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Volume 494: debated on Monday 15 June 2009

With permission, Mr. Speaker. The whole House will want to join me in expressing condolences to the family and friends of the two soldiers who recently lost their lives serving in Afghanistan: Lieutenant Paul Mervis of 2nd Battalion the Rifles; and Private Robert McLaren of 3rd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland—the Black Watch. Their lives, their service and their contribution will not be forgotten. Their sacrifice reminds us of the dangers our serving armed forces confront every day and of why we must continue to give them all our support.

Our troops first went into Iraq in March 2003 and now they are coming home. In total, 120,000 men and women have served in Iraq during the last six years, so it is fitting that I should now come to the House to talk of their achievements through difficult times; to chart the new relationship we are building with Iraq; and to set out our plans for an inquiry into the conflict.

As always, we can be supremely proud of the way our armed forces carried out their mission—proud of their valour in the heat of combat, which is recognised in many citations for awards and decorations; and proud of their vigilance and resolution amid the most difficult imaginable conditions and the ever-present risk of attack by an unseen enemy. Today we continue to mourn and to remember the 179 men and women who gave their lives in Iraq in the service of our country.

In my statement to the House last December, I set out the remaining tasks in southern Iraq for our mission: first, to entrench improvements in security by putting Iraqis in charge of their own defence and policing; secondly, to support Iraq’s emerging democracy, particularly through the provincial elections; and, thirdly, to promote the reconstruction of the country, economic growth and basic services like power and water in order to give the Iraqi people what matters most for their livelihoods in years to come—that is, a full stake in their economic future. I can report that those three objectives are being achieved, and that, thanks to our efforts and those of our allies over six difficult years, a young democracy has replaced a vicious 30-year dictatorship.

In recent months, we have completed the training of the 9,000 troops in 14 division of the Iraqi army, who are now fully in charge of the security of Basra. It was 14 division who, with our and the Americans’ help, took on the militia in the crucial Operation Charge of the Knights in spring last year. Since then, violence and crime in the Basra region have continued to fall, while levels of violence across Iraq as a whole are at their lowest since 2003. Provincial elections were held peacefully on 31 January with 7 million Iraqis turning out to vote for 440 different political groupings. The Iraqis ran the elections themselves with only three violent incidents across the entire country, and preparations are now under way for national elections on 31 January 2010.

Since 2003, the UK has spent more than £500 million in Iraq—for humanitarian assistance, infrastructure and promoting economic growth. Support to the health sector has included 189 projects in Basra, including the refurbishment of Basra general hospital and the building of the Basra children’s hospital. As a whole, the international community has rehabilitated more than 5,000 schools, as well as constructing entirely new schools and new classrooms in existing schools. Despite high unemployment and the scale of the global recession, economic growth in Iraq this year is predicted to be nearly 7 per cent.

Significant challenges remain, including that of finding a fair and sustainable solution to the sharing of Iraq’s oil reserves, but Iraq’s future is now in its own hands, in the hands of its people and its politicians. We must pay tribute to the endurance of the Iraqi people; we will pledge to them our continuing support. However, it will be support very different from the kind that we have provided for the last six years. As the House knows, our military mission ended with the last combat patrol in Basra on 30 April. As of today, there are fewer than 500 British troops in Iraq, with more returning home each week.

On the day of that last combat patrol in April, I welcomed Prime Minister Maliki and most of his Cabinet to London. We signed together a declaration of friendship, partnership and co-operation defining the new relationship between our two countries for the future. At the request of the Iraqi Government, a small number of British Navy personnel—no more than 100—will remain in Iraq for long-term training of the Iraqi Army. Royal Navy ships will continue to protect the oil platforms on which Iraq's exports depend, and we will continue to offer training to the Iraqi army as part of a wider NATO mission. We will also offer training opportunities at Sandhurst and elsewhere in the United Kingdom for Iraqi officers of high potential. At the core of our new relationship, however, will be the diplomatic, trading and cultural links that we are building with the Iraqi people, supporting British and other foreign investors who want to play a role in the reconstruction of southern Iraq.

I have discussed with Prime Minister Maliki a plan for British companies to supply expertise to the Iraqi Oil Ministry. Earlier this year, the Mesopotamia Petroleum Company signed a joint venture worth $400 million. Shell is working with the Southern Oil Company to bring to market some of the 700 million cu ft of gas that is currently lost each day by flaring. British companies are now competing for further contracts, and Rolls-Royce and Parsons are currently discussing with the Iraqi Ministry of Electricity proposals for a new power generation infrastructure worth an initial $200 million.

British funding will support lending to 1,000 businesses in southern Iraq, and a youth employment programme that should give training and work permanently to young Basrawis could be rolled out across the whole of Iraq as a result of its success. We are supporting the Iraqi Transport Ministry in the resumption of civilian flights; the Department for International Development and the British Council are working on a major education programme; and Iraq has already identified its first 250 students, an early initiative in Britain’s contribution to Iraq’s plans for 10,000 overseas scholarships for Iraqi students.

Issues in the region still confront us. Iran is an independent nation that deserves our respect, and the Iranian people are a proud people who deserve democracy. That is why the regime must address the serious questions that have been asked about the conduct of the elections. The way in which the regime responds to legitimate protests will have implications for Iran’s relationships with the rest of the world in future.

The House will note the speech made by Prime Minister Netanyahu, in which for the first time he endorsed a two-state solution. His speech was an important step forward, but there remains a long road ahead of us. I will speak to him again later today to impress on him the importance of freezing settlements.

With the last British combat troops about to return home from Iraq, now is the right time to ensure that we have a proper process in place to enable us to learn the lessons of the complex and often controversial events of the last six years. I am today announcing the establishment of an independent Privy Counsellor committee of inquiry which will consider the period from summer 2001, before military operations began in March 2003, and our subsequent involvement in Iraq right up to the end of July this year. The inquiry is essential because it will ensure that, by learning lessons, we strengthen the health of our democracy, our diplomacy and our military.

The inquiry will, I stress, be fully independent of Government. Its scope is unprecedented. It covers an eight-year period, including the run-up to the conflict and the full period of conflict and reconstruction. The committee of inquiry will have access to the fullest range of information, including secret information. In other words, its investigation can range across all papers, all documents and all material. It can ask for any British document to be brought before it, and for any British citizen to appear. No British document and no British witness will be beyond the scope of the inquiry. I have asked the members of the committee to ensure that the final report will be able to disclose all but the most sensitive information—that is, all information except that which is essential to our national security.

The inquiry will receive the full co-operation of the Government. It will have access to all Government papers, and the ability to call any witnesses. The objective is to learn the lessons from the events surrounding the conflict. It is on that basis that I have accepted the Cabinet Secretary’s advice that the Franks inquiry is the best precedent. Like the Franks inquiry, this inquiry will take account of national security considerations—for example, what might damage or reduce our military capability in the future—and evidence will be heard in private. I believe that that will also ensure that evidence given by serving and former ministers, military officers and officials is as full and candid as possible. The committee will publish its findings in as full a form as possible. These findings will then be debated in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. It is in these debates, as well as from the report itself, that we can draw fully upon the lessons learned in Iraq. So while the format is the same as that of the Franks inquiry, we have gone much further in the scope of the inquiry. No inquiry has looked at such a long period, and no inquiry has the powers to look in so much breadth, for while Franks looked only at the run-up to the Falklands conflict, the Iraq inquiry will look at the run-up to conflict, the conflict itself and the reconstruction, so that we can learn lessons in each and every area. The inquiry will take into account evidence submitted to previous inquiries, and I am asking members of the committee to explain the scope, width and breadth of its work to Opposition leaders and the Chairs of the relevant parliamentary Committees.

In order that the committee is as objective and non-partisan as possible, the membership of the committee will consist entirely of non-partisan public figures acknowledged to be experts and leaders in their fields. There will be no representatives of political parties from either side of this House. I can announce that the committee of inquiry will be chaired by Sir John Chilcot and it will include Baroness Usha Prashar, Sir Roderick Lyne, Sir Lawrence Freedman and Sir Martin Gilbert. All are, or will become, Privy Counsellors.

The committee will start work as soon as possible after the end of July. Given the complexity of the issues it will address, I am advised that it will take a year. As I have made clear, the primary objective of the committee will be to identify lessons learned. The committee will not set out to apportion blame or consider issues of civil or criminal liability.

Finally, I am sure the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the courage and dedication of every one of our armed forces, and also our civilian personnel, who have served our country with such distinction in Iraq over six years, and who will continue to do so in Afghanistan and on peacekeeping missions around the world.

At its peak, a force of 46,000 served tours of duty in support of operations in Iraq. In total, 120,000 men and women served over the period of the entire conflict: 179 Britons died and 222 were seriously or very seriously injured, and we remember them all today.

I said in my statement in December that the memorial wall in Basra would be brought home. I can now confirm that it will form part of a new memorial wall to be built at the national arboretum in Staffordshire, and just as it is right that we should pay tribute to the memory of those who have fallen, and to the wounded, so it is right to give thanks for the safe return of their comrades, to show our gratitude to all those who have served, and for us as a nation to celebrate the enduring achievements of all our armed forces. So I can also tell the House that in the autumn of this year a service of thanksgiving and commemoration will be held in Westminster abbey.

We salute our forces today. Through their work, the work of their American and coalition comrades and of the Iraqi security forces, and supported by the courage and vision of those within Iraq led by Prime Minister Maliki, Iraq is emerging from the shadow of 30 years of brutal dictatorship and then conflict. Today, Prime Minister Maliki and his Government can work together for a peaceful and prosperous future. That they can now do so is the ultimate tribute to all who served in Iraq: to their skills, commitment and sheer professionalism; to their great and enduring courage in conflict; and to their immeasurable contribution to reconstruction and to peace.

I commend this statement to the House.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Lieutenant Paul Mervis and Private Robert McLaren, who have been killed in Afghanistan in the last few days.

In the course of the Iraq conflict, 179 British servicemen and women lost their lives. They came from all three services: the Army, the Navy and the Air Force, and their number also included one Ministry of Defence civilian. Of course, the Iraq conflict caused great division in our politics, our Parliament and our country, but we can all unite over the professionalism and bravery of our armed forces, the service they gave to our country, and the debt we owe to all those who lost their lives.

I start with some of the things we agree about in the statement. Yes, we agree about the need for a strong relationship between democratic Iraq and Britain. We absolutely agree about the need for a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine and welcome what Prime Minister Netanyahu has said. Yes, we need answers about the conduct of those Iranian elections. But I want to focus my questions on the inquiry announced by the Prime Minister.

We welcome an inquiry—indeed, we have been calling for it for many months—but I have to say that I am far from convinced that the Prime Minister has got it right. The whole point of having an inquiry is that it has to be able to make clear recommendations, to go wherever the evidence leads, to establish the full truth and to ensure that the right lessons are learned, and it has to do so in a way that builds public confidence. Is there not a danger that what the Prime Minister has announced today will not achieve those objectives? The membership looks quite limited, the terms of reference seem restrictive, the inquiry is not specifically tasked with making recommendations and none of it will be held in public. So will the Prime Minister answer questions about the following four areas: the timing; the membership; the coverage and content; and the openness?

First, on the timing, this inquiry should have started earlier. How can anyone argue that an inquiry starting six months ago, for example, would somehow have undermined British troops? Indeed, the argument that we cannot have any inquiry while troops are still in Iraq has been blown away today by the Prime Minister’s saying that some troops will be staying there even as the inquiry gets under way. As for how long the inquiry takes, the Franks inquiry reported in just six months, yet this inquiry is due to take—surprise, surprise—until July or August 2010. Will delaying the start of the inquiry and prolonging the publication until after the next election not lead everyone to conclude that this inquiry has been fixed to make sure that the Government avoid having to face up to any inconvenient conclusions? At the very least, will the Prime Minister look at the possibility of having an interim report early next year?

Secondly, on the people conducting the inquiry, what is required for an inquiry such as this is a mixture of diplomatic, military and political experience. We welcome the diplomatic experience, but there must be a question mark over the military experience—there are no former chiefs of staff or people with that sort of expertise. In addition, is it not necessary to include, as the Franks inquiry did, senior politicians from all sides of the political divide to look at the political judgments? The inquiry needs to be, and needs to be seen to be, truly independent and not an establishment stitch-up, so will the Prime Minister look at widening the membership in the way that we have suggested?

The third area is the coverage and the content of the inquiry. It is welcome that the inquiry will cover the whole period in the run-up to the war, as well as the conduct of the war, but is it not wrong to try to confine the inquiry to an arbitrary period of time? Should it not be free to pursue any points that it judges to be relevant? On the specific issue of the terms of reference, is it not extraordinary that the Prime Minister said that it should try to avoid apportioning blame? Should not the inquiry have the ability to apportion blame? If mistakes were made, we need to know who made them and why they were made. The Prime Minister was very clear that the inquiry would have access to all British documents and all British witnesses. Does that mean that the inquiry may not have access to documents from the USA, the coalition provisional authority or the Iraqi Government, even if they are kept in the British archive? That is an important specific question and one to which we need an answer. Will the inquiry be free to invite foreign witnesses to give evidence—written and oral?

On the scope of the inquiry, will the Prime Minister confirm that it will cover relations with the United States; the use of intelligence information; the function of the machinery of government; post-conflict planning; and how the Department for International Development, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the armed forces work together?

I turn now to the issue of openness and transparency. Given that this inquiry is of interest not only to us politicians but to the public and the families of servicemen and women who gave their lives, should there not be some proper public sessions? Is that not what many will want and many will expect, and is it not part of the building of public confidence that is absolutely necessary?

Finally, are not the limitations of this inquiry reflected in the way the House of Commons is being treated by the Government over this issue? Before the Franks inquiry—we are told that this is a Franks-style inquiry—there was a proper debate on the terms of reference of the inquiry on a substantive motion in the House of Commons. This time—[Interruption.] The Prime Minister laughs, but this time there is just a statement and no debate, even though last Wednesday he promised us a new era of parliamentary accountability and democratic renewal. What happened to that? It has not lasted even a week.

A proper inquiry must include a range of members, including senior politicians. It needs to have the freedom to range widely and to speak frankly, and its terms of reference must be debated properly in a democracy such as ours. So when the Prime Minister responds, will he put those failings right?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments about our soldiers who have died in Afghanistan and the contribution they have made. I am glad that he also agrees with what I have said about Iran and the behaviour of the Iranian regime, including the need for it to stop any violence against people who are protesting against the election result peacefully. I also agree with him about the support that we want to give to our troops and the need to take into account at all times, especially as we consider this inquiry, the wishes, views and sensitivities of the families of the people who have died or been injured in the fighting in Iraq.

Almost all the points that the right hon. Gentleman raised are dealt with by the remit and scope—the breadth and depth—of the inquiry. The shadow Foreign Secretary and he spent a great deal of time calling for a Franks-style inquiry, and that is exactly what we have—[Interruption.] There are repeated references in Hansard to the shadow Foreign Secretary and the Leader of the Opposition saying that what they wanted was a Franks-style inquiry, which is what we have got.

The right hon. Gentleman says that the remit of the inquiry is restricted, but I cannot think of an inquiry with a more comprehensive, wider or broader remit than the one that I have just announced. Far from being restricted, it will cover eight years, from 2001 to 2009. Far from being restricted, it will have access to any documents that are available, and that will include foreign documents that are available in British archives. As far as we are concerned, it may interview any witnesses, including British witnesses and witnesses it wants to invite, if necessary, from abroad. I do not think there is any fundamental disagreement between us on the nature of the inquiry, its scope and its comprehensiveness.

I remind the right hon. Gentleman about the timing. The Franks inquiry looked only at the run-up to the Falklands war. Incidentally, it was announced in a written answer to the House of Commons, not in an oral statement. This inquiry will deal with the run-up to the conflict, the conflict itself and all issues of reconstruction after the conflict. With such a broad remit, I cannot think of any set of events that can be excluded that are of importance to Iraq and the future of our relationship with Iraq. It is hardly surprising that if we are dealing with that eight-year period—the run-up to the war, the conflict itself and the aftermath—the inquiry will take time to interview witnesses and take evidence. Its report will be detailed.

I have said that the report should be as comprehensive as possible, given the issues of national security that are involved. In other words, all but the most sensitive of information should be reported to the House of Commons. The lessons that will be learned from the Iraq events will be learned not just from the investigation, but from the debates that will take place in this House when we receive the full report from the inquiry.

As for the membership, I think that there is a difference between now and the Franks inquiry. For eight years, we have had politicians commenting on Iraq one way or another in this House and elsewhere. We would do better in these circumstances to draw on the professional and expert advice of people who have not been involved in commenting on this issue over the last few years. That is why we have what I believe can be regarded as a committee of people who can be regarded as both knowledgeable and expert in their field. I defy the Opposition to criticise the individuals who are named in this inquiry as people who are not capable of carrying out an important piece of work. They are suited for that task, and they will do a good job. I hope that people will recognise that they are respected in their own fields and have a great deal to offer in this inquiry.

The events in Iraq are controversial. They have led to heated debate in this House and across the country, but it is possible for us to work together to learn the lessons of this inquiry. I hope that it will not become the subject of partisan in-fighting. It will be carried out by a respectable group of people who have great reputations throughout our country and I hope that it will receive the support of as many hon. Members as possible.

I should like to add my expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Lieutenant Paul Mervis and Private Robert McLaren, who tragically lost their lives in Afghanistan in this last week. Of course I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to our brave servicemen and women, who have served our country so courageously in Iraq over the past six years. In particular, I pay tribute to the 179 who have lost their lives. They and their families are in our thoughts today.

I passionately believe that we were wrong to invade Iraq, but I am second to none in my admiration for the bravery and dedication of our servicemen and women. Everyone knows that the invasion of Iraq was the biggest foreign policy mistake that this country has made in generations—the single most controversial decision taken by Government since Suez—so I am staggered that the Prime Minister is seeking to compound that error, which was fatal for so many of Britain’s sons and daughters, by covering up the path that led to it.

The Liberal Democrats have called for an inquiry into the build-up and conduct of the Iraq war for many years. I suppose we can be grateful that, finally, the Prime Minister has acceded to that demand. However, as is so often the case, he has taken a step in the right direction but missed the fundamental point. A secret inquiry, conducted by a clutch of grandees hand-picked by the Prime Minister, is not what Britain needs. Does the Prime Minister not understand that the purpose of an inquiry is not just to produce a set of conclusions but to allow the people of Britain to come to terms with a mistake made in their name?

I met the families of soldiers who lost their lives in Iraq and just an hour ago they asked me to speak in their name and to tell the Prime Minister that nothing short of a fully public inquiry, held in the open, will satisfy them. Will he at least listen to what those grieving families need?

The Prime Minister says that the inquiry has to be held in private to protect national security, but it looks to me suspiciously as though he wants to protect his reputation and that of his predecessor instead. Why else would he want the inquiry to report after the general election, when we could have at least interim reports before then? It is perfectly possible to have a limited number of sensitive sessions in camera while retaining the fundamental principle that the vast bulk of the inquiry—not just a few public sessions, as recommended by the Conservative leader—should be open to all.

I am grateful that the Prime Minister has listened to my representations and has extended the inquiry to cover the full origins of the war and given it full access to the documents and files that it will need. However, I am disappointed that he made such a feeble attempt to secure consensus on the panel that will conduct the inquiry. The experience of successfully established inquiries, such as the one now being held in the Netherlands, shows that consensus can be secured only if the Government conduct painstaking consultation over a prolonged period of time. Why did the Prime Minister not even attempt that sort of constructive discussion with other parties?

The Government must not be allowed to close the book on this war as they opened it—in secrecy. Last week, the Prime Minister stood at the Dispatch Box and spoke eloquently about the need for more public accountability and transparency. This was his first test. He has failed. He has chosen secrecy instead. For six years, we have watched our brave servicemen and women putting their lives on the line for a war that we did not support and could not understand. To rebuild public trust, the inquiry must be held in public. Will the Prime Minister, even now, reconsider? Will he make this inquiry a healing process for the nation, or will he turn his back on the legitimate demands of the British people once again?

Every Member has the greatest respect for every family that is grieving as a result of what has happened in Iraq. Nothing that anybody says today takes away from our concern about the needs of those families and our respect for them. I want to answer the right hon. Gentleman’s specific points about the inquiry, however.

The inquiry is to learn the lessons of what has happened. The inquiry will cover the run-up to the war, the conflict itself and reconstruction after the conflict. I can think of no remit that could be broader than that—to cover the events leading up to the conflict, and the reconstruction after it. The inquiry will cover eight years of our history, and will be a very detailed piece of work that has to be done.

The inquiry will be able to call any witness, and for any evidence. The report will be published and debated in this House. That is exactly how the Franks inquiry went about its work. To be fair to the right hon. Gentleman, he disagrees with using Franks as a model, although the main Opposition party has always wanted that. However, we must take into account national security considerations, and what is known about the capability of our armed forces and security services, and the missions they are undertaking at the moment. We also have to take into account what serving officers will want to say to the inquiry. I think that the right hon. Gentleman will come to recognise that all those things involve a degree of confidentiality that would not suit a public inquiry, where all witnesses give evidence in public. The lesson of public inquiries is that they take many, many years, because everybody who comes before one wants to be represented by a lawyer. We know that from other public inquiries that are taking place at the moment, one of which has already taken eight years and is no nearer to completion now than it was a year ago.

I also ask the right hon. Gentleman to bear it in mind that the matter will come back to the House. It is up to the inquiry to decide how long it will take to do its work. I think that the best way for it to report to the House is with a comprehensive piece of work, rather than through piecemeal reports. In the end, the members of the inquiry team will decide how long it will take them to do the work, but I think the right hon. Gentleman will agree that it will take some time to cover eight years of history in the most detailed way. All witnesses and all evidence can come before the inquiry. I hope that he will agree, on reflection, that those who have been selected and asked to take part in the inquiry are people of high reputation who can do a very good job of work for this country.

As one who supported the Iraq war, I did so on human rights grounds. I saw no secret material and had no private briefing, but I had a 30-year involvement with the Iraqi opposition. I personally would want assurances from the inquiry as to why, prior to the war, this country failed to indict leading members of the Iraqi regime when we had the legal evidence to enable us to do so.

I am grateful for the work that my right hon. Friend has done in Iraq, especially with the Kurdish population. She is regarded very highly by all those whom I meet when I go to Iraq, in particular for the way she has protected the interests of the Kurdish population in that country, who were facing very difficult times under Saddam Hussein. She is party to binding that group together with the rest of the country to make for a stronger future.

Obviously, the inquiry will look at the events from 2001 onwards. However, if it feels that it is necessary to look behind that and before that, it will of course do so.

As someone who supported the war, I unashamedly continue to believe that history will record that what was done at that time will turn out to be a cause for good, and that a stable and democratic Iraq will be a force for good in the region. On that basis, I hope that the Prime Minister will consider some slight adjustments to this welcome inquiry. The first is that it could have a slightly wider membership and include some ex-military members. To give it a little more cutting edge, it could also include some senior politicians. I recommend that only because I think that a committee without that edge would be a little less credible.

Further, because I believe that there is ultimately nothing to hide, the reality is that some hearings must be held in public. I urge the Prime Minister to think again about that.

First, all the military personnel at a senior level who are either retired or serving officers will be in a position to give evidence to the inquiry. I think it important that they are given the chance to do so, and that they can speak frankly. That means that the sessions will be better held in private than in public. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that the military voice will be listened to as we try to learn the lessons of the war.

As far as serving politicians are concerned, it is probable that, over this eight-year period, there is no one in this House who has not commented in detail about the Iraqi situation. I think that it is better to look for people outside this House who can take an objective view of the circumstances and who are also seen as politically impartial. I hope that, on reflection, the right hon. Gentleman will understand that the difference between the membership of the Franks inquiry and the membership of this inquiry is because of these reasons.

As far as public sessions are concerned, the Opposition called for a Franks-style inquiry; they knew perfectly well, when they did so, that Franks was held in private. The essence of Franks was that it was held in private. If people on the Opposition Benches want to change their mind, it is their right to do so, but what they say is completely inconsistent with what they have said previously.

I, too, welcome the removal of the brutal, fascist regime of Saddam, and I think that Iraq is a much better country today than it could ever have been while the regime continued. However, it is important that the inquiry also look at the origins of the conflict, which did not start in 2001. We were bombing Iraq in 1998. Saddam was gassing the Kurds in 1988. There is a context and a history. I hope that the inquiry will look at the context and the history, and not just start events at 9/11.

I do agree that there was a whole series of events leading up to what happened when the conflict broke out in 2003. No doubt the inquiry will be free to take some of those events into consideration, but it must focus itself on a period, which is the immediate run-up to the conflict, the conflict itself and the reconstruction afterwards. I have also to remind the House that we have had four separate inquiries already into some of the events surrounding Iraq: we have had the Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry, the Intelligence and Security Committee inquiry, the Butler inquiry and the Hutton inquiry. It is not as if many of the issues have not been addressed; they have been addressed, but it is important to look at the matter in the round. What we want to do—I think that sometimes we forget this—is learn the lessons, so that they can be applied for the future.

We all welcome the demise of the Saddam Hussein regime, but the important question is: could it have been done differently? Could Saddam Hussein have been indicted, and could a lot of Iraqis have not lost their lives? We all agree that we mourn the loss of our soldiers, their injuries and the number of soldiers who are mentally ill, but should we not regret the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and the displacement of millions?

Also, when the Prime Minister rings Prime Minister Netanyahu, could he point out to him that it is not just the expansion of the settlements that is not good enough? The settlements are illegal, and there will be no two-state solution unless the settlements are closed down. That is something that no one is talking about, but we will not get peace without a willingness to move on the settlements.

Lastly, I agree with those who say that the membership of the inquiry is rather feeble. We need senior politicians who understand political decision making, and senior military people who can understand the decisions that were made. The inquiry is welcome, but surely it should be allowed to have hearings in private or in public as it sees fit, rather than having them kept completely secret.

First, I do regret the loss of lives of all those who suffered, and the loss of life among any community and any nation. We regret the loss of Iraqi lives, but we cannot deny that the responsibility for what has happened in Iraq lay at the hands of Saddam Hussein. Both the right hon. Lady and I, who served in the Government, knew exactly what Saddam Hussein was trying to do and how he had broken every single United Nations resolution that he said that he would uphold. As far as Israel is concerned, I agree with her that the settlements must be stopped. I agree that this is the advice that we should give to the new Israeli Government: that in addition to embracing a two-state solution that will give security to Israel, as well as the possibility of a viable state to the Palestinians, an announcement about stopping the growth of settlements, and indeed halting settlements, is important to move the peace process forward.

As far as the inquiry is concerned, I just beg to disagree. I feel that the people who have been selected for the inquiry have very respected positions in the public life of this country. I think that when people look at what they have achieved, they will see that they have a great deal to offer. I just repeat this: are there Members of this House who, in the last eight years, have said absolutely nothing, or not been involved in any vote, on Iraq? It is far better to have a non-partisan and impartial group looking at the issues.

I welcome the inquiry, and may I say to the Prime Minister that I am surprised that the leaders of the two main Opposition parties are insisting that their political placemen be put on the inquiry? Now is the time, when Parliament is not held in high esteem, to have an independent inquiry. Anyone who has heard Sir Roderick Lyne comment on British foreign policy will know that at times, he is no friend to this Government.

Will the Prime Minister extend the inquiry to take evidence from people in Iraq? People suffered under Saddam’s dictatorship and were freed from it, and then had to accept an onslaught from jihadi Islamist extremists, Iranians, al-Qaeda and Syria, which our troops helped to resist. Those groups are responsible for the death of people in Iraq, and we should not let the lie go out that their evil is in any way attributable to the decisions of this Government and the other democratic Governments of the world.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, and for the interest that he has taken in these issues over many, many years. Sometimes we in the House should have the humility to accept that there are people outside the House who can contribute, perhaps more than we can, to an objective and impartial review of what has happened in Iraq, both in the run-up to the conflict and in the reconstruction that has taken place there afterwards. When people reflect on the list of names before them, I think they will take the view that this is not only a very responsible group of people, but a group of people who can conduct the review with great efficiency and great care. I agree that the review must have the power to listen to all voices that may have something to say them, but that will be a matter for the review itself.

As a declared sceptic as early as November 1992 of the existence of the weapons of mass destruction, and as a subsequent opponent of the invasion of Iraq, may I put it to the Prime Minister that the disastrous effect of the war has been to make Iran the dominant power in the whole of the middle east? What the British people well understand is that after the capture of Baghdad, the political management of the occupation was extremely incompetent, as is recognised now in both America and Europe. What the British people want is an explanation, well before the general election 11 months from now, of how it came about that Mr. Blair was able to persuade Parliament to vote in favour of the war on facts which he knew would not stand up to proper examination.

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman, but surely the point of an inquiry is to look at all those issues, and that is exactly what will happen. It will look also at whether there were failures in the reconstruction, as well as before that, and it will report on these issues. What happened after the fall of Baghdad will be as much a subject of the report as what happened before. So I hope he will agree that all these issues—that seven-year period—will be looked at by the inquiry, and looked at very fully indeed.

In the history of the conflict, two political matters cry out for explanation more than any other. The first is why the House was never informed of the contents of the Downing street minute that revealed knowledge six months before the conflict that the Bush Administration had decided on the inevitability of war, whatever concessions were made. The second matter that requires explanation is why the Attorney-General’s opinion on the legality of the war was never shown to the Cabinet before the decision to go to war was made. Neither of those matters—neither of them—affects state security. Neither of them requires phalanxes of lawyers. Why cannot they be ventilated and canvassed in public, and without delay?

My hon. and learned Friend has deeply held views on the issues that he has just raised. No doubt he, also, will be able to give vent to those views in the course of the inquiry. Perhaps he may wish to offer evidence to the inquiry.

May I say to the Prime Minister that I profoundly regret the nature of the inquiry that he has announced? It is a disappointing response to what is, by common consent, regarded as a catastrophic foreign policy decision. On the form of inquiry that he proposes, can he tell us whether it will have the power not to ask for witnesses, but to compel witnesses to attend and to put them on oath so that their evidence may be verified against that background? Let me ask him, finally, how he thinks the kind of inquiry that he proposes will satisfy the millions of Britons who marched against the war, when the inquiry will meet in private even when the national interest will not require it?

I sometimes think the Liberal party forgets, first, that the inquiry is independent of Government. Secondly, its remit covers eight years—the build-up to war and the reconstruction afterwards. With reference to witnesses, I cannot think of the inquiry being satisfied if people whom they want to interview refuse to be interviewed, and I expect that everybody who is asked to give evidence will give evidence. I believe that is exactly what will happen. For the Liberal party or anybody in the House to jump to the conclusion that the inquiry is in some way not independent is completely wrong. It is an independent inquiry, independent of Government, able to take all papers and able to interview any witnesses. I know that the Liberal party wanted it to be held in public, but I think they know also what happens when there are public inquiries. That means lawyers, lawyers and lawyers, whereas people can feel free to give evidence and give it frankly about what we want to hear—that is, the lessons that we can learn from the war.

The Prime Minister did not answer the key question, which is, will evidence be given under oath? In this matter, there is a history of obfuscation and deliberate deceit by some agencies and individuals—proven deceit, now. Nothing short of people giving evidence under oath will be sufficient to give the inquiry veracity and integrity, so I ask the Prime Minister now, will he assure us that evidence will be under oath? If not, why not?

The terms under which evidence will be given is a matter on which we will comment and report later, but I am absolutely sure that everybody who gives evidence will have to tell the truth to the committee. They are under an obligation to do so by the committee’s terms of reference.

The delay in the announcement by the Prime Minister and the details of the scope of the inquiry have plainly been designed so that it reports the other side of a general election. Given that—[Interruption.] I wonder whether I might have the Prime Minister’s attention for a moment; I am trying to ask him a question. Given that Parliament and the people were misled about the causes of and reasons for the war, will the Prime Minister answer the point made by the Leader of the Opposition about the need for an interim report, so that we can learn some lessons about this Government before they have their date with the British electorate?

The Franks inquiry was done without an interim report. The Opposition ask for a Franks-style inquiry, and the Franks-style inquiry that we are having will look at the run-up to the conflict, the conflict itself, the reconstruction and the issues about reconstruction afterwards. I think that that is a pretty comprehensive remit—that will take time but must be done in the best possible way. The right hon. Gentleman will accept that if the committee needs the time to do that, it should have the time to do that. It will be a full report from which we want to learn lessons for the future. That is the issue: what lessons we can learn for our military, for our diplomacy, for our security and, of course, for our country’s reputation abroad for the future. That is the essence of what we are doing.

This inquiry is part of a process of holding the Executive to account, but this House has mechanisms for holding the Executive to account: they are called Select Committees. Any member of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs will have first-hand experience of the limitations of a Select Committee’s ability to hold the Executive to account. I, as a Member of Parliament, find it extremely difficult to accept that we are giving privileges to people outside this House, under the guise of independence, when we could have an inquiry that gave Members and Select Committees access to the kind of documents that we are giving to those people, when we could have hearings in public and in private, and when we could come to a view.

I understand that my hon. Friend feels strongly about this matter, but she must know that there has been a foreign affairs inquiry by a Select Committee of this House and an intelligence and security inquiry by a Committee of this House. There has also been the Butler inquiry and the Hutton inquiry, and we now have an inquiry to look at all the events of the past eight years: the run-up to the war, the conflict itself and reconstruction after the conflict. I cannot think of a wider remit than that, and I do believe that, given that the House has looked at the issue many times, it is right that the Privy Council inquiry get on with the job. It will be able to interview witnesses—either Members or other people—take evidence from anybody it wishes and receive all papers from the Government, and nothing will be kept secret from it. That is the model of the Franks inquiry, and that is what we are following.

May I add my condolences regarding the loss of Lieutenant Mervis and Private McLaren in Afghanistan? The Iraqi conflict has led to the loss of 179 UK service personnel, 4,600 coalition personnel and about 150,000 Iraqi civilians. Their loved ones want to know the cause of the war and why their loved ones fell. If every evidence session is held in private, that may not be possible, so will the Prime Minister think again about holding a secret inquiry? It is the wrong thing to do.

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The inquiry has to take into account the interests of our national security and to look at the issues that reflect on the capability and deployment of our troops, and it may not be best for that to be made public. It also has to get people to talk frankly about what they believe are the lessons to be learned from the inquiry. If the inquiry were surrounded by lawyers and everybody else in a public arena, that would be more difficult, as the hon. Gentleman would have to acknowledge.

I believe that the inquiry will be thorough and independent, and I believe that the results of the inquiry will be reported to this House. For weeks and months, people have been calling for a Franks-style inquiry; it is quite extraordinary that now that they have a Franks-style inquiry, they are trying to oppose it on cynical grounds.

Franks was 25 years ago, and the whole climate of opinion has changed since that secret inquiry. I want the Prime Minister to understand that. I had hoped for a new politics of openness after last week. I am not prepared to accept a secret inquiry into Iraq, and I want the Prime Minister to think again.

May I ask the Prime Minister this? After everything that he has been saying, why on earth did he not consult the official Opposition, the Liberal Democrats and the other political parties on the inquiry’s terms of reference, its membership and how long it would take? Why did he take it upon himself again to tell the House what was in its best interests?

The Cabinet Secretary did discuss with the official Opposition and the Liberal party issues relating to this inquiry, so my hon. Friend is wrong on his final point. As far as the wisdom of how we do this inquiry is concerned, let us remember that there are issues of national security, issues related to our military, serving officers who may wish to give evidence and people who are working in other arenas at the moment. I do not think that any person who looked at this in detail would say that all these people should give their evidence to the inquiry in public; I think that that person would respect the fact that a degree of confidentiality is necessary. They would also understand, on reflection, that if people are going to be frank with the inquiry about the lessons to be learned, those people will want to be able to give their evidence in private. Just look at the alternative. The alternative would mean a long inquiry, lasting years, in which everybody would be represented by a lawyer rather than by themselves. That is not the way to learn the best lessons from this conflict.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker; I am most grateful. The events of the Iranian elections at the weekend will demonstrate just how unstable the region is likely to become. Will the Prime Minister assure the House that plans and resources exist for a British military re-engagement should the Iraqi Government ask for it, and that things will not just be left up to the Americans?

The hon. Gentleman, who takes a great interest in these matters, will know that we have signed a new agreement with the Iraqi Government about what support we can give them in training, what naval support we can give them and what help we can give them in the short term, medium term and long term. Obviously, there is a very significant reduction in troops; there will be very few British soldiers on the soil of Iraq, but there will be very close co-operation between our two countries. The arrangements that we have with the Iraqi Government will be similar to the bilateral relationships that are very strong in other parts of the region.

I fully understand that it would be inappropriate for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to go into detail; I would not wish him to do anything that would compromise the safety of the hostages. Can he give me assurances that, in spite of our withdrawal, our Ministers will still be fully involved in making every effort to secure the release of the five hostages—the computer expert and the four bodyguards?

I understand the concerns that my hon. Friend has expressed. She has been very vigilant in asking about the welfare of the five hostages. That is something that I have talked about to Prime Minister Maliki on a number of different occasions. I have pressed him to take an interest in the matter directly, and he has done so. We are determined to secure the safe release of the hostages. Some progress has been made, but a great deal is still to be done. The issue is permanently on our desk as something that has to be dealt with. For the safety of those five people, we are doing everything in our power to ensure that they can come home.

May I remind the Prime Minister that he has yet to answer the question about evidence on oath?

In listening to the Prime Minister’s presentation of Operation Charge of the Knights, one could be forgiven for believing that we had something to do with its preparation and planning, when the truth of the matter is that it took place in a British area of responsibility without notice to us, and it was the most graphic demonstration of the fact that our troops had been invited to take a role way in advance of the political influence of their leaders, and way in advance of the resources that the nation was willing or able to devote to supporting them in the role they were asked to undertake. Sadly, the number of fatalities in Afghanistan looks as though it is about to overtake the number of fatalities in Iraq. There are important lessons here regarding what is happening in Afghanistan. Will the committee have the opportunity to report emerging conclusions on such issues in advance of its final report?

I know that the hon. Gentleman is an expert on many of these matters and talks a great deal about them. However, he should take care not to talk down the contribution of our military forces. In the episode in Basra where he says that the British military were not consulted and involved, I do not think he is telling the full truth about what happened in that exercise. We need to have all the facts put out there, and of course that is what the inquiry will do.

I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement of an inquiry. However, will he revisit the advice that he has been given by the Cabinet Secretary—I can understand why that advice was given—in two respects in particular? First, the central purpose of the inquiry is surely not just to learn the lessons, although that clearly is an objective, but to establish the truth of what happened. Secondly, the Public Administration Committee, which I chair, has been taking an interest in the form that any inquiry into Iraq should take. Last week, we held a private seminar of very distinguished people, and we are about to issue a report. I have to say that those people felt that the Franks inquiry was appropriate 25 years ago, but a private Privy Counsellor inquiry would not be thought appropriate now. The worst thing of all, surely, would be to replicate all the arguments we have had about Iraq with similar arguments about the form that an inquiry would take. As I say, I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, but could he regard it as the beginning of a short process of consultation, so that he can carry the whole House with him?

I have read the letter that my hon. Friend has written to me, and I appreciate what he has said about his views and those of other people on this. However, his point is answered by the fact that the range of this inquiry goes through eight years—from 2001 to 2009. What he wanted to be sure of was that all the issues relating to Iraq would be discussed. We could have had an inquiry like Franks only into the run-up to the war; we could have had an inquiry about the conflict itself; we could have had an inquiry about reconstruction. Those are all big issues, and we have an inquiry that covers them all. The range of the inquiry is as big as it could be, as a result of the decision that we have made. Some of the points that my hon. Friend’s Committee, or he, wanted to make to me concerned being sure that the range of the inquiry was sufficiently wide so that all these issues can be dealt with, and that is the case.

In the Prime Minister’s answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg), he suggested that having this inquiry in secret would mean that he, or we, would get the answers that we required. Does he not understand that it is the British people who require these answers, and that what they require is the truth of what led up to this war? Will he ensure that, if possible, any of the taped conversations between the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and the then President of the United States are made available to the inquiry? Will he also ensure that all the recorded telephone calls between the then Prime Minister and President Bush over that period are made available? Can I ask him again not to think about what he wants to hear from the inquiry but to consider what the British people want to hear? What they do not want to hear is that the inquiry is being held in secret. Everyone can accept that part of the inquiry would, for security reasons, necessarily have to address that fact, but most of it—

The hon. Gentleman asks that the inquiry deal with issues surrounding the run-up to the conflict. That is exactly what the inquiry is going to do—it is going to start in 2001. He wants to be sure that it will look at the issues surrounding the decision that was made to go into conflict. That is what the inquiry will do—it will look at all those issues. The disagreement between him and us is about whether we have a Franks-style inquiry, which both the main parties have asked for, or a fully public inquiry. I have given him the reasons why a fully public inquiry does not seem to me to be appropriate when we are dealing with issues of national security and issues affecting the military.

May I say to my right hon. Friend that the most important decision that any MP makes when coming here is one such as the decision that we took to send our troops into Iraq? I have felt that way ever since I came here, and I have never once asked a question that would embarrass our troops or the Government during that period. I have always waited, in the knowledge that there would be a public inquiry at the end. I am therefore extremely disappointed that we are talking about an inquiry that will be limited in its remit.

At the end of the day, I have always said to my constituents that we need an inquiry for two reasons. One is that we must learn the lessons of the mistakes that were made. The second is that the truth must come out, and the general public need to know the truth. It is important for people to understand that when they give advice to Prime Ministers, there will be a day of reckoning. A public inquiry is the only way forward to deal with that.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He has always stood by the armed forces of this country when they have been in conflict, and I appreciate that he holds strong views about the issue. I just say to him that while the inquiry will be done in private, the report will be fully published for people to debate in this House. People will be able to see for themselves what conclusions are drawn by the inquiry. At the same time, as I said to the House earlier, I have asked the inquiry to publish all the information other than the most sensitive military and security information. The House will therefore have a chance to debate a fully comprehensive report that covers eight years and covers all issues in the run-up to, and aftermath of, the conflict.