This morning, Sir John Chilcot has published the report of the independent Iraq inquiry. This is a difficult day for all the families of those who lost loved ones. They have waited for this report for too long, and our first thoughts today must be with them. In their grief and anger, I hope they can draw at least some solace from the depth and rigour of this report and, above all, some comfort from knowing that we will never forget the incredible service and sacrifice of their sons, daughters, husbands and wives—179 British servicemen and women and 23 British civilians who gave everything for our country. We must also never forget the thousands more who suffered life-changing injuries, and we must pledge today to look after them for the rest of their lives.
This report would have been produced sooner if it had been begun when Conservative Members and others first called for it back in 2006, but I am sure that the House will join me in thanking Sir John and his Privy Counsellors, including the late Sir Martin Gilbert, who sadly passed away during the work on this report.
This has been a fully independent inquiry. Government Ministers did not even see it until yesterday morning. The Cabinet Secretary led a process that gave Sir John full access to Government papers. This has meant an unprecedented public declassification of Joint Intelligence Committee papers, key Cabinet minutes, records of meetings and conversations between the UK Prime Minister and the American President, and 31 personal memos from the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to President George W. Bush. The inquiry also took evidence from more than 150 witnesses, and its report runs to 2.6 million words, in 13 volumes. It cost over £10 million to produce. Clearly the House will want the chance to study and debate it in depth, and I am making provision for two full days of debate next week.
There are a number of key questions that are rightly asked about Iraq. Did we go to war on a false premise? Were decisions taken properly, including the consideration of legal advice? Was the operation properly planned? Were we properly prepared for the aftermath of the initial conflict? Did our forces have adequate funding and equipment? I will try to summarise the key findings on these questions before turning to the lessons that I believe should be learned.
A number of reasons were put forward for going to war in Iraq, including the danger that Saddam posed to his people and to the region, and the need to uphold United Nations resolutions. However, as everyone in this House will remember, central to the Government’s case was the issue of weapons of mass destruction. Sir John finds that there was an “ingrained belief” genuinely held in both the UK and US Governments that Saddam Hussein possessed chemical and biological capabilities, and that he wanted to redevelop his nuclear capabilities and was pursuing an active policy of deceit and concealment.
There were some good reasons for this belief. Saddam had built up chemical weapons in the past and he had used them against Kurdish civilians and the Iranian military. He had given international weapons inspectors the run-around for years. The report clearly reflects that the advice given to the Government by the intelligence and policy community was that Saddam did indeed continue to possess and seek to develop these capabilities.
However, as we now know, by 2003 this long-held belief no longer reflected the reality. Sir John says:
“At no stage was the proposition that Iraq might no longer have chemical, biological or nuclear weapons or programmes identified and examined by either the”
Joint Intelligence Committee
“or the policy community.”
And as the report notes, the late Robin Cook had shown that it was possible to come to a different conclusion from an examination of the same intelligence.
In the wake of 9/11, the Americans were also understandably concerned about the risk of weapons of mass destruction finding their way into the hands of terrorists. Sir John finds that while it was reasonable to be concerned about the potential fusion of proliferation and terrorism, there was
“no basis in the JIC Assessments to suggest that Iraq itself represented such a threat.”
On the question of intelligence, Sir John finds no evidence that intelligence was improperly included, or that No. 10—or Mr Blair personally—improperly influenced the text of the September 2002 dossier, but he does find that the use of Joint Intelligence Committee material in public presentation did not make clear enough the limitations or the subtleties of assessment. He says that the assessed intelligence
“had not established beyond doubt either that Saddam Hussein had continued to produce chemical and biological weapons or that efforts to develop nuclear weapons continued”,
and he says that the Joint Intelligence Committee
“should have made that clear to Mr Blair.”
Sir John also finds that public statements from the Government conveyed more certainty than the Joint Intelligence Committee assessments. There was a lack of clarity about the distinction between what the JIC assessed and what Mr Blair believed. Referring to the text in Mr Blair’s foreword to the September 2002 dossier, he finds
“a distinction between”
“beliefs and the JIC’s actual judgements.”
But in his words Sir John does not question Mr Blair’s belief or his legitimate role in advocating Government policy.
Turning to the question of legality, the inquiry has “not expressed a view as to whether or not the UK’s participation in the war was legal.” However, it does quote the legal advice which the Attorney General gave at the time and on which the Government acted—namely, that there was a legal basis for action. Nevertheless, Sir John is highly critical of the processes by which the legal advice was arrived at and discussed. He says:
“The circumstances in which it was ultimately decided that there was a legal basis for UK participation were far from satisfactory.”
I am sure hon. Members will want to study that part of the report carefully.
Sir John also finds that the diplomatic options had not at that stage been exhausted, and that
“Military action was therefore not a last resort.”
Sir John says that when the second resolution at the UN became unachievable, the UK should have done more to exhaust all diplomatic options, including allowing the inspectors longer to complete their job.
Turning to the decision making, the report documents carefully the processes that were followed. There was a Cabinet discussion before the decision to go to war. A number of Ministers, including the Foreign and Defence Secretaries, were involved in much of the decision making. However, the report makes some specific criticisms of the process of decision making. In particular, when it came to the options for military action, it is clear that these were never discussed properly by a Cabinet Committee or Cabinet. Arrangements were often informal and sporadic, and frequently involved a small group of Ministers and advisers, sometimes without formal records.
Sir John finds that, at crucial points, Mr Blair sent personal notes and made important commitments to Mr Bush that had not been discussed or agreed with Cabinet colleagues. However, while Sir John makes many criticisms of process, including the way information was handled and presented, at no stage does he explicitly say that there was a deliberate attempt to mislead people.
Turning to operational planning, the initial invasion proceeded relatively rapidly, and we should be proud of what our armed forces managed to achieve so quickly. This was despite the fact that the military did not really have time to plan properly for an invasion from the south, because they had been focused on the north until a late decision from the Turkish Government to refuse entry through their territory. It was also in spite of issues over equipment, which I will turn to later.
But a bigger question was around the planning for what might happen after the initial operation, and we mentioned this briefly at Prime Minister’s questions. Sir John finds that
“when the invasion began, the UK government was not in a position to conclude that satisfactory plans had been drawn up and preparations made to meet known post-conflict challenges and risks in Iraq.”
He adds that the Government
“lacked clear Ministerial oversight of post-conflict strategy, planning and preparation and effective co-ordination between government departments”
“failed to analyse or manage those risks adequately.”
The Government—and here I mean officials and the military, as well as Ministers—remained too fixed on assumptions that the Americans had a plan, that the UN would play a significant role, with the international community sharing the burden, and that the UK role would be over three to four months after the conflict had ended. Sir John concludes that the Government’s failure to prepare properly for the aftermath of the conflict
“reduced the likelihood of achieving the UK’s strategic objectives in Iraq.”
And Sir John concludes that anticipating these post-conflict problems—and I quote, as I did at Prime Minister’s questions—
“did not require the benefit of hindsight.”
Turning to equipment and troops, Sir John is clear that the UK failed to match resources to the objectives. Sir John says categorically that
“delays in providing adequate medium weight Protected Patrol Vehicles and the failure to meet the needs of UK forces...for ISTAR and helicopters should not have been tolerated”,
and he says that
“the MOD was slow in responding to the developing threat in Iraq from Improvised Explosive Devices.”
The inquiry also identified a number of moments when it would have been possible to conduct a substantial reappraisal of our approach to the whole situation in Iraq and the level of resources required. But despite a series of warnings from commanders in the field, Sir John finds that no such reappraisal took place. Furthermore, during the first four years, there was
“no clear statement of policy setting out the acceptable level of risk to UK forces and who was responsible for managing that risk.”
Sir John also finds that the Government—and in particular the military—were too focused on withdrawing from Iraq and planning for an Afghan deployment in 2006, and that further drew effort away.
Sir John concludes that although Tony Blair succeeded in persuading America to go back to the UN in 2002, he was unsuccessful in changing the US position on other critical decisions, and that
“in the absence of a majority in the Security Council in support of military action at that point, the UK was undermining the authority of the Security Council”.
While it is right for a UK Prime Minister to weigh up carefully the damage to the special relationship that would be done by failing to support the US, Sir John says that it is questionable whether not participating militarily on this occasion would have broken the partnership. He says there was a substantial gap from the outset between the ambitious UK objectives and the resources that Government were prepared to commit, and that even with more resources, the circumstances surrounding the invasion made it difficult to deliver substantive outcomes.
While the territorial integrity of Iraq remained, deep sectarian divisions opened, and thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians lost their lives. While these divisions were not created by the international coalition, Sir John believes they were exacerbated, including through the extent of de-Ba’athification, and they were not addressed by an effective programme of reconciliation. Overall, Sir John finds that the policy of Her Majesty’s Government fell far short of meeting its strategic objectives and helped to create a space for al-Qaeda.
Of course, the decision to go to war came to a vote in this House, and Members on all sides who voted for military action will have to take our fair share of the responsibility. We cannot turn the clock back, but we can ensure that lessons are learned and acted on. I will turn to these in a moment and cover all the issues around machinery of government, proper processes, culture and planning, some of which we discussed in Prime Minister’s questions, but let me be the first to say that getting all of these things right does not guarantee the success of a military intervention.
For example, on Libya, I believe it was right to intervene to stop Gaddafi slaughtering his people. In that case, we did have a United Nations Security Council resolution. We did have proper processes. We did have comprehensive advice on all the key issues. And we did not put our forces on the ground. Instead we worked with a transitional Libyan Government. But getting these things right does not make the challenges of intervention any less formidable. The difficulties in Libya are plain for everyone to see today.
As the Prime Minister for the last six years, reading this report, I believe there are some lessons that we do need to learn and, frankly, keep on learning. First, taking the country to war should always be a last resort and should only be done if all credible alternatives have been exhausted.
Secondly, the machinery of government does matter. That is why, on my first day in office, I established the National Security Council to ensure proper co-ordinated decision making across the whole of government, including those responsible for domestic security. This council is not just a meeting of Ministers; it has the right breadth of expertise in the room, with the Chief of the Defence Staff, the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, the heads of the intelligence services, and relevant senior officials. The Attorney General is now a member of the National Security Council.
I also appointed the UK’s first national security adviser, with a properly constituted team in the Cabinet Office to ensure that all the key parts of our national security apparatus are joined up. The national security machinery also taps the experience and knowledge of experts from outside Government. This helps us to constantly challenge conventional wisdom within the system and avoid, hopefully, group-think. It is inconceivable today that we could take a premeditated decision to commit combat troops without a full and challenging discussion in the National Security Council, on the basis of full papers, including written legal advice, prepared and stress-tested by all relevant departments, with decisions formally minuted.
Thirdly, I would argue also that the culture established by Prime Ministers matters too. It is crucial to good decision making that a Prime Minister establishes a climate in which it is safe for officials and other experts to challenge existing policy and question the views of Ministers, and the Prime Minister, without fear or favour. There is no question today but that everyone sat around the NSC table is genuinely free to speak their mind.
Fourthly, if we are to take the difficult decisions to intervene in other countries, proper planning for what follows is vital. We know that the task of rebuilding effective governance is enormous. That is why we created a conflict, stability and stabilisation fund, and beefed up the cross-government stabilisation unit, so that experts are able to deploy in post-conflict situations anywhere in the world at short notice. Frankly, none of this would be possible without the historic decision that we have taken to commit 0.7% of our gross national income on overseas aid. A lot of that money is spent on conflict-affected and fragile states, not only assisting with post-conflict planning but also trying to prevent conflicts in the first place.
Fifthly, we must ensure that our armed forces are always properly equipped and resourced. That is why we now conduct a regular strategic defence and security review to ensure that the resources we have meet the ambitions of the national security strategy. We are meeting our NATO commitment to spend 2% of our GDP on defence, and planning to invest at least £178 billion on new military equipment over the next decade. We have also enshrined the armed forces covenant in law to ensure that our armed forces and their families receive the treatment and respect they deserve. Sending our brave troops on to the battlefield without the right equipment was unacceptable, and whatever else we learn from this conflict, we must all pledge that this will never happen again.
There will be further lessons to learn from studying this report, and I commit today that that is exactly what we will do, but in reflecting on this report, and my own experience, there are also some lessons here that I do not think we should draw. First, it would be wrong to conclude that we should not stand with our American allies when our common security interests are threatened. We must never be afraid to speak frankly and honestly, as best friends always should. And where we commit our troops together, there must be a structure through which our views can be properly conveyed and any differences worked through. But it remains the case that Britain and America share the same fundamental values, that Britain has no greater friend or ally in the world than America, and that our partnership remains as important for our security and prosperity today as it has ever been.
Secondly, I think it would be wrong to conclude that we cannot rely on the judgments of our brilliant and hard-working intelligence agencies. We know the debt we owe them in helping to keep us safe every day of the year. Since November 2014, they have enabled us to foil seven different planned terrorist attacks on the streets of the UK. What this report shows is that there needs to be a proper separation between the process of assessing intelligence and the policy making that flows from it. And as a result of the reforms since the Butler report, that is what we have in place.
Thirdly, it would be completely wrong to conclude that our military is not capable of intervening successfully around the world. Many of the failures in this report were not directly about the conduct of the armed forces as they went into Iraq, but rather the failures of planning before a shot was fired. There is no question but that Britain’s armed forces remain the envy of the world, and the decisions we have taken to ensure that they are properly resourced will ensure they stay that way.
Finally, we should not conclude that intervention is always wrong. There are unquestionably times when it is right to intervene, as this country did successfully in Sierra Leone and Kosovo. I am sure that many in this House would agree that there have been times in the recent past when we should have intervened but did not, such as in failing to prevent the genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica.
Intervention is hard. War fighting is not always the most difficult part. Often, the state-building that follows is a much more complex challenge. We should not be naive to think that just because we have the best prepared plans, in the real world things cannot go wrong. Equally, just because intervention is difficult, it does not mean that there are not times when it is right and necessary.
Yes, Britain has to, and will continue to, learn the lessons of this report. But as with our intervention against Daesh in Iraq and Syria today, Britain must not and will not shrink from its role on the world stage or fail to protect its people. I commend this statement to the House.
Before addressing the issues raised in the Iraq inquiry report, I would like to remember and honour the 179 British servicemen and women who were killed and the thousands maimed and injured during the Iraq war, and their families, as well as the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have died as a result of the invasion and occupation launched by the US and British Governments 13 years ago.
Yesterday, I had a private meeting with some of the families of the British dead, as I have continued to do over the past dozen years. It is always a humbling experience to witness the resolve and resilience of those families and their unwavering commitment to seek truth and justice for those whom they lost in Iraq. They have waited seven years for Sir John Chilcot’s report. It was right that the inquiry heard evidence from such a wide range of people and that the origins, conduct and aftermath of the war were examined in such detail. However, the extraordinary length of time that it has taken for the report to see the light of day is, frankly, clearly a matter of regret.
I should add that the scale of the report, running to 6,275 pages, to which I was given access only at 8 o’clock this morning, means that today’s response, by all of us, can only be a provisional one.
The decision to invade and occupy Iraq in March 2003 was the most significant foreign policy decision taken by a British Government in modern times. It divided this House and set the Government of the day against a majority of the British people, as well as against the weight of global opinion. As Sir John Chilcot says, the war was not in any way a “last resort”. Frankly, it was an act of military aggression launched on a false pretext, as the inquiry accepts, and has long been regarded as illegal by the overwhelming weight of international legal opinion. It led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the displacement of millions of refugees. It devastated Iraq’s infrastructure and society. As the report indicates, the occupation fostered a lethal sectarianism that turned into a civil war. Instead of protecting security at home or abroad, the war fuelled and spread terrorism across the region. Sunday’s suicide bomb attack in Baghdad that killed over 250 people, the deadliest so far, was carried out by a group whose origins lie in the aftermath of the invasion. By any measure, the invasion and occupation of Iraq have been, for many, a catastrophe.
The decision to invade Iraq in 2003 on the basis of what the Chilcot report calls “flawed intelligence” about weapons of mass destruction has had a far-reaching impact on us all. It has led to a fundamental breakdown in trust in politics and in our institutions of government. The tragedy is that while the governing class got it so horrifically wrong, many of our people actually got it right. On 15 February 2003, 1.5 million people here, spanning the entire political spectrum, and tens of millions of others across the world, marched against the impending war. That was the biggest demonstration in British history.
It was not that those of us who opposed the war underestimated the brutality or the crimes of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. Indeed, many of us campaigned against the Iraqi regime during its most bloody period, when the British Government and the US Administration were supporting that regime, as was confirmed by the 1996 Scott inquiry. But we could see that this state, broken by sanctions and war, posed no military threat, and that the WMD evidence was flimsy and confected. We could see that going to war without United Nations’ authorisation was profoundly dangerous, and that foreign invasion and occupation would be resisted by force, and would set off a series of uncontrollable and destructive events.
If only this House had been able to listen to the wisdom of many of our own people when it voted on 18 March 2003 against waiting for UN authorisation for a second resolution, the course of events might have been different. All but 16 Members of the official Opposition at that time supported the war, while many in my party voted against it, as did others in other opposition parties. There are Members here today on all Benches, including dozens of my Labour colleagues, who voted against the war. But none of us should take any satisfaction from this report. [Interruption.] Instead, I believe that all of us—[Interruption.]
Order. We cannot have a running commentary on the statements made from the Front Bench. Members of this House know me well enough to know that I will allow all opinions to be expressed. If that means that the Prime Minister has to be here for quite a long time, he is accustomed to that. The right hon. Gentleman is entitled to be heard with courtesy. If people want to witter away, they should leave the Chamber. It is boring and we do not need you.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
We have to be saddened at what has been revealed, and we must now reflect on it. In addition to all those British servicepeople and Iraqis, civilians and combatants, who lost their lives in the conflict, many members of this House who voted to stop the war have not lived to see themselves vindicated by this report. First and foremost, it would do us well to remember Robin Cook, who stood over there, 13 years ago, and said in a few hundred words, in advance of the tragedy to come, what has been confirmed by this report in more than 2 million words.
The Chilcot report has rightly dug deep into the litany of failures of planning for the occupation, and the calamitous decision to stand down the Iraqi army and to dissolve the entire Iraqi state as a process of de-Ba’athification. However, the reality is that it was the original decision, to follow the US President into this war in the most volatile region of the world and impose a colonial-style occupation, that led to every other disaster. The Government’s September 2002 dossier, with its claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction that could be deployed in 45 minutes, was only the most notorious of many deceptions. As Major General Michael Laurie told the inquiry:
“We knew at the time that the purpose of the dossier was precisely to make a case for war, rather than setting out the available intelligence”.
Military action in Iraq not only turned a humanitarian crisis into a disaster, but it also convulsed the entire region, just as intervention in Libya in 2011 has sadly left the country in the grip of warring militias and terror groups. The Iraq war increased the threat of terrorism in our own country, as Baroness Manningham-Buller, former head of MI5, made clear to the inquiry.
There are many lessons that need to be drawn from the Iraq war and the investigation carried out by Sir John Chilcot in his inquiry; lessons for our Government, our country and this Parliament, as well as for my party and every other party. They include the need for a more open and independent relationship with the United States, and for a foreign policy based on upholding international law and the authority of the United Nations, which always seeks peaceful solutions to international disputes. We also need, and the Prime Minister indicated this, much stronger oversight of security and intelligence services. We need the full restoration of proper Cabinet government and to give Parliament the decisive say over any future decisions to go to war—based on objective information, not just through Government discretion but through a war powers Act, which I hope this Parliament will pass. As, in the wake of Iraq, our own Government and other western Governments increasingly resort to hybrid warfare based on the use of drones and special forces, our democracy crucially needs to ensure that their use is subject to proper parliamentary scrutiny.
There are no more important decisions a Member of Parliament ever gets asked to make than those relating to peace and war. The very least that Members of Parliament and the country should be able to expect is rigorous and objective evidence on which to base their crucial decisions. We now know that the House was misled in the run-up to the war, and the House must now decide how to deal with it 13 years later, just as all those who took the decisions laid bare in the Chilcot report must face up to the consequences of their actions, whatever they may be.
Later today, I will be meeting a group of families of military servicemen and women who lost loved ones, as well as Iraq war veterans and Iraqi citizens who have lost family members as a result of the war that the US and British Governments launched in 2003. I will be discussing with them, our public and the Iraqi people the decisions taken by our then Government that led the country into war, with terrible consequences.
Quite bluntly, there are huge lessons for every single one of us here today. We make decisions that have consequences that go on not just for the immediate years, but for decades and decades afterwards. We need to reflect very seriously before we take any decisions again to take military action. We should realise that the consequences of those decisions will live with all of us for many decades to come, and will often be incalculable.
Let me briefly respond to that, because I want to leave as much time as I can for colleagues to make their points. I think the right hon. Gentleman is right to praise the families for the dignity that they have shown. I understand the regret over the time taken, and I think we all feel that. The only point I would make is that when you have an independent report, you have to allow it to be independent and you have to allow the chairman to make his or her own decisions in their own way. While it has been frustrating, I think that frustration has probably been better than intervention.
In terms of the time the right hon. Gentleman was given to read the report, I did not want politicians, including the former Prime Minister, to be given more time than the families themselves. That is why the 8 o’clock deadline was set. On the report itself, I think the right hon. Gentleman is right to say, and the report finds, that the intervention did create space for al-Qaeda. The only point I would make is that it is important to remember that violent Islamist extremism—al-Qaeda and all of that—started long before the Iraq war. It started long before 9/11, which was several years before the Iraq invasion. It is important to remember that.
In terms of the litany of failures, I have been able to read the executive summary and some other bits and pieces, as I am sure colleagues will. The right hon. Gentleman is right that there is a litany of failures: the disbanding of the army, the de-Ba’athification, the way the Coalition Provisional Authority worked and the failure to plan for the aftermath. There were very powerful points made by Sir John Chilcot.
In terms of the lessons to learn, many of the points the right hon. Gentleman made we have already put in place: proper Cabinet discussions, National Security Council discussions, parliamentary votes and the oversight of the intelligence agencies. Before coming up with even more ways to oversee our intelligence agencies, I would urge colleagues from right around the House to look at the way the beefed-up Intelligence and Security Committee works and at the other things that we have done, not least in the legislation going through both Houses. We do need to leave our intelligence services with a clear set of instructions and oversight arrangements, rather than changing them every five minutes.
A war powers Act can be discussed in the two-day debate. I have looked at it very carefully, and I have come to the conclusion that it is not the right thing to do. I think we would get ourselves into a legal mess. But the House should clearly debate it, as it will when it considers the report.
On the issue of the United States, the right hon. Gentleman calls for an open partnership. I do not believe that the United States is always right about everything, but I do believe that our partnership with the United States is vital for our national security. I rather fear that his approach is that the United States is always wrong. I do not think that they are always right, but I think that they are always our best partner, and we should work with them.
I urge the right hon. Gentleman and others to take the time to read the report—not in its entirety; I do not think any of us will have time for 3.8 million words—because it is very carefully judged and very carefully thought through. We should read it in conjunction with the statement that Sir John has given today, which is a very articulate distillation of what he says in his 200-page summary. I think that that is what we should be guided by.
We will all need time to study the many damning conclusions in this report about how this catastrophic decision was reached in 2003, but the Prime Minister says that we should read it with an eye to future lessons for the machinery of government. Although I know from my own experience that the introduction of the National Security Council was a very valuable innovation, does my right hon. Friend agree that his successor should be recommended to look at whether we should return to the pre-Blair era of full collective Cabinet responsibility with proper time for meetings, proper information and studied conclusions? Does he agree that we should also look at whether proper parliamentary accountability for these things should be reconsidered so that there are full and properly informed debates here held in good time before, in cases such as this, the military are deployed, everything is set in hand and the position is irreversible? We really do need to go back to a much more collective and accountable form of government.
My right hon. and learned Friend makes good points. Let me respond. In terms of Cabinet responsibility, yes, before a decision such as this is made we need to have a Cabinet meeting and Cabinet discussion, but I would not try to substitute that for the work that the NSC now does, in which the head of MI5, the head of MI6 and the Chief of the Defence Staff are around the table. They sit there as equal members able to speak up and tell us what they think. That debate is frankly more valuable than simply listening to other Secretaries of State, although they are there as well. I still think that that is the best place to do that.
Yes, we should have parliamentary debates and it is good if we have them in reasonable time. One of the issues with the Iraq debate was that it was so close to the point of decision that many colleagues felt that to vote in a different way was somehow to let down our troops on the eve of a vitally important decision. Early debate is always good.
May I begin by thanking the Prime Minister for advance sight of his statement and for a few short hours this morning to have a look at the millions of words in the report? Today we remember the hundreds of thousands of people who have died in Iraq—Iraqi civilians and, of course, the 179 UK service personnel who have lost their lives. Today is an important and sombre day for their families, and our hearts go out to them.
The report that we are considering now will be pored over in the days, weeks and months ahead, and it should be the first step in learning the lessons from the UK’s most shameful foreign policy action in decades. Paragraph 409 of the executive summary of the Chilcot report confirms that on 28 July 2002, Tony Blair wrote to President Bush saying:
“I will be with you, whatever”.
Frankly, it is remarkable that the Prime Minister did not think that that was noteworthy enough to mention in his statement to the House. My first question to the Prime Minister is why he did not do so, given that much of the debate rests on the rationale of the Prime Minister of the time for signing up to whatever course of action the United States was prepared to pursue?
On intelligence, the report concludes at paragraph 807:
“The assessed intelligence had not established beyond doubt either that Saddam Hussein had continued to produce chemical and biological weapons or that efforts to develop nuclear weapons continued.”
I completely understand why the families of dead and injured UK service personnel, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, will feel that they were deceived about the reasons for going to war in Iraq. I completely understand why they also feel let down when it comes to the post-conflict situation, and the Chilcot report catalogues in graphic detail the failures in planning for post-conflict Iraq.
Paragraph 630 of the executive summary states that
“when Mr Blair set out the UK’s vision for the future of Iraq in the House of Commons on 18 March 2003, no assessment had been made of whether that vision was achievable, no agreement had been reached with the US on a workable post-conflict plan, UN authorisation had not yet been secured, and there had been no decision on the UN’s role in post-conflict Iraq.”
The summary goes on to say at paragraph 814:
“Mr Blair, who recognised the significance of the post-conflict phase, did not press President Bush for definite assurances about US plans, did not consider or seek advice on whether the absence of a satisfactory plan called for reassessment of the terms of the UK’s engagement and did not make agreement on such a plan a condition of UK participation in military action.”
In fact, the Chilcot report concludes, at paragraph 857:
“The UK did not achieve its objectives”.
Lack of planning has been evident since, in relation to Afghanistan, Libya and Syria; most recently there has been absolutely no plan whatever for Brexit. When will UK Governments of Tory or Labour hue actually start learning from the mistakes of the past so that we are not condemned to repeat them? I hope and expect that in the months ahead there will be the opportunity to hold to account those who are associated with and responsible for taking the UK to war in Iraq. It has not only caused hundreds of thousands of deaths; it has undermined people’s faith in Parliament and Government in the UK and left an indelible stain on Britain’s standing in the world.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks. He rightly said that it is a sombre day—he is absolutely correct. He highlighted a number of the very serious mistakes that were made, not least on planning for the aftermath. He asked specifically why I did not mention the specific Tony Blair note to President Bush. I was trying to be very careful in my statement to accurately summarise what Sir John Chilcot has said. There was a whole section in my statement about the processes, and I said that Sir John had found that at crucial points Mr Blair sent personal notes and made important commitments to Mr Bush that had not been discussed or agreed with Cabinet colleagues. It is worth reading Sir John Chilcot’s statement from this morning about that.
The right hon. Gentleman rightly focused on paragraph 630 of the executive summary. It is a powerful paragraph that says that
“when Mr Blair set out the UK’s vision for the future of Iraq in the House of Commons on 18 March 2003, no assessment had been made of whether that vision was achievable, no agreement had been reached with the US on a workable post-conflict plan, UN authorisation had not yet been secured”
and so on. That is one of the most powerful passages in the report, and he is right to draw attention to it.
I do not accept that all the same failures are in some way apparent when it comes to planning in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan there was a very clear connection as a Taliban regime was playing host to al-Qaeda. The goal of Government policy, which I supported at the time and indeed put in place when I became Prime Minister, was to make sure that that country could not become a safe haven for al-Qaeda. There was some considerable success in pursuing that aim. There was a huge amount of planning on the post-conflict situation in Afghanistan, and we are still engaged in that. It is not right to say that there was no plan; there is a plan. There is a UK-run officer training academy to strengthen the Afghan army. But as I said earlier, you can have all the plans in the world, but these are still extremely difficult things to get right.
If the right hon. Gentleman is somehow saying that there is no point in ever taking part in any intervention or trying to help any of these countries, that is a different position, and he should be honest and say that. But I would argue that with Afghanistan and Libya—and indeed with Brexit—we have set out the alternatives. That does not mean they are easy.
The Foreign Affairs Committee has stayed its inquiry into our intervention in Libya in order to take into account the conclusions of the Iraq inquiry. Given that it could be claimed that the inquiry’s central conclusions apply to some degree or other to Libya—not least as stabilisation planning for Libya was described by my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) at the time as “fanciful rot” and has been described to us since in evidence as “an unrealistic desktop exercise”—will the Prime Minister reconsider his understandable decision not to give oral evidence to us during the referendum campaign, so that the reach of the changes to the machinery of Government that he outlined earlier to the right hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) can be properly assessed by the Committee?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. The Foreign Secretary will be giving evidence to his Committee. The Prime Minister is always asked to give evidence to every Select Committee of the House. I try to stick to answering questions here in the Chamber, and at the Liaison Committee and the National Security Committee, which bring together members of a number of different Committees. I do not think what he asks will be possible but I always consider any request.
May I first wholeheartedly endorse the Prime Minister’s remarks about those who lost their lives? Does he agree that each of us, in Cabinet or in this House, are responsible and should take responsibility for our own individual decisions, albeit taken in good faith on the basis of evidence before us? Equally, does he agree that the men of hatred and death in al-Qaeda and Daesh/ISIL should take responsibility for their actions and for the blood and horror that they inflict on others?
The right hon. Lady is absolutely right. I was a relatively new Back Bencher who sat up there on the Opposition Benches listening to the arguments and coming to my own conclusions. Anyone who voted for the conflict has to take their share of responsibility. I do not choose to go back and say, “Well, if I had known then what I know now,” and all the rest of it. I think you make a decision, you defend it at the time and then you have to live with the consequences and bear your share of responsibility. That is the position I take.
The right hon. Lady makes a very good point about the evil of violent extremists, whether al-Qaeda, Daesh or others. This problem in our world existed before the Iraq war. It exists and is worse today. We are doing all sorts of things in all sorts of ways to try to combat it. Although the debate about what happened in Iraq and the decisions that were taken is vital, we must not let it sap our energy for dealing with this cancer in our world, which is killing us in our own country.
The Prime Minister referred to the cause or aim of the war as being weapons of mass destruction. I draw his attention back to the document sent from Tony Blair to the American President. After it says
“I will be with you, whatever”,
it goes on to say that the reason is that getting rid of Saddam Hussein is
“the right thing to do.”
The aim was regime change, not WMDs. That fact, and the fact that, as Sir John Chilcot says, Blair’s commitment made it very difficult for the UK to withdraw support for military action, amount to a deception and a misleading of this House of Commons. It is not the only one. Sir John has been very careful about avoiding accusing the former Prime Minister of lying to the House, but a lot of the evidence suggests that he did. What action can this House take to deal with that?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. I have had longer than anyone else to read the report, but I accept that trying to get to the bottom of that particular issue is difficult. Sir John Chilcot seems to be saying that the British Government had a policy of sort of coercive diplomacy—they wanted to use the pressure of the threat of military action to get Saddam to comprehensively disarm. Look, everyone is going to have to read the report and come to their own conclusions. From my reading of it, Sir John Chilcot is not accusing anyone of deliberate explicit deceit, but people will have to read the report and come to their own conclusions.
Today, we stand alongside the families of the 179 British servicemen and women and 24 British civilians who died in the Iraq war. We also stand beside the many more who continue to live with injuries sustained while serving their country in Iraq. We are proud of them and we honour them.
The Chilcot report makes clear the absolute determination of the former Prime Minister Mr Tony Blair to pursue war in Iraq, no matter what the evidence. There is a stark contrast between that single-minded determination to go to war and the reckless and complete absence of any plan for what would come next. What came next was 179 British servicemen and women killed, as well as 100,000, or more, Iraqi civilians. What came next was the fuelling of what is now ISIS-Daesh, which threatens not only Iraq but the middle east and the safety of us all.
In 2003, the much missed Charles Kennedy said in this House:
“The big fear that many of us have is that the action will simply breed further generations of suicide bombers.”—[Official Report, 18 March 2003; Vol. 401, c. 786.]
Will the Prime Minister now take the opportunity on behalf of his party and this House to acknowledge that Charles Kennedy was right all along in leading opposition across the country to a counterproductive war? Should not those who accused Charles Kennedy of appeasement —some of whom are still on these Benches—apologise to him, his family, our servicemen and women, our country, and the people of Iraq?
My recollection of the debates is that there were honest disagreements between colleagues who were listening to the arguments and making their decisions. I do not think that anyone should be accused of appeasement for voting against the war, and neither should those who voted in favour of it in good faith and on the evidence that they were given be subject to unfair criticism. People who voted for the war, like me, have to take their share of the responsibility. That is important, but I do not think it right to accuse people who voted against the war of appeasement.
I was shadow International Development Secretary at the time, and I asked 91 written questions of the Government, culminating in an Opposition day debate on 30 January 2003 because I had not received any satisfactory answers. For the sake of the many, many victims, will the Prime Minister please assure the House that we have truly learned the lessons of failure to plan for contingency?
I remember well how effective my right hon. Friend was in holding those many debates. People say that we did not debate the post-war reconstruction of Iraq, but actually we debated it endlessly in the House, and a lot of questions were put and a lot of debates held. It is clear from the report that there was a total planning failure, an assumption that the Americans had a plan when they did not, and that the UN would move in comprehensively when it did not. According to Sir John, there was an assumption that British troops would be out in three to four months, which obviously did not happen. That is one of the clearest areas of criticism; it is the area of failure that should be accepted most clearly, and for which we should plan most carefully in any future conflict.
I thank the Prime Minister for summing up the main findings of the Chilcot report, although unlike him I have not had the opportunity to read even the summary. Does he agree that in 2003, when he, I, and many of our colleagues voted for the war, we did so on the basis of the knowledge that we had? Iraq was in breach of 17 UN resolutions in 2003. In 1988 Saddam Hussein had already killed half a million of his own people, and he went on to kill more and more, including the Shi’a and the Marsh Arabs in the south, and the Kurds in the north. In the mass graves at Al-Hillah lie 10,000 Iraqi bodies, many of them still undiscovered, and those of us who campaigned for human rights in Iraq over many years—I have done so for more than 30 years—were well aware of the torture and horrors that were happening in that country.
I wish people would ask Iraqis what they think of the invasion, because many Iraqis are grateful that we took the action that we did at that time. I hope that we have a greater opportunity to discuss those matters, because there was some planning—not enough, I agree—part of which I was involved in and can speak about. The horrors of Saddam Hussein and what he did to his own people in Halabja and elsewhere were clearly documented, and I think we were right to take part in that invasion.
I well remember that when I was on the Opposition Benches and the right hon. Lady was on the Government Benches, she made very powerful speeches about the appalling things that Saddam Hussein did to his own people and the practices in that country, which is a fair point. I also think that when the case was made, people were acting on the knowledge in front of them. It was not just about weapons of mass destruction; there was a sense that we were trying to uphold the position of the United Nations, and the massive danger that Saddam Hussein posed to the region and to his own people. However, those of us who voted for the war must be frank that the consequences of what followed have been truly very poor. That is what Sir John finds, in the section of his report in which he writes about the Government’s objectives not being met, and he states that far from dealing with the problem of regimes potentially linking up with terrorists, which Tony Blair talked about from this Dispatch Box, this action ended up creating a space for al-Qaeda. We must learn all those lessons, including the more painful ones.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there are lessons for every Member of the House, and every member of the media, regarding how we assess evidence? We can no longer take refuge in the pretence that we did not know the evidence about the non-existence of weapons of mass destruction. The reports states:
“The assessed intelligence had not established beyond doubt that Saddam Hussein had continued to produce chemical and biological weapons”
or that efforts to develop nuclear weapons continued. That evidence was set out in the dossier, and as I showed in evidence to the Chilcot report, someone who read the dossier line by line could not fail to reach the same conclusion as Robin Cook, which was that there were no weapons of mass destruction. The fact that largely we did not reach that conclusion is because we have ceased to look at evidence and we rely on briefings from spin doctors and those on our Front Benches. If the House is to get a grip on issues in future, it must go back to looking at the evidence, and so should journalists.
A lot of things have changed since that evidence was produced in the way it was, and one of the most important things is the renewed independence and practices of the Joint Intelligence Committee. Ministers still see individual pieces of intelligence, and one wants to have a regular update, but the process of producing JIC reports and assessments is incredibly rigorous. I do not think that what happened could happen again in the same way, because the reports that we get from that Committee are now much clearer about what it knows, and what it thinks or conjectures, rather than anything else. I think we can avoid that situation. However, that does not solve the problem for the House of Commons, because it is impossible to share all that intelligence information widely with every Member of Parliament.
May I join others in paying tribute to the servicemen and women, and the hundreds of thousands of civilians, who died in the conflict in Iraq? One of the greatest scandals of this whole episode is the lack of resources for our troops who were sent into battle without the equipment they needed, and that must never be allowed to happen again. Will the Prime Minister say why he believes that the national security machinery that he has established would have forestalled the evident mistakes made in Whitehall in the run-up to the commitment in Iraq?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he says. On the specific issue of equipment, money for our armed services is not infinite, but we have got rid of the black hole in the defence budget so that resources and commitments are more in balance. By having a security and defence review every five years—we have had two since I have been Prime Minister—we are matching what we are spending to the things that our forces and security require. That is a big improvement, but it depends on having the resources. I have tried to explain why the National Security Council architecture helps to solve some of those problems, but I am not standing here saying, “You can completely reduce any risk of mistake, planning, and all the rest of it”, because these things are by their nature very complicated.
Human institutions will never be perfect, and neither are they perfectible. The conclusions of the Chilcot inquiry into the way that legal advice and intelligence was processed, and intelligence used to inform policy, are pretty damning. My right hon. Friend has rightly highlighted that much has changed since then. I can certainly vouch for the fact that the processes by which legal advice is obtained—which I hope have been continued—are rather different from those that Sir John identified. The collation of intelligence is an extremely difficult skill. Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that it is subject to enough scrutiny and subsequent review to ensure that lessons can be learned when mistakes in intelligence assessment are made? That seems to be one of the key areas in which future decision making is capable of continuing improvement.
My right hon. and learned Friend is right that the way legal advice is produced and considered today is very different to then. We have the National Security Council, on which the Attorney General sits, and before such decisions are made a well-thought-through piece of written legal advice is produced. The Attorney General is not suddenly called on to do this; he is in the room while these vital meetings take place. That is something he did brilliantly and his successor is doing brilliantly.
My right hon. and learned Friend’s point on the collation of evidence and whether we are getting it right is a more difficult question to answer. There is no doubt that, post-Butler, the Joint Intelligence Committee is incredibly rigorous about reaching judgments: testing them around the experts in Whitehall, confirming them often with the Americans and others, and not pretending to know things that it does not know. On how well we test that, there is a role for the Intelligence and Security Committee in thinking about whether we have got judgments right after they have been made, but perhaps more thinking can be done on that.
I would just emphasise that for all the intelligence, briefing and information in the world, at the end we still have to make a decision. We never have perfect information on which we make that decision: we are weighing up a balance of risks. That is often the case, whether we are going to take action against terrorists or to try to help secure a particular national interest. In the end, we have to decide and then defend in this House the decision we have made.
The epitaph on Robin Cook’s headstone in the Grange cemetery in Edinburgh reads as follows:
“I may not have succeeded in halting the war, but I did secure the right of Parliament to decide on war.”
The Prime Minister is right in saying that, in these circumstances, Parliament cannot be involved in the decision and then simply try to duck responsibility for the ramifications of that decision. Does he agree that the main element in the debate in which Parliament decided, on 13 March 2003, was not the 45-minute claim, which was not mentioned anywhere in those hours of debate, but the fact that Saddam Hussein and his murderous sons had spent 13 years running rings around the United Nations, ignoring 17 UN resolutions, including resolutions calling for all necessary means to stop him? Was that not the main issue in that debate? Has the Prime Minister found any evidence whatever of any lies told to Parliament on that day?
My memory of the debate is that it was about the balance of risks between action and inaction. The case made by the then Prime Minister was that there was a real risk of inaction against someone who had been defying the UN, had done terrible things to his people and threatened his neighbours. The danger was of that coming together with a potential programme of weapons of mass destruction and the other instabilities in the world post-9/11. We have to remember that it was post-9/11 when we were considering all this. That is what I think I felt, as a relatively young Back Bencher, we were voting on. Weapons of mass destruction were a part of the picture, not the whole picture.
On the right hon. Gentleman’s question about deliberate deceit, I think we have to read the report very carefully. I cannot see in here an accusation of deliberately deceiving people, but there is certainly information that was not properly presented. Different justifications were given before and subsequently for the action that was taken, and there are a number of other criticisms about processes, but deliberate deceit—I can find no reference to it.
I do not think the Prime Minister or the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who voted for this war, should in any way feel ashamed of what they did or indeed be apologetic. As usual, the Prime Minister has acted with honour and dignity, as he always does. The fact is that we believed the Prime Minister of the time—I was sitting on the Opposition Benches, too—about weapons of mass destruction. Frankly, with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), some of us walked into the No Lobby, but it was a narrow decision. I do not think there is any point in recriminations, because I think everybody in this House acted in good faith at the time. However, can we draw a lesson for the future? Surely, we must distinguish between unpleasant authoritarian regimes, such as those of Assad and Saddam, which we must deter and contain, and totalitarian terrorism movements, such as Daesh, which we must be prepared to seek to destroy?
My hon. Friend and I are not always on the same side of every argument, but on this I think he is absolutely right. There is a difference between deterrence and containment in some cases, and pre-emptive action when there is a direct threat to one’s country. That is a very good framework on which to think of these sorts of interventions. I would also add that there is a third: when we think we need to act to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe, which was the reason I stood at this Dispatch Box and said we should take action with regard to Libya. That is a very good framework for thinking about these matters.
All of us who voted for the Iraq war must and will take our share of responsibility, but there are many of us who do not regret the fact that Saddam Hussein is no longer in power, for the reasons so powerfully set out a moment ago by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd). Does the Prime Minister recognise that one of the wider lessons from Iraq is that we need a United Nations that is capable of giving effect to the responsibility to protect, so that brutal dictators who murder and terrorise their own population can and will be held to account?
As so often, the right hon. Gentleman speaks with great clarity on these matters. Of course, we need a UN that can do that. That is why we sometimes end up in the situation of being absolutely certain that it is right to take a particular action, but because of a veto on the United Nations Security Council, it somehow becomes legally wrong. There is a question sometimes about how can something be morally right but legally wrong. We therefore need to make sure we keep looking at reforming the United Nations, so we can bring those two things together.
In the hope that we all accept that war should always the measure of last resort once all other possible options have been exhausted and given the publication of the Chilcot report, will the Prime Minister now do something that no Government have done since 2003: finally and unequivocally admit that this intervention was both wrong and a mistake?
I think people should read the report and come to their own conclusions. Clearly, the aftermath of the conflict was profoundly disastrous in so many ways. I do not move away from that at all. I just take the view that if we voted in a particular way, we cannot turn the clock back. We have to take our share of responsibility, but we learn the lessons of what clearly went wrong.
I thank the Prime Minister for prior sight of the report this morning. Point 20 states that
“the diplomatic options had not at that stage been exhausted. Military action was therefore not a last resort.”
So despite the lack of evidence of weapons of mass destruction and despite any possible deficiencies in the advice from the Joint Intelligence Committee, point 22 states:
“Led by Mr Blair, the UK Government chose to support military action.”
Point 364 states that the UK Government held
“that it was right or necessary to defer to its close ally and senior partner, the US.”
Given that, the undermining of the UN and the disastrous and horrible consequences, is it not inconceivable that Mr Blair should not be held to account for his actions?
The hon. Gentleman reads out some very important parts of the report. It is significant that Sir John Chilcot finds that this undermined the United Nations. Some of us felt at the time that the United Nations was being undermined by the actions of Saddam Hussein and the fact that he was not complying with so many resolutions, but we need to study that and take that into account. As for how people should account for themselves, it is for them to read the report and explain why they did what they did. My role here, on the publication of the report, is to allow the House to discuss it and set out the lessons I think we should learn. I am far more concerned about the future, and how we learn what is in here, rather than rerun the whole Iraq debate all over again.
It may be unusual for anyone in this place to change the way they vote following a speech made here, and I cannot prove that I did so; but that is what I did on the night of the debate, because of what was said about weapons of mass destruction. I now have to listen and wrestle with my own conscience, and shame on me. The then Prime Minister must wrestle with his own conscience. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that the then Prime Minister must take full responsibility for encouraging this House to take the decision it did, which had disastrous consequences that destabilised the world?
Of course it is right that the people who took the decision have to bear the responsibility. That is absolutely right.
I voted for the action in 2003. It was a difficult decision, but I do not apologise. I believe that we were right to remove the fascist regime of Saddam Hussein. The Prime Minister referred to what has happened in Libya and Syria. Can he speculate about what might have happened in Iraq if Saddam or Uday Hussein had been in power in 2011? Is it not likely that the Ba’athist fascists in Iraq would have killed more than the 500,000 dead Syrians and created more than the 11 million refugees who have fled their homes and been displaced in Syria?
The hon. Gentleman asks a question that it is impossible to answer. I can say only that just as there are consequences of intervention, there are consequences of non-intervention. We have discovered that with Syria, where there have been appalling numbers of deaths and displacements of people, along with the booming industry of terrorism. One could argue in many ways that that is the consequence of non-intervention rather than intervention, but I cannot answer his question.
I thank my right hon. Friend for pledging on behalf of this House that our soldiers who suffered life-changing injuries in the Iraq war should be looked after for the rest of their lives. May I remind the House that we have an equal duty to soldiers who suffered life-changing injuries in previous conflicts, including some of my 35 men who were so badly wounded at Ballykelly on 6 December 1982, as well as others in the Regular Army, the Territorial Army, the Ulster Defence Regiment and members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary who suffered so grievously in previous conflicts?
With his military background, my hon. Friend is absolutely right to make that point. Iraq and Afghanistan have proved to be an enormous change in tempo for the British Army. We have seen not only a large number of people tragically losing their lives, but a very large number of people suffering from life-changing injuries—people who lost limbs but want to live full and active lives. Just as after previous major conflicts, the country came together to help make sure that happened, so it is important that we continue to fund and support facilities such as Headley Court and all the work that charities do. That will help others who suffered life-changing injuries in other conflicts.
Chilcot has concluded that this country did not go to war as a last resort, that the authority of the United Nations was undermined and that the chaos and carnage that has ensued can partly be explained by the complete lack of planning for the aftermath. Given that we now know from Chilcot of the memo written by the then Prime Minister on 28 July to George W. Bush, saying,
“I will be with you, whatever”,
I do not understand how that is in any way compatible with what was said to Parliament and people at the time. Amid all this stuff about improving processes, which I acknowledge as fantastically important, is it not at the end of the day people who make decisions, and in our search for responsibility would it not help if individuals who were responsible were held to account?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to highlight those important aspects of the report. The war was not a last resort; we were not at that stage. According to Sir John Chilcot, the UN was undermined and a fundamental lack of planning led to so many of the subsequent problems. The right hon. Gentleman is also right that the people who took those decisions should be held accountable—in this House and in the court of public opinion. They should be accountable, too, to those who might want to take action through the courts, as has happened, with respect to equipment failures and all the rest of it in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Clearly, the Government of the day and the Prime Minister of the day have to account for themselves. I understand that Mr Blair is doing that right now.
In respect of the structure of government, does my right hon. Friend agree that the national security adviser should, rather than being a civil servant, be a Cabinet Minister? That would help to bring all the different strands of government together, provide more accountability and transparency, and perhaps more focus and better decision making. While we develop the convention that we come to this place to debate, discuss and vote on taking military action, is it not the case that ultimately any Prime Minister needs to retain the authority to deploy military force and take the military into action? We do not know what the future holds, and there might be circumstances in which it is impractical for Parliament to do so or we do not have the time to do so.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right on his second point. Prime Ministers do need to be able to deploy force or take action without parliamentary sanction if it is urgent and then to report to Parliament straight afterwards. Where there is a premeditated decision to take action, that convention has grown up, and I am happy to repeat it from the Dispatch Box.
As for the national security adviser, I think it is right to have an expert. It does not have to be someone who is currently a civil servant—an expert could be brought in from outside—but it does need to be an expert who is garnering together the military, civilians, the intelligence and all the different parts of Whitehall. It needs to be someone who is full time, rather than a politician who is also running a Department.
Will the Prime Minister put on the record that he believes all those who voted for the action against Saddam Hussein did so in good faith? On the very important lessons to be learned, does he acknowledge that just as there are consequences, sometimes terrible, of military intervention, so there are consequences of non-intervention, as we are seeing at huge cost today in Syria?
I am happy to make both those points. I am sure everyone, like me, came here, listened to the arguments, wrestled with the difficult decision and then took it. We can look back now and see how we feel about all the things that happened subsequently. I am sure that everyone made their decision in good faith. The consequences of non-intervention can been seen clearly in Syria, as I said in response to the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes). This is true, and it is worth mentioning other humanitarian issues, as I did in my statement with respect to Srebrenica and Rwanda.
Our troops shouldered the burden of Mr Blair’s disastrous Iraq war and paid the price in blood. On a gentler note and speaking as an Iraq veteran, I commend the Prime Minister for the work he has done for our troops, our veterans and their families by improving their lot. Does my right hon. Friend share my hope and expectation that his successor will do the same?
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks and for all the good work he has done, not least in commemorating the battles of the first world war 100 years ago. We have now set up, with the military covenant written into law and with the covenant support group, a mechanism in Whitehall so that every year we can try to go further in supporting armed forces, veterans and their families. This provides a mechanism for ideas to come forward. Whether by providing help through council tax, the pupil premium, free bus passes or better medical assistance, there is a forum for those ideas to be properly considered in a way that I do not think they were in the past.
We have heard a lot of criticism of the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, all of it justified. I ask the Prime Minister to reflect on his own role and that of his colleagues in the Conservative party who voted for war in Iraq. His party were the official Opposition; they heard Robin Cook’s powerful speech demolishing the Government’s case; the Prime Minister had voices in his own party arguing that the invasion would be a catastrophe—the evidence was there if people chose to look for it. Would it not be a step towards restoring public trust in this House to offer some form of apology for the decision to support the war?
The hon. Lady wants to replay all the arguments of the day, but I do not see a huge amount of point in that. Members of Parliament came to this House, listened to the arguments and made the decisions in good faith. They can now reflect on whether they think the decisions they took were right or wrong. Instead of what she suggests, I think that we should try, as Sir John Chilcot does, to learn the lessons from what happened and find out what needs to be put in place to make sure that mistakes cannot be made in the future.
The decision not to give Hans Blix more time to conclude his UN weapons inspections is surely one of the principal misjudgments of the pre-war period. Does my right hon. Friend feel that in the light of the changes he alludes to in the culture and practice of government, the scope for ignoring the UN in this way has been reduced?
My hon. Friend is right: one of the most powerful points in the report is that Blix should have been given more time. That argument was advanced at the time, but the way in which it is expressed by Sir John gives it even more force.
I do not think I can stand here and honestly say that all the changes we put in place make mistakes like that impossible. At the end of the day, Governments and Cabinets must make judgments on the basis of the evidence in front of them. The National Security Council, given the way in which it is set up, provides a better forum when it comes to making decisions, listening to arguments and hearing expert advice. I think that that makes it more difficult to press ahead if you cannot take expert opinion with you, although, of course, in the end Cabinet Ministers can decide.
However wrong it was to take military action on the basis of false intelligence—and I accept my responsibility in that I voted for military action—were not many of us very much influenced by Saddam’s notorious record? His aggression against the Iranian state, a war that lasted eight years, took the lives of hundreds of thousands of young people on both sides, but he was not satisfied with that, and two years later the aggression against Kuwait resulted in the first Gulf war. Would it not also be totally wrong to conclude that had it not been for this invasion—which, as I say, should not have taken place, because it was based on false intelligence—everything would have been fine in the middle east? Look at what is happening in Syria, where we did not intervene—rightly, I believe, and again I was influenced by what happened in relation to what we are discussing now.
I do not always agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I think he has put it very well. Saddam Hussein had an appalling record. He had gassed the Kurds, he had murdered his own people, and he had invaded his neighbour. He had used weapons of mass destruction in the past, we were being told that he was developing them again for the future, and we were being asked, on the basis of that, whether we could really risk leaving him in place and leaving those programmes in place, given the heightened risk post 9/11. Those were all very strong arguments, and I think it is worth recalling that.
It is also worth taking account of the hon. Gentleman’s other point. Who knows what would have happened if Saddam had still been in place at the time of the Arab spring, but it is quite possible to believe that his reactions to his own people would have been rather like the reactions of President Assad to his own people, which, I would argue, have perhaps done more to foment terrorism and cause extremism than anything else in the last decade.
Today is a dark day for the United Kingdom Government, a tragic day for Iraq, and a desperate day for the families of our servicemen and women, who I know are watching today. War is not a sport. This should be a time for deep reflection and humility, throughout the Government and throughout the upper echelons of the military who advise the Government.
I pay tribute to those who fought, and to their families. They are the best of us, they are the true patriots, and they made the greatest possible sacrifice for the liberties that we enjoy in the House. Does the Prime Minister agree that we must ensure that how we say we want to look after these people and how we actually look after them are the same thing?
As ever on these matters, my hon. Friend speaks with great clarity. He is right to say that this is a moment for deep reflection. He is also right to say that as we think of our armed service personnel and those who serve, we should be proud of what they did. We should be proud of their bravery and their courage. They were obeying the command of this House, and serving in the way in which we would expect them to. My hon. Friend is right to think of it like that. He is also right to say that we must ensure that the promises of the armed services covenant are kept in reality as well as on paper.
May I say to the Prime Minister that we should remember that the real responsibility for the murder and killing of so many Iraqi civilians lies with Saddam Hussein, al-Qaeda and its offshoots, and, of course, Isis? May I also say this to him? Three main complaints were made about Tony Blair and the Government’s decision at the time. The first was that he misled Parliament, or lied to Parliament. The Prime Minister has said that that has not been found in the Chilcot report, but perhaps he would like to confirm that again. The second was that intelligence had been doctored, and, as I understand it from my quick reading of the report, that has not been found either. The third was that the war had been illegal. Of course, Chilcot is not deciding on that, but we do not know that he makes very clear in his report that it relied on evidence from the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, that it was legal to go to war at that point.
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman will have to read the report in order to answer those questions in full, but, in shorthand, let me say this. First, the report makes clear that No. 10 and the Prime Minister did not wrongly alter the dossier that was produced. I think that there are some comments about how the report did not necessarily reflect all the things that were in other papers from the Joint Intelligence Committee, but that is a different point.
On the issue of whether the war was legal or illegal, Chilcot does not take a stand. Perhaps I will read out later exactly what he says, but he says that there was legal advice, that the legal advice made a legal case for a war, and that that is how the Government proceeded. However, he is not saying that he is taking a position.
On the issue of misleading Parliament, there is nothing in the Chilcot report that I can see that points to deliberate deceit, but there were clearly occasions when more information, or better information, could have been presented. I think that the report must be read carefully, but those are my shorthand answers to the hon. Gentleman’s questions.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. I gather from what I have heard so far that there will be no political recriminations, for reasons that I understand, but will he assure me that, as there will no recriminations against those who sent our armed forces to war, there will be no recriminations against our armed forces who are being chased by ruthless lawyers for doing our bidding and looking after our nation?
I very much agree with what my hon. Friend has said. We are doing everything we can to get through and knock down these wholly unjustified inquiries, because by and large, as we would expect, British forces behaved entirely properly.
On this day, when we rightly reflect on our own intervention and our own responsibilities, it is important to remember that violence in Iraq did not begin in 2003. Among the Kurds in the north and the Shia in the south, the regime of Saddam Hussein killed hundreds of thousands of people.
The lessons that should be learned from the intervention are set out fully in the report, and they should be learned. It has also rightly been said that we should learn lessons from not having intervened in Syria, where there has been a humanitarian catastrophe. Does the Prime Minister agree that the conclusion from all the lessons learned should not be never to intervene? If that were the conclusion, it would result in the abandoning of oppressed people around the world, and the giving of a blank cheque to dictators and terrorist groups around the world.
I do agree with the right hon. Gentleman. I said in my statement that I thought there were lessons to learn but also lessons not to learn, and the lesson not to learn is that intervention is always wrong. There are occasions when it is right to intervene, because it is in the interests of our national security or because we are trying to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. We should be very clear about the fact that there have been occasions when we have not intervened and when we have seen almost as much chaos and difficulty as we are seeing in Syria.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, but will he join me in expressing slight concern not only about the shape of the centre of government that was there at the time of the Blair Government, but about the Departments that supported it? The top of the pyramid cannot work unless the supporting pillars are in place. I have only read the executive summary, so I cannot comment in detail, but it seems clear to me that parts of the Ministry of Defence, including the chiefs of staff, were not delivering the advice that the Government needed, and that elements of the Foreign Office had succumbed to a form of group-think that leaves me deeply concerned about the structure and the advice that are available to Governments..
I am going to hesitate before replying to my hon. Friend, because there is not a huge amount about that in the executive summary of the Iraq inquiry. I think we will probably have to dive into the volumes to see exactly what Sir John has to say about advice from the MOD, advice from the Foreign Office, how much group-think there genuinely was, and all the rest of it. So I would hesitate. I think we need to study the report, and then we can discuss the matter during next week’s debate.
Those of us who come to the report scandalised anew by the duplicity of presentation and the paucity of preparation on such grave matters must nevertheless remember most those who are acutely burdened today by their cruel sense of futility of sacrifice in terms of lives lost, lives devastated and lives changed. The Prime Minister has rightly emphasised that lessons need to be learned, but we must be careful not to turn the report into a greywash by converting it into a syllabus about foresight in government and oversight in Parliament. This is not a day for soundbites, but does the Prime Minister not agree that the hand of history should be feeling someone’s collar?
I do not think it is a greywash or a whitewash or an anything elsewash. I think, from what I have seen so far, that this is a thorough effort in trying to understand the narrative of the events, the decisions that were taken and the mistakes that were made. I think there is a huge amount to learn and everyone who has played a part in it has to take their responsibility for it.
It has been sobering this afternoon to hear the reflections of those who took the decision here in 2003. I went to Iraq in 2007 to deliver on that decision; it was a difficult and dangerous time. During that summer and the rest of the campaign, many of my friends and colleagues were sent home dead or injured.
The Prime Minister has spoken about the SDSR process, which now addresses the armed forces equipment requirements, but the threat evolves more quickly than that on the battlefield, particularly in an insurgency. Can the Prime Minister reassure the House that the urgent operating requirement process is now quick enough so that we will never again send troops into battle in vehicles that are not fit for purpose?
May I thank my hon. Friend for his service, and thank all who served on operations after 2003 all the way through to when we withdrew? I will never forget going to Iraq and meeting some of the soldiers, some of them on their second or third tour, and their sense that the situation was extremely difficult.
One of the positive things that has come out of this and Afghanistan is that the urgent operational requirement system means we have commissioned some fantastic kit for our soldiers, sailors and airmen more quickly, and responded to their needs. By the time our troops were coming out of Afghanistan—I had been there, I think, 13 times over a period of six or seven years—they were saying that our equipment was now better than the Americans’, that they had things more quickly and that new bits of kit could be produced for them. There are some positive lessons to learn from all of this, as well as, obviously, the negative ones.
May I also ask the House to pause for a minute to remember Robin Cook, who had the courage to speak up against the orthodoxy of the day, and the courage to speak out as a voice of sanity in 2003? The sequence of events that led to the UK’s participation in the invasion of Iraq shows that where the unshakeability of a political leader’s self-belief so traps him or her in its own logic that he or she cannot see beyond it, the consequences can be catastrophic. As someone who voted against the war in 2003, I know that the Iraq war did not create from scratch the multiple problems that we see today in the middle east, but it has made them so much more intractable. Does the Prime Minister agree that at root what the peoples of the middle east want is not so different from what people over here want? They want security, they want respect, and they want to know that they are not treated with double standards by the international community.
I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should recognise that what people in the middle east want is what we want, in terms of, as he says, respect, the right to decent government, the rule of law and decent standards.
It is worth reading the parts of the report about the weapons of mass destruction. It says in paragraph 496:
“The ingrained belief that Saddam Hussein’s regime retained chemical and biological warfare capabilities, was determined to preserve and if possible enhance its capabilities, including at some point in the future a nuclear capability, and was pursuing an active policy of deception and concealment, had underpinned UK policy towards Iraq since the Gulf Conflict ended in 1991.”
It was wrong that he had weapons of mass destruction—we now know he did not—but it is worth recalling the sense that I think everyone in this House had that it was very deeply ingrained in policy makers and policy thinkers that he did. So, yes, it is right that Chilcot comes to the conclusion that Robin Cook—standing on the Benches over there—was right to say, “You could look at the evidence and come to a different conclusion,” but it is important to remember just how many people and how many organisations were convinced that this was the basis of policy.
My right hon. Friend will attend the NATO Warsaw summit this weekend, and he will be acutely aware of the pressure that NATO and its member states feel from Russia right now. Is it not the case that President Putin will be examining very closely the action this Parliament takes moving forward? As Parliament knows, NATO can only act when its Security Council meets and decides to act, but article 5 says that an invasion of one country is an invasion of all. May I urge my right hon. Friend to make sure that this House does not move to a position whereby it has to approve that before we can take action, because otherwise we could find that the Iraq lessons, and Iraq as a whole, are used as another shield to never taking any military action?
My hon. Friend is right: we should not use this sobering moment of reflection, when we look at the mistakes that were made and the lessons to be learned, to think that somehow it is right for Britain to shrink away from international responsibilities and engagement. That would be the wrong lesson to learn from this.
Like the Prime Minister, I remember the debates of February and March 2003; we were both elected for the first time in 2001. What I remember is that many of the Members then who asked questions and demanded evidence were heckled, barracked and shouted down. When we have our debate on this report, it is right that, as well as scrutinising the conduct of others, this House should turn some of that scrutiny on itself.
We now know that much of what was purported to be evidence in 2003 was obtained from people who had been tortured, having been illegally rendered. Will the Prime Minister give me an assurance that this country will never again base its foreign policy judgments on evidence or information obtained in that way?
I can certainly give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance. That was something specifically addressed in the coalition Government: that we should not rely on, or use in any way, evidence delivered by means of torture.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving such an excellent statement on this war. As he knows, my Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport constituency includes 3 Commando Brigade, whose wives and families will have played a significant part in this whole conflict. Will he ensure that MPs representing other garrison cities are also given the names and details of the families so that we can communicate with them in order to talk to them about the impact this conflict will have had on their lives, too?
I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance. I think that work is in hand.
May I reiterate the comments about the loss of life in Iraq, and specifically take this opportunity to commemorate the service and sacrifice of our armed forces? They served in good faith, and we should be proud of them today, as we are every day.
It is critical that the public can have trust in the decisions we take in this place, and at no time is that truer than on a vote to take our country to war. Whatever we think about the judgment that was made, we should acknowledge that the bond of trust between the Government, this House and the public has been damaged by the decision that was taken in 2003, and we here in this place today now have an absolute need to put that right for the future. Will the Prime Minister consider reviewing how intelligence is shared with Members of this House before voting on military action, in addition to considering what steps could be taken to improve the ability of our MPs, armed forces and intelligence services to work together to take these most difficult decisions?
Let me join the hon. Gentleman, who himself served in our armed forces, in paying tribute to what our armed forces did in Iraq. They should be proud of the work they did; they were acting on behalf of this House of Commons and the Government who took that decision, and they behaved bravely and courageously, and we should remember that—and we should remember those who gave their lives and who were wounded.
On his question about how we share intelligence information with this House, I would just give him two reflections. One is that we have tried: in the case of Libya, and I think in the case of Syria, we tried to publish JIC-like assessments cleared for the House of Commons—and cleared, I might add, by officials rather than Ministers. The second point is to get the Chairman of the JIC to read the statement or speech made by the Prime Minister to make sure it accurately reflects the intelligence information. Those are two things we should try to do. Sometimes time is very short, and sometimes the picture is changing—the intelligence is changing—but those are good things to try to do. But I say again that there is no perfection in all this: we can receive and share as much intelligence as we like, but in the end we have to make a decision and make an argument for that decision, and then defend it if it is right or if it is wrong.
Given that the Chilcot report found that the UK Government undermined UN Security Council’s authority and given the result of the EU referendum, what plans do the Government have to reinforce the Foreign Office to restore our international reputation?
The Foreign Office has been restored in many ways. The former Foreign Secretary William Hague restored the language school and opened a number of embassies around the world, and the Foreign Office is once again seen as a great place to work, so I do not think that that is the problem. We just have to go on recognising that the combination of our 2% of GDP spend on the military, our 0.7% spend on aid and our proper funding of the Foreign Office actually enhance our soft and hard powers in the world.
I am always proud when we hear that we are not shrinking from our place on the world’s stage, but the brunt of that always falls on servicemen. Many people have spoken today about how we should be looking after our servicemen, giving them the right kit, the right mental health and legal support, but no one has yet said that we must also ensure that we always look after their families. When we review what we are doing every five years, can we guarantee that we are putting enough resources in and keep considering how we look after servicemen’s families?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I did mention service families, because it is important that we look after them, and the military covenant is partly about them.
We have heard talk today about what a dreadful dictator Saddam was and how he had been ignoring UN rules, but the key question in 2003 was, “Why now?” That is why the intelligence around weapons of mass destruction was so crucial in trying to provide that “why now?” justification. Does the Prime Minister agree that the key thing about the special relationship is that it should be like any other relationship? The reason we are so close to some people is that they will tell us what we need to hear, not what we want to hear.
There is a good section of the report that is entitled “Why now?” because that was, I think, one of the sections of Tony Blair’s speech in this House. It is also important to read the part of the report about what would have happened if Britain had not stood alongside the United States. Sir John Chilcot’s view is that that would not have terminally damaged the special relationship, and I suspect that that view is probably correct.
As the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) said earlier, John Chilcot today confirmed the existence of a dirty deal between Tony Blair and President Bush to pursue regime change in Iraq months before the matter came to the Floor of this House. Given that, will the Prime Minister join me in demanding that Tony Blair apologise unreservedly to the families of the 179 UK service personnel killed and to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians who also died? Will the Prime Minister also join me in asking Mr Blair to apologise to the British public, whose faith in the democratic process has been fatally undermined by this whole sorry affair?
I think Mr Blair is probably speaking while we are here, so let us wait and see what he says in response to the report and whether it measures up to the level of events.
The barbarity of Saddam Hussein is beyond doubt and my thoughts are with the thousands of Kurds murdered by chemical weapons in the genocide at Halabja in 1988. Despite that, I did not support the 2003 war. Can we just clarify that military action was being taken against Saddam Hussein before then? Will the Prime Minister acknowledge that Operation Warden and Operation Provide Comfort—the no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq, of which he knows I have knowledge—meant that Saddam Hussein was a caged animal?
My hon. Friend, who served in at least one of those missions, has made this point before and it is set out in the report as well. There was a policy of deterrence and containment, and I think Sir John Chilcot argues quite persuasively that that situation should have continued for longer, with more UN action and more inspector action, before the last resort of military action. He makes that point very clearly.
There are some practical constitutional lessons to be learned here, specifically for Parliament given its role in the process. For example, would it not be better if we had specific opportunity to scrutinise the Attorney General before such decisions are made? Should we not have better parliamentary scrutiny of the security services? On those occasions when we do have to come to a decision about military intervention, which is sometimes necessary, should there not be a better-equipped National Security Council, which somehow has a thread of accountability back to Parliament?
These are all interesting ideas and I am prepared to consider them. The Attorney General does answer questions in Parliament and is accountable to Parliament. The National Security Council’s members are accountable to Parliament and now there is this Committee of both Lords and Commons, in front of which I have appeared, that scrutinises the national security strategy. As I have said, our intelligence services are far more accountable than they have ever been, including giving speeches, openly, about what they are doing and then answering questions at ISC meetings in some considerable detail. I am always happy to consider other things, but we have come a huge way on accountability.
I, too, pay tribute to the troops. Those who have ended up with broken lives because of the war should be looked after through the covenant for the long term, not just while they serve. We all know of cases of troops and their families who continue to suffer.
The two things that come out of this process are that, in essence, what was being carried out was regime change, which would not normally be considered a legal basis for going to war, and that the planning for the peace afterwards was inadequate. Does that not apply to Libya? What we predominantly got caught up with in Libya was getting rid of Gaddafi and we have invested on nation building a fraction of what was spent on the war.
The other thing is that Saddam Hussein was known to have attacked his own people, yet we still sold him weapons after that. We are still selling weapons to Saudi Arabia and have personnel involved. We are also getting involved in Yemen, yet there has been no decision about that.
The hon. Lady is right to say that the bit of the report that deals with the issue of whether the Government were involved in coercive diplomacy to try to make Iraq go down a different path or whether this was regime change needs very careful reading, but I disagree with her on Libya. It was a humanitarian intervention to stop the slaughter of innocent people. We then assisted as forces in Libya strove to get rid of a man who was a brutal dictator and who had delivered Semtex to the IRA—Semtex is probably still available to some people in Northern Ireland today—so I defend that. However, as I said, we can put all the processes and procedures in place and put money in, as we have done with Libya, and it can still be difficult to get a good outcome.
Many of us who voted against the war, particularly those on the Government side, remember the day vividly. We remember the arm-twisting and the letters trying to tell us to go and see the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary. There was almost hysteria about getting the vote through. One lesson for Parliament and for Members of Parliament on both sides is that, sometimes, your country comes before your party.
I think your country should always come before your party. I am not a huge believer in arm-twisting, but there are sometimes occasions when you believe a course of action to be profoundly right and you want to try to persuade your colleagues. I persist in the view that it would have been better to take action with the United States against Assad after his use of chemical weapons—when he crossed that red line—and I attempted to persuade my colleagues. I do not think that I physically twisted anybody’s arm—it was more mental persuasion. I was not successful on that occasion, but that does not mean that it was not worth trying.
Hundreds of thousands of deaths, a region destabilised, a generation radicalised, a House deceived by a fabricated case for war—all of that is indelibly linked with one man, who may as well have “Iraq” tattooed on his forehead. Someone must be held to account for what has happened over the course of the past few years.
As I have said, everyone has to account for their actions, such as the people who voted for this and the people who proposed it, and for the failure to plan. There is a whole set of arguments in this document that people want to consider to see how best to hold people to account.
It is clear from these exchanges that the report will not settle questions about whether the war was right or wrong, but it should lay to rest once and for all allegations of bad faith, lies and deceit. The report clearly finds that there was no falsification or improper use of intelligence, no deception of the Cabinet and no secret commitment to war.
I think that everyone will have to study the report carefully. In an earlier answer I tried to give some shorthand answers to the question of deceit and the question of legality but, like the hon. Gentleman, I feel that many of these arguments will go on and on.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. Somebody has just moaned about not being called to ask a question. I try to call everybody, but although what each individual has to say is enormously important to him or her, it is not necessarily any more important than what anybody else has to say. [Interruption.] Order. I do not need any help in the discharge of my duties. I will call colleagues, but colleagues need to be patient, and I am sure that none of them, for one moment, would be self-important—that is unimaginable.
I am very grateful, Mr Speaker.
From my early and hurried reading of the report, I can see no evidence that anybody acted in bad faith. However, I am very aware that the report refers to a war that started 13 years ago. There have been several conflicts since; we intervened in Libya with airstrikes but not ground troops, and in Syria we did not act for several years. Is there anything about those subsequent conflicts, in which the Prime Minister led, that leads him to disagree with some of the report’s conclusions? That would give us an updated view so that we do not base all our future actions on a report about a war 13 years ago?
Questions like that probably need to wait for the debate, because they need longer answers. The only point I will make now is that in the case of Libya obviously we decided not to put in ground troops. That had the advantage of ensuring that there were not UK military casualties, but of course it had the disadvantage that we were less able directly to put in place a plan on the ground. The point I have tried to make today—maybe not as clearly as I should—is that these things are very difficult, by their very nature. We can have the best military plan and the best post-conflict plan—those are definitely needed—but even then there is no certainty that we will ultimately be successful. We should not pretend that there is some perfection that we can achieve. We can do a lot better than was done in the past, but we will never be perfect.
I commend Charles Kennedy for the leadership he provided to me and others on this issue. Members who were not in the House in 2003 might not be aware of quite how difficult that decision was and how much criticism Charles and my colleagues received at the time. Does the Prime Minister believe that there are any pointers in the Chilcot report, or indeed anything from his personal experience, that could help opposition parties faced with a similar decision in future to be better placed to scrutinise the decisions that a Government might be about to take?
That is a very good question. I think that all the advances that have been made, such as Select Committees having access to Government papers, scrutiny of the intelligence and security services, and the production of written summaries of legal advice, help, but in the end we cannot substitute for judgment.
In March 2013 Hans Blix believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, but he wanted more time. I voted on that day to give him more time, but the official Opposition did not, and in my view they failed in their duty to scrutinise properly. Does the Prime Minister agree that a lesson for today is that in order for a Government to work effectively, they have to have a competent and effective Opposition?
I am all for competent and effective opposition. On the job of the Opposition, I take both bits seriously: Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition. If you think the Government are making a decision in the interests of the country, you should support it. If you think they are making a mistake, you should oppose it. The job is not to oppose come what may.
Prime Minister, thank you for your statement. You referred, in particular, to the lessons that need to be learned from the Chilcot report. You referred to assistance for veterans. We know that 179 brave service personnel gave their lives in the Iraq war, but the family support package at that time meant that only two welfare officers were left at the headquarters. I know that that has changed and that steps have been taken to ensure that veterans are not forgotten. The Government send the brave people to war and so should be more than willing to step up to the plate and deliver for them. Prime Minister, what will be done as a result of the Chilcot inquiry to address the family support criteria and the very high suicide rates among veterans?
The hon. Gentleman asks an important question. The report states that huge improvements have since been undertaken to improve family support and liaison, but I suspect that we need to do even more in the area of mental health. That is one of the reasons why the Government have given that area such a boost.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is one of the most humane and, rightly, well-liked Members of the House—indeed, I think that he is almost loved in many parts. I say to him very gently that my long-term ambition is to persuade him not to use the word “you” in exchanges in the House, but we will leave it there for today.
With regard to lessons learned, may I ask the Prime Minister to reflect on the situation in Syria? The original proposal was for airstrikes against Assad, but later there was a vote for airstrikes against Daesh. Voices in the House today have said that it was the inaction the first time that left the chaos in Syria just now, which is just inconceivable. With regard to post-conflict planning, I urge the Prime Minister to ensure that there is a properly costed plan in place for post-conflict Syria, and one to which all foreign powers have signed up and pledged the right amount of financial support.
We have made some commitments to supporting a post-conflict reconstruction plan for Syria, but I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman about the two votes we had in this House. We won one of them, but I wish that we had won both. I think that taking action against Assad would have been a stronger response against his use of chemical weapons and a stronger response by the west. I think that it would have encouraged the legitimate opposition and that it could have helped bring the conflict to a more rapid closure. The second vote, which we did win, was right. Britain has played a very proud part in the progress that has been made in Syria, making sure that the people who directly threaten us in this country are being properly combated.
Those of us who were here on 18 March 2003 will know that there were no moral certainties available that evening. As one of the 139 Labour MPs who voted against the war that night, I can say that I have always respected those who made a different decision based on what they had heard. What does the Prime Minister think is the lesson from Chilcot about our relationship with the United Nations and the way we acted on that occasion in relation to the United Nations Security Council?
I think the hon. Gentleman asks a very interesting question, because before now I always felt that one of the reasons for going to war was to try to uphold the authority of the United Nations, given that Saddam was in breach of so many of its resolutions. But Sir John Chilcot says very clearly that he thinks it undermined the United Nations, so I want to read that part of the report very carefully.
I declare an interest, as my eldest brother served in both Iraq wars, and another still serves in our armed forces today. Above all else, we should today pay tribute to all those who served, whether they came home or sadly did not, and to their families.
I draw the Prime Minister’s attention to pages 121 and 122 of the executive summary, which relate to the delay in military preparation, a politically expedient decision by the then Prime Minister, and the subsequent deployment of forces earlier than anticipated and the resulting lack of equipment. Does he agree that those decisions unnecessarily cost the lives of some of my brother’s colleagues, as there was insufficient time to overcome the shortfall in necessary war-fighting equipment?
First, I thank the hon. Gentleman’s family, through him, for their service in the past and currently. I cannot give him an answer now. I have read pages 121 and 122, but I want to study the report more carefully to see whether it really does say that the delay had the effect that he describes. Perhaps I can write to him about that.
I join all those in the House in paying tribute to our armed forces. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude. I will quote from the resignation speech of Robin Cook:
“Our interests are best protected not by unilateral action but by multilateral agreement and a world order governed by rules.”—[Official Report, 17 March 2003; Vol. 401, c. 726.]
Does the Prime Minister agree that that statement is as true today as it was then, and that one response to this report must therefore be a deep commitment to the United Nations, to NATO and to somehow rebuilding our relationship with our European friends?
I agree with the hon. Lady that we should all want to be committed to a world of rules and strong institutions, but I think we all have to accept that there can be difficult occasions when—I am not referring here to Iraq specifically—if there is a veto by one Security Council member and we say, “We can only act when the UN sanctions it,” we are stuck with rules that lead us to take a potentially immoral decision not to act to stop a humanitarian catastrophe or suchlike. We have to be careful. Yes, we want institutions and rules, but we should reserve the ability to act when we think it is either in our national interest or in a humanitarian interest to do so.
I must first declare an interest in that my husband has served in our armed forces. It is crucial for armed forces families to have the utmost faith in governmental procedures and in parliamentary scrutiny before they send their loved ones to war. Does the Prime Minister agree that the decisions made on Iraq have undermined their faith, and will he apologise to them for the failings highlighted in the report, in an effort to reach out and rebuild their trust?
I think that the best thing we can do is to make sure that when mistakes are made and when bad consequences follow, as was the case with Iraq and the failure to plan and the rest of it, reports such as this are commissioned, properly discussed and debated, and the lessons learned. That is the most important thing we can do, and that is something that this Government and the previous one, who commissioned the report, are committed to doing.
As a newly elected councillor, my very first motion before my council was to oppose this unjust war, and I want to reaffirm that position strongly today. We have found out today that the war was based on legality that was far from satisfactory, and on flawed intelligence. It resulted in the deaths of 179 British service personnel and more than 100,000 innocent men, women and children, the displacement of more than 1 million people, and greater instability in the region. We can never again have a situation where we go blindly into a war that results in the deaths of thousands of innocent men, women and children. What measures will the Prime Minister immediately put in place, given the lessons we have learned from Chilcot?
We are going to study the report very carefully to see what other lessons can be learned, but some of the early lessons are about processes, procedures, legal advice, national security councils and the use of intelligence information. A lot of those have been learned, but as I have said there are still more things to be discovered, and I commit to making sure that we learn those lessons.
At 24 years old, I am the second youngest Member of this House. Many of the 179 service personnel who were killed in Iraq were under the age of 24, including 14 servicemen and women who were 19 or under. I commend their bravery and their sacrifice. What specific assurances can the Prime Minister give to the families of those brave young men and women that the disastrous decisions that led to their deaths will not be repeated and that those who made those decisions will be held to account?
First, I thank those families for the service and the sacrifice of their children. We should genuinely praise the work that everyone in our armed forces did. We have to separate some of the decision making, the lessons learned and the problems from the military action. These people were serving their country in a cause that had been sanctioned by this House of Commons, so we should not in any way denigrate their memory, because they were doing what they believed in, which was serving their country. The most important thing we can do for all their memories is to digest the report, learn the lessons and put in place better decision-making procedures for the future.
It has been 13 years since Robin Cook returned to the Back Benches to campaign for a world order governed by rules. The worst possible tribute that this House could pay to him or, more importantly, to the very many servicemen and women and Iraqis killed and injured in this conflict would be to draw the wrong conclusions or, worse, to learn no lessons at all. As the Prime Minister prepares for his own departure to the Back Benches, what advice will he give to his successor to ensure that we restore to Britain a foreign policy with an ethical dimension?
I think that our foreign policy should always have an ethical dimension and always has. The advice I would give to my successor is to build on the processes and procedures that we have put in place, so that we better handle intelligence information and legal advice, better discuss and debate these things in the National Security Council, and listen to expert opinion in the proper way. The worst lesson to learn would be to say that, because these things are difficult, we should withdraw from the world, fail to intervene when it is in our interests to do so and retreat in the way that I have set out. That would be the wrong thing to do, and I do not think it is what Robin Cook would have wanted.
My constituent Ben Shaw is a veteran of the Iraq conflict, in which he was blinded. He will never be able to see his family again. Ben has been eagerly awaiting the publication of the Chilcot report, but he is concerned that the lessons will not be learned and that it might be brushed under the carpet. Will the Prime Minister give assurances to Ben as to what actions will be taken, including ensuring that veterans like him will be able to access the full report?
First, through the hon. Gentleman, may I thank Ben for his service to our country and for everything that he did? We must continue to help him throughout his life. Ministry of Defence Ministers have offered meetings with veterans, and they are going ahead. The assurance I can give is that I think we have already learned a lot of very important lessons. Whitehall is a very different place and the way in which decisions are taken is different, as is the use of legal advice. Do not underestimate the extent to which Whitehall has already taken on board so many of the lessons and changed its practices and culture. Clearly, there will be more to do, and that is why we should study the report and have a two-day debate.
I pay tribute to the 179 brave servicemen and women who lost their lives, including Corporal Matthew Cornish from Otley, whose loss is still felt today in Otley and Pool-in-Wharfedale.
We have heard the Prime Minister make some powerful and courageous statements, including on Hillsborough and Bloody Sunday, but I have to say to him, in response to his last major statement in his role, that today we have heard equivocation and we have not had the acceptance that this country needs and demands. There will be dismay, frankly, at some of today’s contributions, which have sought, even now, to suggest that this was not a terrible mistake. Surely the first rule in politics is to accept when you have done something wrong. A Prime Minister, a Government and a Parliament should be prepared to accept a mistake, and if this House does not accept that the invasion of Iraq was a disastrous mistake, we have learned nothing whatsoever.
I have tried to be careful today to recognise that this was the act of a previous Government, and it is for them principally to explain why they took the decisions they did. I have also tried to be careful because this is not my report; it is Sir John Chilcot’s report, and the first thing we have to do is to read it carefully and to take into account what it finds. I have tried very faithfully in my statement to reflect what he says and the way he says it, with all the nuances, rather than simply to rip out some punchy bits that either damn or praise the then Government, because I do not think that that is my responsibility. My responsibility is to handle the publication, to draw out the lessons, which I think I have done, and to let others who were responsible at the time account for themselves.
On a practical level, the report sets out that it is very difficult for intelligence to be assessed by Members of Parliament. Currently, intelligence is shared with the Intelligence and Security Committee only after the event; it is not shared during current operations. Two years ago, when the ISC was being reformed, the Opposition tabled an amendment to allow, in exceptional circumstances, intelligence to be shared with the ISC for current engagements and situations. In the light of today’s report, does the Prime Minister think it would be worth revisiting that suggestion and giving the ISC the opportunity to have access to intelligence in exceptional circumstances such as this country being on the brink of war?
What the hon. Lady is asking for is quite difficult. The process should be that Ministers take action on the advice of officials and on the advice of intelligence that is carefully corralled by the Joint Intelligence Committee. Then we have to account to Parliament for the decisions that we take. On occasion, it would be right for the Joint Intelligence Committee or the Government to put some of that intelligence in front of Parliament, as I think we did in the cases of Libya and Syria. By its very nature, the idea of sharing secret intelligence on a much wider basis will be very difficult, and I do not want to promise to do that. The ISC is there to scrutinise decisions that have been taken, rather than pre-emptively to review a decision that is about to be taken, so we do need to get our ducks in a row. If we try to muddle that, we will get ourselves into a muddle.
My thoughts today are with Mrs Rose Gentle whose son Gordon was killed in Iraq at 18 years of age. There was a campaign for this inquiry and it has waited a long time for it to report. The Prime Minister said in his statement that sending
“our brave troops on to the battlefield without the right equipment was unacceptable.”
I agree with that, but, as the last Member to be called in this debate, may I join other hon. Members and ask the Prime Minister to reflect further? Does he not appreciate that the state should apologise to those military families for their sons and daughters being sent into a war without the correct equipment, and will he take this opportunity to apologise to those military families?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that providing the correct military equipment is an absolute obligation on Government, and huge steps have been taken in the past few years to make that happen. On the responsibility for apologies and all the rest of it, the people who were in Government who took these decisions are still alive and able to answer the criticisms in the report. This is slightly different from the situation over, for instance, Bloody Sunday or Hillsborough. This report is about a set of Government decisions that were taken, and the people responsible are still around. It is very easy for a Prime Minister to stand up and make an apology and all the rest of it, but it is not appropriate for me to do so today, because the people who made these decisions are still around. That is why I have chosen to speak in the way that I have.
I thank the Prime Minister and all colleagues who have taken part in these exchanges.