I beg to move,
That this House, while welcoming the announcement by the Government of an Inquiry into the war in Iraq, believes that the proceedings of the Committee of Inquiry should whenever possible be held in public and that the membership of the Committee should be wider and more diverse than the Government has proposed, and calls on the Government to revise its proposals for the Inquiry to meet these and other objections raised by hon. Members and to submit proposed terms of reference for it to the House on a substantive motion for full debate and scrutiny.
On a matter related to the motion, but before discussing it, may I express again the condolences of the Opposition to the families and friends of the two British hostages in Iraq, Jason Swindlehurst and Jason Creswell, whose remains were returned to the care of this country at the weekend. Their tragic deaths are a reminder that the lives of many British citizens are still painfully bound up with developments in Iraq, and that there are still three families waiting anxiously for news.
This is the fourth debate that I have opened on the subject during this Parliament, and when I heard that the Prime Minister was set to announce the long awaited and much delayed inquiry, I honestly did not expect to have to do so again. This debate is different from the previous ones, in that hitherto we have been pressing on the Government the need to establish an inquiry; our debate today is in direct consequence of the Government’s decision, welcome in itself and in principle, to hold an inquiry.
The need for the debate has arisen from the fact that nine days ago the Prime Minister stood here and announced proposals for the Iraq inquiry which betrayed both poor advance preparation and inadequate consultation, and which as a result received severe and sincere criticism from all quarters of the House—criticism that was reflected in the reaction of people throughout the country. There was genuine disappointment that the Prime Minister had produced proposals for such a secretive, behind-closed-doors inquiry, despite the fact that both of the main Opposition parties had made representations to the Government that the proceedings of the inquiry should be much more open to public view, and it was accentuated by the fact that only the previous week the Prime Minister had talked of improving accountability and transparency.
Hon. Members on the Government Benches were among those who said that they were extremely disappointed that the inquiry would be limited in its remit or that they had hoped for a new politics of openness. The points were made that the membership was too restricted, quite apart from the timing being so utterly cynical and politically motivated, and that the response of the Prime Minister to important questions such as whether evidence would be given to the inquiry on oath was, to say the least, unsure. It was the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), who is in his place, who put it to the Prime Minister, politely on that occasion, that he should regard his statement as
“the beginning of a short process of consultation, so that he can carry the whole House with him”—[Official Report, 15 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 37.]
Since then, the Government have engaged in a series of climbdowns—a U-turn that was executed in stages as painful to watch as those of a learner driver doing a six-point turn having started off the wrong way down a motorway. The Government have performed that U-turn by getting the inquiry chairman himself, Sir John Chilcot, to announce the changes that we have all demanded, so that no Minister has had to return to the House and admit that the Government were in the wrong. Indeed, Sir John is now busily engaged in the very process of consultation with Opposition parties and others which a Prime Minister who was doing his job properly would have carried out beforehand.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that one reason why the public and right hon. and hon. Members are so sceptical about the chances of openness and transparency is the very attitude that he has outlined, whereby the Government have to be dragged kicking and screaming, unwilling to achieve such transparency from the outset? It suggests that they will do the very minimum necessary to get the inquiry through, rather than as much as possible to ensure that it is genuinely transparent and genuinely independent.
My right hon. Friend referred to the politically cynical timing of the inquiry. Is he aware that, on 23 October 2003, on a motion that I proposed from that Dispatch Box calling for a public inquiry, one reason given for not acceding to it by the present Justice Secretary, who was then the Foreign Secretary, was that it could not report before the general election?
Yes, I am aware that my right hon. and learned Friend proposed an inquiry and has, therefore, been proposing one for six years now. That tells us something about the extent of the delay and the Government’s ability to pluck out any convenient reason for changing the timing—even from one Parliament to another. However, the uncertainty and confusion that all that has produced is the reason why we are proceeding with today’s motion and debate.
Let me just finish this point, and then I shall certainly give way to the hon. Lady.
In one important sense, we have already achieved the central objective of tabling the motion for debate, which is that it has now been announced, albeit by Sir John Chilcot and not by Ministers, that
“it will be essential to hold as much of the proceedings of the inquiry as possible in public, consistent with the need to protect national security”.
It should not have been necessary to table the motion in order to produce that result, but it was and so be it. It is of course a welcome development, but, given the uncertainty—
No, I shall not give way at the moment, because I am just explaining why we have moved the motion.
Given the uncertainty that preceded that concession, the need for the Government in the form of the Foreign Secretary to make it clear that the Government’s position has changed; the need for Ministers also to make it clear, in the light of weekend speculation, that they see no problem in this new approach to the inquiry—of evidence being given in public wherever possible—applying to the evidence to be given by the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair; and, given the number of other inconsistencies and clearly inaccurate statements—
I have explained when I shall give way, and I am in the middle of an admittedly long sentence.
Given the number of other inconsistencies and clearly inaccurate statements produced by Ministers during the process of establishing the inquiry, combined with a continuing refusal to put the terms of reference of the inquiry to the House on a substantive motion, it is clearly necessary for the House to have a more detailed debate for the will of Parliament to be clear, and this motion provides the vehicle for those things to happen. [Hon. Members: “Full stop!”]
Now, first in the queue for an intervention was the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor).
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who is speaking to the House with considerable gusto this afternoon. I totally appreciate that; it is time that we all said as we think. However, is he suggesting to the House that, in any way, shape or form, he has evidence that the Government will not co-operate fully and factually with the inquiry? We need to hear from the right hon. Gentleman.
I am glad that the hon. Lady appreciates the gusto, although if she has been listening to my speech she will know that I have not said anything of the kind. My contention is that, although the Government set out to try to keep the inquiry behind closed doors and Sir John Chilcot’s statement may now have rectified that, there are other serious deficiencies in the arrangements for the inquiry, and I am about to turn to them. First, however, I give way to the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford).
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman; the people, on both sides of the House, who were responsible for taking us into the war should not be able to hide behind the cloak of secrecy when they give evidence to the inquiry. However, will he explain how Sir John Chilcot’s powers to expand the breadth of what is held in public have changed since the announcement last week? If what the right hon. Gentleman is putting forward is true, the Government must at some time have altered the powers given to Sir John Chilcot to set up the inquiry that he wants to set up.
That will be the subject of some of my speech and perhaps some of the Foreign Secretary’s. The issue is not so much that the Government have altered Sir John Chilcot’s powers; it is that they have now placed on him the burden of coming up with the proceedings and rules for the inquiry—including how much of it is to be heard in public. If I continue with my speech for a little, there will be an answer to the hon. Gentleman’s point.
The Government’s basic defence of their inquiry proposals is that many of us asked for a Franks-style inquiry and that that is what they consider they have produced. In fact, it is necessary to have only the most cursory acquaintance with the Franks inquiry to know that several of its attributes, which were important in making its processes and findings acceptable to Parliament and the public, were completely missing from the Government’s proposals and how they went about them. Meanwhile, the one attribute of the Franks inquiry that almost everyone outside the Government regarded as no longer appropriate—its having been conducted behind closed doors—was the very one that the Government chose to continue with. I shall come to the point about openness or secrecy in a moment.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that another concern is that only recently the Government proposed that inquests could be held privately, without being open to the public gaze? Those proposals were later changed, but suspicions were raised about what the Government were up to.
My hon. Friend makes a related point, although not one immediately relevant to the motion. It was a good point, but I will carry on explaining the comparison with the Franks inquiry. It is possible for the House to understand how and why the Government went wrong on the issue only if it is aware of how the Government went about the consultation in advance of last Monday’s announcement, and how that contrasts with the consultation that followed the Falklands war and preceded the Franks inquiry.
Not at the moment, because a lot of Members will wish to speak.
The Franks inquiry was characterised by wide and lengthy consultation by the Government of the time with the Opposition parties. That led to broad agreement on the nature, scope and composition of the inquiry in advance of its announcement. In fact, in the debate on the Franks inquiry, Denis Healey, the then shadow Foreign Secretary, went out of his way to praise Baroness Thatcher, the then Prime Minister—something that we would all admit he has hardly ever done in his life. During that debate on 8 July 1982, Denis Healey said:
“I must pay tribute on behalf of the other parties in the House to the fact that she consulted all of us about the procedures, the terms and the composition of the inquiry. She made substantial changes to her original intentions.”—[Official Report, 8 July 1982; Vol. 27, c. 503.]
He credited that attitude with producing the widespread support that the final proposals received.
In contrast, on this occasion, the Prime Minister initiated only limited consultation with Opposition parties—and then ignored most of the points that we made. Ministers therefore have no excuse for thinking that what they announced had the agreement of the Opposition. Asked last Tuesday on the BBC “Today” programme whether the Opposition had agreed that the membership of the committee of inquiry was right, the Foreign Secretary replied:
“Yes but my understanding is…I was in Brussels yesterday, but the err…”
That was the transcript, but he did say yes. I hope that he will acknowledge today that in claiming that the Opposition had agreed the membership of the inquiry, he was not making an accurate statement.
Let me be clear about this. On the Friday afternoon, the Conservative party was given the inquiry proposals to be made on the Monday. That gave no time for any face-to-face meetings between Opposition leaders and Ministers, or even among ourselves. Nevertheless, we made several criticisms of the inquiry proposals. Only one of them was taken fully on board by the Government. They had intended that the inquiry should be able to look back no further than late 2002, but they accepted our suggestion that the date should be put back to 2001, bringing in the period following the 9/11 attacks.
However, we also argued, as I believe did others, that the inquiry sessions should be much more open, and indeed open whenever possible—the exact formulation that the Prime Minister chose to ignore but has belatedly been constrained to accept. We also called for an interim report from the inquiry in early 2010, given the unnecessary delay in its establishment and the Government’s transparent intention to delay the publication of findings until after the last possible date for a general election—a manoeuvre that itself reduces public confidence in the inquiry process. An interim or earlier report would help to remedy that. That point, too, was ignored by the Government.
Although I believe that the openness of the inquiry has already been acceded to, the important point is the one that the Public Administration Committee has raised. That is the suggestion of having a two-tier inquiry, one to deal with the general issue for a long period and one to concentrate, in a short report produced in perhaps a matter of six months, on Britain’s involvement. The key issue is the torment of the families of the fallen—did their loved ones die in vain? Was Britain deceived in going into the war? That can be reported on very rapidly.
I was one of those many Labour Members who urged last week that the inquiry should be as public as possible. That is right and proper.
I believe that I spoke after the right hon. Gentleman in the debate just before we went into war. He was speaking from the Back Benches. I stand by my vote at that time, on the basis that the chief weapons inspector had not said that he was satisfied that all the weapons of mass destruction had been destroyed. On that basis, I voted for war. Does he stand by his vote?
I do stand by my vote and my speech on that occasion. No doubt when the inquiry reports, we will all have time to reflect on who was right and who was wrong. That is one of the reasons for having an inquiry.
I was running through the points that the Opposition made over the weekend of consultation before the announcement. We said that the membership of the inquiry, while encompassing people whom we had no call to criticise, seemed to us too narrow. We said in particular that some experience of ministerial office was desirable. The following Monday, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition also made the point that military experience was desirable.
We further pointed out that the inquiry, as proposed by the Government, would consist of four nominees, none of whom was a woman. The Government went a small way to meeting part of the objection by adding Baroness Prashar to the inquiry membership. I hope that the Foreign Secretary will acknowledge that his statement on the “Today” programme that the five people were approached before the Cabinet Secretary went to talk to the Opposition parties was inaccurate. The fifth, Baroness Prashar, was added only when it was pointed out to Ministers that they had proposed an inquiry too narrow in its membership.
In many ways, I am sorry to make these points to the Foreign Secretary, because he is normally perfectly good at consultation with the Opposition. Clearly he was misinformed and not properly briefed on what was happening by a Downing street that does not share his willingness to consult on and agree matters with the Opposition. Let us hope that that emboldens him when he comes to his next opportunity to depose the Prime Minister, which normally recurs about every 12 weeks.
The upshot was that the consultation with the Opposition was inadequate and unnecessarily short. Nor did the Prime Minister even bother to consult the armed forces about how an inquiry into this country’s largest military endeavour since world war two should be conducted. The Chief of the General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt, stated last week that he was not privy to the discussions about how the inquiry would be conducted.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the changes that he suggests should take place because the public have lost confidence in the House for another reason, and that it is absolutely vital to regain their confidence? Unless the changes that he has outlined are taken on board, the public will not believe that the outcome of the inquiry is fair and just.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the mess and chaos that I am describing, which accompanied the launch of the inquiry, underlines the need to take on board the points that Members throughout the House have been making, to give the inquiry proper public credibility and support.
At the same time as everything I have described was happening, ample consideration was given to the concerns of the former Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, who reportedly feared that an open inquiry would become a show trial. Time was found also to consult Mr. Alastair Campbell; he has confirmed that he was consulted on the specific point of whether the inquiry should be public or private. Their advice was taken, at least initially.
The proposals that the Government came up with were not the result of proper consultation. Nor have they had it in mind to subject them to democratic accountability and consultation after the announcement, for they have provided no opportunity to debate the inquiry’s terms of reference in the House, as happened in Government time after the announcement of the Franks inquiry—another point that we put to the Government that was ignored, and another omission that the motion seeks to address.
The Foreign Secretary may wish to explain to the House what detailed terms of reference the committee of inquiry will be given, when it will be given them and whether the Government will respond to the widespread demand for those terms of reference to be approved on a substantive motion in this House. If they are not to be approved in this House, just who are they going to be approved by? Is it not unfair to Sir John Chilcot to expect him to clarify all the procedures and rules of the inquiry, leaving him open to subsequent criticism, rather than the Government being clear about what they want and winning the approval of the House?
On that very point, the Government amendment asks the chairman of the inquiry, Chilcot, to consult party leaders on
“the scope for taking evidence under oath.”
Surely everyone who gives evidence to the inquiry must give it under oath?
Sir John Chilcot has been placed in a difficult position by the ill-prepared announcement that was made last week. Clearly the Government had not anticipated the issue of taking evidence under oath, and they are now trying to put it right by asking Sir John to come up with some formulation that encompasses that. It would be useful to know whether the Foreign Secretary thinks that a solution has been arrived at, and I hope that he will address that point.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the most outstanding continuing defect in the Government’s proposals was shown in the Prime Minister’s statement last week that the inquiry that he has established, unlike the Franks inquiry, will not be able to apportion blame even if it believes it appropriate?
My right hon. Friend said in his speech on 25 March that if the inquiry had not completed its proceedings by the time a Conservative Government came into office, they would feel free to alter its terms of reference. Can he tell the House that if the Prime Minister and the Government continue to refuse to allow the committee to apportion blame at the end of the inquiry if it so wishes, and the inquiry has not been completed when a Conservative Government come into office, they will give it such powers?
Yes, we certainly reserve the right to do that if the Government change and a committee of inquiry is proceeding in a way that we believe to be inadequate and without adequate terms of reference.
My right hon. and learned Friend makes an important point, and I hope that the Foreign Secretary will explain whether the inquiry’s terms of reference will include the Prime Minister’s injunction to it last week that it should not set out to apportion blame. Although we absolutely agree that learning lessons for the future is the primary purpose of the inquiry, a positive prohibition on its apportioning blame seems to us an unnatural and unnecessary restriction on any normal discussion of what happened in the past. The attempt to prevent the inquiry from apportioning any blame is again in sharp contrast to the Franks inquiry, and it is further evidence that Ministers have not set out to set up a Franks-style inquiry at all.
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, if I am still allowed to call him that. Before he leaves the question of evidence on oath, does he understand that Sir John does not have the power to put witnesses on oath? He might have that power if this were an inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005, or if the House conferred it upon him. That is all the more reason for the procedures to be within the ownership of the House of Commons, not that of the Prime Minister.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right. That is why the terms of reference should be brought to the House. Then it would be open to any of us to move amendments to them, in order to clarify the many points such as the one that he has just made. Out of a sense of equality, I now give way to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris).
Yes. I have described what the terms of reference should be several times in debates over the past three years. However, now that we have reached the point of the inquiry being set up, those terms of reference need to set out more of the procedures and rules, so that Sir John Chilcot is not placed in the unfortunate position of having to determine them all by himself.
The Franks inquiry was entirely different from what the Government have proposed. As Humphrey Atkins, one of the Ministers who resigned over the Falklands war, explained in the debate on the Franks inquiry:
“The inquiry may or may not apportion blame. That is for it alone to decide.”—[Official Report, 8 July 1982; Vol. 27, c. 489.]
If Ministers really want a Franks-style inquiry, let them be absolutely clear that the members of the committee will have the same freedom to give their views. A debate on the terms of reference—something to which many hon. Members have referred—is one of the actions for which our motion calls. However, it also calls for the committee of inquiry to have a “wider and more diverse” membership, which the Government have so far failed to bring about or, indeed, tried to bring about.
I might give way to the right hon. Gentleman later, but I know that a lot of Members wish to speak.
The committee’s members are distinguished historians, commentators and public servants. We have no objection to any of them as individuals, but the composition overall still leaves a lot to be desired. Not a single member has high-level military or governmental experience. There are no former chiefs of staff and no one with experience of being in a Cabinet. Those are considerable omissions, given that much of the inquiry’s scope will either be military in nature or concern the decision-making processes at the highest level of Government.
Whatever the case against having such members, however, it cannot possibly be the one advanced by the Prime Minister in the House last week, which was wholly specious, and easily demonstrably so. His justification was that, rather than have people with political or military experience,
“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.”—[Official Report, 15 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 27.]
In making that remark, he revealed either that he was trying to brush off the objections in this House with an argument that he knew to be bogus, or that he knew astonishingly little about the people whom he had just appointed to the inquiry.
Of the four members of the inquiry who were originally proposed by the Government, Lawrence Freedman has written that
“The Iraq war is rightly criticised for its flimsy rationale and incompetence of the occupation”,
and has referred at other times to the
“inept conduct of the Iraq war, from pre-war diplomacy to post-war reconstruction”.
Martin Gilbert, a great historian, wrote in 2004 that George W. Bush and Tony Blair
“may well, with the passage of time and the opening of the archives, join the ranks of Roosevelt and Churchill.”
Sir Roderic Lyne has not only commented on the war but was involved in the efforts to secure a second UN Security Council resolution, recalling that
“Like other British ambassadors, I received what is now known as the ‘Dodgy Dossier’”,
and referring to
“a massive failure of British intelligence,”
“obviously a failure of political intelligence.”
Sir John Chilcot, the chairman of the inquiry, was a member of the Butler inquiry into the use of intelligence in the run-up to the war and has therefore helped to produce a whole report on one aspect of the war, let alone comment on it. All those people have commented on the war, and in some cases liberally so. In the light of that, how the Prime Minister came to think that none of the people appointed to the inquiry had commented on the Iraq war defies imagination. It is quite hard to think how he could stand up in this House and justify the exclusion of others on the basis of an argument so obviously and totally inaccurate in its very foundations.
When the Foreign Secretary comes to reply, perhaps he will explain the answer to these questions. First, is it still the Government’s considered view that it is not necessary to have on the inquiry anyone with substantial military, governmental or, indeed, legal experience? Secondly, if that is still their view, what is the real reason for that view, given that no credence whatever can be attached to the reason given last week by the Prime Minister? Thirdly, as Sir John Chilcot has tried to deal with part of the problem by having a military assessor attached to the inquiry, what possible reason is there not to have that military assessor as a full member of the inquiry? Fourthly, has the Foreign Secretary or anyone else asked Sir John Chilcot whether he would like the expertise that I have described among the inquiry’s membership, and if not, why not?
It must be clear by now that the inquiry that Ministers announced was not remotely modelled on the Franks inquiry—not in its membership, not in its terms of reference, not in the House’s ability to approve the terms of reference and not in the consultation process that preceded it. The Government decided to adopt the one aspect of the Franks inquiry that suited them—that it was held in secret—and say that they had announced something like the Franks inquiry.
The Prime Minister made much of that last week, saying that I had asked for a Franks-style inquiry, which he said
“is what we have got.”
He also said:
“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”.—[Official Report, 15 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 27-30.]
In fact, we have never called for a secret inquiry. In one of the all too many speeches that I have given in the House on this matter, I argued in the debate two years ago not only that the membership of the inquiry should
“draw on very senior diplomatic, military or political experience”,
but that it should be able
“to hold some of its sessions in confidence if it needs to and to summon all the papers and persons it deems necessary.”
The Prime Minister is happy to state in this House that the Opposition had asked for a secret or private inquiry, but the fact that we had said that it should be able to hold some of its sessions in confidence hardly equates to that.
In that same debate two years ago, hon. Members in all parts of the House were clear that the inquiry should be open. Indeed, I recall one hon. Member who was a Back Bencher at the time saying that
“we need an inquiry that is fully in the open”.—[Official Report, 11 June 2007; Vol. 461, c. 534.]
That was the demand of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who is now the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. I am confident that he still holds the same view, although “fully in the open” goes beyond anything that we have asked for or that the Prime Minister has countenanced. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman’s views were never asked for—or perhaps they were ignored.
The Prime Minister went on to assert that a more open inquiry would be bad for the armed forces. No sooner had he said that than he was contradicted by a mass of military figures. The Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, said that a part public, part private inquiry was an option
“that has a lot of merit to it.”
General Sir Mike Jackson, head of the Army during the Iraq invasion, said:
“I would have no problem at all in giving my evidence in public…The main problem with a secret inquiry…is that people would think there is something to hide.”
Air Marshal Sir John Walker, the former head of defence intelligence, said:
“There is one reason that the inquiry is being heard in private and that is to protect past and present members of this Government. There are 179 reasons why the military want the truth to be out.”
In this war of words, I think that the generals represented the Government’s true motives as clearly as the Government misrepresented theirs. Nevertheless, armed with those completely inaccurate assertions about the views of the Opposition and the military, the Prime Minister was insistent at the beginning of last week that the whole inquiry would be held in private. That was on Monday. On Tuesday, we tabled the motion now before the House, and many Government Members indicated that they agreed with it. On Wednesday, the Prime Minister suddenly wrote to Sir John Chilcot asking that
“those appearing before the inquiry do so with the greatest possible candour and openness”
and asking him to explain how the inquiry would be conducted. By Monday of this week, Sir John had given the more satisfying reply to which I have referred.
So when the Prime Minister was asked, during a limited consultation, to ensure that the inquiry was open whenever possible, he chose to ignore those requests. However, when faced with the possibility of a difficult vote in his House, he changed within hours the approach that he had been insistent on, but chose to do so not by coming to the House and saying that he had modified his proposals, but by setting up an exchange of letters with Sir John, without any announcement to the House.
One of the purposes of this debate is to allow Ministers to explain to the House their understanding of an inquiry that we are pleased will now be carried out on a substantially different basis from the one on which they were insistent only nine days ago. The policy on secrecy has been changed. The lack of military expertise has started to be addressed, but has not been fully addressed. The chairman of the inquiry has begun a process of consultation, suggesting that more changes could be on the way, as they should be.
An inquiry that is seriously overdue cannot even get off to a clean start, but will spend an unspecified period of time adjusting its remit—a recipe for confusion, rather than clarity. We appreciate the efforts of Sir John Chilcot to make up for the deficiencies in the initial announcement, but the Government’s handling of the issue means that, as things currently stand, the inquiry will start its work with far less credibility in the eyes of the public or Parliament than it should have had.
In addition to answering the questions that I asked earlier, let the Foreign Secretary now assist the inquiry, the House and the country by being clear about the following matters. Is it now the view of Ministers, as well as of Sir John Chilcot, that the evidence put to the inquiry should be heard in public whenever possible, and will the Foreign Secretary confirm that to the House? Will he explain the true reason why the Government were opposed to such a position until days ago, given that the reasons put to the House by the Prime Minister were not credible ones? Will he confirm that it is the Government’s view that the desirability of holding sessions in public whenever possible applies as much to the inquiry’s forthcoming sessions with Mr. Tony Blair, Mr. Alastair Campbell and the Prime Minister as to anyone else? Will he also confirm that the inquiry will indeed be free to issue an interim report at any stage of its work, if it wishes to do so? Is he happy that a way can be found of giving evidence on oath or some equivalent to it? Will he confirm that the inquiry will have access to all relevant records of meetings and dealings between the British and American Governments?
Finally, will the Foreign Secretary apologise on behalf of the Government for the monumental mess that has been made of what should have been a straightforward process of consultation and consensus? Will he also undertake that the Government will provide to the House the honesty about their own processes, the accuracy about the statements of others, the clarity about the operation of the inquiry and the efficiency in the whole conduct of this business, which this Government, from the Prime Minister down, have so far been unable to supply?
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:
“welcomes the announcement by the Government of a wide ranging and independent inquiry to establish the lessons to be learnt from the United Kingdom’s engagement in Iraq, which will consider the run-up to the conflict, the military action and reconstruction; recognises the importance of allowing the families of those who gave their lives in Iraq to express their views about the nature and procedures of the inquiry; notes the Prime Minister’s request that the chairman of the inquiry consult party leaders and chairs of the relevant parliamentary committees on the scope for taking evidence under oath and holding sessions in public; and commends the proposal by the chair of the inquiry to hold as much of the proceedings as possible in public without compromising national security or the inquiry’s ability to report thoroughly and without delay.”
The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) started his remarks by referring to the terrible situation of the families who have heard that their loved ones have been confirmed dead and of those who are waiting in fear for further news of the three hostages still being held in Iraq. Mr. Speaker, I hope that you will allow me to use this opportunity to confirm that the Government are exploring every avenue and following every lead to try to save the lives of the three remaining hostages. I hope that you will also allow me to take this opportunity to say something that we do not often get a chance to say: namely, that on matters such as this, the Government and the Opposition have to keep in close touch. The right hon. Gentleman referred on television the other day to the fact that he had been kept in touch on this issue over the past 18 to 24 months. It is important that I put on record in return that, at every stage, he has maintained the confidentiality that is essential to such relationships. I recognise that and, of course, it will continue.
Britain’s involvement in Iraq has been one of the longest and gravest military and civilian deployments abroad since the second world war. It cost the lives of 179 British servicemen and women, and hundreds more were seriously injured. We will all wish to pay tribute to their sacrifice and that of their families. In addition, I am sure that the House will join me in recognising the courage and selflessness of all the military and civilian personnel who have served and continue to serve in Iraq, and the courage of the brave Iraqi people, many, many thousands of whom have also lost their lives, their livelihoods and their homes. Profound questions of international relations, nation building and regional security were, and are, at issue.
There were many hundreds of thousands. As I said, many, many thousands have lost their lives. There is no difference between us, whether we voted for the war or against it, about the scale of the suffering and the destruction. That certainly does not come between us at this point.
We all know that hundreds of thousands have died, murdered, in the main, and certainly not by the British or the Americans, but by outright terrorists; so why will the opponents of the war, while maintaining their position—they say that they were absolutely right, and all the rest of it—not condemn the terrorist action, which they refuse to do—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Mass murder was carried out by terrorists, and certainly not by Britain or the United States.
Whatever position any right hon. or hon. Member has taken, I am sure that they all condemn the killing of the British servicemen and women and the innocent Iraqi civilians as a result of terrorist action. I honestly do not think that the passion that we all bring to this debate divides us on the ground of whether or not we condemn the killing of innocent people.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his honesty. I shall make some progress.
The House is united on the point that the significant nature of Britain’s involvement in Iraq demands an inquiry. It needs to be comprehensive, independent and
“not a trial or an impeachment, but an effort to learn for the future.” —[Official Report, 25 March 2008; Vol. 474, c. 47.]
Those are the words of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks in March 2008, and I agree with him on how the inquiry should be conducted. It will have complete freedom to write its own report. The Government’s case today is simple: Sir John Chilcot’s inquiry and his proposed method of conducting it will meet all reasonable aspirations for an Iraq inquiry. The combination of his remit and his membership, plus expert advisers, and his commitment to public sessions for as much of the proceedings as possible will deliver to the country an inquiry of insight and value. Yes, the Government have listened. There is a balance to be struck between speed and confidentiality on the one hand and comprehensiveness and transparency on the other. The balance now proposed by Sir John Chilcot is new, but the Government believe that it will be effective and that it deserves strong support.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the fact that there have been four previous debates on an Iraq inquiry. There have been four demands from the official Opposition in each case, and they will be at the heart of my remarks today, in addition to my answers to the points that he has just made. The first demand was that the inquiry should be comprehensive. The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who is here today, said in the most recent debate on the matter, on 25 March, that the inquiry should have
“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”.—[Official Report, 25 March 2009; Vol. 489, c. 362.]
The second demand was that the inquiry be independent. Each of the three motions on the subject moved by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks—in June 2007, March 2008 and March 2009—has referred to the need for an inquiry by an independent committee of Privy Counsellors. The third demand was that the inquiry draw on expertise from outside the world of politics. The right hon. Gentleman said in 2006:
“A committee of seven Members of Parliament would necessarily be a partisan committee and the credibility of its findings would be correspondingly reduced.”—[Official Report, 31 October 2006; Vol. 451, c. 182.]
The fourth demand was for a Franks-style inquiry. In motions, amendments, and speeches, the right hon. Gentleman has insisted that the inquiry be modelled on the 1982 Franks inquiry. The truth is that all four points are reasonable and serious and all deserve proper consideration. All draw on precedent as well as on common sense and all will be addressed in my speech today.
The Foreign Secretary has just said that the Chilcot inquiry will be completely free to write its own report as it wishes. Will he therefore confirm that, like the Franks committee, if the Chilcot inquiry decides that it wishes to attribute blame, it will be entirely free to do so?
As the Prime Minister said last week, this is not an inquiry that has been set up to establish civil or criminal liability; it is not a judicial inquiry. Everything beyond that will be within its remit. It can praise or blame whomever it likes, and it is free to write its own report at every stage. That will be taken forward.
We are clearly in a much better place than we were just a few days ago. In addition to the points that the Foreign Secretary has just mentioned, will he tell me whether, after Sir John Chilcot has consulted, there will be formal terms of reference? If so, will they be converted into a substantive motion to be put before the House? Both of those things happened in the case of the Franks inquiry.
I will come to that later in my speech.
Last week, the Prime Minister said in his statement that the inquiry would
“consider the period from summer 2001, before military operations began…and our subsequent involvement in Iraq right up to the end of July this year.”
He then talked about an inquiry that will look at
“the run-up to the conflict… the… conflict and reconstruction”.—[Official Report, 15 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 23.]
so that we can learn lessons in each and every area. I will highlight later the fact that we have deliberately not ruled out areas that the committee can examine. Everything in the period 2001 to 2009 is within its remit. On the question of a vote in Parliament, we are obviously going to vote today. That is a good opportunity for right hon. and hon. Members.
As the Prime Minister set out last week, this is an inquiry not to establish civil or criminal liability, but to learn lessons for the future, and it will write its own report. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks used the term “impeachment”. It is not an impeachment or a trial, but an inquiry designed to learn lessons.
I thank the Foreign Secretary, who is being generous in giving way. May I suggest that his list of characteristics of the inquiry misses the central point? I put it to him that, outside this Chamber, there is a real sense of anger and betrayal that this country went to war on a false premise, that premise being weapons of mass destruction. If the inquiry, or large elements of it, is not held in public, I suggest that that sense of betrayal will not be purged and the inquiry will fail, like the others before it.
With the greatest respect, I can only believe that the hon. Gentleman was not listening to what I said at the beginning of my speech. To quote myself, Sir John Chilcot’s inquiry has made absolutely clear its commitment to hold public sessions for as much of the proceedings as possible. That answers the hon. Gentleman’s point directly. I will go into some detail later.
I will return to the point about the public sessions. First, I want to deal with the scope of the inquiry.
The concern has been to ensure that the inquiry is able to address itself to all aspects of preparation for the military campaign, the military campaign itself, and post-conflict stabilisation and reconstruction. That is important. At various points, there have been allegations, for example, that the inquiry would not be able to look at the run-up to the war, or the decisions taken in Basra in 2006 to 2008. Those concerns are not well founded.
The Chilcot inquiry has the widest possible remit. The committee will be free not just to examine all the evidence, as I will set out, but to pursue what it considers are the most important issues. The scope is deliberately not limited. As the Prime Minister said last week:
“No inquiry has looked at such a long period, and no inquiry has the powers to look in so much breadth”.—[Official Report, 15 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 23.]
Secondly, on the question of independence, the Prime Minister wrote to Sir John Chilcot on 17 June assuring him of the Government’s commitment to a thorough and independent inquiry. Sir John confirms in his reply of 21 June:
“I welcome the fact that I and my colleagues are free to decide independently how best to fulfil our remit.”
I want to get to the end of this section of my speech, then I will bring in my hon. Friend. I want to make four points before I pause, take interventions and deal with the public-private issue.
Thirdly, on co-operation from Government and access to Government papers and people, the Prime Minister has made clear not just to Sir John Chilcot, but to all Ministers and former Ministers, the need for full co-operation with the committee. The Cabinet Secretary has written similarly to Departments. Access to papers in official archives will be similarly unrestricted.
In the previous debate in the House, I was asked whether the committee’s access to documents would include all Cabinet papers. I confirm that that will be the case. We have also been asked whether that includes access to papers from foreign Governments held by the Government here. Again, I confirm what the Prime Minister has said: that will indeed be the case.
On ensuring that witnesses give evidence with the greatest possible candour, Sir John has confirmed that he and his colleagues will consider whether it is possible to have a process whereby evidence is given under oath, taking into account the non-judicial nature of the inquiry. Again, that is an issue—
I have said that I want to get through this section of my speech; then I will bring in my hon. Friend. Perhaps I will anticipate some of her questions.
Again, that is an issue on which it is right and proper to leave the discretion to Sir John and his colleagues.
In respect of the old canard about whether Tony Blair is willing to stand up in public and defend his decisions on the Iraq war, during a question-and-answer session last night—I am not sure whether it was a continuation of the masochism strategy that was started in 2005—he said, “I don’t know how many times I have answered questions about Iraq in public, including now. There is no problem for me in answering questions in public.” That is a canard.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. Who did the Prime Minister consult about the composition of the inquiry, whether it would meet in public and its modus operandi—for example, in hearing evidence under oath? As Sir John Chilcot has raised those points about evidence being given predominantly in public, why was he not consulted before the Prime Minister announced that the inquiry would be in private?
I would like to intervene now, whether it is or is not still relevant. [Laughter.] One learns quickly in the House, Mr. Speaker.
My question is simple: does it require an inquiry to understand the fundamental flaw and the frustration that the military finds, which was echoed by General Robin Brims, who was the commander of 1 (UK) Armoured Division and in charge of the forces in Basra? He said that we went into Iraq and, a month later, it was clear that the looting would start, the gangs would form and the militias would be created because there was no plan for peace. Will the Secretary of State now acknowledge that we need a huge overhaul and an examination of the relationship between the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development? The world of warfare has changed from cold war to stabilisation operations. That is the fundamental frustration with our military, which is getting blamed for what happened in Iraq because the war fighting went well, but the peacekeeping was an absolute failure.
In the first debate on Iraq in which I participated after becoming Foreign Secretary, I talked about the precise fact that the success had been in winning the war, but not in winning the peace. I also talked about the fact that there were plans, as we now know, for how the process of peace building would be taken forward, but if those were not binned, they were certainly sidelined in the US Administration. All those issues, which are precisely about stabilisation and reconstruction, will be at the heart of the inquiry.
It is very important—the hon. Gentleman will know this better than many people—not to draw facile comparisons between Iraq and Afghanistan. None the less, there is a major job of reconstruction and stabilisation going on in Afghanistan, and we should certainly be sure that, in addition to the internal MOD inquiries, there are external inquiries.
The Foreign Secretary mentioned a moment ago the fact that Sir John Chilcot has been told to see whether there are ways in which he can produce evidence under oath. Mine is a genuine inquiry: can the Foreign Secretary tell me under what authority or power Sir John could do that, other than under a statutory inquiry procedure, or, indeed, by being given a power to do so by legislation passed by the House?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows well that the Inquiries Act 2005 sets out what is effectively a quasi-judicial procedure that may be appropriate for an inquiry that is set out to mediate between competing interests, but that is not what this inquiry is about. That Act also assumes legal representation for all parties concerned and restrictions on who may be questioned. For those reasons, among others, we chose the inquiry.
The Prime Minister raised the question of oaths in his statement last Monday. Sir John Chilcot believes that there are ways in which he will be able to meet that need. We cannot say that he has full independence to pursue his remit as an independent chair and then start to fetter his discretion.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way and I thank him for the frankness of his statement.
No one underestimates the difficulty that Sir John Chilcot will have during the months of his work, but is he aware quite how difficult the job might be made for him by the publicly given evidence being put through a media filter by people who have already made up their mind on what the outcomes of his inquiry should be, based on evidence that cannot be complete because some of it will, of course, be given in private? Is Sir John capable of resisting media attempts over the months to prejudice the outcome of his discussions?
Sir John is a strong, able, dedicated public servant, and I think that he is well able to look after himself. He understands the need for an inquiry, not a circus. As I shall explain in a moment, the way in which he will balance the public and private elements will, I think—
I thank the Foreign Secretary.
Surely it is wrong to allow Sir John Chilcot to decide whether evidence should be taken under oath when he does not have the power to require it to be taken under oath? He could make a recommendation to the House, but it is the House that would have to give that power to the inquiry. It will not be good enough unless evidence is taken under oath. I ask the Foreign Secretary please to reconsider.
Sir John has made it clear that there are ways in which he can invite the witnesses to make some kind of representation. This will not be a judicial inquiry. Sir John is not there to establish criminal—[Interruption.] He has said that he thinks he is able to do that, and I think we should let him do that. Certainly, if any witness did not follow the protocols established by Sir John, people would draw conclusions from that.
No. I need to make some progress.
Fourthly, let me deal with the membership of the committee. The Government propose a committee of senior public servants and figures from outside Government. As the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks said, they are recognised as outstanding figures in their respective fields. He spoke of military insight, but the more he described the work of the committee members, the more evident it became that they possessed a large amount of relevant expertise. Sir Lawrence Freedman is the official historian of the Falklands campaign, Sir Martin Gilbert has written extensively on military matters, Sir Roderic Lyne was private secretary for defence and foreign affairs, and Sir John Chilcot was permanent secretary at the Northern Ireland Office. The hon. Member for South Hampshire is—
I am sorry. The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) is becoming excited.
In passing, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks mentioned the role of the expert assessors, who will be chosen on the basis of their experience not only in military matters, but in legal, international development and reconstruction matters. It is true that the five people appointed to the inquiry are there because of their ability to sift different material, to ask hard and probing questions and to compose a final report of independence, insight and foresight. I believe, however, that Sir John’s decision to add the assessors will ensure that any deficiencies that may exist are properly accounted for.
I want to make some progress, because I know that many Members wish to speak. If the hon. Gentleman will let me do that, we shall see how we get on.
Fifthly, I want to deal with an issue that has already prompted a number of questions: the conduct of the inquiry. The Prime Minister has invited Sir John Chilcot to consult leading Members of the House, including Select Committee Chairmen, and present proposals for the conduct of the inquiry to ensure that those who appear before it do so with the greatest possible candour and openness.
There are trade-offs on the public nature of the inquiry in the context of intelligence and other matters mentioned by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks. He referred to the Franks report and the starring role of Denis Healey in the 1982 debate. He will also remember that Lord Callaghan described the Franks inquiry as a whitewash. Private inquiries are sometimes described as a whitewash, but other people have described the Hutton inquiry, which was held in public, as a whitewash. The truth is that if people have decided in advance what they are going to conclude, they will describe either a public or a private inquiry as a whitewash.
I think that Sir John Chilcot has anticipated precisely the points that were raised by my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt). Let me go through them. Sir John has set out four main parts of the inquiry, combining public and private aspects. First, there is examination and analysis of documentary evidence, which will be crucial to decisions on the course of the inquiry, including decisions on the selection of witnesses and detailed lines of questioning. It will, by definition, occur in private. Secondly, there is the question of public proceedings. Sir John Chilcot has said that it will be essential to hold as much as possible of the proceedings in public, consistent with national security and the candour of written and oral evidence. The Prime Minister and Sir John Chilcot have had close to the front of their minds the strong and legitimate interest especially of families of those who lost their lives in Iraq, and Sir John has made clear his determination to facilitate the public or private presentation of views.
Thirdly, there is the question of private proceedings, which will be important in allowing examination of matters relating to national security. Classified information will be protected and witnesses will be able to speak without fear of legal action. Intelligence questions obviously fit into that category. It is also important to protect the position and relationships of current public servants, while ensuring that the committee is given the full benefit of their expertise.
Fourthly, and much unheralded, as Sir John has pointed out, there is the publication and debating of the final report. The Prime Minister made clear last week that all relevant evidence should be published, except when national security or similar considerations prevent it. Sir John has confirmed his determination to follow that pattern.
The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks asked whether the Government supported those points. I confirm what the Prime Minister said in his reply to Sir John Chilcot the day before yesterday. The answer is yes, we do support the approach that Sir John has set out, and, as I said at the beginning of my speech, we have listened to the points that have been made.
I am most grateful to the Foreign Secretary.
The Chief of the General Staff has made clear in the newspapers this morning that there were not enough troops to dedicate to Iraq, and that, even if there had been, the political will would not have been there. Will the Foreign Secretary guarantee that the balance of our fighting power, how and when it is deployed, and the mistakes that were made will be properly examined by the committee?
I thank my friend. I listened carefully to what he said earlier, but I am still not clear about whether the majority of the sessions will be held in public or in private. In a briefing paper circulated to Labour Members today, his office said:
“The committee will sit in private with scope for public events and hearings”.
Surely it should have said: “The committee will sit in public with scope for private events”.
I do not think that my hon. Friend has any difficulty in understanding the phrase “as much as possible”, and neither do I. “As much as possible” means that as much as possible will be in public. There will be the sifting of evidence that I have described, but when it comes to the hearings and evidence sessions, as Sir John Chilcot made clear in his letter to the Prime Minister earlier this week, as much as possible will be held in public. I am not going to put a percentage on it, but Sir John’s intention is plain. He has made it clear that national security issues will prevent some sessions from being held in public—that obviously relates to intelligence matters.
Will the Foreign Secretary clarify the answer that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), who asked whether there would be another discussion on these matters and a vote? Is the only way of supporting the point made by my hon. Friend to vote against the Government amendment? The Foreign Secretary’s answer was that we would have a vote today. Would he interpret a vote in favour of the amendment as a decision by the House that it is against a further vote and a further discussion on the final proposals?
No. I would interpret it as indicating that my hon. Friend supports the Government amendment, which says that Sir John Chilcot has set out the appropriate way in which to conduct the inquiry. My hon. Friend has been in the House longer than I have, and I certainly would not seek to prevent him from articulating his views further at any stage in the future, but I would interpret his support for the amendment as an indication that he believes, as I do, that for all the comings and goings of the past 10 days, the Chilcot approach now meets all reasonable aspirations for a comprehensive, independent, thorough inquiry into the Iraq conflict and its aftermath.
May I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that, notwithstanding all the expertise that he has mentioned, he has not mentioned any expertise within Whitehall in relation to the considerable dislocation between Departments, which contributed to the lack of a plan at the time?
The Foreign Secretary has not properly answered the point raised by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), or the point about evidence being given on oath. I appreciate that he has made a lot of concessions in terms of the original proposal, but is not the present proposal for an inquiry really just a mess, and should he not withdraw it, and instead consult properly with the Opposition parties and move forward with a proper consensus?
I honestly think that the hon. Gentleman must have been talking too much to his colleagues during the course of the debate so far, or at least not have been listening. I think that we have clearly answered the questions that have been put. I am reliably informed that one does not need a statutory power to administer an oath, and I am happy to give further guidance on that later.
The truth is that for two years the Government and Opposition have been agreed on the need for a Privy Council inquiry into Iraq.
My understanding is that Sir John Chilcot had no objection to the announcement the Prime Minister made on Monday 15 June. He was very content with that and with the proposal that was made. In the light of the Prime Minister’s subsequent letter of 17 June, Sir John Chilcot considered the best way of conducting the inquiry.
As I was saying, the truth is that for two years the Government and Opposition have been agreed on the need for a Privy Council inquiry into Iraq, and we now have one. We have been agreed that it should be broad ranging and independent and draw on non-political expertise. That is the model that we have proposed. We also now have a widely respected chairman setting out the foundation of his approach and the balance between public and private hearings, with as much as possible in public. The result is an inquiry that can fulfil the mandate given to it of learning lessons that strengthen our diplomacy, our military and our democracy.
The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks cannot credibly claim any fundamental disagreement with the Government about the nature, terms, scope or organisation of the inquiry, and the longer he talked about how much he welcomed the changes we have made since last Monday, the harder it became to understand why he was still making his own proposal for an inquiry. Sham outrage, and never mind bandwagonism, are good reasons to vote down the Opposition motion. An even better reason is that the Government amendment offers the country an inquiry that meets the needs of the country, and I commend it to the House.
I should start by offering the apologies of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) for not being present. I think that he has written to both the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) and the Foreign Secretary to explain why, for family reasons, he has not been able to open the debate for the Liberal Democrats.
I welcome the debate; it is both timely and valuable. I also accept right from the start that it is fair criticism of me and my colleagues to say that we approach this issue with a particular mindset. We opposed the war in Iraq and none of us have changed our minds on that. I and my party have never faltered in expressing our enormous respect for the courage and professionalism of the armed forces who are deployed in Iraq, and it is precisely because we are concerned about that deployment and the equipping of those armed forces that we think this inquiry is so important. I and my party have repeatedly and regularly argued for an open, independent and thorough inquiry. What we want is not a closed, Franks-style inquiry, nor an inquiry designed to protect the former Prime Minister—or, indeed, anybody else—but one that is capable of arriving at the facts and displaying them openly. Every time we have argued for that—which has been over many years now—we have been met with a degree of prevarication from the Government; there has always been one reason after another why the time was not right to have this inquiry. Possibly the most disingenuous was that, in the very latter stages of British troop involvement in Iraq, it would somehow cause a massive diversion of military attention if we were to hold an inquiry in this country into the causes and conduct of the conflict in Iraq. It was argued that that would distract the military authorities from their role in Iraq. However, at the same time, we were massively increasing our involvement in Afghanistan. That, apparently, was not any sort of distraction at all.
Is the hon. Gentleman not struck by the fact that in the United States there have been a number of inquiries into the war, how it came about and the processes behind it, and that some of them have been conducted in public while excluding the necessarily secret areas? Is that not in stark contrast to the reluctance of the British Government, who seek privacy in trying to resolve such fundamental issues?
The hon. Gentleman is right. In both America and other European countries, there have not apparently been the obstacles that the British Government believe were in place to an open and independent inquiry. Also, historically, a number of examples of inquiries were held while hostilities were still taking place and they were faced with no apparent obstacle to their progress.
We finally reached the end of this stonewalling period, however, and the Prime Minister came to the House on 16 June to announce the terms of the inquiry. I think it is fair to say that Members in all parts of the House were less than impressed with what they heard from him, because he seemed at pains to stress—almost over any other consideration—how little of the inquiry would be held in public.
Yes, if it had been possible to hold none of it in public, I think that would have been exactly the position the Prime Minister would have adopted. That is why I found it a bit rich to hear the Foreign Secretary’s contribution today. He suggested that the Prime Minister, after having told the House that the inquiry would be held in private, immediately on returning to his office wrote to Sir John Chilcot to say, “Well, of course I want you to make this as open as possible, and not the other way round.” Had we had proper consultation on the way in which this inquiry would be conducted in advance of the Prime Minister’s statement, that would have made him look a little less foolish, and it would also have been for the good of the House. He has clearly had his mind changed for him—that is more accurate than “changed his mind”, I think. Had we had the early consultation that I think most people in his position would have undertaken, we would not have been in that position, but it is clear that the consultation was vestigial and inadequate.
What we had is what we always have from this Prime Minister: he develops an idea, he writes it down on a sheet of paper in big black felt-tip, and he then announces it and demands consensus support from all Members on both sides of the House—and, in this instance, an independent chairman of a public inquiry. When he does not get that support and he has to backtrack on the position he has taken, he does not do so openly; he does not make an announcement—
Yes, as my hon. Friend says, he does not do that here. He just allows it to be known that the Government have changed their position. Well that is not good enough, and in this instance it puts Sir John Chilcot in the almost impossible situation of having to undertake an exercise in post facto consultation and then to derive different terms of reference for the inquiry from those that were set out by the Prime Minister.
One of the difficulties that the Prime Minister has had is what he said, categorically, in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg):
“We also have to take into account what serving officers will want to say to the inquiry. I think that…all those things involve a degree of confidentiality that would not suit a public inquiry”.—[Official Report, 15 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 29.]
That bold assertion lasted barely 24 hours before senior members of the military said what nonsense it was. I am pleased that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks quoted Air Marshal Sir John Walker, the former head of defence intelligence, because his comment was powerful and chilling in its clarity. He said:
“There is one reason that the inquiry is being heard in private and that is to protect past and present members of this Government. There are 179 reasons why the military want the truth to be out.”
Those are 179 good reasons, and one might add that there are several hundred thousand other good reasons in the state of Iraq.
I suggest that this episode not only reveals the mindset of the Prime Minister, but illustrates yet again the hallmark of this Government, which has been secrecy about the lead-up to the war. Even when I asked the Foreign Secretary to ensure that the vast majority of the inquiry would be held in public, I did not get a definite answer that it would be. It was an answer in which he tried to hedge his bets when it came to the exact extent to which the inquiry would be held in public. That hallmark secrecy is what the public find so distressing about this Government’s approach.
The hon. Gentleman is right. When in doubt, a blanket will be drawn over proceedings. We heard the quote from the briefing note, cited by the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice). Indeed, the Government amendment is not far removed from that briefing note. The difference is that last week the Prime Minister wanted us to believe that the inquiry would be in private. Now it suits the Government to have us believe that the inquiry will be mostly in public, but I have my doubts—and I have legitimate reasons to have doubts.
Does my hon. Friend agree that another group of people would like to see the inquiry held in public? When the 100th soldier died in Iraq, his parents, who are constituents of mine, contacted me because they were concerned about what had happened. They too deserve a full, open and public inquiry.
Of course they do, and I am glad that my hon. Friend makes that point. Sadly, there are grieving families up and down this country who deserve to know the circumstances in which this conflict was undertaken and in which their loved ones died. Many more service personnel were wounded, and they have not yet been mentioned.
I want to know—and it would be nice to hear from the Foreign Secretary—the precise criteria for closed sessions of the inquiry. What is the definition of the “public events”, mentioned by the hon. Member for Pendle, and the private sessions? Clearly, certain classified information will need private sessions, but many of us suspect that they will be the norm for much wider categories of information. What criteria will be used to determine whether a session should be in public or private? Will those criteria be published and how will they be assessed? We need to know the answers.
I hope, but I obviously cannot predict, that the inquiry will work in the same way as Committees of the House. I had the honour of chairing the Defence Committee when we were holding some very sensitive inquiries into the Trident programme. It was more or less up to the witness to say, “That is a question I cannot answer in public, but I will answer in private.” We would go into private session when we had finished with the public part. So the public will get an idea of the sort of questions that witnesses are not prepared to answer in public, provided they are led down that path. That should be reassuring to some degree.
I am not sure that I am entirely reassured by that. Yes, of course, it is reasonable for a witness to suggest that material that they may wish to share is confidential, but a decision then has to be taken—as it would be in a court, in certain circumstances—on whether that view is justified. I hope that the committee will be sufficiently robust to take the view that that which does not have to be heard in private will not be heard in private.
The inquiry will be essentially an inquisitorial process. It will not be the same as a court of law, which is confrontational. It needs to be able to scrutinise and sift material carefully, and it must also follow lines of inquiry. I share the view of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks that we need to ensure that the inquiry has access to those who are expert in the particular areas that need to be explored. It may be that the panel of assessors will cover all those areas, but Sir John Chilcot will have to be exceptionally careful to ensure that it does. But I would go further. Those inquiries that are most effective have the benefit of a counsel to the inquiry—someone who is expert in cross-examination and with experience of it in courts of law or elsewhere, and who can follow a line of inquiry in a way that no lay member of a committee, however experienced and competent, can do. I strongly argue that the inquiry should have the benefit of a counsel to the inquiry to provide that expert support, in terms of identifying the necessary written evidence and guiding lines of inquiry. I hope that Sir John Chilcot will accept that suggestion.
The power to summons is not included in the terms of reference for the inquiry. The Prime Minister has provided an exhortation to people to be prepared to give evidence to the inquiry. I hope that that takes the form of an order to members of the Government in the wider sense—including civil servants and former Ministers—to give evidence to the inquiry. I hope—and I trust that Conservative Members agree—that if there is any request for evidence from our parties, we would be prepared to provide it in person and in supporting material. There were occasions, especially in the lead-up to the war, on which contacts were made by several parties with counterparts in the US and elsewhere that are relevant to the conduct of the war and the expectation that this House would support it.
It has been made clear that Government papers will be provided, and the Foreign Secretary was explicit about Cabinet papers today. Can he be explicit about whether that will include legal advice to Cabinet, because that has so far been officially withheld? Will it be made available—[Interruption.] The Foreign Secretary says from a sedentary position that it will be provided, so we have broken through that final barrier, that we have been arguing now for so long—that the legal advice on which the war was waged will be available to this inquiry and will be made public. I am very pleased to have had that answer. I hope that it will not be redacted to a plain piece of black paper—we shall see.
Just for clarity, the legal advice appeared at the last minute in an answer to a parliamentary question in the House of Lords. The other legal advice, which was never circulated to Cabinet, came out when it was leaked during the election campaign. There was no other legal advice.
We had leaked advice, but it is a fundamental shift of policy by the Government formally to allow sight of the legal advice to the Cabinet. I am delighted that the Foreign Secretary has made that point and we shall see whether there is any other legal advice that was forthcoming in the context of the lead-up to the war. It is relevant.
May I move to the issue of evidence under oath? I agree entirely with those who say that the best way of dealing with that is for this House to give authority to the inquiry to take evidence under oath. This is not an inquiry under the terms of the Inquiries Act 2005. It is not a court of law. However, it is nevertheless quite open to the House explicitly to give that power. I believe that the inquiry, in any case, has the right under law to receive evidence under oath. I have been looking carefully—this might surprise some hon. Members—at the Evidence Act 1851, and section 16 is still extant in this area. It states:
“Every court, judge, justice, officer, commissioner, arbitrator, or other person, now or hereafter having by law or by consent of parties authority to hear, receive, and examine evidence, is hereby empowered to administer an oath to all such witnesses as are legally called before them respectively.”
That confers a power not just on court officials but on any person and if both parties are agreed, they can give evidence under oath. That is important because once they have sworn an oath, they are subject to the laws of perjury. That is the key point—[Interruption.] The hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox) disagrees with me on this point, but I have advice from another learned gentleman that that is precisely what would happen. The hon. and learned Gentleman must explain to me why it would not.
In order for someone to be found guilty of perjury—or to be charged with perjury—it has to be demonstrated that the events were proceedings within the meaning of the common law. The difficulty about an informal inquiry that is not set up under the Inquiries Act is that it is quite likely that a court would hold that its proceedings were not proceedings of that character. Clarification is needed, at the very least.
Clarification is certainly needed, and I am not equipped to argue points of law with the hon. and learned Gentleman, save to say that any affidavit sworn before an officer of the court is subject to the law of perjury and that certainly is not within the course of proceedings.
There is one way of getting out of this confusion, and that is for this House to pass a one clause Bill enabling the committee to administer the oath within the proceedings.
I think that that is the case, but I am not even sure that it needs an Act of Parliament. I think that a mere resolution of this House could confer that right. I do not understand why the Secretary of State or any other member of the Government should resist such a move, because it seems so self-evidently necessary. Although I welcome the fact that Sir John Chilcot has said that he wants to specify to witnesses the need to be truthful, I do not think that that suffices in the context of an inquiry of this nature.
I am not sure that I am going to be entirely helpful to my hon. Friend, for which I hope that he will forgive me. The material part of the quotation that he read was the words “by consent”. In those circumstances, if a witness came before something that might not be proceedings in the technical sense and he or she declined to give consent, clearly the provisions of the statute to which he referred would not apply. As has just been pointed out, the straightforward way to do this is either with a piece of legislation or a resolution of the House empowering Sir John Chilcot’s inquiry to put witnesses on oath and, more to the point, compelling them to attend.
I entirely agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. That is the weakness of the position—that provision depends on mutual consent—but, of course, if a witness was not prepared to accept the provisions of an oath by mutual consent, it would be in order for the inquiry to draw conclusions about the veracity of the evidence that was then adduced.
Let me try to be additionally helpful on that point. Surely the essential difficulty is that the Inquiries Act abolished the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921, which required a resolution of this House. Under that Act, all the powers that we are talking about were included. Parliament has given up the ability to enforce these provisions and needs to rediscover it.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I am delighted to say to him that if he is in the House on 7 July, he will hear that a ten-minute Bill in my name, the parliamentary commissions of inquiry Bill, will be introduced that restores the right of the House to do exactly what the hon. Gentleman’s Committee has recommended—that is, to be able to set up parliamentary commissions of inquiry independent of the Executive. That is exactly what this House should have the power to do.
It surely cannot be right for witnesses to limit their preparedness to provide evidence. That means that someone cannot breeze in and say to the inquiry, “Right, I’ve got an hour and then I’m off to Dusseldorf. I’m sorry, but that’s what you’ve got, so please ask your questions and then I will be on my way.” Frankly, we have seen that happen when people have appeared before Select Committees and it must not happen before an inquiry.
As has already been said, the inquiry has an enormous remit and it breaks down into various parts. I welcome the fact that it has a large remit, but I do not welcome the almost interminable delay in producing any response that might be occasioned by the size of the remit. It is important that we therefore have phasing—I do not know why the Foreign Secretary finds this amusing. It is quite clear that conduct before the war is quite different from the conduct of the war, which is quite different from the peacebuilding operation. It is perfectly proper for the inquiry to consider those matters separately and in turn and to produce interim reports. I see absolutely no reason why, in the first instance, it should not consider the matters that preceded the involvement of the United Kingdom in this conflict and report on that. It does not need to take a huge amount of time from now for that to happen. I strongly commend to the inquiry that it phases its work in such a way. If we can assist by giving an indication from this House that that would be our preference, I think that we should.
The Iraq war was, in the view of many of us, a quite massive failure of British foreign policy that was aided and abetted by those on both sides of the House who were not prepared, perhaps, to consider the evidence with sufficient assiduity. It is essential that we form a view, that we learn from experience and that we provide the truth, as far as we can, by means of this inquiry. That will help all those who have enormous concern about the conduct of the war—they expressed it at the time and have expressed it since—all those who have been involved through the military and who have seen at first hand the difficulties, and all those who wanted the rebuilding of Iraq to take place with greater coherence of strategy and policy than was the case.
Until we have a proper open, transparent, rigorous public inquiry into these matters, those lessons will not be learned. That is why I will recommend that my right hon. and hon. Friends support the motion tabled in the name of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks. I hope that the House will speak clearly on this matter, because I do not believe that the Government will not take acquiescence with their proposed amendment today as approbation for the inquiry that they seek. I do not believe that the matter will come back to the House again on a Government motion. I believe that this is the last time that we will have the opportunity to speak on it and we must make our voices heard.
Following that injunction, I think that we should all try not to revisit the substantive arguments about the Iraq war, on which we all took vigorous and divergent positions. For myself, I anticipated that I would support the Iraq war. I was a great admirer of the former Prime Minister—as, indeed, I am a great admirer of the current Prime Minister, and as I will be of any future Prime Minister from the Labour Benches—but I was also taken with the courage of his devotion to the cause of liberal interventionism and of trying to do good against evil in the world.
I was therefore in the market for military adventure, but the problem was that I could not follow the logic of the argument. I am sure that many others shared that problem. When we talk about the inquiry, the central and abiding questions that it has to engage with are as follows: how did we get from 9/11 to March 2003? How did we get from the twin towers to the invasion of Iraq? What was the policy narrative that took us from one to the other?
Everyone has constructed their own narratives about these events, some of which will remain forever unverified. For example, I think that we shall never know about the legality of what was done. The nature of international law is such that we shall never come to a settled view on that. We can discover more about the process by which the Government took legal advice and so on, but I do not think that we will ever settle central questions of that kind. However, I do think that what we will be able to discover will enable us to understand far better the policy process that took us from 9/11 to the Iraq war. Further questions involve what happened after the invasion, and why we had so much trouble managing the peace in the years that followed.
The inquiry needs to tell us all that because, as has been said, public confidence in our governing process has no chance of being restored unless we can find a narrative that people can test. They need to feel that the process has at least been properly interrogated and examined, and an inquiry is absolutely essential for that purpose.
One of the difficulties with what the Government announced was that they seemed not to understand that that would be a central purpose of the inquiry. It is, of course, absolutely pivotal that we learn all the lessons, and the Government were right in the way that they established the scope of the inquiry and its extensive period. However, to think that the inquiry would be just about learning lessons—important though that is—is to fail to understand what its several purposes have to be.
Inquiries always have several purposes, but a major purpose of this inquiry must be the one that I am describing—to get inside the policy process so that we can begin to answer the questions that still hang in the air and so contaminate people’s trust in that process. Without wanting to insert my own narrative into the events, I believe that an inquiry therefore has to be a huge process of decontamination, as it were, of the decline in trust occasioned by what happened.
As I said in an earlier intervention, we are in a much better place now than we were just a few days ago. If I may say so, I did not feel that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary’s heart and mind were fully engaged by what he was telling us today. I think that I have known him well enough and long enough to know when his heart and mind are fully engaged in what he is saying. I think that he had to say what he said but, if I may say so, I do not think that he quite believed it.
The truth is—and we need to be truthful, as this is a big issue—that what has happened is an object lesson in how not to set up an inquiry. I do not say that with any pleasure, but it is simply the fact of the matter. The terms of the Opposition motion are entirely right, and the only thing that would constrain me from voting for it is the certain shamelessness on their part in putting it forward.
With his usual ingenuity, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) sought to explain what his party really wanted when it called repeatedly for a Franks-style inquiry. That, of course, was a private, Privy Counsellor, inquiry, but the right hon. Gentleman said that that was not what he actually meant and that what the Opposition really wanted was all kinds of other things.
If I was confused by that, I am not surprised that my right hon. Friend Prime Minister was too—or that he might have thought that he was giving the Opposition what they had asked for. The Opposition, realising that a different political moment has arrived, now pop up and say that they were in favour of a public inquiry all along, but that is simply not the case.
The hon. Gentleman’s record on these matters is impeccable and I apologise for interrupting him in mid flow, but when I was Leader of the Opposition we called for a full public inquiry. That was before the Opposition adopted the present position—and, by the way, we did not use Franks as a caveat.
Obviously, I was completely misled by what was said in the House at the time. I am sure that closer textual analysis would have revealed all the caveats in place then, but I am explaining why it is difficult to sign up to the Conservative motion today, even though I think that its terms are entirely right.
I think that we have to do better with the inquiry’s terms of reference; it is not satisfactory to have an inquiry with no formal terms of reference. The period that has been set out is the correct one, and there has been a statement about learning the lessons of what happened in that time, but we must do better in establishing the inquiry’s formal terms of reference—that is, what its purpose is.
Should the inquiry be public or private? Anyone who has thought about that for a moment will understand that, 30-odd years after Franks, it is not possible to announce that an inquiry of this kind on a central public policy issue could be conducted entirely in private. We have only to sniff the air to know that that is not doable any more.
It is right to say that, after Hutton, some people will damn all inquiries even before they start. Yet the Hutton inquiry operated in public and had its own website: all the material was posted there for people to interrogate for themselves, and the sky did not fall in. Government did not become impossible, and in the present circumstances it was just not sustainable—and nor should it be—to announce an inquiry into the Iraq war and say that it would be held entirely in private.
The composition of the inquiry is well worth attending to, as several hon. Members have noted. What is the best balance of expertise that will be required? How will the inquiry be conducted? There is much merit in thinking about segmenting the inquiry. The huge, dominant issue has to do with the run-up to the war and the decision to go to war, but a second issue is what happened with the preparation for after the war. What was the cause of all the trouble then?
I can see that it would be possible to conduct the first part of such an inquiry in a much shorter time than the whole thing would need. It may well be that Sir John Chilcot will think that a sensible way to proceed, but he certainly could have been pointed in that direction.
I want to repeat, very quickly, the point that I made in my intervention on the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), as the House needs to understand why it has been marginalised in these matters. I set out the position under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921 because it inserted Parliament, albeit in a formal sense, in the centre of the process involved in setting up an inquiry. That process gave an inquiry all the powers of a High Court judge. All the procedural rules were in place, and the inquiry had all the authority of Parliament behind it. That was converted into a parliamentary resolution, with terms of reference. What we have done is to allow the Executive to remove Parliament’s residual role from the process of setting up an inquiry.
When our Select Committee looked at this, we were particularly concerned about circumstances where Governments did not want to set up an inquiry, but having one was in the public interest. In those circumstances, how could Parliament itself initiate the process of having an inquiry? For a time, that was the issue with Iraq. It looked as though the Government were less than keen about having an Iraq inquiry, and Parliament did not have any mechanism to bring one about.
Now we have had the announcement on the Iraq inquiry, but Parliament has not been involved in the process of thinking about some of the issues—about purpose, terms of reference, composition and so forth. That would have been the normal procedure until the previous position was abolished. I thus invite the House of Commons as part of its general project at the moment of reclaiming—
I am grateful to be called, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall be brief, as many of the points I wished to raise have already been made, as is the nature of such debates.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). I listened to him with great care, but he was wrong on one point, when he said that he had not heard that we had been calling for some time for a judicial inquiry. In fact, the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) moved a motion on 4 June 2003, calling for such an inquiry, and I supported him on it. I moved a motion on 16 July 2003 and again on 23 October 2003, each of which called for a judicial inquiry where the proper rules of evidence could be applied. It was on that latter occasion when the then Foreign Secretary said, “No, we cannot have one; it will take too long, and it will go over the election so the people will not be able to make a judgment”. We also had a running motion on the Order Paper on every sitting day between July and October. We made our position quite clear—we wanted an open and comprehensive inquiry.
If I may say so from the outset, I am a great respecter and admirer of Sir John Chilcot, who was permanent secretary in the Northern Ireland Office when I served there. I think he has tremendous ability, but we must not ask him to do the impossible. In some ways, by leaving the remit as vague and open as it is now, we are in danger of doing so.
I want to see an inquiry that, after six years and despite those earlier calls, will finally bring closure to the issue of Iraq. We started to call for an inquiry so early not just because of the fog of war, but because of the fog of the nature of the evidence, which meant that there were disputes, disagreements and controversies about the actual truth. Although I and my party—or most of it—voted for the war, I felt that it was essential for the British people to understand what had happened. One way or the other—whether I was right or those who argued against me were right—the British people had a right to know. That is why it is so important that, on this occasion, we get this inquiry right. If we end up with another inquiry that leaves disagreements, doubts, confusion and upset, we will not have served the British people as I believe that we should.
Flight-Lieutenant Stead was killed in the Iraq war when his Hercules did not have the proper suppressant foam. His parents, who live in my constituency, wrote to me to say:
“We would like to express our outrage… that the long awaited Iraq inquiry is to be held in private. To those of us who gave the life of a son or daughter to this conflict this is the biggest insult that he could have afforded both to them and to us. If our sons/daughters were willing to offer up their lives for Queen and country Gordon Brown owes it to them to display all the facts publicly”.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that for the people whose family members were killed, it is very important to hold this inquiry in public?
I absolutely agree, except obviously for particular matters where national security might be at stake. On that issue, and with respect to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates), I hope that it is not left to the witnesses to decide what counts as a matter of national security, but that the committee itself makes that decision. I hope that the committee will apportion blame and I am delighted that the Foreign Secretary has agreed that it should be allowed to do so.
Above all, however, I hope that the inquiry will be able to take evidence that will answer the key questions. There are so many that I cannot rehearse them all, but what was the extent and nature of the intelligence and the advice given to Ministers on which judgments were made before and the during the war? Was the equipment given to our troops during the war—this applies to the question asked of me by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies)—sufficient for purpose? Were we doing what we needed to do for our troops or not? Was there ever a reconstruction plan for after the war—one of the great disputed questions? In America, it is said that there was no plan; it was junked. When I asked the then Foreign Secretary about that before the war, he said that there was a reconstruction plan. If there was such a plan, why were we never told about it after the war? If there was no reconstruction plan, why were we assured before the war that there was such a plan?
That is why the matter of evidence on oath is so important. We have already had a number of inquiries, but they have not settled those disputes, questions and uncertainties. None of those inquiries was conducted under oath. Even the Hutton inquiry, which had all the appearance of being a legal inquiry, did not have the power to take evidence under oath. The reason for taking evidence under oath is that if we are to satisfy people that they are hearing the truth, they must know that they are hearing, in terms of the oath, not just the truth, but the whole truth and nothing but the truth. If they do not hear it and if it can be shown that they have not heard it, there is a legal sanction that can be taken against the person who has misled the committee.
If we are not to go down the road of a judicial inquiry, I say to the Foreign Secretary that we need to look very closely at the powers this House needs to give the inquiry that is set up. In my view, we need a short piece of legislation to allow this inquiry to summon witnesses and to apply the oath to them on the understanding that if anyone misleads the inquiry, the full sanctions of the law of perjury can be applied. We must make sure that on this occasion, the inquiry brings this matter to closure. If it does not, we will have missed an enormous opportunity and after so many people have waited for so long for this inquiry, I think they will feel incredibly betrayed.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary rightly referred to the fatalities of the war, including the hundreds and thousands of Iraqis who have died. We are now debating the British intervention in the war. I shall not rehearse the figures on British deaths, but we need to take into account all the American deaths, too—3,455 of the American armed forces. That figure rises to 4,318 if we include civilians, and to a total of fatalities among the coalition as a whole of 4,632. We know the scale of the military losses and the enormity of the loss of life in Iraq.
I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) that although I recognise the scale of the civil war in Iraq between the Sunni and Shi’a and that issues of terrorism are relevant, the suggestion that those who still believe that it was right to oppose the war are in any way less opposed to terrorism than others is not at all helpful. My hon. Friend should understand that.
If I gave the impression that there are hon. Members who do not condemn terrorism, I am sorry and I apologise, but time and time again, those who opposed the war mention the hundreds of thousands who undoubtedly died, but do not give sufficient emphasis to the fact that those are due to terrorist action, certainly not to the killings carried out by the occupation forces.
Many of those who cautioned against the war said that there was a grave danger of the outbreak of chaotic violence. I think that passing off responsibility for bringing that about—and all the deaths that flowed from it—by saying that it is all due to terrorism is not good enough.
Yes, I think that there is a consensus there.
The Government amendment makes explicit reference to the families, where it says
“recognises the importance of allowing the families of those who gave their lives in Iraq to express their views about the nature and procedures of the inquiry”.
That is fine. Families, and the organisations that represent them, are hugely important. Let us not have any doubt about the scale of the opposition to this intervention among the military. There is no question about that. People working at the Ministry of Defence demonstrated outside this place during our debates at the time. There was huge opposition in all the military services to the decision to send our troops to Iraq. I hope that in the inquiry we do justice to the families and their organisations, including Military Families Against the War.
I have listened to the Opposition Members who have spoken with interest. The Opposition propose that the remit of the inquiry be broadened so that it goes back to 2001, and we welcome that, but I hope that there is not the slightest suggestion that the intervention in Iraq had some logistical follow-on from 9/11. The al-Qaeda presence was virtually non-existent. I say that as someone who had the privilege of serving on the Intelligence and Security Committee when the previous Prime Minister, Tony Blair, asked it to look into that issue, so I will not make too much of it. We know what happened: the US and the whole of the west looked strong after 9/11. It is a hard thing to say, but there was a sort of glow and invading Iraq destroyed all that. It was a huge boost to al-Qaeda and other forces.
That is enough of the substance; I shall return to some of the points raised by the party leaders, who will obviously be important in the inquiry process. We certainly support the involvement of the military assessors. Obviously, all the services are heavily involved and it is important that they are consulted. We should pay tribute to the military; all the services fought for their country and anyone who dies for their country—no matter how they die—should be treated with respect and as a hero.
The committee membership is a bit small, however. There are a couple of historians. I have no problems about the inclusion of two historians—I was a scientist, but I recognise how important history is in determining where we are politically. We could even put another historian on the inquiry.
The shadow Foreign Secretary mentioned that the official Opposition had managed to gain an addition to the membership after their dialogue with the Government, and that a woman would be added to the list. Obviously, I support in principle the addition of a woman—a member of the other place. I have no doubt that Baroness Prashar will be a diligent member of the committee, but who does she represent? She is the parliamentarian. Were the official Opposition consulted about the parliamentarian on the inquiry? Was there a deal only in terms of the sex of the person who would represent the British Parliament? Baroness Prashar will certainly not represent the House of Commons, so that issue is of interest. What is the position of parliamentarians in relation to the inquiry?
I asked the question in the context not just of our being Members of the House of Commons but of our role when people go before the inquiry. There have been quite a few losses in Scotland—in Edinburgh and elsewhere—and as the Government rightly acknowledge, families will go to the inquiry. Can they take their Member of Parliament with them? Those are important issues.
The question is not now about private or public. The concession has been agreed; the committee will meet in public and in private. It must always be accepted that in an inquiry of this nature not all the evidence and intelligence material will be put in the public domain. It is only sensible to recognise that. All the briefing and material provided in the run-up to the decision to commit British forces to the invasion was secret. Some more of that material may be made available, but no one can seriously expect that it will all come out.
I do not know Sir John Chilcot, but I am sure he will be an excellent chairman. In fact, like most people, I do not really know any of the members of the inquiry, although we have read about them. The committee seems rather small, although we note the advances that have been made since the initial announcement and they are obviously welcome.
The scope of the inquiry is probably fair. The Foreign Secretary made it clear that the scope has opened up across the board; the committee can pretty well look at what it wants over the whole time scale, which is important—before the invasion is particularly important. I do not want to rehearse everything, but there were a number of key votes in the House of Commons, including two big votes in 2003, in February and March.
There are many important questions. Yes, this is about learning lessons. We all want to learn lessons, but we do not want a rerun of the debates and arguments. That will not help anyone. I am sure that there are people who are still as absolutely committed in their support for the invasion and the occupation, just as there are those equally committed the other way. The process is not about political point scoring. We need a report about which we can say, “Yes, they really went into this thoroughly and made it as available as possible to Parliament and the British people. They made a judgment on the lessons for Parliament, which supported the Government who committed us to go to Iraq.”
The inquiry is not about getting Tony Blair to give evidence in public, although presumably that will happen. It is taken as read that Ministers will give evidence, and some of it may be in public and some in private. The issues are important. We have to be clear in our minds that we are setting up an inquiry that really will take things forward constructively.
The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) put his finger on it when he said that 30 years after Franks it was inconceivable that anyone should have thought that such an inquiry could be held in private. He knew that, I knew that and the whole House knew that, so it prompts the question why the Prime Minister was of a different mind. Given that he had months to determine the announcement he would make, why did he ever conceive that the inquiry would be acceptable if it was heard in private?
Who did the Prime Minister consult beforehand? We know it was not the armed forces—they have made that clear. We know they wanted to give their evidence in public. I do not say this in a partisan way, because ultimately the Prime Minister is a rational person, but one has to conclude that there was only one rational explanation for his hoping to get away with it, and the House must forgive me for saying it: we will be having a general election within the next 11 months. If it was possible for the evidence to be heard in private, the media would have no way of maintaining interest over that period. There would be interest only when the inquiry eventually reported, with the election having gone one way or the other. Now that the inquiry is to be in public, there will be constant opportunities, as witnesses come forward, to report anything of newsworthy interest. As there is no other rational explanation, I can only assume that that is what the Prime Minister had in mind.
In the Prime Minister’s statement, he told us that there were national security reasons, but of course we all know that any genuine national security considerations can be heard in private in any event, and will be, under any scenario. We were told that the armed forces would not wish to give their evidence in public, yet a series of generals, air marshals and admirals made it clear that that was not remotely their view.
The Prime Minister then came up with a splendid remark: public inquiries mean “lawyers, lawyers and lawyers”. I have to declare that I do not have an interest. Although I have a legal background, I have not practised as a lawyer since 1978, and if I needed a lawyer, I would not instruct me. However, the question of lawyers depends not on whether an inquiry is public or private, but on whether evidence will be given on oath, because that is the only basis on which anyone would wish to be accompanied by a lawyer. When I gave evidence to the Scott inquiry on so-called arms to Iraq, I did not find it necessary to be represented by a lawyer. The idea that lawyers are necessary if there is a public inquiry is not remotely correct.
As we have heard, the Prime Minister then had to go into reverse, and we have not seen such a retreat since Napoleon’s from Moscow—we should remember that that eventually led to his Waterloo. Even in retreat, however, the Prime Minister was very foolish. He started by allowing his spokesman to say that the issue was not theological. He then said that the matter was for the chairman of the committee to decide, but that was not the case. The fundamental question of whether an inquiry should be public or private is for the Government to recommend to the House so that a decision may be reached accordingly, with the chairman of the committee no doubt accepting that view.
We then saw the somewhat sad statement in a letter to Sir John Chilcot, when the Prime Minister was beginning to move ground, that it would perhaps be appropriate for the bereaved to give their evidence in public, if they wished. Perhaps they will but, as we all know, whether the bereaved give their evidence in public is the least important issue. The crucial consideration is whether those who sent the relatives of the bereaved to fight in the war give their evidence in public.
I am not entirely convinced that Sir John Chilcot has changed his mind. I have no doubt that, as the chair of the inquiry, he had to accept what the democratically elected Government of the day decided.
I turn to the question of composition. I agreed with what the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) said. I have nothing against Baroness Prashar and I am sure that she is an impressive lady in her field. However, no one with military experience will sit on the committee, although the whole purpose of the inquiry is to examine a war and the provision made for fighting it successfully. Baroness Prashar’s biographical details—chairman of the Judicial Appointments Commission, chairman of the Parole Board for England and Wales and director of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations—are no doubt those of an impressive person, but they are not remotely comparable to those of a former Chief of the General Staff or First Sea Lord, or a person with military skills.
All the Government have been able to say, even when they began their retreat, is that assessors will be available to assist the committee. However, we have not heard why, in the Government’s view, it is inappropriate for someone with senior, serious military experience to sit on a committee that is examining what happened in the run-up to a war, during that war and in its aftermath. It is disgraceful that the Government have not only failed in that respect, but have not even provided an explanation to the House. Although the Minister for the Armed Forces might not have the authority to do so, I ask him to ensure that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary examine the matter again, because if the inquiry is to carry credibility with the armed forces, which is as important as its credibility with any other sector of the community, it is crucial that they are represented on the committee.
My final point relates to the question of blame. The Prime Minister’s original statement was quite clear:
“The committee will not set out to apportion blame”.—[Official Report, 15 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 24.]
His clear intent was that the committee should reach conclusions on the facts and make statements about what happened, but not criticise Ministers, officials or anyone else involved. I welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary set out today, at the Dispatch Box, that that is no longer the Government’s position. The Government know that they could not sustain such an intolerable position. A lot of reference has been made to the Franks committee, but that was not so constrained, because it was for the committee to decide whether to criticise the Government. It concluded that it should not, but that was its decision, not one that had been imposed on it. It is highly desirable that such a situation should apply now. I cannot recall the number of occasions on which Tony Blair said, “I accept full responsibility for the war”, which implied a major concession, but then went on to defend everything that he had done. Let us see whether he was entitled to do that. If the committee takes the view that he was not, it would be improper to prevent it from expressing that judgment.
The Government have moved on a number of important issues, but each time they have done so grudgingly and unconvincingly, while giving explanations that do not hold water. As several hon. Members have said, the process has been carried out not through statements to the House, but through the entirely artificial device of letters between the Prime Minister and the chairman of the committee.
I am conscious that many hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall conclude by reminding the House of a statement made by Edmund Burke in 1780:
“If there is one eminent criterion which above all the rest distinguishes a wise government from an administration weak and improvident, it is this—‘Well to know the best time and manner of yielding what it is impossible to keep.’”
The Government, by both their timing and manner, show that they have a lot to learn from the wise remarks of Mr. Burke.
When we heard last week’s announcement that there would be an inquiry, I had two concerns: first, about the intention that it would be held in private, on which many hon. Members have commented; and, secondly, about its scope. I welcome the Government amendment, which goes a considerable way towards answering the first of my concerns, because it makes it clear that a substantial part of the inquiry will be held in public. I hope that the “relevant parliamentary committees” that there is a commitment to consult will include the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Defence Committee, both of which carried out inquiries in the previous Parliament and made relevant observations that could be taken into consideration.
I am still worried about the focus and scope of the inquiry, however, and I wish to discuss the eight years that the inquiry is supposed to cover. Why does the period start from 2001? Why will no account be taken of the reason why there was a problem with Saddam’s Iraq? The inquiry will have to look at that context, so it is wrong that there is an arbitrary date of 2001. I questioned the Prime Minister about that when he gave his statement. He said that it would be for the inquiry to go back, if it wished to. I make a strong plea that it does so.
I make my plea in the context of important remarks made by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who said:
“May I express, on behalf of the Opposition, our full support for the action that has been taken by the Government and the United States, while regretting that it has been made necessary by the persistent failure of the Iraqi leader to keep his word or honour international obligations?”
On the same occasion, the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) said:
“Does the Prime Minister understand that he enjoys Liberal Democrat support for the action that he has taken in deploying British forces against Saddam Hussein?”—[Official Report, 17 December 1998; Vol. 322, c. 1102-04.]
Those remarks were made not in 2003, but in 1998, in support of the bombing of Iraq by British forces in December that year, without a United Nations Security Council resolution specifically to authorise it. That action was defended in this House by the late Robin Cook, then Foreign Secretary. That has to be taken into account as part of the context.
We cannot have an inquiry that focuses simply on events from 2001 until 2008 or 2009, and that does not take account of the fact that we were operating a no-fly zone over Iraq and imposed sanctions against Iraq for 12 years. It was alleged that 500,000 children died as a result of those sanctions. The context was a policy of containment. There has to be an assessment of why, when action was taken in 2003, there was support for it in some quarters but opposition in others, including opposition from people who had been quite happy to support the bombing of Iraq without a Security Council resolution in 1998, yet who, in 2003, suddenly found that to be a resigning matter. We need that context because we need to be honest.
I hope that when the committee calls its witnesses, it will call Iraqi Kurds who suffered as a result of chemical weapons being used against them in Halabja. I hope that it will call the democratic Iraqi opposition, and the people—millions of them—who were forced to go into exile by Saddam’s regime.
It is not sufficient simply to look at events in the context of the period from 2001 until now. We need to look at the issue in the round and understand why, despite all the difficulties referred to—the tens or hundreds of thousands of people who lost their lives, and the members of the coalition forces who suffered and died as a result of action following the liberation of Iraq from Saddam—today we have a democratic Iraq where the Iraqi people can determine their own future. I hope that the inquiry will consider the issue in the round, and not narrowly focus on certain issues relating to 2002 and 2003.
First, I draw attention to my declarations of interest and apologise to the Government and Opposition Front Benchers for not being able to be here for the opening speeches. I am grateful for your tolerance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in allowing me to speak in the debate. I was at a meeting with a charitable foundation that could not be changed. My apologies to the House for that.
May I say at the outset that I fully support, and have always supported, the idea of a full, public inquiry? My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), who is not in the Chamber right now, pointed out that on two occasions in 2003, we tabled motions calling for, and we voted for, a full inquiry based on the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921. A tribunal held under that Act is not allowed to refuse the public, including the press,
“to be present at any of the proceedings of the tribunal unless in the opinion of the tribunal”
and solely in its opinion,
“it is in the public interest”
to do so, for various reasons. My right hon. and learned Friend made that clear at the time. We also had on the Order Paper, in July of that year, a motion calling for just such an open inquiry, so although there is now debate between the Government and my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench about whether the terms were those of the Franks inquiry, we called for a full, public inquiry. I hope that that is established once and for all, and that we get away from this rather silly game-playing about what one group called for and another group did not.
I speak today as a continuing supporter of what we have done in Iraq. I find that position perhaps a little more lonely these days than it was originally, but it is always best to be honest with oneself and one’s colleagues. I remain of the opinion—this does not affect my reasons for why there should be an inquiry—that ultimately, when we look back, we will recognise that what happens now in the middle east will have been dramatically affected for the better by what we did at the time. Of course, that is not to say that everything is therefore forgiven; that is the point of the inquiry.
The British public have, for various reasons, come to lower their belief in and respect for politics. They feel to this day that they were never quite given the truth about what we were doing and why we were in Iraq. The question is not whether we should have gone to war, but how the British public came to understand the reasons why we were in Iraq, and so could give their consent or not. That is the importance of the inquiry. It is time—we should have done it earlier—to clear the way on that, to get at least some closure for all of us, and to start rebuilding politics. We are suffering from the need to do so, as a result of other issues that have been around us in the past few weeks.
As my right hon. and hon. Friends have mentioned time and again, and as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) said categorically, the Prime Minister in his announcement last week made some very clear statements of limitations to the inquiry. That is the problem. Since then, in the past seven days, we have seen those statements unwind in front of our eyes. That is an important factor, because the issue is not just about the inquiry. We have a crisis in this Chamber. We have so given away the idea that we Back Benchers, rather than the Front Benchers, should control what is done that we have handed everything over to the Executive, whatever party is in power. I think that we are beyond the point where we can play party politics.
The fact is that we should have sat down and considered the matter properly, and we should have come to the conclusion that in this day and age, it is not feasible, as the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) said, for us to hide anything away from the public. If we have learned anything at all in the past three to four weeks, we have learned that, now, anything other than openness simply will not wash. The days of deference and respect, and the belief that politicians behind closed doors will always come to the right decision, will no longer wash with the British people. The only way for us to clear the air is to have the inquiry fully in public. The default mechanism of the inquiry should be, “Everything in public, unless,” and the “unless” needs to be reasoned.
I am concerned that we are leaving it to somebody who is not elected to make a decision about what the inquiry will do, which is fundamentally wrong. Have we in this House so lost a sense of ourselves that we do not want to put an elected Member of Parliament on a committee of inquiry into a war that we voted for in this Chamber, and for which all of us, myself included, have to answer? Why do we not have a politician, or two politicians, on the inquiry? Why are we so ashamed that we give way to a baroness? Whatever her credentials—my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea mentioned them—she is not elected. We are elected. We are the ones who have to be accountable to our electorate. Why are we not on the committee? We have nothing to be ashamed of. We should be on the committee because it would give it a cutting edge. I hope that the Government will think again about that. It would be an opportunity to rebuild respect in Parliament if somebody from this place went on that committee and made a statement about the passion that Parliament feels on the issue. That is very important.
Beyond that, I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend and other learned Members who have said that the composition of the committee is simply not good enough. Three issues need to be looked at by the committee. The first is the reasons for the war. The hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, wants to take the inquiry much further back in time, and there is an argument for that, but I have to say that the number of people whom he wanted to be called might mean that it went on for another 15 years, and I do not think that we want to go down that road. That is a little caveat. The political reasons for the war are critical and need to be looked at. That is why we need politicians on the committee.
The second issue that needs to be considered is the military, its equipment, and whether there were sufficient resources for the task. Without a member of the military, or even someone who was recently in the military, it will be impossible to reach a proper conclusion. Witnesses are not good enough; we need some interpretation on that committee. That is why a military person or ex-military person should be on it.
The last issue is the aftermath and reconstruction. On that issue, we should perhaps draw on people from the Department for International Development and others who were involved. I remember that when I was Leader of the Opposition, we had a debate or two about the plans for the aftermath. The composition of the committee is not good enough. We need to reinforce it from the House and from the military.
My second point is about the oath. We need to take back the power to set up an inquiry that has the power to take evidence under oath. I would be happy to give such evidence—everybody should be. The public now believe that unless something is said under oath, it is not necessarily to be trusted. We must do everything we can to make sure that the inquiry’s findings are demonstrably evidence that can be trusted, otherwise there will be more cries that it has not worked.
Before closing, I make the point to my colleagues that in all this, we should default to openness. Without that, we will not have credibility. The issue is as much us and our weakness in this place as it is the inquiry. It demonstrates to us more than ever before that we need to draw back powers to the Chamber, the House and the Back Benches so that once again we stand as the elected representatives of the British people, so that their anger, fear, vexation and concerns can be represented in the Chamber. The terms of an inquiry should not be dictated by an Executive who may have political motives for deciding that it should or should not take place in certain circumstances. I hope the Government will rethink the matter.
Ultimately, we must allow the British people to decide whether the war in Iraq was worth while, whether it should have been undertaken, and whether that was done for the correct reasons. If they can reach a good conclusion on that, respect for politicians will rise and we will have reached a point where we can close the issue and move on. Like justice, politics cannot just be done. It must be seen to be done.
Many art forms thrive as a result of warfare, but none more, as a result of the Iraq war, than the art of sophistry. The ancient art of the sophist took apparently wise and irrefutable statements which, when they are carefully examined in the context in which they are made, turn out to be utterly without reason.
There was no better example of that than the words that fell from the Prime Minister’s mouth when he announced the setting up of the committee. He said that the committee was to be set up in order that we should learn the mistakes and benefit from learning the mistakes that were made, and that they should not be made again—apparently wise in itself and, in the context of what the Committee must consider and decide, utterly without meaning.
The central issue for the committee must be whether the House and, through it, the British people were misled and deceived into support for an illegal war. That is the central issue. There are other tangential and peripheral issues that need to be considered. I also would like to know about the aftermath. I would very much like to know about the role of Halliburton and other companies in the so-called reconstruction of Iraq. I would like to know many of the things that have perplexed the House as to what has happened since the war, but the central issue for those who were here and voted or did not vote for the war and took that awesome responsibility is whether the House at the time was deliberately misled into an illegal war.
In that essential question two things stand out above all and must be discerned. The first centres on the so-called Downing street memorandum in July 2002, many months before the war began. It is a clear minute, and it shows that our man—Q—who was at the time in Washington, Richard Dearlove, reported to the then Prime Minister in these terms:
“Bush wanted to remove Saddam through military action justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”
That was the clearest possible statement, which was echoed in the House almost exactly word for word, although he did not know of the minute, by Robin Cook at the time that he made his resignation speech—that what was happening was that the facts were being fixed around policy.
That is the first thing that requires the Prime Minister of the day to go before the committee on oath and without immunity in order to be cross-examined about that, because he came to the House almost immediately afterwards and not a word of that reached the ears of those who were listening to him and were deciding on the issue of war. It is not the only internal memorandum, but it needs to be answered.
The second matter is the legal advice that was given to Cabinet, to the House and to the House of Lords. On 7 March, the Attorney-General produced an opinion that has now, like drawing teeth, been made public. That opinion was hedged with doubt throughout on whether the war was legal. Any lawyer reading it would read both between and on the lines that the Attorney-General had the gravest possible reservations about the legality of war without a United Nations resolution. Seven days later a completely different opinion was given to Cabinet and subsequently was given in the House of Lords.
If the first opinion had been made public at the time, it is highly unlikely, in my view—we have one distinguished member of that Cabinet in the Chamber, and she will be able to tell us herself—that that Cabinet universally would have voted for war in those circumstances. That is the second matter that requires investigation.
Neither of these matters requires phalanxes of lawyers. Neither affects national security in their investigation. Both are absolutely central. They can be dealt with without months of preparation, on oath and in public. There is no lesson to be learned here. The lesson of whether or not to mislead the House is a lesson very quickly learned, and the answer is simple: do not mislead the House when dealing with the intelligence and the background to war. That is what we need to decide—not the lessons for tomorrow, but the facts of the past.
The mistakes that were made have already been visited, of course, by Lord Butler and his committee, but he was constrained. Those who read the Butler report can feel the frustration that comes out of those pages that he was constrained in his brief by looking only at the intelligence, and not at the use that was made of that intelligence in the dossiers and the information that was given to the House. The frustration that his committee obviously felt was manifest in what he said in the House of Lords in an extraordinary departure from normal protocol, when he also said that the inquiry must be held in public in order to deal with the issues.
In a sense, Lord Butler has no one but himself to blame because the Butler report was written in mandarin—a language in which Robin Butler is fluent and of which some of us have a passing knowledge, but it is a foreign language to the fourth estate. So, of course, the Butler report was taken as a vindication for what it most certainly was not—that is, the political reasons and the basis for war.
May I have my three ha’p’orth of where all this sits in the events of the past weeks that have affected the House? One of the problems that lies behind the expenses debate is not that it has thrown up serious matters—it undoubtedly has—which require investigation and answer. It has also been responsible for a wave of matters that are in themselves trivial—bath plugs, paperclips, and the like. What is the reason for that? One reason, undoubtedly, is to portray this House in a Lilliputian light: to trivialise its very existence. That is it. If we allow that to happen, we deserve to be portrayed as a Lilliputian assembly, unable to control our own destiny.
It is we who were misled, many of us believe, in the preparation for the Iraq war. It was this House that was misled.
My good and hon. Friend shakes his head when I say that, but let us have an inquiry to find out, and then, at least, something that has passed between he and I will be laid to rest. It is we who were misled, if we were misled, and it is to us that the inquiry must answer and it is to us to set the terms of reference of that committee. The terms of reference are not in themselves a matter of deep jurisprudence, because they are perfectly simple: the inquiry should be open; on oath and without immunity. What is more, those against whom criticism or indictment may be made must be warned of that fact and must be represented—yes—when they give evidence before the committee.
None of that is difficult to understand; it was all enshrined in the committees that were set up under Lord Salmon and the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) pointed out, was the point at which we divested ourselves of such authority. Now, we must retain it and we must regain it. That is one reason why, if the House divides, I shall be on the Opposition side, not because I wish to vote with the Tories, but because I wish to vote for—for—an inquiry in the terms that we require it.
Not for the first time, I find myself in complete agreement with the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews). I believe that the decision to join the United States in an illegal war against Iraq was based upon a flawed premise and has done catastrophic damage to British interests. That may well disqualify me from membership of a committee of investigation, but it most certainly does not prevent me from passing judgment on the form of that committee and its composition.
The Government have been partially saved from themselves by Sir John Chilcot, by General Sir Mike Jackson and by the many people who have publicly said that they accepted and, indeed, wished that proceedings in which they might feature should be in public. This evening, Parliament can save the Government further by passing the motion that stands in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, because the responsibility for the establishment of the inquiry should rest with this House. Anything else is a dereliction of our duty.
There are no precise terms of reference. That issue has been somehow brushed aside. How will we test the committee’s success unless we test its conclusions against the terms of reference? There are no members with military experience. Who understands the pressures of command when sending 40,000 young men and women into the middle east—with the prospect at least of casualties—at the same time as following the established principle that one takes one’s instructions from one’s political masters? No one does, other than someone who has had to discharge those responsibilities.
Who understands the political responsibility other than someone who has been associated with a decision to deploy British forces in circumstances where they may lose their lives or be injured? Assessors are no substitute for this reason: assessors advise; they do not decide or take upon themselves the responsibility for the decisions that are made. Parliament tonight should assert itself; it should assert itself to own the process; and it should set the conditions for the inquiry. They should include, in order to put aside any questions of uncertainty, a specific power to compel witnesses to attend and to put them on oath.
There is now no dispute but that the most sensitive material touching on intelligence cannot be heard in public. However, we should have a presumption that everything will be heard in public unless the national interest demands it. Government embarrassment and national interest are not synonymous with each other; they are wholly separate and distinct.
I shall set out some questions that I hope the inquiry will address. What was the then Prime Minister’s motive in establishing a policy of standing steadfastly by the Bush Administration? Did the Cabinet agree with that policy? Did the Cabinet ever discuss that policy? Is it the case that by July 2002 at a meeting in Downing street, the minutes of which have been leaked, as it happens to The Daily Telegraph, Mr. Blair was committed to military action along with the United States? Is it the case that by that meeting Mr. Blair was committed to regime change?
When did the Cabinet first discuss military action? When did the Cabinet first discuss regime change? And on how many occasions thereafter did it discuss either or both implications of Government policy? Why did the Cabinet not see the Attorney-General’s full opinion of 7 March 2003, before military action commenced? Who took the decision that the Cabinet should see only the one-page answer to a question no doubt placed by arrangement in the other place? Why did the Chief of the Defence Staff insist on specific legal advice on the legality of what he was being asked to do? Was the Cabinet advised that the intelligence assessment was that war against Iraq would increase the likelihood of terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom? If not, why not? Was the Cabinet informed that the 45-minute claim related only to battlefield nuclear weapons?
What do those questions have in common? None raises an issue of intelligence sensitivity. They can all be asked and they can all be answered in public, and they should be so.
The main reason for my vote tonight will be based on whether Parliament is going to assert itself in this matter. I was very struck by the speech by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), the former Leader of the Opposition, on that point, but I disagreed with the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), who said that it is a matter for the Government to decide. It is not; it is for Parliament to decide. We have allowed our powers to be usurped by successive Governments.
As a Government Member, I feel embarrassed by the bungled way in which the inquiry has been launched; I cannot think of a worse way in which to handle a matter of such sensitivity and importance. The last time that I spoke in a debate about Iraq, I took up my 10 minutes to recite the names of the 179 people who have fallen, and they are the main reason why we need this inquiry and why their loved ones are crying out for closure. There are, in the main, two groups: those who believe that their relatives died in a noble cause and possibly resent the idea of it all being churned up again; and a great group—possibly a majority—who are tormented by the idea that their loved ones died in vain, and that there was no reason for us to be involved in that war.
The Public Administration Committee had those people in mind when we put up the idea, which I wish the Government would consider, of a two-tier inquiry. Yes, we could look at all the historical issues, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs suggested, but that inquiry, like the Saville inquiry, would go on for many years. It is not our job to do the work of the historians of the future; our job is to answer the question of whether we, in this House, were deceived when we took our decision in March 2003. It was an extraordinary decision, perhaps the most important of our political lives. For the first time ever, Parliament was deciding on whether we went to war. Every one of us who was a Member at the time takes the responsibility for that decision and its consequences, which included the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.
Our responsibility was not about whether the war would have taken place anyway; we know about the feeling in America, which was deluded by the neo-cons, the religious zealots and the project for a new American century. There was an idea that the country would rule the world for the foreseeable future and have a series of multiple wars, which were described in the document outlining that project. There was talk of the American army being the new cavalry, of boundaries that stretched to the great wall of China. It all seems such a fantasy now, but the Iraq war was planned on that deluded basis, and not in 2003—the intention was there long before that. Sadly, our supine Prime Minister went along with it, and—
We all remember well the day of the vote itself. To their great credit, six Conservative Members voted against their three-line Whip; on the Labour side, 139 Members voted against a very tough three-line Whip. However, as has been recorded in a book by Philip Cowley, 80 other Members had already signed early-day motions or other motions against the war, but they were bullied, bamboozled and bribed into voting the other way or abstaining. If they had been told the truth on the 45-minute threat and the deceptions in the two dossiers, they almost certainly would not have voted with the Government. Many of them bitterly regret their votes now.
Those Members, and Parliament, deserve the truth. We can get at the truth if the inquiry is divided into two tiers. The other, long inquiry into what happened for years before and years afterwards can go on. We should also have an inquiry that focuses not on whether the war was going to take place—it was going to happen anyway—but on why Britain was a collaborator in Bush’s war. Why were we involved?
To his great credit, Harold Wilson kept us out of the Vietnam war. We should have used our opportunity and voted for non-involvement in the Iraq war; if we had, those 179 brave British soldiers would not have lost their lives. The Public Administration Committee believes that the crucial issue of why we were involved should be considered first. Such an inquiry could be conducted in a matter of a few months. As we on the Committee put it:
“We recommend that consideration be given to splitting the inquiry into two stages: the first stage to concentrate on the British decision to go to war; and the second stage to consider the broader lessons from the conflict and its aftermath.”
The other point, made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) this afternoon and not answered by a Front Bencher, is whether the issue ends today. Will a vote for the Government amendment be interpreted as approval by Labour Members of the idea that the matter is over? Will it mean that we do not have to look at the decisions taken on the shape of the inquiry and that we abandon our rights as parliamentarians to decide on how the inquiry should go forward?
I accept what Government Front Benchers have said about the element of bandwagonism on the part of the official Opposition. They are trying to score political points, and I am reluctant to vote with them for that reason. I think, however, that I will do so because otherwise I would have to give full approval for how the Government introduced the idea of the inquiry and for how they are mishandling the issue now by trying to put Labour Members into an armlock and make them agree to something to which we do not agree. We want another look at the issue. We want a substantive motion before the House, another debate and a chance to decide; as the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green said, we decide on so little.
The two worst decisions that this country has made in my lifetime have been to do with the Suez crisis and the war in Iraq. However, we made an awful mistake—without there having been a Division on the matter—in deciding to send troops in a surge into Helmand province. We had a debate on the subject, but in Westminster Hall. At the time, only seven soldiers had been killed in Afghanistan. As a result of the surge, there was also a surge in casualties; now not seven but 169 soldiers have died, and the number is increasing every week as part of a war that is going nowhere.
During the brief debate, the futility of the decision to go into Helmand province was compared to that of the charge of the Light Brigade. Now more soldiers have died in Helmand than died in the charge of the Light Brigade. Surely we need to debate that issue as parliamentarians. Surely we need to say that, in respect of future and current conflicts, Parliament should assert itself. We should cry out, “For goodness’ sake, can you justify this war? Can you justify a future conflict, possibly led by America, against Iran or wherever else?” Obama is now President of the United States, so there is hope that good things will come. The man is an intellectual, far removed from his predecessor. I believe that he has great ideals and a clear vision of world events. It is hoped that the rest of the western world will follow in the slipstream of the path that he is taking.
This week, we parliamentarians have heard a lot about the weakness of our position. The decision that we took in March 2003 haunts many Members here now. We will make decisions in the future, but we have to make them in a way that reflects the views of our constituents. There is talk of this inquiry being similar to the Franks inquiry. Despite the problems of the Belgrano, that inquiry was into a war that generally united the nation; the nation was generally behind the Falklands war. The Iraq war, however, bitterly divided the nation, probably as no war has in our history—no previous war brought out 2 million people on to the streets.
We saw a deluded Government, led by people who almost certainly had done a deal with the American President to go ahead with the war. As has been said, they decided to fit the facts around the policy. That was the position that we were in. We have only to look at the two dossiers to read the exaggerations, lies and mistakes. As a Parliament, we were fooled by those dossiers and the Front-Bench speeches. The issue must be fully investigated and illuminated, and that must happen rapidly.
I am not going to follow the line of public versus private, oath versus no oath. Those foxes have been comprehensively shot by the strength of opinion that has been expressed on both sides of the House. I am perfectly certain that if the Government wish to survive, they will have to listen to what has been said and do something about it.
I have had the privilege of being part of two inquiries into Iraq, first the Intelligence and Security Committee’s inquiry and then the Butler inquiry. Both were constrained by the fact that it was our business to examine the use, gathering and consequences of the intelligence that we got, rather than the bigger picture. However, as I shall explain, we were shown very much more than was covered by those narrow parameters. The hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) is absolutely right that there was a lot of frustration about what we had seen but were unable to report on because of the terms of reference that we had been set. That reinforces the point about terms of reference needing to be properly set by the House so that Sir John Chilcot, whom I wish well and with whom I worked on the Butler review and before that in Northern Ireland, is not in any way hamstrung by not being given adequate and full instructions and conditions under which he can do his job properly.
I turn first to the military aspect of all this, which is probably the least complex, although obviously it is very important. The operation itself was largely successful. There will be lessons to be learned, and they can all come out. For instance, issues relating to logistics, the lack of the right equipment and equipment not arriving on time must all be thrashed out.
Perhaps most important and controversial of all is the reconstruction phase. I remember my noble Friend Field Marshal the Lord Inge chuntering away beside me, as we were going through the motions in the Butler review, about how there had been no plan for what we did when we had beaten the Iraqis and won the war, as was obviously going to happen.
The military keep implying that it was the fault of the humanitarian agencies that there was no reconstruction, but if the military occupy a country, they have to prevent disorder from breaking out. That is a military task, and I underline that their trying to pass the buck as though disorder were the fault of the UN or the Department for International Development really is not good enough.
That is not what I was saying. I was saying that there was not a comprehensive plan as to how to handle Iraq once the war was over. That was largely in the hands of the United States, which was taking the lead in all this, and I know that some of our Ministers tried manfully to get the US to focus on the matter. All of that needs to be examined in the Chilcot inquiry. Our inquiry saw quite a lot about that peripherally, but it was not actually our business.
That brings me to the point that others have forcefully made. Why is there not somebody with military expertise as a member of the inquiry? It is not good enough that there are advisers, assessors or whatever we like to call them. We had an army of them behind our inquiry, but it is no good having a senior retired military commander giving advice if he cannot put pertinent questions from his own area of expertise the moment the subject comes up. That gap in the composition of the committee ought to be filled.
I am pushed for time, because I have much to say, so I shall move on to the legal aspect. The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) asked a number of questions. I know most of the answers, because we were shown all the evidence. We had to go into the legal aspects of the matter from an intelligence point of view, and we reported on that. However, we were constrained from reporting on them other than from that point of view. I remember that when we asked the Attorney-General a specific question, he said, “Well, there was no intelligence aspect to that question, so I do not have to answer it.” Sir John must have a broad canvas to work on.
I have seen advice from the Attorney-General that I do not believe the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) has seen, because it was not shown to the Cabinet. Some of it was leaked, and all of it was given to us, but we were constrained from reporting on it. That was not for reasons of national security but because if we had tried to, someone would have said that it was none of our business. That needs to be put right so that the Chilcot inquiry can examine all the matters that I have mentioned.
Regime change loomed large in the arguments about the legality of the war, as did resolution 1441. Papers laying everything out have flown between very senior Government representatives and Ministers, which will make certain people’s eyes water when they see them. Our inquiry saw all those things, and the Chilcot committee must see them and be able to report on them. Five or six years on, it is not a question of national security any more. It is about what advice was given to Ministers and what their reaction to it was—did they accept it, or did they ignore it?
One issue to consider is the resignation of a legal adviser to the Foreign Office, who was not content with the Attorney-General’s advice. That is in the public domain, but the reasons behind it are not. That may explain why the FCO was largely excluded from the latter stages of the discussions and the decision taking, most notably when Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, met President Bush in Washington with his coterie of No. 10 advisers and Sir Christopher Meyer, our ambassador there, was excluded from the meeting. If it is not the job of Her Majesty’s ambassador to be there to report from the American perspective, I do not know what is, but he was not permitted to go to that meeting. I shall not repeat myself, but we have seen the accounts of that meeting, whereas others who should have seen them have not. Sir John must be able to bring all that out.
Why is there no one with some legal expertise on the committee? We need that sort of expertise among its members, so it seems strange it is missing from those people who have been chosen, although, like others, I am in no way criticising them.
My last point is about the intelligence, political and machinery of government aspects that led to the way in which the decisions were taken, which we were able to report on more substantially. In fact, our comments on that were perhaps some of our most trenchant. Perhaps the hon. and learned Member for Medway did not get the bit in mandarin, because we were highly critical of the style of government that had led to no notes being taken and no record being made.
The passage to which I think the right hon. Gentleman is referring is exactly the mandarin passage that I had in mind, when Lord Butler said that, taking everything together, the committee was “surprised” that none of the intelligence being placed before the Government was reflected in the statements being made. The word “surprised” in mandarin does not mean: “Good Lord! Is that the time?” It means: “It is absolutely inconceivable that anything like this could happen.”
I will leave the interpreter of mandarin to draw his own conclusions.
The whole UK-US relationship must obviously be examined too. There are reams of papers that explain and reveal how the two were interacting in that relationship and how that led to certain decisions being taken that, if they had been presented differently, might have been taken differently. There were crucial reports of the key moments in the decision-making process. First, there was the meeting between the Prime Minister and the President in Texas, at President Bush’s ranch in Crawford. Then there was the meeting between the Prime Minister and the President in Washington from which Sir Christopher Meyer was excluded. Then there is a series of documents written by Sir David Manning, the Prime Minister’s adviser on overseas and foreign policy. Those documents are crucial to understanding the way in which all the decisions were made. The press have speculated about them—sometimes correctly, sometimes incorrectly—and some have been leaked. Having seen them all, I know how crucial those documents are for the Chilcot inquiry to be able to do its job properly.
Last of all, if ever there was a war in which politics—that is, in the decision to go to war, not the war itself—played such a major part, it was this one, given the political decisions taken here and in the United States. As I speak these words, I can hear colleagues saying, “He would say this, wouldn’t he?” Why are there no politicians on the committee? That point was made very well by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) and the hon. and learned Member for Medway, as well as by others, from all round the House. The reason the Prime Minister gave us was this:
“the membership of the committee will consist entirely of non-partisan public figures acknowledged to be experts and leaders…There will be no representatives of political parties from either side of this House.”—[Official Report, 15 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 24.]
I commend my right hon. Friend for making an astonishingly informative speech. To reinforce his comment about politicians being involved, everything that he has described is mirrored in similar failures—constitutional, structural, governmental and decision-making failures—in the United States. They have come out recently because of the torture issue and how legality was bypassed, so it is doubly important that politicians should be involved.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Let me finish by saying that it is rather an insult to us as professional politicians to be told by a Prime Minister that we would be partisan if we took part in such an inquiry. I had the pleasure of chairing the Select Committee on Defence for six years—I was a member of it for 12 years—and I chaired the Northern Ireland Committee for four years. I have also sat on the Security and Intelligence Committee for 15 years. Never, in any of those Committee deliberations, has party politics played a part, other than as a joke at the periphery. There was never a vote taken in any Committee that I chaired; had there been a vote taken, I would have considered that I had failed in my job.
We are perfectly able to serve in a non-partisan way. More importantly, we are able to bring our political expertise to a committee that, however good and worthy it might be, does not have such expertise. Nor does it have military or legal expertise. Simply to say that it will be able to get the necessary advice from the second row of the stalls is not good enough. The question of its membership must be revisited.
If one consensus has emerged, it is that the inquiry should be far more public than private. If the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) is not on the committee, there is no reason why he should not give evidence to it. It is quite likely that he will wish to do so. The Government have been criticised for giving an impression—more than an impression—last week that the inquiry should be held in private, and they were wrong. Surely it is all to the good that they have now shifted their position. They stated something that Members on both sides of the House considered unacceptable, but they then moved. That is hardly a matter for criticism.
Last week at business questions, I said that a committee whose remit was to look into the most controversial war that we have engaged in since 1945 should obviously not sit in private. I am sure that many Labour Members said the same thing more privately. I want to see the committee sitting far more in public, and only in exceptional circumstances should evidence be given privately. Those circumstances would have to involve security grounds.
I would like to see a widening of the membership of the committee. I doubt that that will happen, however; I am not sure whether we can move the Government in that direction. I am not necessarily calling for Members of Parliament to sit on the committee, but it should nevertheless have a broader membership than is proposed at the moment. I also accept the obvious statement that there should be public trust in the committee. The many people who have lost family members—sons and daughters, for example—in warfare in Iraq should be able to feel reassured that the committee will try to get as close to the truth as possible in asking why we went to war and what all the consequences were. Some of the families blame the Government for the loss of their loved ones. Others, however, have said publicly that they are proud of what their close relatives have done, and that, too, should be borne in mind.
Having listened to today’s debate from the beginning, I have not heard any differences in opinion from those that were being expressed six years ago. There do not seem to have been any changes of mind. The critics at the time have put forward their point of view once again, and those of us who took a different position and supported the Government are to a large extent reiterating what we said then.
The right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) said that he hoped that the inquiry would lead to closure. I have to say that the possibility of closure on this issue in our lifetime—not only in my lifetime, but in that of those who are rather younger—is rather remote. I said earlier that this was the most controversial war decision in 64 years, and I find it difficult to believe that the committee of inquiry will be able to change anyone’s mind, no matter how fair-minded, thorough and exhaustive it might be. Those who were in favour of what occurred will remain so and the critics will remain of their opinion.
For example, when listening to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) and my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) or to those who feel as strongly as they do that the decision was wrong, it is difficult to think that they will change their mind if the committee reaches the view that, in all the circumstances, it was right for the Government to do as they did six years ago. It is a possibility, but it is very remote.
Yes, I accept that some have changed their mind, but having listened to today’s debate I believe I am right in saying that my hon. Friend is the first Member to say that he has changed his mind about the decision and the vote he made six years ago. No one else has done so. Members have not crowded on to these Benches to say that they regret one way or another the way that they voted. They, like me, obviously took a decision at the time based on what they believed was right.
I will not blame my vote in 2003 on the former Prime Minister. I will not say, “Well, he misled us and didn’t give us all the facts—it’s all his fault. If only he had spoken differently, I would have voted differently.” That is not grown-up politics. We are Members of Parliament. We can make up our own mind. If we believed the Prime Minister of the day was giving us information that seemed to be wrong, we should have voted accordingly.
I asked the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) whether he stood by his vote because I wanted to find out whether he had changed his mind about how he voted. Very honestly, as one would expect of him, he said that he stood by his vote, as I stand by mine. It was a very frank answer.
I fail to see the relevance of the argument of the vote. Quite a number of us were not Members of the House in 2003 and came in only in 2005. We were part of the millions outside who were against the war. Does it really matter how people voted six years ago? What matters is the business before the House and the inquiry.
I have already said that I recognise the necessity for an inquiry that should be far more public than private. If the hon. Gentleman had been a Member of the House, there is no doubt, as he has just suggested, that he would have voted against. However, few Members have changed their mind and the vote is important—he is wrong—because, as the critics would say, it was the vote in the House of Commons that legitimised our military intervention. That vote was crucial.
The background to the vote in 2003 was the Saddam regime’s refusal to give the impression that it was complying with the United Nations Security Council resolution on the destruction of weapons of mass destruction. In my view, that is very relevant: if the chief weapons inspector, Dr. Blix, had issued a report stating clearly that he and his team were satisfied that the weapons of mass destruction had been destroyed, there would have been no basis for going to war. Yes, he wanted more time, and I am not suggesting for a moment that he wanted military intervention then, but I am saying that, at the time, such a report was not forthcoming.
Saddam had a history of playing cat and mouse with the weapons inspectors. We know that the weapons of mass destruction had been destroyed, but he had used them before the invasion of Kuwait. Let me say this about Kuwait: some Members—not those on the Conservative Benches, but some of my hon. and right hon. Friends—who were so much against the vote to go to war in 2003 were equally opposed to the liberation of Kuwait. Although it had been authorised by the United Nations Security Council, and although Saddam had committed an act of blatant aggression, they opposed the military action taken in 1991. I took a very different position. Some would say that it was unfortunate that the whole of Iraq was not liberated at the time, but most of us understood the reasons why it was not.
The accusation about regime change suggests that any reference to it must be derogatory. However, there are those who recognise, as I did, that Saddam ruled over a terrorist regime—a totalitarian dictatorship, brutal and murderous—and that sanctions were not working, but were undoubtedly inflicting great damage on numerous people in Iraq. That is what the critics said at the time. Not only were they against military intervention; they were against sanctions, which they said should be dropped. I had to concede that sanctions were causing great hardship. The question that arises for us is how such a regime can be changed. I entirely accept that there was no authorisation and no legitimacy for regime change unless there was justification in the form of weapons of mass destruction.
I was not trying to argue either for or against regime change. What I was saying, and what I think the Chilcot committee needs to consider, is that it is illegal in international law. That is a fact. The question is, was it driving the policy, or was the policy driven by something else?
I do not deny that regime change is illegal. However, in 1979 both Cambodia and Tanzania were liberated from the outright tyranny of the Pol Pot regime and Amin. That was regime change, and I do not recall any Member condemning it 30 years ago. What happened in Kosovo was a form of regime change, and was outside the authority of the Security Council. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway, who is not in the Chamber now, was strongly opposed to it, but I was in favour. I urged that action be taken against Milosevic and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, and I would hardly start apologising for that now. There is a problem over regime change, and how we can help people who are suffering under tyranny and murderous oppression.
As I said at the beginning of my speech, I doubt that the inquiry will change anyone’s mind, but it is crucial for it to undertake the work that it has been given.
In the short time that is available—let me put on record that I still resent the guillotining of everything, and believe that it is one of the reasons for the diminution of the authority of the House of Commons—I want to focus on why we need an inquiry. I shall argue that the reasons are so profound that the inquiry must take place in public, the inquiry team must be strengthened—as has been argued, it should contain military and legal representatives, as well as a senior politician—and witnesses must give evidence under oath.
Some have commented that we do not need an inquiry because the books have been written, the documents have been leaked, America has changed its policy, and there is therefore nothing new to be said. I agree that those who have read the books and scrutinised the leaked documents already know the truth. Nevertheless, it would be deeply shameful if the House of Commons never required an official inquiry, with the aim of putting on record the truth of why we went to war and reflecting on what that says about, first, the unreliability of the British system of government and, secondly, the obsessive focus on staying close to the United States of America, which dominates the foreign policy thinking of both new Labour and the official Opposition. Even the Liberal Democrats, despite their honourable record on the war, are not entirely free of it. That is the explanation of the error, and if we do not attend to those matters, similar errors will be made in future.
I believe that because of the “nodding donkey” approach to American foreign policy right or wrong, the United Kingdom’s contribution to resolving some of the complex and fearsome problems of the coming decades will be extremely limited, and I think that that humiliates us. This is an enormously profound and serious question. As I believe the inquiry will show, if we went to Iraq because we wanted to please President Bush—or because Tony Blair wanted to please him—there is a danger that that error will be repeated. Happily, America, after a big semi-revolution, has changed its President and completely changed its policy, and Britain follows along with the new President. I prefer the new President, of course, but we did not even have a debate or discussion about whether we should change our policy. How humiliating is that?
I made an intervention earlier in which I stressed the importance of the relationship between the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development and mentioned that the British forces were concerned that there might be no plan involving DFID. Can the right hon. Lady confirm that in March 2003, when she was responsible for that Department, she sent a diktat out to all the directors in the Department advising them not to get involved and not to participate in the planning, because she thought the war might be illegal?
I cannot confirm that date, but I can confirm that when I heard the rumour—but did not see the legal document—that the Attorney-General doubted the legality of the war, I warned my staff of the consequences of that, which I think was entirely proper. That is part of the shame of it all, but I shall come on to the preparations. There were preparations that were then all junked, because of the hubris and deceit that went into preparing for war.
I believe that a proper examination of the untruths, the constitutional manipulation and the outcome must lead to a re-examination of the UK’s role in the world. That is a very important consequence of the inquiry that needs to flow to the House of Commons. I do not advocate hostility to the United States, of course. Indeed, I think that if we had spoken truthfully to the United States at the time, we would have been a better friend. I yearn, however, for an honest appraisal of the dangers the world and the UK face and an intelligent discussion of the contribution we could make, working with others, to the establishment of a more equitable and just world order, capable of dealing with the disorder that will come to us because of climate change. It is also my view that if we do not do better in bringing justice to the middle east, the capacity of the international system to co-operate to deal with these challenges will be broken and weakened, with desperately serious consequences for all of us.
We need an inquiry that forces all parties and the public to face up to the fact that we got involved in Iraq because George Bush and the neo-conservatives wanted to overthrow the unpopular regime of Saddam Hussein—regime change—and establish a friendly power in Iraq, so that they could relocate American bases in the middle east, dominate the Gulf and have close relations with a country that contained a large proportion of the world’s remaining oil. As has been said, all of that is laid out for all to read in the documents published by the Project for the New American Century, which many of those who became senior figures in the Bush Administration had signed up to.
Of course, the US expected the invasion of Iraq to be popular with Iraqis and therefore thought that it would help to stabilise the middle east. The only problem was that international law, laid down after the second world war under the leadership of President Roosevelt and with the support of Prime Minister Churchill, did not permit that, and thus the lying became necessary in order to do what the neo-conservatives thought to be right.
I did not know that Tony Blair had the published documents of the Project for the New American Century drawn to his attention—they were certainly not drawn to the attention of the Cabinet—but I think that he was desperate to be close to George Bush and worried that he would not be because of the closeness of his relationship with President Clinton, and that he therefore gave his word early on that Britain would be with him in the planned invasion of Iraq. From that, it all flows: the exaggeration of the threat from weapons of mass destruction to give an excuse for war, because regime change is not legal.
The Butler report and the various leaks from our intelligence agencies have shown that the intelligence was being fixed around the policy. Hans Blix started out believing that there were WMD in Iraq, but when he found and reported that there were not—he reported to the Security Council what he had found, and also achieved the dismantling of large numbers of ballistic missiles—he was briefed against and smeared because his truthful findings were obstructing the excuse for war.
In the matter of international law, the neo-conservatives had no concern. They repeatedly made clear their profound disrespect for the United Nations and the constraints of international law. They wanted to keep the UK with them because the majority of US citizens said yes to war in coalition, but not alone. The UK had to pretend to respect international law, and that led to the game that was played at the United Nations. We should all remember that the UK ambassador to the UN, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, whom I like and admire enormously, gave a shameful undertaking on behalf of the UK when the first resolution was passed that there was no automaticity—no authority for war—without another resolution. However, the UK went on to argue later that the first resolution gave authority for war. That was deeply shameful.
I remain deeply shaken by the way in which the interpretation of international law was manipulated to fit the policy. The first legal opinion, which was leaked and is now a matter of public record, was kept from the Cabinet. That was a complete breach of the ministerial code, but who enforces the code? It is the Prime Minister. The second legal opinion was concocted at the last minute by an Attorney-General who was a crony of the Prime Minister, put into the Lords by the Prime Minister and made Attorney-General by the Prime Minister.
I am not following the right hon. Lady in her criticisms, but if memory serves me correctly, there were 44 meetings of the Cabinet between September and when we went to war. The Attorney-General attended only two of them. Did the right hon. Lady, who was there, find it strange that in that legal morass, the Government’s legal adviser was never there?
All the Cabinet meetings were little chats: they were never a proper consideration of all the options. That is terrifying, but true, and it means that our political institutions are unreliable and incapable of making proper, considered decisions.
When the Attorney-General came to Cabinet—I remember him coming only once, right at the end—I was stunned by the opinion that he brought to the Cabinet, but I accepted that in such a matter, the Attorney-General would not bring a concocted opinion. I now know that he did, and I conclude that the arrangements that we have for ensuring UK compliance with international law are unsafe. The way in which the Attorney-General is appointed is unsafe, and our constitutional arrangements need restructuring. That is one of the important issues to which the inquiry must attend.
It is often argued that the invasion of Iraq went well and was welcomed by all, but then went wrong, and that what went wrong, as the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), who was previously in the armed forces, suggested, was that no proper arrangements were made for post-conflict Iraq. Indeed, it is sometimes suggested that because of my doubts about the war, I prevented such preparations from being made in the Department for International Development, although how I could be responsible for US policy I am not sure. That claim is completely untrue, as a proper scrutiny of the historical record will demonstrate.
Careful and detailed preparations—volumes of them—were made in the US State Department. Louise Fréchette, the deputy secretary-general of the UN, also made detailed preparations to bring together the international effort that would be required to rebuild Iraq. My old Department made preparations, liaising carefully with the State Department, the UN and other international actors. Then, just a couple of months before the planned invasion, President Bush passed responsibility for post-war reconstruction to the Pentagon and set up the new agency, the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance—ORHA. All the State Department preparations were junked. There was no liaison with the UN or with the international community.
At the time, Andrew Natsios, then head of the US Agency for International Development, said that the danger in post-war Iraq would be chaos, and if we sacked everyone in the Ba’ath party, no institutions would function. He said that it was crucial that only the top people went and everyone else was left in place. That advice was wiped away and we got exactly what he predicted. That was incredible. In the run-up to the war, I thought, “This cannot happen in a nation like the US—they have Harvard, Yale and Princeton-educated people. We cannot make such an error.” But the hubris was such that it was believed that the invasion would be welcomed and that there was no need for international co-operation. Because of the deceit that went into the purpose of the war, we got the chaos of the aftermath.
These are serious matters, but they are the true record of what happened, and the inquiry must bring them out. Britain must decide what sort of country it wants to be. Do we want to adhere to international law, or do we want to junk it? Israel is junking international law in the occupied territories. Do we want a future in which international law no longer has any authority? It would lead to chaos and instability.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady—I do not think that she will lose any time by taking this intervention. On one of the big questions about the row between the State Department and the Pentagon and what was going on at the White House, was she aware at any stage that the Government made strong overtures about what was going on explicitly to require that a different system be put in place after the war in Iraq? I could never quite understand what our influence—or lack of it—was in the whole process. We had a vested interest in getting it right, but somehow seemed not to have any view on it. I am not saying that the right hon. Lady did not, but that officially the Government seemed to have no view on that point at that time.
The answer is that because this was being driven—I am running out of time—by the Prime Minister on the phone to the White House, British systems were breaking down. One part of the Government was giving that advice, and another was not.
My final point is that because of the deceit, proper consideration was not given to all the policy options. There were other ways of bringing down Saddam Hussein. We could have got rid of the sanctions, or indicted him like we did Milosevic and let the Iraqi people help to do it. None of the other options were considered. This is a disgrace to our history and it shows that our institutions do not work. We need an inquiry that will lay out everything from which we can learn the lessons about decision making and our role in the world, so that we never ever again engage in such actions, which have left terrible destabilising effects on the wider middle east.
I remember being here on 15 June, when the Prime Minister made his statement on Iraq. I felt angry and upset, and I told him and colleagues that a secret inquiry was not acceptable. Why did I say that? The previous Thursday, I attended a seminar held under the Chatham House rule with my friends for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) and for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) and other colleagues in the Public Administration Committee. A galaxy of stars were there: Lord Hutton, Lord Butler, Geoffrey Howe, Lord Hurd, and the Conservative academic and constitutional expert, Lord Norton—people like that. The seminar concluded and, because I know how things work, I came across from that seminar in Portcullis House and tabled a question in the Table Office. My question to the Prime Minister was whether he
“will make it his policy to consult…the leaders of opposition parties represented in the House and…the Chair of the Public Administration Select Committee before announcing…the terms of reference and…the composition of an inquiry into the Iraq war”?—[Official Report, 18 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 452-453W.]
I got a big raspberry a few days later, on Monday.
To this day, I do not know what persuaded the Prime Minister to take the line that he did. If he had consulted with colleagues in all parts of the House, consensus would have emerged and we could have gone forward. What are we trying to establish? We are not trying to put Tony Blair’s head on a pikestaff. We are trying to establish the truth. In the Public Administration Committee’s report, which Members will have read, we go on to say that apart from establishing the truth, we want to
“ensure that the executive can be held properly accountable for its decisions and conduct in relation to Iraq.”
That is what we wanted.
We were trying to get consensus on the establishment of a parliamentary commission of inquiry into Iraq because we knew that, until very recently, the Government did not want to act. They did not want an inquiry into Iraq—it was a radioactive issue. That is why we, as a Select Committee, came forward with our proposals. No. 10 and the Government knew exactly what we were doing. They knew about the seminar and the meetings we were having, but despite that we got the crass statement from the Prime Minister on that Monday.
What did we want as a Select Committee? In our report, we called for a debate and a free vote in the House of Commons on the proposal for an inquiry. I will vote with the Government today if Ministers can tell me that there will be an early occasion when they put a substantive motion before the House on the inquiry’s terms of reference. That motion should set out its membership, composition and so on—in other words, all the matters of concern that have been raised in the debate. If I get that assurance in an hour or two’s time from the Front Bench, then I will vote for the Government: if not, I will vote with the Conservatives.
I have one or two other points to make that have been prompted by what has come up in the debate. Clearly, we need evidence to be given on oath. Until the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) spoke, I did not appreciate that the inquiry as currently constituted may not have the power to require people coming before it to swear an oath. That needs to be cleared up.
My friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) spoke about the legal advice. Of course, we did not get the full legal advice until 2005, two years after the conclusion of the war. The minutes of the crucial Cabinet meetings of March 2003 need to be released, but so do the notes that were also taken at those meetings. I have discovered that two sets of notes are taken of what is said at Cabinet meetings. They are, presumably, distilled into formal Cabinet minutes. We need all that information.
It is absurd that an inquiry into our biggest military engagement since the second world war does not feature a senior military person. I was completely gobsmacked to read that the head of the Army, General Dannatt, had not even been consulted by No. 10 on the terms of reference.
We should also encourage civil servants who feel that they have something new to say to step forward, and we should give them all the protection that they need to speak candidly and truthfully. I say that because the PAC held a sitting on leaks and whistleblowers back in March, at which a Foreign Office diplomat, Carne Ross, appeared before us. He was our man at the UN for four and a half years and is an expert on the middle east and Iraq. Talking about the experience of many people in the civil service—in the bureaucracy—he said:
“There are many other people involved who have yet to tell their story…There are many documents that should come to light.”
That was said by a civil servant on the edge of great things who resigned from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office because of what he felt was mendacity on the part of the Government.
I want to follow up on one point about which the hon. Gentleman has not spoken. I and others noted earlier that the political representative on the committee is from the other place. Does he think that an elected Member of Parliament or two should be on the committee, so that the opinion of the Chamber can be represented? After all, we voted on the matter. Why should someone from the other place be our representative?
I could not agree more about that. Indeed, my friend the Member for Cannock Chase said in a letter to the Prime Minister:
“There needs to be a process of engagement on the inquiry’s purpose, terms of reference, membership and procedures…it would be appropriate for the Government to seek formal parliamentary endorsement of the inquiry’s terms of reference and membership”.
We need that, because that would cover the point about senior parliamentarians having an input. It would also deal with the point that I and others have made about the committee having a place for a military person. That person should not be below the salt as an assessor, but a full member of the inquiry team.
One final thing—or have I had a final thing already?
My views will not be changed by the Minister’s big, broad smile, but I want to say something about documents. I attended a meeting a week or 10 days ago that was addressed by Philippe Sands the human rights QC. He spoke about a note from President Bush to the former Prime Minister Tony Blair on 31 January 2003. President Bush allegedly said, “Put up the planes; fly the planes over Iraq; paint them in UN colours, and when Saddam shoots them down, that’s the pretext to go to war.” I do not know whether that is fantasy land, or even whether that document really exists, but the inquiry should be able to subpoena all the documents, if that is the expression; it needs to get to the truth.
Let me restate my central point. I want the Government to concede and to bring forward a substantive motion allowing the House to consider the new terms of reference and the composition or membership—call it what you will—so that the House can vote on it and give the inquiry its parliamentary imprimatur. If I do not get that, I will vote with the Conservatives.
With respect, Mr. Deputy Speaker, 10 minutes of most Back Benchers is more than enough, but there are odd occasions when it is not enough. The speeches of the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) who has vast experience and of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) should have been extended. They were extremely important to this debate and this 10-minute rule should give you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the flexibility to allow a moment or two for important, decisive speeches in a debate. I have now given away 30 seconds of my time, but I thought that that was worth saying.
The Government just do not get it. That is evident again this evening from the languid complacency with which the Foreign Secretary spoke, which led the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) to say that he felt that the Foreign Secretary’s heart was not in it. It is evident from the period of time when there was not a single Government Member on the Front Bench and from the body language of the two Ministers who now are on it when the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood was speaking. They were sneering and nudging, utterly oblivious to the fact that her speech will be listened to and read by millions tomorrow and given real weight, while what they have to say will be treated, if they are lucky, with derision.
The Prime Minister’s initial prospectus for this inquiry proved that the Government just do not get it. When, in 2005, I was elected as the first left-of-Labour Member of Parliament in England for 60 years, I was elected because of Iraq. The Labour party’s membership has halved because of Iraq. Millions of Labour voters have left them and new parties—some of the left and some of the right—are proliferating and strengthening, in substantial part because of Iraq. That has happened not directly, but indirectly because of the poison that the Iraq question has caused to pulse around the British body politic. The lack of credibility of the British political class has also been the result of Iraq.
The Government still do not get it. If they did, they would have used this opportunity for a grand catharsis, to turn the page and finally leave Blairism behind and call for the kind of inquiry that has been repeatedly demanded in the House this evening.
Will the hon. Member also concede that it is not just British politics that has been changed and shaped by Iraq, as the issue has had an effect across Europe, all over the world in respect of the anti-war movement, but also particularly in the United States? For all his support for the war in Afghanistan, President Obama basically owes his position to his opposition to the Iraq war and his initial victories in the Democrat primaries because of that opposition. American politics has also been delineated by Iraq.
Indeed. There has been a holding to account in the United States of America—there has been catharsis. Those responsible for the disaster have been cleansed away and there is the sense of a new beginning.
Of course, we do not have that option. Some of us recall only too vividly the iron-clad consensus between those on the two Front Benches in the run-up to the war. The then Leader of the O