House of Commons
Wednesday 24 June 2009
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before questions
Spoliation Advisory Panel
That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, That she will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House a Return of The Report from the Right Honourable Sir David Hirst, Chairman of the Spoliation Advisory Panel, dated 24 June 2009, in respect of eight drawings now in the possession of the Samuel Courtauld Trust.—(Kerry McCarthy.)
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
On a personal note, Mr. Speaker, may I add my congratulations to those of others on your election as Speaker?
The World Bank expects Ukraine to experience a significant recession in 2009. To counter the impact of the recession, the International Monetary Fund has agreed a package with the Ukrainian Government worth $16.4 billion. Other international institutions are standing by if needed.
I thank my hon. Friend for his response. He will be aware that western Ukraine has often been referred to as the bread basket of the country, yet it appears to lack the basic storage and transport infrastructure needed to improve efficiency, eliminate poverty and even out some of the inequalities between itself and other regions. Given Ukraine’s ambition to join or draw closer to the EU, does my hon. Friend not agree that there remains a need for the UK to give assistance, principally through his Department?
I commend my right hon. Friend’s interest in Ukraine and I recognise her description of the regional needs of the part of the country to which she refers. She will recognise that there are significant costs involved in the infrastructure for which she has rightly made the case. I hope she will understand when I point her to the work of the World Bank and other international financial institutions on infrastructure in Ukraine and other countries. We will continue to watch the regional economic needs of Ukraine through our involvement with those institutions.
Given the strategic significance of Ukraine as a political buffer zone between the EU and Russia, does the Minister not think that it was perhaps an error of judgment to close the DFID programme in Ukraine last year? It would be an utter tragedy if Ukraine’s democracy should fail, so should we not at the very least be running significant capacity-building programmes to support it?
We are running capacity-building programmes on democracy and good governance through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Indeed, the European Commission is also running such programmes. As I indicated in answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), we continue to make the case for further involvement from donors to Ukraine. Substantial donor programmes are available through international financial institutions, and we are closely involved in the decisions that they take. Given our need to focus on the poorest countries, I believe that that is the right way forward.
Last weekend the World Bank published its global economic outlook, the development finance report, which predicted that developing countries will lose $1 trillion as a result of the economic downturn. What is the Minister’s Department doing to identify the countries that will be most badly hit and to ensure that development aid is provided to enable them to deal with the downturn?
I know that my hon. Friend takes a particular interest in economic growth through his work on the Select Committee on International Development. He will know from the leadership of the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that we led work at April’s G20 summit to secure additional resources for the IMF and the World Bank to focus on the needs of the poorest people in countries that have been most devastated by the impact of the global recession. We will look to ensure that that support, having been committed, is delivered to those international financial institutions.
DFID’s work in Afghanistan from 2001 to date was independently evaluated in 2008. All DFID projects have clear, measurable benchmarks to ensure accurate and reliable monitoring in accordance with DFID procedures. The office in Kabul has established a dedicated results team to monitor the effectiveness of our work. We are also planning an independent assessment of DFID’s ongoing work in Helmand province.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. NATO’s Secretary-General said that the problem in Afghanistan was not too much Taliban, but too little good governance. Over the next four years, nearly half the Department’s funding to Afghanistan will be channelled through that country’s Government. What steps will the Secretary of State take to ensure that corruption in that country is tackled effectively?
There are two dimensions to the hon. Gentleman’s question. First, he is right to recognise the significance of governance, which is one of the four identified priorities for the approximately £510 million that we will spend between 2009 and 2013. I concur with the view that it is not the strength of the Taliban but the weakness of the Government that poses one of the significant challenges—along with others—that NATO and the Afghan people face in the years ahead.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about corruption, which we are approaching in a number of ways. First, in relation to UK funds, we are working through the Afghan reconstruction trust fund, which is independently audited by recognised accountants from outside the country. We have a degree of confidence in those systems. We are also supporting efforts to strengthen the capacity of the Government, because corruption is a consequence and a cause of the poverty affecting Afghanistan.
As my right hon. Friend knows, abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad caused untold damage to the coalition at the time. Now, allegations have been made by the BBC about the abuse of detainees at Bagram air base in Afghanistan. Will he tell me what action he proposes to take?
Not least because I heard the allegations on the radio only this morning, I am not in a position to give my right hon. Friend the detailed answer her question deserves, but I will endeavour to speak to my colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and ensure that an answer is forthcoming.
Mr. Speaker, may I add my congratulations to you on your election on Monday, and may I wish you many happy years occupying the Chair?
Following the Secretary of State’s previous answer, may I ask him, in the context of the United States’ major reassessment of its strategy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan, and of the tragic loss of life following the recent drone attack, how we are going to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan and to what extent he is reconfiguring his country plan to recognise those problems?
The hon. Gentleman’s question has a number of aspects. We recognise that there is a powerful connection between the interests of the people of Afghanistan and those of the people of Pakistan. In the statement that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made to the House on 29 April, it was made clear that we are taking a joined-up approach in what is colloquially called the “AfPak” strategy, because there is a strong strategic interest in having a stable and secure state on both sides of the border. It is of course necessary for the forces of extremism that threaten Afghanistan and Pakistan to be tackled not solely by military means. That is why, along with the development partnership agreement that we have for Pakistan, there has been a significant rebalancing of our programme in recent months towards the needs of education, in particular, in Pakistan. I will be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman on this matter.
Congratulations on your election, Mr. Speaker. Your interest in international development is well known, and is very welcome.
At the last DFID questions, the Secretary of State claimed that his Department withdrew funding to the United Nations Development Programme—UNDP—Afghanistan counter-narcotics trust fund as soon as serious weaknesses became apparent. However, I have obtained an internal DFID memo that reveals that the Secretary of State’s predecessor was clearly warned about anticipated problems with the fund before Ministers signed off £20 million for it. Will the Secretary of State explain why Ministers ignored those warnings?
It will not come as a surprise to the House that I am unfamiliar with the memo the hon. Gentleman describes. I can assure hon. Members that the UNDP’s internal evaluation unit recently evaluated operations in Afghanistan, and it was on that basis that ministerial decisions were reached.
Let me read to the Secretary of State from the memo, which Ministers received before signing off that money. It warned that, in Afghanistan, the UNDP’s reporting is “poor”, and that it suffers from a “lack of experienced people” who
“only do the minimum in terms of their contractual obligations”.
Yet, so far this year, the Secretary of State has signed off another £14 million for the UNDP in Afghanistan. Will he pledge today to launch an urgent investigation into whether UK funds have been misused, and to instigate a full review of the taxpayers’ money given to the UNDP in Afghanistan?
We are always seeking to ensure that UK taxpayers’ money is used effectively and properly, whether through the UNDP or other parts of our aid programme. It is right to recognise that the review that was published identified weaknesses within the UNDP’s approach regarding co-ordination, a focus on short-term rather than long-term priorities, and the need to simplify and strengthen financial rules. It is on that basis that we have acted. The review is not a secret document; it is available on the UNDP’s internet site, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it informs the decisions that my Department is reaching.
Humanitarian Assistance (Pakistan)
My Department has made available £22 million for humanitarian assistance in Pakistan, which is helping those displaced by conflict in the federally administered tribal areas as well as those displaced in North West Frontier province. With our international partners, we are ensuring that humanitarian assistance reaches those who need it most through established co-ordination mechanisms for allocating finance, clear funding criteria and careful monitoring.
For months, the international community has been urging Pakistan to act against the Taliban in the north-west territories. Millions of people have paid the price with death, destruction and internal displacement. Given the number of people living with host communities, what support can DFID provide in the circumstances?
My hon. Friend is right to point out the fact that an estimated 2.4 million people have been displaced as a result of the conflict, the vast majority of whom are living in host communities. To ensure that aid gets to those living in host communities, we have helped to establish 34 separate aid stations to enable the fair distribution of aid.
In view of the importance of security in northern Pakistan to NATO’s efforts in Afghanistan, does the Minister share my concern that the aid agencies and NGOs are clearly underfunded? Can we give some thought to ensuring that proper resources are made available?
My right hon. Friend has a long and distinguished record of interest in development. The Pakistan humanitarian response plan is 35 per cent. funded and the International Committee of the Red Cross appeal is 59 per cent. funded, but it is clear that more could and should be done. We are actively lobbying with other countries, including the Government of Pakistan, to do more.
A group of international aid agencies reckons it has a deficit of about £22.5 million in dealing with the humanitarian consequences of conflict in the Swat valley. Within that, World Vision—a charity with which you, Mr. Speaker, and I have a particular connection—reports a deficit of about £7.5 million. Is there anything that the Minister and the Department can do directly to be involved with that group of charities and the problems it faces in the Swat valley?
The UK’s bilateral contribution of £22 million is the second largest made by any nation to deal with the humanitarian crisis. On the specific lobbying on behalf of World Vision, I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and to talk to my officials to see what we can do to help him.
Aid to this region is enormously important not only from a humanitarian perspective, but politically, considering the circumstances. How is the Department dealing with the difficult challenge of the tribal regions and the fact that a lot of the region is still controlled by the Taliban, particularly the Swat valley?
The hon. Gentleman is right to point out the difficulties in providing aid, especially in the front-line areas. To be honest, we have no real assessment of the number of people who have been displaced and are still beyond the front line. Our difficulty is enabling safe access to those areas for our aid workers.
Pakistan is different: the humanitarian situation requires help in its own right, but that country is also a vital strategic ally of this country. Will the Government put pressure on the rest of the EU to take on its own share of funding the humanitarian assistance? Frankly, our European allies are not doing enough.
A few moments ago, the Minister acknowledged that British NGOs face a serious funding shortfall in Pakistan, but, with the monsoon season approaching, 45 per cent. of the money that his Department has announced remains unallocated to specific projects. Can he simply reassure the House that there is a plan and explain exactly where that money will be spent?
I can indeed give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. I can also tell him that where concerns have been expressed about the speed at which aid through the UN has been allocated, we have taken the exceptional decision to fund NGOs directly to speed up the process of getting aid to those people in need.
The London summit achieved important development outcomes, including a commitment to provide additional funds—mainly through the international financial institutions—for many of the poorest countries. We are working closely with partners to ensure that summit agreements are now fully implemented.
In welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Speaker, may I say, as Chairman of the International Development Committee, that while the House has gained a great deal, I am afraid that our Committee has lost a great deal? We very much appreciate your contribution.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer, but does he not acknowledge that the economic downturn and climate change have mostly been caused by the G20, yet the impact is felt mostly by poor and developing countries? What steps will he take to ensure that the Copenhagen summit delivers for the poor, that there is a Doha development round, and that the pledges made at Gleneagles will be not only maintained but supplemented?
As befits the Chair of the International Development Committee, the right hon. Gentleman asked three questions rather than one. On trade, I assure him that we are continuing to work with our colleagues in the European Union in endeavouring to reach the conclusion to the Doha development round that eluded us last year. As we look ahead to the G8 meeting in L’Aquila and other international gatherings, we will continue to press the countries that made agreements at Gleneagles to meet the commitments that were made back in 2005.
In relation to climate change, I assure the House that we recognise the importance of Europe’s assuming a leadership role, as it did at the time of the Kyoto agreement. We also recognise, in the context of common but differentiated responsibilities, that many of the countries that have been worst affected by climate change bear the least responsibility for generating the emissions that have caused it.
My Department has set aside a total of £250 million over five years to improve education in Pakistan. We are designing programmes in North West Frontier province, Punjab and Balochistan that will increase girls’ access to school and improve both their literacy and their numeracy. We are already financing stipends so that 300,000 girls in North West Frontier province can attend school, and the same programme is providing text books for 4.3 million girls and boys.
That is marvellous, and we applaud the Government for their action, but does it not make you weep, Mr. Speaker, that Pakistan spends 60 per cent. of its budget on defence and 11 per cent. on education, and that 42 per cent. of women and girls are illiterate? What can we do to persuade Pakistan to change its warped sense of priorities whereby more money is spent on guns than on education?
My hon. Friend is right to point out that Pakistan’s education spending of just 2.4 per cent. of GDP is among the lowest in the world. He is also right to point out that if we are serious about tackling poverty and social exclusion and dealing with the grievances that lead to insecurity, education must play a central role. [Interruption.]
After the earthquake in Kashmir, we raised enough money in Banbury to build a whole new girls’ school in the Pakistan-occupied part of Kashmir. However, like the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), I weep, because, notwithstanding assurances from the Ministry, the problems caused by the machinery of government in Islamabad with the adoption of the school were very depressing. Whatever development aid we give Pakistan, we must make it clear to its Government that unless they sort out some fundamental machinery of government issues and make basic joined-up government work, none of that aid will be of any real long-term benefit.
I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of governance, or about the role of Government in helping donors such as the United Kingdom to get their support on to the ground to meet the needs of the people whom both he and I want to help.
The conflict earlier this year intensified an already difficult humanitarian situation in Gaza. The pace of deterioration has slowed since the ceasefire in January, but the humanitarian situation remains extremely serious. Around 90 per cent. of Gazans still partly depend on food aid.
Success of the response effort continues to depend on opening the crossings from Israel to allow movement of materials and personnel into Gaza. The UK presses the Israeli Government regularly on this issue.
To say that the situation is serious is masterful understatement; it verges on the desperate. There can, however, be no improvement until the borders are opened. What are the Government doing to impress on the Israeli Government the need to let the basic foodstuffs and essentials of everyday life through the border crossing points and into Gaza?
A number of British charities are active in Gaza, one of which is Interpal. Its ability to deliver development aid is being seriously constrained by its inability to access international clearing banking facilities. Will the Minister meet the charity to see—
Part of the problem in Gaza is the rivalry between Fatah and Hezbollah. Does the Minister have any engagement in the discussions to try to keep the peace, and has Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu given any assurances in respect of Gaza in his comments about a two-state solution?
I have had no direct discussions with those two parties representing the Palestinian people, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we welcome Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recently announced support for a two-state solution, which we think will deal with this situation once and for all.
Between 1999 and 2009, the Department for International Development committed just over £3 million-worth of support to Fairtrade, of which £2.6 million has so far been released. The majority of current funding is through the global Fairtrade Labelling Organisations International. We also continue to work in developing countries and internationally to improve countries’ and producers’ access to markets and capacity to trade.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. He will know that Plymouth has been at the forefront of promoting Fairtrade, and I am sure we will want to sell the new cosmetic line. However, there are still concerns, including those raised with me by the ladies of the Inner Wheel in Roborough. Can my hon. Friend assure me that, in the current global downturn, his Department will continue to scrutinise the way in which payments are made and ensure that wages are not being cut as markets and trade fall?
I know from a previous visit I made to Plymouth of the importance that Fairtrade is given in the town, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I am delighted that she continues to be lobbied by supporters of Fairtrade in Plymouth for further DFID work on this issue. I can assure her that we will continue to fund Fairtrade and to work with the Fairtrade Foundation and with a series of similar initiatives to promote the cause of poor producers getting access to our markets.
Does the Minister agree that we should congratulate Letchworth garden city, the world’s first garden city, on obtaining Fairtrade status two weeks ago, and that this is a fine initiative that helps to market products and assists some of the most vulnerable people in the world?
I am delighted to agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I am also delighted that his constituents—and, no doubt, others nearby—have worked so hard to ensure that Letchworth garden city is now a Fairtrade garden city. I look forward to his continuing to raise these issues at DFID questions.
I refer my hon. Friend to my previous answer.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Before I list my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our sincere condolences to the family and friends of Major Sean Birchall, 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, who was killed in Afghanistan last week. He died serving our country and the people of Afghanistan. His death reminds us how difficult it is for men serving in Afghanistan at the moment. He, and others who have lost their lives, will never be forgotten.
I am sure that the House will wish to send our sincerest condolences also to the families and friends of Jason Swindlehurst and Jason Creswell following the tragic news of their death in captivity in Iraq. The taking of hostages is a cruel and barbaric act and can never be justified. I can assure the House that the Government are doing all that we can, and our thoughts and those of everyone in this House will be with the families and friends who wait for news.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
I wish to associate myself with the sentiments expressed by my right hon. Friend regarding our troops, the hostages and their families.
One of the key issues raised with me by my constituents is that of housing, and specifically access to affordable housing and the need for mortgage finance. My constituents are aware that despite the urgent need for more house building, Conservatives generally campaign against it, as well as oppose the measures needed to fix the financial system—[Interruption.]
We are investing billions of pounds more in new affordable housing. We are helping more households into home ownership through shared ownership. We have secured commitments from the major banks that they will invest a large amount of the £70 billion extra that they are investing over the course of the next year in housing. Of course, that would not be possible if we were to implement a programme of 10 per cent. cuts in our spending.
The Prime Minister had a bit more than the gist of the question: he had a prepared answer to it as well.
I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Major Sean Birchall from the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, who was killed in Afghanistan, and I very much agree with the Prime Minister about expressing our heartfelt sympathy to the families of Jason Swindlehurst and Jason Creswell at their loss. The Prime Minister knows that he has our full support in all the efforts being made to free the remaining hostages in Iraq.
Last week, the Prime Minister told the House:
“Capital expenditure will grow until the year of the Olympics.”
The Government’s own figures show that that is just not the case. Will he take this opportunity to correct what he told the House last week?
Well obviously yes, in the building of the Olympics capital investment will rise very substantially. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that capital investment is rising from £29 billion to £37.7 billion, and then to £44 billion in 2009-10, and that is to help complete the building of the Olympics. Thereafter it will fall as a result of decisions that we have made, but the comparison is between £44 billion of investment now and—even in real terms—the figure for 1999-2002, when he was in charge of advising at the Treasury. We are investing £44 billion: he was investing only £16 billion.
I am afraid that that is just not good enough. Last week the Prime Minister made a very clear statement to the House of Commons. He said:
“Capital expenditure will grow until the year of the Olympics.”—[Official Report, 17 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 295.]
Here are the figures: capital expenditure this year, 2009, is £44 billion; next year, 2010, it is £36 billion; in 2011 it is £29 billion; and in the year of the Olympics, 2012, it is £26 billion. That is a cut of almost half from £44 billion to £26 billion. Will the Prime Minister now apologise, correct his statement and admit that he is cutting capital expenditure?
I was just explaining how we had brought forward capital investment to last year and this year. The figure for capital investment in 2006-07 was £36 billion. That has risen to £38 billion in 2008-09 and to £44 billion in 2009-10. That is so that we can advance capital expenditure to deal with the downturn. The problem for the right hon. Gentleman is that he wants to cut capital investment now. He wants to cut it whereas we are increasing it. We are increasing it to complete the building of the Olympics and other projects, whereas his party would be cutting capital investment now. He has got to face up to the fact that he is going to spend less than us in every year.
The Prime Minister has been caught absolutely red-handed. He made a statement to the House about capital expenditure growing every year and the fact is that it is being cut. If he believed in transparency, honesty and truth in public life, he would get up at that Dispatch Box and say, “I’m sorry, I got it wrong. I gave the wrong figures; here are the right ones.” Now do it.
I have explained to the House that money has been brought forward to 2008-09 and 2009-10. Instead of having expenditure of just £30 billion in 2008-09, it is £38 billion. Instead of expenditure of less in 2009-10, it will be £44 billion. We took the decision to advance public expenditure to deal with the recession. Let him come clean: he would cut public expenditure this year, next year and every year after. He is trying to evade his responsibility for wanting 10 per cent. cuts.
In the answer before last, the Prime Minister talked about the year 2007-08. In the last answer, he talked about the year 2008-09. Those years have already happened. He said at the Dispatch Box last week that capital expenditure would grow between now and the Olympics. The figures are in the Red Book, on page 226. Capital expenditure will be £44 billion in 2009, falling to £36 billion, then to £29 billion and then, in the year of the Olympics, to £26 billion. There is no other way to cut it. There is nowhere else he can hide. He must stand up, explain that he got it wrong and say that what he told the House last week was wrong. Why not do it for once?
We brought forward spending to deal with the recession. I know that he is against our bringing forward the spending, but we brought forward current and capital spending to deal with the recession. Let me tell him that spending is £44 billion in the year 2009-10. That is the highest capital expenditure ever in our country. It compares with the recession years under the Tories, when capital spending was only £12 billion or £16 billion. We are taking the action to invest in our public services—they would cut our public services now. Why does he not admit that there would be 10 per cent. cuts in public services under the Conservatives?
Let us first of all be clear about the Prime Minister’s claims about Conservative policy. Even his own colleagues do not believe him. This is the report that we had from last week’s Cabinet:
“Darling pointed out that Brown’s Tory cut figures did not represent the”—
“party’s policy but were merely extrapolations”—
[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] It gets more interesting:
“Cooper, previously the Treasury minister responsible for public spending, echoed his concerns”,
“According to one source who was present, Brown was visibly irritated at the way he had been undermined, and brought the meeting to an early close”.
He says that he wants to be a teacher, but it sounds like he has lost control of the classroom. Last week, at that Dispatch Box, the Prime Minister did not talk about bringing forward capital expenditure. He said, very clearly:
“Capital expenditure will grow until the year of the Olympics.”— [Official Report, 17 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 295.]
Let me give him one more chance to show that the talk of transparency, truth and honesty means something. He should find that moral compass, stand up there and tell us that he got it wrong.
I read out the figures to the House. We are spending £38 billion in that year 2008-09—more than the Tories would ever do. We are spending £44 billion in the coming year—more than the Tories would ever do. We are spending more money on capital investment than at any time in our history—[Interruption.]
We have to face up to the fact that a sensible debate in this country means that the Conservatives are going to cut spending on housing, education, policing and all the vital public services. The right hon. Gentleman cannot evade the fact that his figures are lower than any of ours in any year. That is the truth about public spending in our country.
His is the party of 10 per cent. cuts in public expenditure, and the party that would cut the vital public services at a time of recession. We have brought forward public expenditure to help people stay in their homes and get into jobs and to help build schools and hospitals. Those are exactly the public services that the Conservatives would cut savagely, by 10 per cent. That is not going to be allowed to happen. [Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr. Speaker, and may I also welcome you to your new role? Many of us here will welcome the fact that the Prime Minister has rowed back from holding an inquiry into Iraq in private. It would have been a misjudgment to do so. That said, the Opposition motion and the amendment before us this afternoon contain two points of difference—whether the terms of reference are discussed and published, and whether the committee should have a wider composition. What can the Prime Minister say to the House to address those two points of difference?
I can say that Sir John Chilcot, the chair of the inquiry—and it is an independent inquiry—has written to me to make it absolutely clear that the inquiry will need expert assessors at the highest level including in military, legal, international development and reconstruction matters. He has already begun to identify people who may be willing to serve in that capacity. As for the terms of reference, I cannot think of an inquiry with wider terms of reference. It covers nearly eight years, from 2001 to 2009. It covers all issues that refer to the conflict itself, the causes of the conflict, and the reconstruction after the conflict. The inquiry will be set up on the basis that it will be allowed to have all the evidence and materials, whether classified or not, that it needs to look into the matter. The terms of reference of this inquiry are very wide indeed.
I should like to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Major Sean Birchall, who tragically lost his life in Helmand this week. I of course also join in the expressions of sympathy and condolence to the families and friends of Jason Swindlehurst and Jason Creswell. We all hope that the remaining hostages will be released safely as soon as possible.
On the Gurkhas, the Prime Minister was wrong and was forced to back down. On MPs’ expenses, he was wrong and forced to back down. On the Iraq inquiry, he was wrong and is now being forced to back down. The only gear left for this Government seems to be reverse, so when will we hear from him that he is wrong too on public spending?
I am not wrong on public spending. We want to increase public spending. I am not wrong on wanting to help people in difficulty in the recession by helping the unemployed and home owners. It is the Liberal party that wants to cut public expenditure, not the Cons—not the Labour party. [Interruption.]
The Prime Minister cannot keep avoiding the questions. Today, new figures from the EU have been published that show that we have the largest underlying deficit anywhere in Europe. Why does he not admit that balancing the nation’s books will take big, difficult, long-term decisions? Nobody is fooled by his trick of dressing up cuts as investment. We are setting out what needs to happen—unlike him, and unlike the Leader of the Opposition—on Trident, on baby bonds, and on tax credits for high-income families. There are some ideas, now where are his?
Given that there is no problem of inflation at the moment in our country, and given that interest rates are low, it is right for us to take action to help people get into work. It is right for us to take action to help 150,000 businesses, as we are doing. It is right for us to move forward the housing programme and our programme of capital investment. These are the right things to do. I do not think that the Liberals, with their proposals to cut public spending, are doing the right thing at the moment at all.
Increasingly, the choice within our country will become one between us wanting to preserve our public services and wanting to expand them and a Conservative party that is determined to cut them by 10 per cent. Once the public knows that that is the choice, Conservative Members will have to explain in every constituency how many police, nurses and teachers are going to be cut as a result of their restrictions on spending.
Can the Prime Minister confirm whether he has had any correspondence, e-mail, telephone calls or texts from Damian McBride since the day he resigned, and just to clear up the confusion that there seems to be around this issue, will he write to the Parliamentary Standards Authority confirming the answer to this question?
I have talked to the company and also met the trades unions, as has the Business Secretary. The future of steel making in this region is absolutely crucial, so we are trying to do everything we can to make that happen. Clearly, there is a dispute between Tata and the partners involved in the consortium that has now withdrawn its order for steel making in the area. We want to support a reconciliation between the two groups, which is what we are trying to do. In the meantime, One North East is trying to help people in search of jobs.
The Prime Minister’s insult to the Law and Justice party of Poland in his European statement yesterday is a great insult to the President of Poland, who is a member of that party and to the Polish people who elected that party into office. No matter what he may think of the Law and Justice party, he must understand that as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom he has a duty to implement basic diplomatic procedures.
First, let me congratulate my right hon. Friend on the 27th anniversary of his election to the House of Commons; he has given great service, particularly in terms of our relations with other countries. In Burma a sham trial of Aung San Suu Kyi is taking place, and it is completely unacceptable not just to us, but to all members of the international community. At the last meeting of the European Council, we sent out a powerful message that unless action is taken in Burma to free Aung San Suu Kyi, we will be prepared to take further sanctions against the regime. I have also talked to the UN Secretary-General and encouraged him to visit Burma—Mr. Gambari, his representative, is there at the moment. I hope that the Secretary-General will visit Burma to send a message to the regime as soon as possible.
In May 1997, there were 1,826 people unemployed in Wellingborough; at the end of last month, that figure had risen to 3,366—an increase of 84 per cent. Whose fault is that: is it (a) the last Conservative Government; (b) the previous US President; or (c) the Prime Minister who claimed he had ended boom and bust?
The figures are all the more reason to support our policies to get people back to work. Were it not for the policies we are adopting, 500,000 more people would be out of work—that is what official estimates say. The hon. Gentleman should be supporting the public expenditure we are engaged in to help people get back into work.
We have proposed measures to modernise the House of Commons, in particular the election of Select Committee Chairs, the scheduling of non-Government business and the raising of public issues for debate. All those other matters can be considered in due course, and the Leader of the House will lead a debate on them.
Mr. Speaker, the university of Essex is proud of you.
Earlier this month, the Conservatives were humiliated in the local elections in Colchester. Will the Prime Minister discuss with his Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families why Essex county council is ignoring what the Secretary of State promised in the House in May last year, and is proceeding to close two secondary schools, against the democratic wish of the people of my constituency?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, investment in schools is rising, as is investment in new school buildings generally. The hon. Gentleman has specific questions he wishes to address to the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, and I hope that he will be able to meet my right hon. Friend soon.
Since 1997, the investment we have made in neighbourhood policing and in policing generally has led to a reduction in crime. As a result of that investment, people can feel safer in their homes, but it is equally important that we maintain investment in policing—a 10 per cent. cut in policing budgets would be totally disastrous for police forces and communities.
The Learning and Skills Council has written to the principals of all colleges about capital investment for the future. It hopes to announce projects to go through to the next stage of the process as soon as possible. As my hon. Friend will know, we made available an extra £300 million in the Budget for further education colleges. I am sure that the Minister will be happy to meet him.
We want more people to be able to go to university. If there are more applications this year, we must look at that very carefully. I shall look at what the hon. Gentleman says about the numbers, and I know that the Business Secretary is looking at what can be done. We want to give this year’s school leavers a guarantee that they will also have opportunities, and the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families is taking action to ensure that opportunities are available to every school leaver this summer.
My hon. Friend has campaigned on water charges in her region for many years. I believe that the interim report is scheduled for publication next week, with a final report expected in the autumn. We will provide a full response following the publication of the final report and I will be happy to meet my hon. Friend to talk about it.
A considerable number of my constituents are Equitable Life victims and the quality of the retirement that they paid for has been crippled. The Government’s response to the two ombudsman’s reports added insult to that injury. Will the Prime Minister look again at the delays in paying compensation and the partiality of the Government’s compensation scheme?
We have shown our commitment to our armed forces by increasing expenditure on them every year. We have made extra money available for all the additional responsibilities that they have had to discharge in Iraq and Afghanistan. We want a spending path for the armed forces that is completely consistent with their responsibilities. It would not make sense—regardless of need and what has happened to the economy—to announce 10 per cent. cuts in the defence budget now.
If the hon. Gentleman was here yesterday, he would know that I answered exactly that question. I said that we had raised the number of forces in Afghanistan for the period of the election campaign from 8,100 to 9,000. For that period, which takes us right through to the autumn, we are meeting additional responsibilities to ensure that the democracy of Afghanistan is maintained and that elections can happen with greater security and safety. Of course, we maintain our ongoing campaign against the Afghanistan Taliban.
Is it not remarkable that the Conservatives have formed an alliance in Europe that excludes the German Christian Democrats, excludes the French party of President Sarkozy, excludes the Italian party of Prime Minister Berlusconi—[Interruption.] —excludes all reputable political parties in Europe—[Interruption.]
Would the Prime Minister agree with me that both the Tamil and Sinhalese people of Sri Lanka deserve an investigation into alleged war crimes committed during the civil war in Sri Lanka? Given the cowardly decision by the United Nations Human Rights Council to resist any such inquiry, what steps can he take to make sure that the issue is not abandoned and forgotten?
As the hon. Lady may know, I have spoken to the President of Sri Lanka, and I have urged him to ensure reconciliation with the Tamil community. It is very important, after the events that we have seen happen, that those people who have been displaced are given urgent humanitarian help, that the regime itself recognises that it has to make peace with the Tamil members of the community, and that action is taken as quickly as possible for that purpose. What we need is not violence in Sri Lanka but reconciliation.
Just before we move on to the main business, I want to make a brief statement of just three points. First, as I said on Monday, when Ministers have key policy statements to make, the House must be the first to hear them, and they should not be released beforehand. Secondly, in statements, I ask the Front Benchers to stick to their allotted times. I also ask that the Back-Bench Members taking part each confine themselves to one, brief supplementary question. In the same vein, I hope that Ministers’ replies will be kept to a reasonable length. Finally, I always expect that those speaking in this Chamber will be heard, so that an atmosphere of calm, reasoned debate is maintained.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This is really further to your statement, and particularly the first point in it. It was remarkable to read in The Independent today that
“Britain is to appoint its first national cyber security chief to protect the country from terrorist computer hackers and electronic espionage, Gordon Brown will announce tomorrow.
The Prime Minister’s move comes amid fears that the computer systems of government and business are vulnerable to online attack from hostile countries and terrorist organisations.”
A civil servant is then named:
“Neil Thompson, a senior civil servant, will be charged with protecting the national computer network.”
Cyber-security is a very important issue, and the cyber-threat to the United Kingdom is extremely severe. I understand that there are no plans for an oral statement to this House tomorrow, quite apart from the fact that there is no record that there will be any written or oral statements to the House today on the issue. Would it be as well for the Government to prepare an oral statement of some kind for tomorrow?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he has just said, which seems to underline the merit of my having made the statement that I did. On the specifics of the question, of which I did not have any advance notice, I can only say to him and to the House that I will certainly look into the matter.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Does your first ruling extend to Ministers commenting on the publication of Bills, and to cases in which no Member of this House has had an opportunity to see a Bill before they hear the relevant Secretary of State telling the world what is in it on the “Today” programme?
Certainly, Ministers ought to make key statements to the House before they are made elsewhere. I should have thought that that was pretty clear. I note that the Leader of the House and other senior Ministers are present on the Treasury Bench. I say to the hon. Gentleman: let us see how it goes, but I hope that the thrust of what I have said is pretty clear.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It relates to a matter about which I wrote to you this morning. Tomorrow we are debating a motion to set up a Select Committee to make recommendations about how the House can better hold the Government to account through procedural changes. One of the main issues at stake is the way in which the House is able to scrutinise public Bills on Report, which has been appalling, and which many senior Members on both sides of the House—including yourself, sir, while you held such public opinions as a Back Bencher—agree has not been satisfactory. We assumed that the Wright Committee would be able to consider that, but its terms of reference say only that it will be able to look at procedures relating to non-Government business. To help with how we settle this, could you clarify whether you would agree that the way in which the House scrutinises Bills, even those introduced by the Government, is the very essence of House business, because it is the job of the House to scrutinise legislation? It is not the job of the Government to scrutinise legislation.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. Unfortunately, I do not have the advantage of having seen his letter, though I do not doubt that it has been sent to me. Of course, he has tabled an amendment, of which I am aware and with which other Members of the House will be familiar.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will be aware that following the recent Government reshuffle, an increasing number of Ministers of the Crown find themselves in the other place, rather than in this place, including two Secretaries of State. Given your welcome determination to introduce reform in the House, what consideration will you give to holding those Ministers and particularly Secretaries of State accountable to this House, perhaps by their giving statements in this House?
[14th allotted day]
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.