorrow, and for the period after the operation has ceased. I hope that my hon. Friend will see the importance of that approach in the way that he votes this afternoon.
Question put (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the original words stand part of the Question.
The House proceeded to a Division.
Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the proposed words be there added.
The Deputy Speaker declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to (Standing order No. 31(2)).
That this House notes the Resolutions of this House of 31 October 2006, 11 June 2007 and 25 March 2008 on an Iraq inquiry; recognises the heroic efforts of the British armed forces in Iraq who have a continuing role which this House should be careful not to undermine; 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.