House of Commons
Wednesday 30 November 2016
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Leaving the EU
The Welsh economy approaches EU exit from a very strong position. Since the vote to leave the EU we have seen economic inactivity continue to fall in Wales while employment has risen to a record high. Businesses continue to show confidence in the economy, with new investment across the UK fundamental to prosperity in Wales.
Wealth inequality in the British state hits Wales hard, with Welsh gross value added just scraping 71.4% of the UK average. EU structural funds have been key to combating this home-grown unfairness. Will the Minister guarantee today continued future UK funding to replace in full the lost EU regional money?
The hon. Lady raises an important issue, and I would say that Wales has been the fastest growing part of the UK outside London since 2010. She makes an important point in relation to the future of structural funds. She will also appreciate that they are meant to be a short-term boost to the economy, but after 16 years and after £4 billion has been spent, west Wales and the valleys have 64% of UK GVA. I am sure we need to use this opportunity to be positive and do something better with similar structural support.
Does the Secretary of State’s answer to that last question imply the Government intend to change the agreed priorities for the spending of the structural funds?
The hon. Gentleman will appreciate both that his constituency has experienced some significant falls in unemployment since 2010 and that after all that money has been spent those areas voted in the strongest numbers to leave the EU. The point I am making is that the current programme has not worked and has not fitted those communities. Exiting the EU presents an ideal opportunity to revisit this and look to see what we can do better for the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and other communities in Wales in need.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the people of Wales voted clearly for Brexit and they do not need to be represented by the SNP or the Welsh Assembly Government who are ignoring their views, but will be pleased to have a Conservative Government and an excellent Secretary of State for Wales who will carry out their wishes?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind comments, but of course we have a close and constructive working relationship with the Welsh Government and all devolved Administrations because it is in our interests to get the strongest deal for the whole of the UK. After all, as my hon. Friend will recognise, the most important market for Welsh business is the UK market, and getting the best deal for the whole of the UK is in all our interests.
The automotive and aerospace sectors are of enormous strategic importance for the Welsh economy. Given that Brexit probably will not mean retaining full membership of the single market, will my right hon. Friend nevertheless commit to do everything he can to retain full single market-style benefits for those critically important sectors in the Welsh economy?
My right hon. Friend raises an important point. He recognises the strength of the automotive and aerospace sectors, and I would point to some significant major investments the UK has landed. We are all familiar with Nissan investment in Sunderland, but it is equally important to the Welsh economy—Calsonic Kansei in Llanelli is a supplier to Nissan in Sunderland. We want to maintain the most open market arrangements, and the confidence shown by Nissan demonstrates it understands the priority we are placing on that.
This week Hybu Cig Cymru, the Farmers’ Union of Wales and NFU Cymru have all made the overwhelming case in favour of tariff-free access to the EU for our world-class Welsh red meat. What is the Minister doing to ensure the voice of agriculture is heard in government?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point and the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb), was at the winter fair in Builth Wells yesterday in Llanelwedd where he met the FUW and the NFU. We are in close dialogue with the farming unions in Wales and across the whole of the UK. Clearly Welsh agriculture is an important part of the Welsh economy and of our export market, and we want to maintain the most open trading relationship possible in its interest.
Welsh agriculture is spectacularly successful in EU markets; 93% of our excellent Welsh beef and lamb exports go to EU countries. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure French, Italian, Spanish and German people continue to eat Welsh meat in the future?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I too want to ensure that those across the European Union and elsewhere have the opportunity to benefit from the excellent produce that comes from Wales, including Welsh beef and Welsh lamb. We want to be global leaders in free trade. We also want the most open trading relationship with Europe that we can possibly get, and that is our determination and focus in our negotiations.
I ran a manufacturing business in south Wales for 13 years, and it is a great place to do business. We manufactured and sold all over the world. Does the Secretary of State agree that the fall in the pound as a result of the Brexit vote makes it much easier for Welsh exporters to increase their sales?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, because it gives me the opportunity to highlight the fact that Wales now has 37,000 more manufacturing jobs than in 2010. That demonstrates the strength and vibrancy of the Welsh economy. Clearly we want to do all we can to support our manufacturers. The value of the pound will have positive results for some businesses and perhaps present challenges for others, but those exporters who want to grow are clearly in a stronger position.
The Secretary of State referred earlier to the importance of the automotive industry in Wales. Ford announced in September that it would guarantee around a third of the jobs in its 1,800-strong workforce at Bridgend. Those jobs are vital to the local community and to the supply chain in Wales, but we are still concerned about the lack of commitment post-2020. The lack of any plan from the Government for Brexit is exacerbating the uncertainty and causing doubts about the plant’s future, so will the Secretary of State today commit his Government to giving Ford the same deal that they gave to Nissan in order to secure the future of the Bridgend plant and Ford’s presence in the UK post-Brexit?
The hon. Lady has raised an important point. My understanding of the situation is that Ford is continuing with more than £100 million-worth of new investment in the plant. That demonstrates the confidence that Ford has, not only in the Bridgend plant but in the UK economy. This builds on the strength of the automotive sector, which is extremely important to the Welsh economy and to the UK economy as a whole.
The Welsh economy remains fundamentally strong, highly competitive and open for business. We are part of a strong United Kingdom, and leaving the EU offers Wales an unprecedented opportunity to forge a new role for ourselves in the world, to negotiate our own trade agreements and to reap the benefits of foreign investment.
What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the First Minister about the potential loss of links and connections that have been built up through organisations such as the European Committee of the Regions, and how will he seek to maintain those connections after Brexit?
The Welsh Government and I have a warm working relationship. Only last week, two Secretaries of State and two other Ministers met at the British-Irish Council that took place in my own constituency of Vale of Glamorgan. Of course we have strong bilateral relationships, and it is right that we use the Joint Ministerial Council to form the basis of the negotiations as we exit the European Union. I want to maintain the warmest and most constructive relationship possible with the Welsh Government, with all the devolved Administrations and with the Crown dependencies.
But does my right hon. Friend accept that this is not just about manufacturing, and that it is not only the exporters of Welsh Black beef who are important? One of the biggest exports for Wales is tourism. People tell me that, with the lower value of the pound, there are more foreign visitors in Snowdonia than ever before and that overseas companies are making more inward investment in Welsh hotels and marketing.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. Wales has a fantastic record of attracting inward investment projects. He has focused on tourism, which gives me the opportunity to highlight the fact that north Wales has been named by Lonely Planet as the fourth top place in the world to visit in 2017. It is the only part of the United Kingdom to have been chosen, and that is something that we should celebrate and market to ensure that more people come not only to the UK but to north Wales.
Inward investment is a key driver of decisions to invest in particular areas, and the manufacturing powerhouse of north-east Wales needs inward investment not only from the private sector but from the Government. Will the Secretary of State put his money where his mouth is and commit the UK Government to matching Welsh Government investment in new infrastructure, including road and rail, in north-east Wales?
The hon. Gentleman shows a close interest in the Mersey Dee area and has shown particular interest in the north Wales growth deal, which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor mentioned in the autumn statement. We are keen to progress it and are waiting for details of the bid. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will recognise the major success of that part of the world being chosen for the global F-35 repair centre, which will inject billions of pounds over decades into north-east Wales and MOD Sealand. We should recognise and celebrate that.
More than £2 billion of capital investment has been made over the past decade across Wales in social housing, transport, energy, water and education through the European Investment Bank. What plans has the Secretary of State put in place to mitigate the potentially disastrous consequences of leaving the EU on pre-existing EIB loans to organisations and public bodies in Wales? Crucially, what plans does he have to replace the funding that the EIB has been able to provide?
Our negotiations with the EIB will run in parallel with our negotiations with the European Commission. The hon. Lady has a responsibility to try to instil confidence in investment in Wales, not to undermine it. Only last week, the Chancellor announced a further capital injection of £436 million. I would hope that the hon. Lady would want to welcome that, not undermine investment, employment and jobs—it really does not become her.
Wales is an attractive destination for overseas investment, and the UK Government remain committed to providing certainty and stability for businesses in Wales. Our country has a tremendous opportunity to forge stronger relations with international partners. I am passionate about selling Wales to the world and continuing to increase global investment in Wales.
Does my hon. Friend agree that recent announcements of investment in Wales, such as the F-35 global repair and maintenance hub in north Wales, represent a vote of confidence in the UK’s economy as a whole?
I could not agree more. Such investment is welcome, and I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for Defence for his part in ensuring that that investment came to north Wales. North-east Wales is an engineering powerhouse in the UK economy, and the investment in the F-35 project is welcome and further enhances engineering opportunities for young people in north-east Wales.
At the beginning of this year, FieldMaster Tractors Ltd, a tractor assembly company in my constituency, signed a joint venture agreement with Longhua, a Chinese company, that would have created 40 jobs in my constituency with aims of expanding. Last week, the owner received notification from China that the deal was off due to uncertainty about our future trading relationship with the European Union. Does the Minister recognise that the UK Government’s dithering over Wales’s future relationship with the single market and the customs union is costing jobs now?
I am disappointed to hear that news and would be more than happy to discuss it with the hon. Gentleman—any loss of investment in Wales is to be regretted. He is wrong, however, to talk about dithering. The Government are clear that we want strong trade relations with the European Union and with the rest of the world. Any Chinese investor looking at the UK knows that this country is friendly to investment from all parts of the globe.
I agree with my hon. Friend; investment in Wales is most welcome. We need to diversify the Welsh economy. Manufacturing jobs in Wales have increased and the engineering sector is second to none in the United Kingdom. That is based on attracting inward investment. On a recent visit to Deeside, I saw again how Airbus is acting as a catalyst for small business development in north-east Wales. We need a combination of inward investment and home-grown companies that are able to build on the expertise provided by companies such as Airbus.
Some businesses may not invest inwardly in Wales because they would have to pay two apprenticeship levies: the UK Government levy and the Construction Industry Training Board levy. Under the Barnett formula, that will not result in extra funding for Welsh apprenticeships. Will the Minister reassure potential investors that they will be able to claim all levies for training and will be able to use the money for workforce development with local further education providers?
I am surprised to hear that question from the hon. Lady; the apprenticeship levy is important, but the settlement between Her Majesty’s Treasury and the Welsh Government has been welcomed by the latter as both fair and comprehensive. It is therefore essential that she and other Members call on the Welsh Government to make sure that the money allocated through the apprenticeship levy is spent where it is needed.
Given that the UK Government and, in particular, senior Ministers are currently doing their best to offend the international community, it falls to Wales and the Welsh Government to promote inward investment. So will the Minister join me in congratulating the Welsh Government on the role they have played in promoting Wales and securing the highest level of inward investment on record? Furthermore, what support will he give to ensure that this success is sustained following the UK’s exit from the European Union?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the question. It is important to state that the relationship between the Welsh Government and the UK Government on this issue is very productive. I recently visited Wales with a Minister for International Trade, and the Secretary of State for International Trade will be in Wales on Friday. We work constructively with the Welsh Government to ensure that we sell Wales and the United Kingdom as a good place to do business. We have a strong relationship, which the hon. Gentleman should welcome.
We are committed to transforming prisons into places of safety and reform. We recently announced a major overhaul of the prison system, and in the autumn statement we announced funding for 2,500 extra front-line officers across the UK.
The Minister will be aware that it is not just numbers of prison officers, but the skill base they bring with them that is important. Parc prison has a wonderful record with its “invisible walls” scheme in building links between prisoners and their families. More than 500 children a week visit their fathers, and 69% of inmates have contact with their families. Will he work with me to get the Treasury and the Ministry of Justice to provide funding so that the scheme carries on after 2017?
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for the work she does with Parc prison in Bridgend. The relationship she has with Parc prison is indicative of the way an MP should work with such a facility. I pay particular tribute to Parc as a prison that has highlighted the importance of ensuring that family ties are maintained while prisoners are serving a sentence. The good practice shown in Parc should be repeated across the prison estate, and I would be delighted to co-operate with her in pushing this issue forward.
Over the past five years, the number of violent attacks on prison officers in Welsh prisons has risen by more than 138%. What discussions have Ministers had with the Justice Secretary about tackling violence in Welsh prisons?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has regular discussions with the Department in question on this issue. No member of staff working on behalf of the state should be threatened or subject to violence in their workplace, so it is essential that we support prison officers in that context and crack down hard on anybody who is responsible for violence within or outside the prison sector.
I speak as the co-chair of the cross-party justice unions parliamentary group. HMP Berwyn is due to open in less than three months’ time. Given that the National Offender Management Service is committed to ensuring that it gives equal treatment to English and Welsh in Wales, will the Minister tell the House how he is monitoring the language skills of staff in Wrexham? The MOJ has told me that:
“Data on the number of bilingual Welsh and English speakers…is not collected centrally.”
First, I hope that the hon. Lady welcomes the fact that the prison in Wrexham is being built, as it is a significant investment in north-east Wales and a significant opportunity for the north Wales economy. On the Welsh language issue, it is fair to say that the Department responsible has made it clear that the number of jobs being created at Wrexham will reflect the demographic realities in north Wales, and as a result there will be Welsh-speaking staff in the prison at Berwyn. That will be a great improvement on the current situation, where Welsh-speaking prisoners end up in the estate in England.
Order. A lot of very noisy private conversations are taking place. I must advise the House that we have many distinguished visitors here today, not only from across the country, but from Iraq and Egypt. We wish to show them that in our ancient democracy we can, when we try, conduct ourselves with due decorum, which will now be brilliantly exemplified by Mr Nigel Huddleston.
Leaving the EU
Since the referendum in June, I have had discussions with a wide range of stakeholders across Wales, from the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, to the farming unions, the CBI Wales and the Institute of Directors in Wales, to hear their views on how to secure the best deal for Wales and the UK as we leave the EU. Those conversations are informing my discussions with Cabinet colleagues, as well as with the Welsh Government.
Does the Secretary of State agree that we should not just focus on businesses as we leave the EU? We should also consider the implications for the third sector, charities, local authorities and universities in Wales.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. I have already talked about my warm relationship with the Welsh Government, but of course the UK Government should also have a warm relationship with universities, charity groups and environmental groups, as well as with businesses directly in Wales. The Welsh Government have an important part to play, but we also have a direct relationship with those key stakeholders.
Does my right hon. Friend recognise that there is more than one voice in Wales and not simply the voice of the Welsh Government, who still cannot accept that the majority of Welsh people voted to leave the European Union? We must therefore engage with all Welsh stakeholders and partners who are key to ensuring that Brexit will be a success for everyone in the UK.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. Of course we engage positively with the Welsh Government, and we will continue to do so. I have already had scores of meetings with key stakeholders in Wales. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales was at the Royal Welsh Agricultural Society’s winter fair yesterday doing that very thing—engaging with Welsh farmers and with Welsh farming unions.
Given the uncertainty over the single market and the Prime Minister’s failure to raise steel when she met the Indian Government recently, what steps will the Secretary of State take in the near future when he meets trade unions representing the steel industry to discuss the impact of the loss of the single market?
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will do all he can to instil confidence in our ambitions to gain the most open trading relationship possible. He rightly raises steel. I am sure that he will recognise that we are in a much stronger position now than we were back in March. That is a result of reduced energy costs for the sector of £109 million. We have changed the procurement rules, offered flexibility in environmental packages and implemented strong pan-EU anti-dumping measures, which will reduce the threats of imports by more than 90% in a whole range of sectors.
The success of the Welsh red meat sector has meant that £225 million has been ploughed back into some of the most fragile rural communities in Wales. In his meetings, has the Secretary of State heard that message, and will he push the case for access to the single market to protect those very communities?
Like the hon. Gentleman, I have a lot of confidence in the Welsh red meat sector. I am sure that our European nations do not want to go without our high-quality Welsh red meat. We are determined to support our farmers in gaining the most open trading relationship possible, so that European nations can continue to enjoy the quality of Welsh produce.
I recognise that many businesses in Wales have an important relationship with the EU, but, as a whole, Welsh businesses export more to countries outside the European Union. In leaving the EU, we will seek new opportunities for businesses across the UK, including in Wales, as we build on our strengths as an open, dynamic trading nation.
The Minister will know full well that he has not really answered my question. Can he tell us whether his officials have made any estimate of how many jobs in Wales will be lost if the UK leaves the single market and what he and his Government are planning to do about it?
I am somewhat disturbed by the hon. Lady’s comments. Time and again, I hear Opposition parties talking down the Welsh economy. I want to talk up the Welsh economy, as do the Welsh Government. As we start this process, we have fewer people out of work in Wales now than since 2010, and our economy is growing faster than many parts of the UK. She should be talking up Wales, not talking it down.
I am happy to hear the voice of North East Hampshire on question 7. Mr Jayawardena, get in there.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. North Wales has a huge contribution to make in terms of employment not just in North Wales but throughout the UK. The Government’s emphasis on having a north Wales growth deal is dependent on linking north Wales to the northern powerhouse. To develop that link, I was pleased to visit north-east Wales and Chester recently with the Minister responsible for the northern powerhouse. There is an appetite in north-east Wales to work on a cross-border basis for the benefit of our local economies.
Will the Minister confirm the completion date of the rail electrification and all the work that needs to be done between Cardiff and Swansea, please?
My understanding is that the work is progressing well. Again, I highlight the contrast between the situation under this Government and the lack of investment in any railway infrastructure between 1997 and 2010.
What is the Minister going to do with preposterous suggestion that the priorities for future support for farmers in Wales should be decided on the basis of the UK, where there are many millionaire and billionaire farmers, rather than on the basis of Wales, where there are small farmers? Will he stand up for Welsh priorities, made in Wales for Welsh small farmers?
I was at the winter fair yesterday in discussions with farming unions and other interested parties in relation to the Welsh agricultural sector. The agricultural sector in Wales wants a settlement that will be good for the sector in Wales and good for the UK. We know that we can produce the best food in all the world, and we need to ensure that we have opportunities to sell it not only to the rest of the European Union but on a global basis. We are confident we can do that with support from this Government.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure that the whole House will join me in wishing people across the United Kingdom and, indeed, the whole world a very happy St Andrew’s day.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in this House I shall have further such meetings later today.
May I suggest to the Prime Minister that “having your cake and eating it” is not a serious strategy for Brexit and that Britain deserves better that having to rely on leaked documents to know the Government’s plans? How on earth can she expect MPs to vote to trigger article 50 when she refuses to give any clarity on what kind of Brexit she is pursuing and whether it will involve us still being members of the single market? Is it arrogance, or is it incompetence?
I have answered this question many times in this House. The hon. Lady asks specifically about the single market and trading with the European Union, and I have been very clear that we are ambitious in getting the best possible deal for trading with and operating within the single European market.
I commend my hon. Friend on the hard work he has put in in relation to this project. I understand that there is to be a significant sum of funding from a developer and that my hon. Friend has been working with the developer and the county council on this issue. The local enterprise partnership has submitted a linked bid to Highways England that is being actively considered, and I understand that my hon. Friend is meeting my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Transport this afternoon to discuss this in more detail.
May I join the Prime Minister in wishing everyone a very happy St Andrew’s day wherever they are celebrating it, all around the world?
Last week, the autumn statement revealed the abject failure of this Government’s economic strategy. Economic growth was revised down; wage growth was revised down; business investment was revised down; and borrowing and debt were revised up, yet again. Surely now the Prime Minister accepts that her predecessor’s long-term economic plan was actually a failure.
I will give the right hon. Gentleman some facts. The IMF says that this will be the fastest-growing advanced economy in the world this year. Unemployment is down. We have record numbers of people in employment and we have companies such as Nissan, Jaguar Land Rover, Honda, ARM, Google, Facebook and Apple investing in the UK, securing jobs here in the United Kingdom. That is what a good economic plan does.
The Government did tell us that the deficit would be eradicated by 2015. That was then advanced to 2020, and now it has been advanced to whenever in the future. The right hon. Lady quotes the IFS, but she is being a little selective. It went on to say that the prospect for workers over the next six years was “dreadful”, creating
“the worst decade for living standards certainly since the last war and probably since the 1920s”.
Is it not fair to say that those who are just getting by are suffering all the pain for no gain?
Given that the right hon. Gentleman cannot distinguish between the IMF and the IFS, it is probably a good job that he is sitting there and I am standing here. Let me tell him what we are doing for those people, and let us think about those people who do find life difficult, who are struggling to get by, who have a job but worry about their job security, who have a home but worry about paying the mortgage, and who are worried about their children’s education and whether their children will be able to buy a home. What measures have we taken? We have increased the national living wage—we introduced the national living wage. We are increasing personal tax allowance, taking more people out of paying tax altogether. We are increasing the number of affordable homes being built. But we can only do this if we have a strong economy, and it is our plan that delivers that strong economy.
Wages have stagnated; home ownership is falling; homelessness has doubled; and queues at food banks are rising every day. If the Prime Minister really believes the economy is doing well, why are her Government forcing through £2 billion of cuts to in-work support, cutting the incomes of working people and leaving many households over £2,000 a year worse off?
The right hon. Gentleman starts his question by talking about home ownership. Let us be very clear what is happening in respect of housing. House building starts fell by 45% under Labour in 12 years. They have increased by over two thirds since the Conservatives were in government. Yes, we are making changes to the welfare system. He and I have a fundamental difference of opinion about the welfare system. I think what is important in the welfare system is that we remember those who are benefiting from it and we remember those who are paying for it. The universal credit system is there to ensure that work will always pay. I believe in a welfare system that does help people to get into work, that does encourage people into the workplace. He believes in a welfare system where people are able to live on benefits.
The last Labour Government took 800,000 children out of poverty. Under the right hon. Lady’s Government, child poverty is rising and now covers 4 million children across this country. Our people are suffering because of the policies of her Government. People are paying the price for her failed economic experiment. The Government have even now abandoned the previous Chancellor’s pledge that their so-called national living wage would be paying at least £9 per hour by 2020. What is the new pledge on living wage?
The pledge on living wage is set out in the autumn statement and is as it always has been. The right hon. Gentleman talks about poverty. Actually, we are seeing fewer families in absolute poverty and fewer families in relative poverty. I come back to the point I have been making in answer to his previous questions: it is only possible to do these things by having a strong economy. The one thing we know is that the policy that would not deliver a strong economy is Labour’s policy to increase borrowing by £500 billion. He talks about the impact on people in work. Let me remind him of what the former shadow Treasury Minister said: Labour’s policy to increase borrowing would lead to double the income tax, double council tax, double VAT and double national insurance. That will not help anybody who is in the workplace and just about managing.
I am not entirely sure where the Government’s credibility lies on borrowing, since they are borrowing even more, the deficit is increasing and people are suffering. When the Prime Minister talks about children in poverty in response to my question, I simply remind her 4 million children are living in poverty—children going hungry to school in this country because their parents do not have enough money to feed them properly. It is a disgrace and should be addressed.
In the autumn statement last week, the Chancellor spoke for over 50 minutes. During that time, he did not once mention the national health service or social care. Some 1.2 million people are lacking the care they need. Why was there not one single penny more for social care in the autumn statement?
There is absolutely no doubt that the social care system is under pressure; we recognise that. If we just look at the fact that there are 1 million more people aged over 65 today than there were in 2010, we see the sort of pressures on the social care system. That is why the Government have already acted to put more money into the social care system: more money through the better care fund—£3.5 billion extra through the better care fund—and more money through the social care precept. But it is also important that local authorities and the NHS work together to ensure, for example, that people have the social care they need, so they are not ending up blocking beds in hospital. There is some very good practice up and down the country, and sadly there is some not so good practice. What we need to do is make sure everybody is giving the best possible service to people who need it.
There is a tragic parallel going on between an underfunded NHS and an underfunded social care system all over the country, and the Prime Minister knows it. Indeed, she might care to listen to the Tory leader of Warwickshire Council, Izzi Seccombe, who says that her council has been “cut to the bone”, and who says on social care:
“right now we have a £1.3 billion gap which is not being funded.”
It is a real crisis in every social services department all over the country and, indeed, in almost every NHS hospital.
Next year, this Government are handing back £605 million in corporation tax cuts, rising to £1.6 billion the year after that and £7.5 billion over the next five years. So could the Prime Minister explain to the more than 1 million elderly people not getting the care they need, to the 4 million people on NHS waiting lists and to the millions of pensioners worried about losing the protection of the triple lock why there is not one penny extra for the NHS or social care? Just what is this Government’s real sense of priorities?
The right hon. Gentleman talks about funding social care and funding the national health service: £3.8 billion extra is going into the national health service this year. Under Labour’s plans, we would have seen £1.3 billion less going into the national health service. Social care funding is going up under this Government. At the last election, the shadow Chancellor—lately of “Strictly” fame—said local authorities would get not a penny more. Conservatives are putting money into the NHS and social care—Labour would deny it.
First of all, may I just say that I am sure the whole House would want to join me in commending Jo’s family for the very dignified way in which they dealt with matters as the court case was going through. It must have been very harrowing for them.
I am very pleased that my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) are taking forward the work of the commission on loneliness. Earlier this week I was able to support the “Good Morning Britain” 1 Million Minutes campaign, which is encouraging individuals to give 30 minutes of their time to help—to be with—somebody who is lonely. We have, over the years, I think, failed to understand the impact that loneliness has on people’s psychological health but also their physical health. Ministers will look forward to receiving the results from the commission and to working with my hon. Friend and others.
A very happy St Andrew’s day to everybody celebrating in Scotland and throughout the world.
There is literally nothing to celebrate about the humanitarian catastrophe befalling the people of Syria at this time. The situation in the besieged city of Aleppo is described as so bad that it
“could be one of the biggest massacres of civilian population since World War II”.
What can the UK and the international community do to end the suffering of the people of Syria?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the appalling situation in Syria, and particularly the indiscriminate attacks that we see on civilians in Aleppo. The United Kingdom has been working with France to bring forward an emergency discussion on this issue at the UN Security Council; that will take place later today. We want to see a cessation of hostilities. We want to see an opportunity for humanitarian aid to have access to Aleppo, and we will be pressing for that at the Security Council.
It is extremely welcome that the discussions are taking place in the United Nations, and we wish success to all those who are supporting a humanitarian solution to the crisis. However, things are so bad that the agencies are saying that in Aleppo the situation is a “descent into hell”. Time is absolutely of the essence. I know the Prime Minister is seized of this matter; we are in agreement. Can I please appeal to her: can absolutely everything be done now to alleviate the situation of the poor people of Aleppo and of Syria?
The right hon. Gentleman is right about the horrific situation in Aleppo. I can assure him that the Government are pressing hard and we are doing everything that we can in relation to this. We have consistently looked at what the possible solutions might be, to see whether there are other avenues that we can press for. I think the Security Council debate is very important. There is an important message to send to Russia: that it use its influence with the Assad regime to stop these appalling atrocities in Aleppo and let humanitarian aid through.
My hon. Friend raises an important issue which matters both to her and me. I think the phrase that was used by the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship was “the jealously guarded principle” of that ability to speak freely, as she says, respectfully and responsibly about one’s religion. I am happy to welcome the publication of this report and its findings. Of course, we are now into the season of Advent. We have a very strong tradition in this country of religious tolerance and freedom of speech, and our Christian heritage is something we can all be proud of. I am sure we would all want to ensure that people at work do feel able to speak about their faith, and also feel able to speak quite freely about Christmas.
The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. I know that the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) spoke very movingly from personal experience in the debate that she called on this issue. I do not think that anybody who has not been through the death of a child can possibly understand the pain that that brings, not just immediately but thereafter, as parents see others grow up while their child will not.
I recognise the issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised about the cost of children’s funerals. As he has said, there are measures in place for families who have particular hardship cases, where money can be given. It is open to local authorities to waive fees, and some local authorities do that. We have left this as a decision for local authorities, and some do, indeed, waive those fees.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I believe that there are now nearly 11,000 more children in good and outstanding schools in my hon. Friend’s area than there were in 2010. We want to provide a good school place for every child. She references the good work being done by grammar schools in her area to improve the quality of education in primary schools, which is one of the issues that we are looking at in our consultation on education. We want to remove the legal ban on expanding or opening new grammar schools, but we also want to see grammar schools working to improve standards across the education system generally.
The STPs are about local people determining the shape of health services in a local area, to deliver the best service for local people. Obviously, every area will be looking very closely at the plans that are being brought forward. It is important that we see, in those STPs, health services increasingly working with local authorities to ensure that they are providing the right, holistic level of care for people in their area.
As I mentioned earlier, we have seen a significant rise in the number of people in employment in this country, and that is because we have got the strong economy that we have. However, I recognise that employment and types of employment are changing. Technology is the driver in many cases. That is why I have asked the chief executive of the RSA, Matthew Taylor, to conduct a review of and report on modern employment practices, so we can ensure that the legislative framework is absolutely the right one for the economy of the future and the jobs of the future. That shows that it is now the Conservative party that is the party of working people.
I am very pleased to say that, over the past three years, nearly 600,000 more disabled people have got into the workplace. I think that is very important. Of course, we want to ensure that all those disabled people who are able to get into work are given the support needed to do that. That is why we have been ensuring not just that this is about benefits, but that this is about the support package in total that people are given. They do have individual support through the personal independence payment for the particular long-terms costs that they have incurred because of their disability. It is also the support package that is provided to people in the work group in employment and support allowance that enables them to get into work. Nearly 600,000 more disabled people in work—that is something the right hon. Gentleman should be celebrating.
I can assure my right hon. Friend that, as I said earlier, I would hope this is an issue we can look at at an early stage in the negotiations, and of course there will be two years of negotiations. I think it is right that we want to give reassurance to British citizens living in the EU and to EU citizens living here in the UK, but I think the reaction that we have seen shows why it was absolutely right for us not to do what the Labour party wanted us to do, which was simply to give away the guarantee for rights of EU citizens here in the UK. As we have seen, that would have left UK citizens in Europe high and dry.
There are nearly 30 more doctors and over 950 more nurses in the South Tyneside NHS Foundation Trust compared with 2010. This year, the South Tyneside clinical commissioning group will be getting increased funding. Health funding in the hon. Gentleman’s area is going to be £2.7 billion this year, and that will be increasing by 2020-21. It is this Government that are putting more money into the national health service; it is the Labour party—a former shadow Health Secretary from the Labour party—who said that more money for the NHS was “irresponsible”.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right in what he says about his own constituency and the midlands engine in relation to the development of jobs and for the strong economy of the future. That is why we will be developing the industrial strategy for the whole of the United Kingdom, which is an important part of the Government’s plan for the future. It is looking at issues such as infrastructure and skills, ensuring that we can build on the best and encourage the growth that we need for the economy of the future. The midlands engine and the part of the country that my hon. Friend represents will be an important part of that growth for the future.
We have a very clear visa system, and decisions are taken according to its rules, but as the hon. Lady will have seen, the Home Secretary has heard her comments. I suggest that if she sends her the details, she will look at the case.
I am interested in the results of the Legatum Institute commission’s report on this issue. I believe absolutely that free trade is the right way to go—it is through free trade that we increase growth and prosperity—which is why I have said I want this country to be a global leader in free trade and why we will not just look to forge new trade deals with other countries as we leave the EU but see how we can improve trade with other countries before we leave it, so that we will continue to strengthen our economy. I am sure that the Secretary of State for International Trade will be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the results of the commission’s report.
I warmly welcome the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr Campbell) back to his place.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I’ll be able to tell you more about it next week, when I meet my consultant.
What plans does the Prime Minister have to make super-economic zones? The Blyth estuary was given an economic zone by the last Tory Chancellor, as we have acres and acres of land around that river. I hope that that is in her mind.
I join you, Mr Speaker, and others in welcoming the hon. Gentleman to his place. It is good to see him back in his usual position, and I wish him all the very best.
As part of our industrial strategy, we are looking around the country at where there are opportunities for economic growth and how we can encourage them to be taken up. It is important that economic growth and prosperity be spread across the whole country to ensure an economy that works for everyone.
I assure my hon. Friend that I recognise the role played by the creative and digital industries in our economy, the excellent example of Leeds and the vibrancy they bring to the economy there. I am pleased that we are able to invest a further £1 billion in gold standard broadband, which will bring better connections to 2 million more homes and businesses, and I am sure that Yorkshire will have a very central role to play in this.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister’s Government published a Green Paper on corporate governance, emphasising the importance of gender and race diversity. I congratulate her on that, but why has her Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport blocked the appointment of a black woman to the Channel 4 board? Does she not think there is a woman or a black person in the country worthy of being on the board of Channel 4?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the welcome he has given to the corporate governance Green Paper that we have produced, which of course covers a great deal more than simply issues of gender and diversity in corporate governance and on corporate boards. I am not aware of the particular case that he mentioned. In looking at public appointments, however, I would say that a very careful process is undertaken to ensure that the people who are appointed have the skillset and the requirements needed to carry out the role. I will look into the issue he raised, but this is always a question of the right person for the job. Issues around the sort of question that he has raised do not come into it; it is about who is right for the job.
Mr Donald Tusk’s response to my letter on reciprocal rights has already been mentioned. I congratulate the Prime Minister on her work with individual member states in this important matter, but does she share our disappointment and will she join me in calling for this important matter to be raised in two weeks’ time at the next European Council meeting?
I recognise the concerns of my hon. Friend and other Members on the particular issue of the rights of EU citizens and UK citizens variously living here in the UK and in the other member states of the European Union. I hope it is something that we will be able to address at an early stage. We have not yet triggered article 50 and the negotiations will have up to two years to run, as set out in the Lisbon treaty. As I say, I hope we will be able to address this at an early stage to give people the reassurance they need.
A year ago this week, my constituent Deborah Pearson lost her niece Julie, who is believed to have been unlawfully killed in Eilat, Israel. A year ago, the Prime Minister’s predecessor was good enough to give me support, as was the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but after a year of writing letters, having meetings and putting pressure on the Israeli authorities, the family is no closer to having justice for Julie. Will the Prime Minister meet me and my constituent to understand what further pressure can be brought to bear so that the family can get answers and understand who brought this terrible crime against their family member?
I understand the concern that the hon. Lady rightly shows for her constituent, and obviously her constituent’s deep concern to find out what happened in this terrible tragedy. I understand that the appropriate Minister in the Foreign Office is actively working on this question. I will ask him to respond to the hon. Lady and to meet her to discuss what more can be done and to set out exactly what the Foreign Office is doing on this issue.
Withdrawal from the European Union (Article 50) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Mr Peter Bone presented a Bill to require Her Majesty’s Government to notify the European Council by 31 March 2017 of the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the European Union.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 December, and to be printed (Bill 104).
Football Supporters (Access)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require football clubs to provide tickets to matches at a discount for persons under a specified age; to require local authorities to consider the needs of match going supporters when approving kick off times; to require football clubs to set aside a proportion of transfer fees paid for the development of football facilities for local clubs and young people; and for connected purposes.
Football is our national sport. We invented the modern game and we have the most popular league in the world, viewed by millions around the globe. I grew up playing and watching the game, and loved every minute of doing so. Although I still play and watch when I can, I have less time to do so now, and when I play I do not move quite so quickly around the pitch, but I still enjoy it and score the odd goal. As a supporter, however, I find that the difference between the game I grew up watching and the game now is incredible. I remember being able to turn up just before kick-off and pay on the gate. If I did not manage to see the match in person, that usually meant that I would not see it at all, because at that time televised games were the exception rather than the rule.
While there were plenty of good players then, nowadays we have many of the best players from all over the world. There are fantastic modem stadiums, there is huge media coverage of every millisecond of every Premier League game, and of course there is more cash in the sport than it has ever seen before. Despite all that glamour and cash, however, there are things we could be doing better. Our teams, by and large, still flatter to deceive on the international stage, and the proportion of young home-grown talent breaking through each year appears to be less and less.
Not only are there fewer youngsters out on the pitch, but there appear to be fewer in the stands as well. During the 1980s, a much higher proportion of match-going fans were younger. Surveys undertaken at the time suggested that about 20% of match-day fans were in the 16-to-20 age group. I suspect it is no coincidence that the average age of a match-going supporter now is in the 40s: those same fans have grown up with the match-day experience being a part of their life that they have retained. However, the proportion of young people going to games now is much lower, and some surveys even suggest that it is considerably less than 10%. Cost plays a huge part in that, with ticket prices far outstripping inflation at most clubs. If we do not make more provision for younger supporters, we shall risk empty stadiums in 20 or 30 years’ time, because the fans of the future will have been driven away by sky-high prices.
I believe that it is time to make provision for our younger fans. The first element of my Bill will require all football clubs to provide 10% of their tickets at discounted prices for young people under the age of 22. We have a lower minimum wage for people under 22, and many of them are in full-time education or apprenticeships. The price of a match-day ticket is beyond the reach of many young people, and when our prices are compared with others around Europe, we know that there is an awfully long way to go. That criticism is not levelled solely at Premier League clubs; far too many Football League prices are too high as well. The match-going ritual was part of growing up for my generation, and I do not want to see the next generation miss out on that.
A second measure in the Bill would require local authorities to consider the needs of match-going supporters when approving kick-off times. They are currently required to take account of safety and police advice, but I believe that the needs of the supporter should be considered as well. A number of high-profile games have been moved to times that make it impossible for travelling supporters to attend via public transport. There are countless examples of matches being moved at short notice, in particular to accommodate the demands of television companies. The money that television coverage has brought into the game is of course welcome, but that should not mean that the interests of the match-going fan are entirely subservient to the needs of the TV scheduler.
One high-profile example was the occasion on which Everton and Manchester United played in the FA Cup semi-final in April this year. A late 5.15 pm start meant that fans risked being left with no train back home to the north-west from Wembley after the match, particularly if there was extra time or penalties. However, that does not just apply to the big games. At the other end of the scale, at the start of the season in the non-league, Eastleigh football club’s game against Barrow was moved to a 12.30 pm kick-off to accommodate television broadcasting, which left fans with a 10-hour, 600-mile round trip. How could anyone seriously expect supporters to travel sensibly to and from that game on public transport?
The Bill requires councils to make an assessment of the availability of transport links before a final kick-off time can be approved, so that travelling fans have a realistic chance of being able to get to the game. That is particularly relevant as we approach the traditional Christmas fixture list, when public transport options are more limited. Games are currently scheduled to kick off at midday on Boxing Day and 5.30 pm on New Year’s Eve. How can either of those times be remotely sensible on those days?
There are also the fans who have gone to considerable trouble and expense to make travel arrangements well in advance of the game, only for the time and, on some occasions, the day of the game to be changed at the last minute. What about the shift worker who has made arrangements with his employer, possibly swapping shifts with a colleague for time off, only to find that the game has been moved at a few days’ notice? How many people have to make complicated arrangements to juggle their various commitments when the fixture list is released at the start of the season, only to find that the original fixture list becomes increasingly worthless as the season progresses?
The third part of the Bill would require football clubs to set aside a proportion of transfer fees for the development of football facilities for local clubs and young people. That would apply only to fees paid by Premier League clubs, which, during the last transfer window alone, spent £1.2 billion on players. A levy of just 0.1% could raise an extra £1.2 million for grassroots football. I know that money does go to support grassroots football, but it is not enough. Given the cash washing around the Premier League at the moment, I believe we could take further steps to ensure that a little of that unprecedented wealth helps to secure the future for our players and to improve facilities for all.
A study of the amount paid in agents’ fees by Premier League clubs showed that £46.5 million was paid in agents’ and intermediaries’ fees in the four months from October 2015 to January 2016. That is money leaving the game. Much as I would like to, I am not suggesting we outlaw agents’ fees all together; I am merely using these figures to demonstrate that huge sums are going through the game that are not benefiting players or clubs, and certainly not the fans.
We should be concerned about the declining number of home-grown players coming through the leagues. Last season, 35% of Premier League players were English—a huge decrease since the opening 1992-93 campaign of the Premier League, when 69% of the players were English. A survey last month showed that just four Premier League teams had given more than half their game time to home-country players, compared with 11 teams in Spain and 17 in France.
There are huge questions about how professional clubs operate and how our younger players can hope to get a chance against the imported superstars, but one thing we can do is improve the standard of facilities for younger players of all abilities, and indeed everyone involved in grassroots football. We know the pressure that local authorities are under to balance the books, and there is little left for discretionary spending on improving sporting facilities. Often pitches are in poor condition, with poor drainage—there are areas where there is more mud than grass—and many pitches have few or no changing facilities connected to them.
That really hit home with me recently, when I saw for myself a local pitch used for kids’ football, where the goal at one end of the pitch was smaller than the other because of vandalism. We cannot expect the superstars of tomorrow to emerge if we do not invest in them, and we should not tolerate second-rate facilities for our national sport. There are plenty of distractions and reasons why kids might find something to do other than play football. We should do what we can and make sure that at least a little of the wealth flowing through the game trickles down to support the grassroots.
Football is more than just a game. It is certainly more than just a business. It is an integral part of our culture and it needs to be nurtured and protected. The fruits of this golden age in the sport should be used to help secure its future for everyone. I believe that this Bill will achieve that aim.
Question put and agreed to.
That Justin Madders, Alan Brown, Carolyn Harris, Stephen Kinnock, Ian C. Lucas, Christian Matheson, Jason McCartney, Karl MᶜCartney, Ian Mearns, Paula Sherriff and Jo Stevens present the Bill.
Justin Madders accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 24 February 2017, and to be printed (Bill 103).
Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 24 February—
Will it be televised?
We have no intelligence on the question whether it will be televised—well, actually we do, and it very likely will. [Laughter.]
[14th Allotted Day]
Chilcot Inquiry and Parliamentary Accountability
I beg to move,
That this House recognises that the Chilcot Inquiry provided substantial evidence of misleading information being presented by the then Prime Minister and others on the development of the then Government's policy towards the invasion of Iraq as shown most clearly in the contrast between private correspondence to the United States government and public statements to Parliament and to the people and also in the presentation of intelligence information; and calls on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, further to its current investigation into the lessons to be learned from the Chilcot Inquiry for the machinery of government, to conduct a further specific examination of this contrast in public and private policy and of the presentation of intelligence, and then to report to the House on what further action it considers necessary and appropriate to help prevent any repetition of this disastrous series of events.
I move the motion on behalf of myself, my hon. Friends and hon. Members representing seven political parties across this House—[Interruption.] I see Labour Members are already in an excitable state; I just said “Members of”.
It is a great pleasure to move this motion on St Andrew’s day—Scotland’s national day. The leaders of the political parties complimented Scotland in their remarks at Prime Minister’s questions. When the SNP parliamentary group discussed what motion should be tabled, there were many obvious candidates: Scotland in the world or the meaning of St Andrew’s day—a broad debate given that this is a St Andrew’s day motion. However, we thought it would be better to focus on issues of signal importance to the people. The second debate to be moved by my hon. Friends this afternoon will be on the injustice perpetrated on the WASPI women—Women Against State Pension Inequality—to see whether a debate can advance their cause. This debate is on the issue that has dominated the past two decades of politics, both here and internationally: the war in Iraq.
One hundred and seventy-nine Members are left in the House of Commons who were present when the debate on the war in Iraq took place in March 2003. I remember the figure exactly, because the same number of British soldiers died in the conflict. The deaths of thousands of American soldiers and 200,000 Iraqis, the birth of Daesh in the prison camps of Iraq and the conflagration in the middle east are all directly sourced to the disastrous decision of March 2003. The intention of today’s debate is not to rerun the Chilcot debate of July—we have had that debate—but to try to identify from that debate how we can take matters forward in terms of parliamentary accountability.
I mentioned a few seconds ago that Members from seven political parties in the House put their names to the motion. We do not want to rerun the Chilcot debate, because the generally accepted view of both the press and the public was best summed up in the headline in The Times the day after Chilcot:
“Britain fought an unnecessary, disastrous and potentially illegal war in Iraq because of Tony Blair’s misguided and personal commitment to George W Bush, the Chilcot report concluded yesterday.”
That is a reasonable summary of the general tenor of the reaction to the Chilcot report. What was unstated and unsaid in the Chilcot report was what to do with both the amassing evidence, and what to do in terms of parliamentary accountability if, as we believe, this House and the public were grievously misled into that disastrous conflict.
The hon. Members representing seven political parties in this House commissioned a report from Dr Glen Rangwala of Trinity College, Cambridge. I put the report in the House of Commons Library this morning. All Members would do well to give it a good reading. The report considers, in exact terms, the statements made over a period to this House—not just in the March 2003 debate—and takes into account Chilcot’s findings from the wider canvas of information now available, and contrasts and compares the two. It might help the House if I make a few remarks on Dr Rangwala’s general findings.
In summary, from late 2001 to March 2003, Tony Blair repeatedly made three interrelated statements to the House of Commons: no decision had been taken to use military force against Iraq; military action could be avoided by Iraq’s disarmament of its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons; and regime change was not the goal of Government policy. The report of the Iraq inquiry, published on 6 July, demonstrates conclusively and authoritatively that each of those three statements was untrue, and that their falsity was known to Mr Blair. Mr Blair backed up his claims about the need for Iraqi disarmament by asserting there was conclusive evidence of Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction and that these weapons were a threat to the UK’s national security. On both points, those statements contradicted the intelligence assessments put to Mr Blair.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that Hans Blix, the arms inspector carrying out an inquiry at the time of the vote in March 2003—I was present and voted against intervention—believed at that time that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction?
I am aware that Dr Hans Blix asked for more time to complete the process of inspection and was denied that by the then Prime Minister and President of the United States of America.
It was not just Hans Blix who thought that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Even countries that thought we should not go to war—Russia, France and Germany—thought Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, too. In fact, the only way Saddam Hussein was able to enslave the people of Iraq was by leading them to believe he had weapons of mass destruction.
And those countries the hon. Gentleman mentions voted against the war in Iraq for very good reasons.
Rather than speculate on that, thanks to the Chilcot report we now know what evidence the Prime Minister had at his disposal from the Joint Intelligence Committee, which on 15 March 2002 stated:
“Intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction…and ballistic missile programmes is sporadic and patchy… We continue to judge that Iraq has an offensive chemical warfare (CW) programme, although there is very little intelligence relating to it. From the evidence available to us, we believe Iraq retains some production equipment, and some small stocks of CW agent precursors, and may have hidden small quantities of agents and weapons… There is no intelligence on any BW agent production facilities.”
That highly qualified assessment from the Joint Intelligence Committee was presented to the House of Commons as a certainty that Iraq possessed weapons that were an immediate danger to the United Kingdom.
Does the right hon. Gentleman share my concern that if we do nothing following the seven-year, £10 million inquiry and take no steps towards accountability for the clear evidence that the former Prime Minister was fixing the evidence around the policy to go to war, it will be almost impossible to begin to restore the faith that has been lost in our political system?
Yes. The loss of faith in the political system is another dramatic consequence of the disastrous events in Iraq.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Let me finish this point, before I give way to the right hon. Gentleman.
This point was raised in the Liaison Committee, when Chilcot was asked about weapons of mass destruction. He was asked repeatedly whether a reasonable person could have come to the conclusion the Prime Minister had come to. The best exchanges were between the Chair of the Committee and Sir John Chilcot on the well understood test of a reasonable man. The Chair asked:
“Would a reasonable man—another human being—looking at the evidence come to that conclusion?”
Sir John Chilcot replied:
“If you are posing that question with regard to a statement of imminent threat to the United Kingdom”—
The Chair said: “I am.”
Sir John Chilcot went on:
“In that case, I have to say no, there was not sufficient evidence to sustain that belief objectively at the time.”
Given the length of time the Chilcot inquiry spent considering this exact point, it may be the opinion of many hon. Members that Sir John Chilcot’s expression of this carries rather more weight than that of hon. Members desperate to defend the indefensible.
Did not Sir John Chilcot, when asked this question in the Liaison Committee, say:
“I absolve him from…a decision to deceive Parliament or the public”.
We cannot have it both ways. We have had the Chilcot report and parliamentary accountability: Chilcot said that the former Prime Minister did not deceive this House or the public.
The trouble with that intervention is that the right hon. Gentleman does not go on to read the next sentence in that exchange, which I shall read for his erudition:
“However, he also exercised his very considerable powers of advocacy and persuasion, rather than laying the real issues, and the information to back the analysis of them, fairly and squarely in front of Parliament or the public. It was an exercise in advocacy, not an exercise in sharing a crucial judgment”.
As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, I agree with his description regarding the catastrophic nature of the invasion of Iraq. I agree with him that the former Prime Minister has a lot to answer for. He will no doubt continue to do so, although he was cleared by Chilcot of deliberate misbehaviour. Does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that if we turn post-Chilcot debates into an attempt to pursue and hound Tony Blair, the whole thing turns into a party political argument, with Labour Members trying to defend the position of their Government?
Will the right hon. Gentleman go on to address—he is entitled to go on for a bit—the most important matter: how do we ensure that the system of Cabinet government, handling intelligence, and taking on board and properly communicating defence advice to all members of the Cabinet and to Parliament, cannot be repeated, so we do not have another catastrophic foreign policy decision? By personalising the issue we will, if we are not careful, lose the point, which is whether we are satisfied that everything possible is being done to ensure that cannot happen again.
As the Chilcot report concluded, this was very much a personal campaign by the Prime Minister in doing things unbeknown to both Cabinet and certainly Parliament. I am going to address the point the right hon. and learned Gentleman makes, but the question of parliamentary accountability is in my estimation central to this case. Committees of this House have been examining the conduct of the processes of government. If he reads the minutes of the meeting that the Committee to which we intend to refer the question of parliamentary accountability held with the Cabinet Secretary, I do not think he will find much reassurance that there has been a tremendous advance in the process of government. The overwhelming impression is that a headstrong Prime Minister could still create a situation where sofa government drove a country into an illegal war. I suggest that parliamentary accountability and an examination of statements made to Parliament and public against the facts as we now know them would be a valuable additional sanction and tool in restraining future Prime Ministers from any such course of events.
I was here in 2003. I was a frequent visitor to Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurds believed prior to 2003 that chemical weapons were going to be used against them again. The Iraqis were in the Gallery; it is a pity we are not having this debate in front of them, because they could point out their concern at the time, and their pressure for this country to help them in their action to overthrow Saddam Hussein. It was not simply an idea that Tony Blair had in his head; we had a full debate in this Parliament in 2003 and I, among others, voted for the action.
The right hon. Lady’s position on that issue has been consistent through the years, but that was not the case presented to this Parliament. The case presented to this Parliament was that there was a real and present danger to the United Kingdom that required the abandonment of diplomacy internationally and the immediate process to war.
I say this to Labour Members, and correct a point made by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke): it is not all Labour Members. Many Labour Members, throughout this whole sad story, have been prepared to vote with their conscience in condemning their own Government. Indeed, we are all well aware that the leader of the Labour party would, if he was free to do so, be joining us in the Lobby this afternoon.
I say again to Labour Members that I am not really interested in the civil war in the Labour party; I am interested in the real war that took place and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Therefore, it is reasonable and important to consider whether parliamentary accountability can be a major weapon of this House in making sure such events do not happen again.
I wish the right hon. Gentleman and Scots everywhere a very happy St Andrew’s day. He mentioned seven parties; none of my party’s MPs in this House has signed this motion. I do not for one minute doubt the sincerity of many Members who have signed the motion and their desire to get to the truth, but is he not, following on from the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), in real danger of turning a very important issue into a party political issue—the SNP trying to attack the Labour party—rather than making it an issue of real national concern, drawing the lessons that need to be learned? That is one of the reasons we did not sign up to his motion.
I would have been very pleased if the right hon. Gentleman had made it Members from eight political parties signing the motion, but the whole point of the cross-party group, which has been working on this issue for months, is to make it not a straight party political issue. As for attacking the Labour party, I think it is more that Labour Members wish to attack me in this debate, but I do not mind that because I am driving on to make the points of parliamentary accountability and the information we had from the Chilcot report that make it unsustainable to argue other than that this Parliament was grievously misled.
The report in the Library—
If the right hon. Lady will forgive me, I will make some progress.
The report in the Library from Dr Glen Rangwala analyses this in enormous detail and I hope Members read it, although even that report is not exhaustive. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) in the Chilcot debate in July listed five, as he put it, clear instances of misrepresentation in a single speech from the Prime Minister—in the war speech, the greatest speech of his life, in March 2003. I want to look at just three of the key things that have arisen and that we now know about from the Chilcot report.
The first of those things is the question of prior commitment. Through the long debates on Iraq, many of us suspected that the Prime Minister had given commitments to the American President which were unrevealed to this House and to the public. The Chilcot report outlined these in spades. The famous phrase
“I will be with you, whatever”
will go down in infamy in terms of giving a commitment. Chilcot says that after giving such a commitment it would be virtually impossible for the Prime Minister to withdraw from it.
My constituent Mr Matt Walton, an ex-serviceman, contacted my office several months ago regarding the Chilcot report. Matt is clear that Mr Blair’s actions ensured that many of his colleagues’ tragic fates were already decided before they left the UK. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is an outright scandal that ex-members of the armed forces are even thinking this way, and that the then Prime Minister has utterly let down those who were allegedly sent out to protect us?
I very much support the view of my hon. Friend.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a fascinating case, but I do not think he does himself a favour when he refers to this communication with President Bush and says that it was a commitment to military action come what may. There were in fact specific areas where the Prime Minister said that progress would need to be made before he could commit to military action, and he also said that there was a need to commit to Iraq for the long term. I simply say that because, if we are going draw appropriate lessons from history, yes, absolutely, draw critical lessons, but please put them in context.
The right hon. Gentleman will understand that my point was that no evidence or information about these commitments was ever presented to this House or to the general public. Indeed, it was not, as we know from Chilcot, presented to the Cabinet. Only Downing Street officials saw that letter and advised the Prime Minister, apparently, not to send it, which he did anyway. The Foreign Secretary, Mr Straw, saw it after the event. It has been said by some that that phrase did not mean what it clearly seems to mean. I just point out that after the Foreign Secretary did see the letter to President Bush, he himself wrote in a memo to the Prime Minister on 11 March 2003, when things at the United Nations were not going well:
“We will obviously need to discuss all this, but I thought it best to put it in your mind as event[s] could move fast. And what I propose is a great deal better than the alternatives. When Bush graciously accepted your offer to be with him all the way, he wanted you alive not dead!”
The Foreign Secretary was referring to being politically dead, not really dead like the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. That point shows with absolute seriousness and clarity that there was no doubt in the mind of the then Foreign Secretary of the extent of the commitment that had been made, and there was no doubt in the mind of the Chilcot inquiry when it commented on the range of letters and correspondence to the President of the United States, which it said would have made it very difficult for the UK to pursue any independent policy after the commitment had been made. That is what the inquiry says on the question of prior commitment.
It is a matter of regret that this is being turned into a party political debate. It is worth remembering that 139 Labour MPs voted, against a strong three-line Whip, against the war, including Members who are present now. The great majority of Conservative MPs did not, but with honourable exceptions—half a dozen of them. Three Select Committees of this House were gung-ho for the war, and what is on trial today is the reputation of Parliament. It is Parliament who voted for an unnecessary war that ended in the deaths of 179 British soldiers, as we have been reminded. The loved ones of the British soldiers need the truth and they need a debate, and a serious debate, not a party political row, which this is turning out to be.
I very much welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. As I have been trying to point out, that is why Members from seven parties in this House have put their names to this motion.
There is a real argument, which has been put forward by the hon. Gentleman, me and others who voted against the conflict, that if we suspected there was something grievously wrong with the Prime Minister’s case, why did other people not come to the same conclusion as the late Robin Cook—that in his estimation weapons of mass destruction did not exist in respect of a clear imminent threat being commonly expressed? Why did other people not see that? The hon. Gentleman and I have to understand that when the Prime Minister went to the Dispatch Box in March 2003 and told the House conclusively that a real and present danger to the United Kingdom existed, it was reasonable even for those with misgivings to think that he must be seeing something that they were not seeing and that he must know something that they did not know. Those Members were thereby misled into the Lobby to vote for the conflict.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I am making progress.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) has been trying to intervene for ages.
No doubt, but I think I have been more generous in giving way to Labour Members than they have ever been to me in any Committee or debate that I can remember. I say this reasonably gently: when I first came to this House, the Scottish National party had three Members here and the Labour party in Scotland had 50. I was used to taking constant interventions, and that was entirely legitimate. It did not faze me at all when I was a young Member, and it certainly does not faze me now. So let us make some progress.
On the question of the imminent threat, Chilcot said after assessing all the evidence that the then Prime Minister was engaged in advocacy, not in presenting the facts. On the question of a prior commitment, the Chilcot report is full of expressions from the Prime Minister to the President of the United States of America that were not known to Members of this House or to the general public. That information gives a totally different view of the reasons for conflict that the Prime Minister was then presenting to this House. For example, back in December 2001, the then Prime Minister said in a letter to President Bush that
“at present international opinion would be reluctant, outside the US/UK”—
I do not know how he read opinion in that way—
“to support immediate military action though, for sure, people want to be rid of Saddam. So we need a strategy for regime change that builds over time.”
The Prime Minister said repeatedly and consistently in this House that regime change was not the objective of Government policy. He stated that the Government’s objective was to stop a clear and present danger to the United Kingdom. I have yet to see a more clear example of misleading people.
Lastly, and I think most pertinently, Chilcot identified the damage done to the authority of the United Nations. These were among the clearest and most resounding points in his report. In this troubled world, we have never needed an effective United Nations more than we do at this moment. That undermining of the UN was clear in the actions of the Prime Minister and in his presentation of why the second resolution was not to pass. Such a resolution would apparently have gone down by 11 votes to four. The Prime Minister repeatedly told the public that the only circumstances in which there would be a war without a second resolution were if one country expressed an unreasonable veto or stood out against international opinion and was not prepared to sanction action in Iraq. We now know beyond question from Chilcot that that was not the case.
We know that the then Prime Minister was misrepresenting the views of the Government of France and of President Chirac, for example. Even on the day of the debate, he continued to misrepresent the French position. The damage to the authority of the United Nations Security Council and to the consistency of international relations is inestimable. In a radio programme last year, as I recall, Sir Stephen Wall was asked specifically whether the Government had lied about the intentions of the French and withheld information on that matter. His answer was yes. The damage to international relations and the question of the unreasonable veto, as the then Prime Minister put it, are at the heart of this misrepresentation.
In recent weeks we have heard a great deal about checks and balances in political systems, particularly as people across the world are crossing their fingers and hoping for the best in the White House. We have been hoping that the institutions of office have a restraining effect and that the mad tweeter will become a sensible President.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to talk about prime ministerial accountability to this House, and he is making a powerful case, but is not the real lesson from Chilcot the need for a policy response from the Government to ensure that this kind of thing does not happen again? For example, the creation of the National Security Council was a policy response from the Government to ensure that we have better information sharing and that decision making in Government is improved. Is that not the critical point in this debate?
It is certainly an important point, and it is one that is being pursued by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee and other Committees of this House. When the Cabinet Secretary was repeatedly challenged on whether the changes to the flow of information to the Intelligence and Security Committee would make a decisive difference to a Prime Minister who was hellbent on pursuing a particular course of action, answer came there none. It is not enough to say that we are going to change the institutions of government or that we are going to learn the lessons of post-conflict analysis, although we have been promised a paper on that in the near future. There has to be an essence of parliamentary accountability.
I was the Chair of the Committee when the Cabinet Secretary was asked that very question, and I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that my Committee does not necessarily take the advice of the Cabinet Secretary on our recommendations. We will be making recommendations that we are confident will prevent such events from happening again. Should this motion be carried, we will respect the view of the House and extend our inquiry in order to respect that view. I do not know, however, whether we can satisfy the rather less reasonable terms in which the right hon. Gentleman has presented his reasonable motion. That will be for the House to judge.
The motion speaks for me and for the other Members who have signed it. I welcome that intervention from the Chairman of the Select Committee. I looked at his robust questioning of the Cabinet Secretary and I am now filled with more confidence that significant recommendations will come forward.
What Iraq demonstrates is that there are currently no effective checks and balances in our system, that the Prime Minister had the ability to create the circumstances in which this House followed him into an illegal conflict, and that all the memos from the higher echelons of the civil service will not mean a thing—rather like the Cabinet Secretary’s evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. That should be of little surprise to us.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. According to my reading of Chilcot, the report states that there was
“no falsification or improper use of intelligence”,
there was “no deception of Cabinet” and there was
“no secret commitment to war whether at Crawford Texas in April 2002 or elsewhere”.
As we have been told, Chilcot made it clear to the Liaison Committee that Tony Blair had not deceived Parliament. Sadly, I think the only deception is in today’s motion. Its opportunistic nature does not serve this issue or this Parliament well.
In relation to the right hon. Lady’s intervention, I have already corrected one of her hon. Friends and suggested that they carry on to the next sentence after the ones they have cited from Chilcot. Also, the Liaison Committee’s questioning of Sir John Chilcot found explicitly that a reasonable person could not have drawn the conclusions that the then Prime Minister did, and that he presented those conclusions to the House as an advocate rather than as a conveyor of information. I ask the right hon. Lady to go back and look at those points, because they concern every Member of this House regardless of their political party.
Chilcot shows that we have a system of non-accountability. We waited six years before establishing a proper inquiry and, as we found out in The Observer a week past Sunday, it was structured in such a way as to avoid blame. It was deprived of judicial expertise and could not even pronounce on the legality of the conflict. It was wrestled with over the release of the diplomatic correspondence with President Bush, which more than any other factor provides the Prime Minister’s motivations. It was seven years before it reported. After all this time, some people in the press and elsewhere say, “These things are in the past. Let the dead bury the dead.” Many dead people have been buried, the carnage continues, and the real issue, to quote the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), is how to stop it happening again.
Memories will fade. A whole generation has grown up and reached adulthood since the war in Iraq. Soon, less than a quarter of Members—perhaps none—will have lived through the experience of the vote on Iraq and that fateful decision in March 2003. The motion presents an opportunity to introduce another check and balance into a system that is clearly deficient. It would start a process to create a precedent so that any future Prime Minister will know that he or she will have to account for their actions not only to history, but to this House of Commons. A long time ago, I made a speech in this House in which I suggested to Mr Blair that he might answer to a higher power than this House. I understand that he found it offensive, but I absolutely believe it to be the case none the less. In the meantime, in the here and now—here on earth—is it not important for us to find a parliamentary process by which a Prime Minister who grievously misled this House and the people into an illegal war can finally be held to parliamentary account?
Let me start by expressing my condolences and sympathy to those who lost loved ones in Iraq and to those who still bear the scars of the conflict. Whatever our views on the conflict, we can surely all agree on one thing: the bravery and courage of British servicemen and women in Iraq was exemplary. We owe it to all those who died or were wounded in Iraq—be they servicemen or civilians, British, Iraqi or any other nationality—to learn lessons from the conflict.
There can be little doubt that Sir John Chilcot’s report is detailed and forensic, and for that we should all be thankful to Sir John and the other members of the inquiry panel. At the inquiry’s outset, the Government of the day committed to provide the fullest range of information and to giving it unhindered access to Government documents. Sir John confirmed in his appearance before the Liaison Committee that the inquiry had total access to all UK Government material right from the start, including the most sensitive categories. The inquiry saw more than 150,000 Government documents and an unprecedented amount of previously classified Government information has been released. Some 7,000 documents were referenced in the inquiry’s report, and more than 1,500 documents were published alongside it. The papers include records of key Cabinet discussions, notes from Mr Blair to the US President, records of conversations between the then Prime Minister and other Heads of Government, records of meetings between senior UK and US officials, and Joint Intelligence Committee assessments.
The inquiry concluded that mistakes and failings were made that could have been avoided at the time and for which hindsight is no defence. The inquiry’s report is a salutary tale of what happens when not enough opportunity is given to challenge and debate a policy or approach. When asked by the Liaison Committee to sum up one key lesson of the report, Sir John Chilcot said:
“If you press me very hard, I will say it was a failure to exert and exercise sufficient collective responsibility for a very big decision, and then to scrutinise and supervise its conduct and implementation.”
As the then Prime Minister, the former Member for Witney—it is good to see the present hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) in his seat about to make his maiden speech—said in his statement to the House on 6 July:
“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.”—[Official Report, 6 July 2016; Vol. 612, c. 907.]
He also said:
“As for how people should account for themselves, it is for them to read the report and explain why they did what they did.”—[Official Report, 6 July 2016; Vol. 612, c. 902.]
At his appearance before the Liaison Committee on 2 November, when considering whether Mr Blair had misled Parliament and the public, Sir John said that he absolves Mr Blair
“from a personal and demonstrable decision to deceive Parliament or the public—to state falsehoods, knowing them to be false. That I think he should be absolved from.”
He also made the following point about the legal basis for military action, saying:
“The way in which the legal advice about—the basis for it was highly unsatisfactory, but that is not the same as saying it was illegal, and therefore that something should follow or some effect should be procured. One can’t say that.”
He also reminded the Committee that before the invasion of Iraq
“the whole intelligence community, and not only in the United Kingdom, were strongly of the belief—and had, they thought, sufficient intelligence to support it— that Saddam did have weapons of mass destruction available for use.”
The decision to go to war in Iraq has had a profound and lasting impact on politics in this country, on the families of those who lost loved ones in Iraq and on those who were injured. Clearly, it was a tragic and seismic episode in our nation’s history. Lessons should be learned and that process is ongoing. The Government are considering the lessons identified by the Iraq inquiry, many of which had already been recognised with changes made before Sir John published his report. The Prime Minister’s National Security Adviser is currently leading a process with our national security Departments to consider further improvements. We fully recognise that ensuring that lessons are properly learned and embedded will be a long-term process.
The Minister mentioned Sir John Chilcot’s evidence to the Liaison Committee. The passage in which Sir John concludes that a reasonable man could not have come to the conclusion that Mr Blair did about weapons of mass destruction was followed by the Chair saying:
“So he misled the House, or set aside evidence in order to lead the House down a line of thought and belief with his 18 March speech”.
Has the Minister read that passage in the evidence?
The important thing to recognise is that the Chilcot report—in paragraph 537 of the executive summary—explicitly does not question Mr Blair’s belief at the time that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. Paragraph 533 states:
“There is no evidence that intelligence was improperly included in the”
“dossier or that No.10 improperly influenced the text.”
In paragraph 491, the report is explicit that
“Cabinet was not misled on 17 March”
One of the lessons we can learn is that there was no plan for reconstruction. If we are to learn that lesson, we should bear that in mind when considering reconstruction in Syria or Iraq.
The hon. Gentleman is right that there are lessons for modern-day conflicts. I hope that this debate will give Members the opportunity to put their views across on which lessons should be learned. We had three days of debate on the Chilcot report itself, and I hope that we can move forward by coming up with proactive, positive recommendations.
The Minister mentioned the establishment of the National Security Council as one thing that followed from the situation in Iraq. I draw to his attention the recent report of the Foreign Affairs Committee on events in Libya in which we were critical of Prime Minister David Cameron’s failure to use the NSC properly and of the lack of detailed input into the situation in Libya, that was considered by the Government at that time.
The hon. Gentleman has put his comments on the record. I understand that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will formally respond to the Committee’s recommendations, so I will leave it at that.
The National Security Council is a dedicated, standing Cabinet Committee that meets regularly at both ministerial and senior official level and has the right range of information to take forward informed decisions and to hold collective responsibility at the highest level. It provides collective strategic leadership on national security and crisis situations, with a built-in challenge function, making clear recommendations to Cabinet on military interventions, and formally recording both decisions and operational actions. The Attorney General attended the NSC regularly until April 2016, when he became a full member, and formal written legal advice is now provided and discussed at relevant NSC meetings and presented to Cabinet before any decisions on military intervention are taken.
The Government have integrated their overarching strategic approach with pragmatic, costed delivery mechanisms, including for military equipment, in a national security strategy, and strategic defence and security review, which is refreshed and adjusted in the light of developments every parliamentary term. The SDSR and refreshment of the national security strategy in 2015 brought this work together in a single integrated document. Cross-Whitehall working continues to improve, with creative policy making designed and delivered collectively across national security Departments and agencies to ensure that we understand, as far as is possible in dynamic and evolving threatening situations, what we want to achieve, and the implications for and impacts on ourselves and others. In support of this work, we set up joint units and taskforces where issues cut across several departmental responsibilities.
The Government are committed to understanding and acting on the important lessons drawn by Sir John Chilcot and his colleagues, but we recognise the need to continue to improve, whether working across the national security community or the wider civil service, hence the importance being given by the collective senior leadership to civil service reform and learning.
I am grateful for the Minister’s remarks about the improvements being made, and the Cameron Government did make improvements by introducing the NSC, but—I say this with hindsight—we still invaded Libya after too cursory a discussion in Cabinet, and somehow we did not look properly at what the consequences would be. We talked only about the imminent threat of a massacre in Benghazi, which took everybody in to the intervention.
The Minister says the Government are considering further improvements, so will he invite my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to consider setting out some principles: about the amount of notice the NSC has of such decisions, the length and fullness of discussions—that applies to Cabinet, too—and the right of individual members of the Cabinet to have access before a meeting to security advice and defence advice if they wish to prepare themselves for the discussion?
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his recommendations. I am sure the National Security Adviser will be listening closely to this debate, and the fact they have been put on the record means it will be important for him to have regard to them. I am sure my right hon. and learned Friend will understand that at the time he mentions we were facing a bloodbath in Benghazi, that intervention was vital and that we would not now row back on that intervention.
I do not wish to add to any difficulties in this respect, but one problem is insufficient military input to the NSC; it all comes in through the voice of one man, the Chief of the Defence Staff. The Defence Committee has suggested that one way to strengthen the NSC would be to constitute the Chiefs of Staff Committee as a sub-committee of the NSC. In that way, a Prime Minister with a bee in his bonnet would not be able so easily to sweep away military concerns.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his separate recommendation and note that the Minister for the Armed Forces is in his place and listening carefully. That is not a new recommendation, but we will consider closely all recommendations from this debate.
Although it is right to learn the lessons identified by the Chilcot report, we should ensure that we avoid learning the wrong lessons. As the then Prime Minister said on the day the report was published,
“it would be wrong to conclude that we should not stand with our American allies when our common…interests are threatened”
“it would be wrong to conclude that we cannot rely on the judgments of our brilliant and hard-working intelligence agencies”.
He said that it is “wrong” to question the capability of our military, who
“remain the envy of the world”.
Perhaps most crucially, he said that it is wrong to
“conclude that intervention is always wrong.”—[Official Report, 6 July 2016; Vol. 612, c. 888.]
This has been a long and exhaustive inquiry. Sir John and his colleagues have had access to thousands of official documents and reached their conclusions—
Will my hon. Friend give way?
No, not now.
Lessons are being learned and will continue to be learned from what happened in Iraq, and so the Government can see no merit in undertaking any further inquiries into the Iraq war.
I am grateful for the contributions made so far, especially the Minister’s. When we reflect on the matters we are debating this afternoon, it is very important that we first pay tribute, as the Minister did, to the hundreds of British servicemen and women and civilian personnel who lost their lives during the conflict in Iraq and that we send our thoughts to all the thousands of others who are still living with the injuries they suffered when serving in our armed forces.
We must never forget the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians who died during the conflict, and subsequently as a result of the sectarian violence and terrorist outrages that have followed. They must all be uppermost in our minds when we talk about learning from the mistakes that were made in Iraq and ensuring that future Governments do not repeat those mistakes.
No matter whether we are one of those Members who voted against the war, as I did, or one of the many, on both sides of this House, who in good faith and good conscience voted in favour of the invasion, it is incumbent on us all to learn the lessons about what went wrong and, indeed, to apologise for what has been exposed by Sir John Chilcot as the collective failing of our institutions.
It is a little over four months since this House spent two full days debating the contents of the Chilcot report, and a week after that debate we spent several hours asking questions about it to the then Prime Minister, David Cameron. Much has changed since that debate, but in terms of the arguments we have heard about the evidence presented in the Chilcot report, I would say, with great respect, that we have, thus far, heard nothing new today.
The right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) has a long-standing contention—we have heard him set it out again just now—that, first, Parliament was deliberately misled by Tony Blair and his Government in the run-up to war; secondly, that intelligence allegedly known by Ministers to be false was deliberately presented to this House and to the public; thirdly, that this was all designed to deliver on a private pact that Tony Blair had made with George W. Bush to go to war with Iraq; and that the evidence for those contentions lies mainly in the six words written in a memo from the then Prime Minister to the then President.
Although I have listened very carefully again to the argument made by the right hon. Member for Gordon, we all know that those were exactly the contentions that Sir John Chilcot spent several years looking into, alongside all the evidence from memos and records of conversations, and from his many interviews with hundreds of witnesses. So let me say once again that Sir John deserves our thanks and our praise for conducting that vast but vital task with great care, diligence and objectivity.
The Chilcot report was the fifth, and hopefully the final, inquiry into the Iraq war. The first was published on 3 July 2003, before the tragic death of Dr David Kelly, before the capture of Saddam and while the search for weapons of mass destruction was still going on. That inquiry was undertaken by the Foreign Affairs Committee, on which I served at the time. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) is the only other member of that Committee still sitting in this House. On looking back at the conclusions of that report, I note that on chemical and biological weapons we said:
“we have no doubt that the threat posed to United Kingdom forces was genuinely perceived as a real and present danger and that the steps taken to protect them were justified by the information available at the time.”
We were critical of the prominence and emphasis given to the 45-minute claim in the September 2002 dossier, saying that greater uncertainty should have surrounded the presentation of that and other claims. However, we concluded that those claims were
“well founded on the basis of the intelligence then available”
“allegations of politically inspired meddling cannot credibly be established”.
We were highly critical of the February 2003 dossier—the so-called dodgy dossier—and the fact that Tony Blair had inadvertently presented it as “further intelligence” on the Floor of the House without realising its true provenance. However, that was 13 years ago. Four inquiries later, with the benefit of millions of pages of documentary evidence and hundreds of key witnesses to which my colleagues and I did not have access at the time, the conclusions have remained fundamentally the same.
There are many serious lessons to learn from the Chilcot report, and I will address them in a moment. However, on learning those lessons, we will do ourselves and future Governments no favours if we spend even more time in this House and in the Committee Rooms examining contentions that the Chilcot report and four other inquiries—at exhaustive length—have already found to be incorrect; nor will any of us benefit if we continue to try to turn a collective institutional and international failure in Iraq into an attempt to pillory and scapegoat one individual. Let me be clear: I totally disagreed, as many other people did, with Tony Blair on the Iraq war. I voted against our Government because I thought that our then Prime Minister was simply wrong, but never for one second did I believe that he was acting in bad faith, and I do not do so now.
I rise to support my hon. Friend. Like him, I voted against the war at the time. Nothing has happened since then to make me think that I was wrong to do so, but I did not for one minute think that Tony Blair lied to this House, or attempted to mislead me. I just came to a different judgment. The problem is that in the minds of those who believe that we were misled, there is no report that will ever convince them otherwise, but it is time to learn the lessons for future generations and to move on.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, because he captures the mood that was prevalent at the time. Many of us wanted to vote against that war and we did so with a clear conscience because we felt that it was the wrong approach to resolving the problems in Iraq. I will go on to say a bit more about what should be done now.
I was a Member when that vote was taken. I suspect that, with hindsight, many people would look again at the way they voted. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, whether the commitments to the House were made in good faith or bad faith, the central point of being able to hold the Executive to account for the basis on which they go to war, for their actions afterwards and for the way in which they prepare our troops for battle is important? It provides an important role for this House, which is to scope out ways in which it can avoid mistakes in the future.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The important words he used were “in the future”. We must be held to account by the people who elected us—by the public of this country—and we must hold our Government to account for the decisions that they bring to this House for approval. It is very clear, as Sir John Chilcot said, that this was a collective and institutional failure.
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise the results of the freedom of information requests a few weeks ago that demonstrated precisely that the Chilcot inquiry had been designed to “avoid blame”. Sir Gus O’Donnell has been quoted as saying that he recommended using the inquiry’s terms of reference to prevent it reaching
“any conclusion on questions of law or fact”
or to attributing any blame. If we look at the Glen Rangwala report, which simply puts the evidence in front of us—
Order. May I make a plea to those who are looking to catch my eye later on to keep their interventions to the minimum, as there are a very large number of people wishing to contribute to this debate?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, but no, I do not recognise those results, because I do not know the context in which those words were said. All too often speeches and phrases are taken out of context. I do not believe for one minute that Sir John Chilcot and his whole report and all the years and the time that he spent were there simply to mislead the public.
Let me try to make some progress. As I have said, I never for one second believed that the then Prime Minister was acting in bad faith, and I do not do so now. For those reasons, I will be urging my Labour colleagues to vote against today’s motion. I will urge them to do so to enable the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee to focus properly on the real job of its inquiry, which is to analyse the conclusions that Sir John has actually reached, based on the evidence that he gathered, and to look at the lessons that he says should be learned from his report.
One factor that has not been fully explored in this debate is the Attorney General’s role. Many of us who had doubts about this war were told that it was legal. Has my hon. Friend had a look at that, and is he satisfied that the Attorney General’s decision was right?
At the time, the Foreign Affairs Committee did look into that matter. I have not examined it since then—in the past 13 years—but I believe that Sir John Chilcot does make reference to it in his report.
If there is one serious risk that we now face, it is to assume that all the lessons from Iraq have been learned and that the mistakes made there could never happen again. That is particularly important now, while we have in place a relatively new Prime Minister, who may in due course face her own decisions over peace and war, and who may herself need to come and make a case before this House.
Listening to the former Prime Minister’s response to Chilcot back in July, I understood that, although he acknowledged that lessons needed to be learned, his clear implication was that that had already been done. He said that by establishing the National Security Council there could be more questions from Ministers about intelligence assessments and more questions from the military about shortcomings in planning, yet, as the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), the Chair of the Defence Committee, has pointed out, there is insufficient input from military sources to make that credible.
The former Prime Minister said that creating the conflict and stability fund meant that we were better placed to prepare for the aftermath of conflicts and to prevent the kind of power vacuum that sectarian and terrorist groups exploited after the Iraq war. Although we welcome the theory behind innovations such as the National Security Council and the conflict and stability fund, the reality of what has happened in Libya and elsewhere over the past five years—this is what my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) pointed out—does not give confidence that they are working in practice. It suggests even more clearly that the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has an important job to do over the coming months in ensuring that the real lessons of Chilcot—for Whitehall, for Ministers and for Parliament—are truly being learned.
Let us consider for a moment what Chilcot discovered in relation to civilian casualties as a result of coalition action. The Chief of the Defence Staff predicted that casualties would be in the “low hundreds”. When the reality became clear, the then Foreign Secretary said:
“We need to find ways of countering the damaging perception that civilians are being killed needlessly, and in large numbers, by coalition forces.”
When the truth became overwhelming, a private secretary to Tony Blair told him that casualty data must be suppressed because
“any overall assessment of civilian casualties will show that”
the coalition is
“responsible for significantly more than insurgents.”
“The Government’s consideration of the issue of Iraqi civilian casualties was driven by its concern to rebut accusations that coalition forces were responsible for the deaths of large numbers of civilians, and to sustain domestic support for operations”.
When we hear Ministers say exactly the same from that Dispatch Box in relation to civilian casualties in Yemen, is it possible to argue that anything has changed or that any lessons have been learned? I do not believe that that is the case. The mistakes of Iraq are being made all over again. We need to ensure that the National Security Council and all the other measures adopted are working, because I do not believe that they are at the moment.
In conclusion, I believe that the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee needs to examine the Chilcot report, not for what it tells us about the past but for what we can learn from it for the present and the future. Whether in relation to Yemen, Libya, Syria or the ongoing battle to restore stability and end sectarian conflict in Iraq, we must look forward and learn the lessons that have practical consequences for us all today. With instability growing throughout the middle east, eastern Europe and beyond, we may face even bigger challenges tomorrow, and that is why I cannot support the motion. I understand why its proposers have tabled it, but they are fighting an old war and raising once again contentions that have already been dismissed by five—five—separate inquiries. How many more do we need? In doing so, they risk distracting the attention of this House and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee from what should be their true objective, which is to learn the real lessons from Chilcot and ensure that we never need such an inquiry again.
From time to time, Members of this House of Commons have the burden of debating whether to send our finest young men and women into harm’s way, and sometimes to their deaths. I do not believe that any Member of this House, on either side, ever takes that decision lightly, and we need always to take that decision based on the best possible information.
At the start of the second Iraq war, my young constituent Lieutenant Marc Lawrence, serving on a Sea King helicopter, was killed. That in itself is possibly a matter for a further inquiry, but I know that that loss was devastating to Marc’s parents and I believe that they have a right to know that their only son lost his life in a just cause and that his sacrifice was worth while.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I voted to send that young man to his death. On the eve of the vote, a significant number of Members then on the Opposition Benches, including myself, had grave disquiet about the cause on which we were due to embark. I and about a dozen colleagues met the then Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), and the shadow Foreign Minister, the then Member for Devizes, Michael Ancram. The Leader of the Opposition told us on Privy Council terms that he had been informed on Privy Council terms by Mr Blair that the Iraqis had weapons of mass destruction and that there was a 40-minute threat to UK interests and that therefore our support for the motion before the House the following day was vital.
I am afraid that I cannot concur with the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton). I sat on those Benches and listened to the tone of the debate as well as to the words that were said. I have to say that I believe that the House was deliberately misled. There were no weapons of mass destruction, as we now know, and there was no 40-minute threat. I think that it is plain—I am convinced that it is plain, sadly—that Mr Blair had made a pledge to President Bush that the UK would be delivered and that he was determined to deliver the UK in support of that war.
We cannot let this matter rest. We owe it to our armed forces to see this through. I support the call to ask the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee to take further action. My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), the Chairman of the Committee, has indicated to me privately, as he has indicated on the Floor of the House today, that his inquiries are ongoing and that further recommendations will be made. I am grateful for that.
I resent the fact that this is described as an opportunist Scottish National party motion. Technically, yes, this is an Opposition day debate, but the motion has cross-party support and I am grateful that the Government have effectively recognised that this is a House of Commons matter and should never be a party political matter.
I am not interested in a witch hunt against a former and discredited Prime Minister. I concur entirely with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) when he says that we must seek to take every measure to try to ensure that these circumstances do not arise again. We cannot bring back the dead, but we can help to prevent further and unwarranted sacrifice of the men and women of our armed forces. I am not interested in the outcome of this vote. Whatever the outcome, I hope that my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Select Committee will help to ensure that the right measures are taken so that we never, ever face such circumstances again.
I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), because we went through the same experience of this House at that time. Although we like to feel that we take our decisions on an intellectual basis, I know that my feelings on this are motivated by strong emotion and what happened to my father in the war. He volunteered as a 15-year-old—he lied about his age—to go to the continent and stop the Huns bayoneting Belgian babies. He returned broken and badly wounded in 1919, extremely grateful to the Germans for having saved his life when he was dying in a foxhole. He could have bled to death.
My motivation—this should be our highest motivation —is the interests of our armed forces. They need an absolute assurance that any decision to put their lives at risk is taken in the most serious way after the most searching inquiries are carried out. We owe them that. I believe that another inquiry is necessary, and that is one on the decision to go into Helmand province in 2006 at a time when only six members of the armed services had been killed in the war. We went in in the hope that not a shot would be fired and 450 of our servicemen died as a result. That is what we must do now—that is what we should be taking on, not a tribal party row in this place. It is not appropriate; it is not right. We must look to the reputation of Parliament.
As has been said, we were misled. Whether it was deliberate or not—the expression “sincere deceivers” has been used in the United States about what happened in that war—we know that after that debate 139 of my comrades on the Labour Benches voted against the war, which was a very courageous thing to do as we were under great pressure, but 50 others had grave doubts about the war. They were, in my view, bribed, bullied or bamboozled into voting the wrong way and many—
Bribed? You can’t say bribed; that’s outrageous.
They were induced—
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for a Member of this House to allege that other Members of this House were bribed—paid—to vote a particular way? Should he not produce evidence for it? What a disgrace.
The hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) did not accuse a specific individual of taking a bribe. The hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) is perfectly entitled to ask him in an intervention whether he will withdraw what he has said, but this is not a matter for the Chair.
I am not suggesting that anyone took any money. There are such things as political bribes, with inducements and offers, of which we are well aware in this place. There was a very heavy operation here to convince Members to vote for war. We must look at the situation then.
One Back Bencher wrote to Tony Blair—I speak of Tony Blair with no animus against him. I campaigned for him to be Leader of the House. I have congratulated him again and again on the work that he has done for the Labour party, but it is not the case that there was one failure. It was a failure of the three most important Select Committees in this House, who were all cheerleaders for the war. There were all those who went around saying, “If you knew what we know—we’ve got this secret information—you would certainly vote for war to go ahead.” I believe it was in that circumstance that the decision was taken.
One letter to Tony Blair warned in March:
“Our involvement in Bush’s war will increase the likelihood of terrorist attacks.”
It said that attacking a Muslim state without achieving a fair settlement in other conflicts in the world would be seen by Muslims from our local mosques to the far corners of the world as an act of injustice. I believe we paid a very heavy price for seeming to divide the world between a powerful, western, Christian world which was taking advantage of its other side, who were Muslims.
I am certain that in his mind Tony Blair was sincere. He was proved to be right on Kosovo when many people criticised him, and on Sierra Leone he was right. He was convinced on that that the others were wrong and he was going to prove it. One of the pieces of information that he quoted was an interview with Hussein Kamel, who was the son-in-law of Saddam Hussein. It was quoted in the document as evidence of weapons of mass destruction. According to the interview, Saddam Hussein had chemical weapons, biological weapons, nuclear weapons, which he did say in the evidence. But in the same interview, which was conducted in 1995 and was already old news, Hussein Kamel said, “Of course, we got rid of them after the Gulf war.” What was in that dodgy dossier was half the story—evidence, yes, that Saddam had had such weapons, but also evidence that he no longer had them, and that was never published.
What Chilcot said in his report was not the absolution that people believe it to be. He said that the decision to invade was taken
“before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted”
and that military action was
“not a last resort”.
According to the strictures of modern philosophy, that means it is not a just war. Chilcot said that Saddam posed no “imminent threat”. In effect, he declared the war needless.
Colin Powell has confessed that he was fooled and lied to, and that he regrets bitterly that he did not follow his natural instinct and avoid the war. Strangely enough, most of the people who were advising him at the time have said that they were wrong and the war was a terrible mistake.
I believe that this House must accept what Chilcot is saying and not take an aversion to it that pleases our political point of view. The issue is one that the loved ones of the 179 have been following. They have gone through years of torment asking themselves, “Did our loved ones die in vain?” Chilcot has reported, and his report was that the decision was taken not just by a Prime Minister but by all those who were gullible enough to believe that case. There were a million people who walked the streets of this country and demonstrated. It was not a clear decision.
We fall into the trap time and again of believing that our role in Britain is to punch above our weight militarily. Why should we do that? Every time we do, we die beyond our responsibilities.
I obviously was not here in 2003, and as a student at the time, was part of that anti-war generation that my hon. Friend describes. I am troubled by his language in describing colleagues, some of whom are still here today, as “gullible” in voting for the Iraq war. I never agreed with it then and with hindsight I certainly do not agree with it, but I never doubted either the integrity or the intelligence of the people who took a different view then and continue to take a different view today.
I am not questioning their good faith in any way; I am sure that they voted that way.
You said earlier that they were bribed.
I will stick to the word “gullible”. Three Committees of people who are great experts—the Intelligence and Security Committee, the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Defence Committee—all took the same view. They were all told stories about the weapons of mass destruction. The evidence was, and the evidence is there now, that those did not exist, and there was a very selective choice of evidence—as in the quotations of the son-in-law of Saddam Hussein—that the Committee members believed and chose to believe.
If we do not recognise that as a problem for this House, we will make the same mistakes again. We are going to face such decisions in future. The House will have to decide whether we are going to order—that is our power—young men and women to put their lives on the line, on the basis of what? Faulty evidence, ineffective evidence. That was the conclusion of Chilcot.
I am on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee and I look forward to taking part in the inquiry, but I do not welcome the kind of debate that we have got.
The hon. Gentleman makes a compelling case, to which I am very sympathetic, but I wonder, given the case that he is making, if he agrees that it is a matter of some disappointment that a majority of his colleagues in the parliamentary Labour party have decided to set themselves against the motion before the House today, and that this will look like they are closing ranks to protect their former leader?
There is a great deal that I regret about things that are happening within the Labour party at this moment. In the brief cameo appearance that I had on the Front Bench, I called for this debate. I called for a debate to take place on these lines. Of course I want to see the debate. We cannot pretend that after all these years of investigation, the Chilcot inquiry is a trial without a verdict at the end. We must take that responsibility ourselves and we must reform this House to make sure that we can never again take such a calamitous decision, which led to the loss of 179 British lives and uncounted numbers of Iraqi lives. That was a terrible, terrible mistake and we must not repeat it.
Mr Speaker, thank you. It is a great honour to catch your eye this afternoon and to follow so many distinguished speakers.
There is an important link between west Oxfordshire and the debate we are having this afternoon. As Colonial Secretary, Mr Winston Churchill was in great part involved in the setting up of modern Iraq. I think it is also right to say that Mr Churchill was responsible for the setting up of the Chilcot inquiry—or perhaps it just seems that way.
We are speaking this afternoon of past Prime Ministers. I wish to speak of a great Prime Minister. David Cameron represented Witney for 15 years. He was a great Prime Minister and a brilliant MP for west Oxfordshire. He found the Conservative party bleeding after three successive election defeats. He picked it up, restored its faith in itself, and returned it to government. I know at first hand the effect that his leadership had upon the party, the country and its fortunes, because I was there, on the streets, and I felt the turning of the tide. There is perhaps no greater tribute that I could pay David Cameron than to say that he made the Conservative party believe in itself again. He made it fresh, dynamic, and able to communicate with modern Britain. He created a new generation of Conservative politicians, and I am one of them. The record in this House speaks for itself— 1,000 jobs a day created while he was Prime Minister and an economy rescued from the brink of ruin. The party and, if I may say so, the country, will forever be in his debt.
In west Oxfordshire, it did not matter who someone was, where they lived or how they voted; if there was a local issue, he was always happy to help them. It is, of course, always the case that we attend with alacrity to constituents’ concerns, but when I see a letter from “D. Cameron, Outraged, of Dean” complaining about his dustbin collection or myriad other issues, it may be one letter that I do not leave until the end of the day.
It is a daunting task to sit in this House. Some weeks ago, I was in private practice at the Bar. I am now surrounded by great experts in law, the military, social justice, the economy and the constitution. The range of talent and experience in this House is awe-inspiring. But I do have ties to this House and an example that I can draw upon. In 1945, Albert Stubbs won the seat of Cambridgeshire for the Labour party. [Laughter.] He was a famous trade unionist, and he won his seat by a majority of 44 by getting out on his motorcycle, riding around the villages of Cambridgeshire and signing up the workers to the union. He was known for his hard work for the people of that area and his interest in rural issues.
That record is one that I aspire to when I look at the people of west Oxfordshire. Hon. Members need not worry: I am not about to execute the fastest defection in political history. I mention Mr Stubbs because he was my great-grandfather. I must watch my words carefully at this point, because his daughter—my grandmother—will be watching on the television, and if I put a foot out of line I am going to get a very strongly worded letter. I do therefore acknowledge at this stage that Mr Stubbs would be horrified by my politics, but I hope he would at least approve of my work ethic.
I have spoken to the House of my admiration for Winston Churchill, and I thought it would be a good idea if I went back to the records to see whether there was perhaps an exchange between my hero and my forebear. I went to Hansard and I searched for an exchange, and I expected the contrast of the famous parliamentary wit and the working-class warrior. I was thinking of a combination of Pitt the Younger and Charles James Fox, and I found in the “Thanks to Services” debate from 1945 just such an exchange. The great man—speaking from the Opposition Bench, of course—paused in his speech, took an intervention from Mr Stubbs, told him he was “ignorant” and went back to his speech. I do not know who was right or wrong in that exchange; I merely hope that I will manage to avoid such a rebuke in the course of my career.
West Oxfordshire is a landlocked constituency, but it is perhaps best toured by taking a look at its rivers. If we were charting the course of the Windrush downstream, we would start at the beautiful town of Burford—stone-walled, slate-roofed and a glowing gateway to the Cotswolds. The proclamation of Edward IV; the home of Speaker Lenthall, the most famous protector of this House; and the execution of the Levellers—it shines with history.
We could travel downstream to Witney, the famous market town. My predecessor, in his maiden speech, noted that there was only one blanket factory left in Witney and that most of the beer was brewed elsewhere. Sadly, there are now no blanket factories, although the Blanket Hall is well worth a visit. But the Wychwood brewery has an astonishingly high market share of real ale, and there are wonderful ales. It supplies many of the wonderful pubs in west Oxfordshire, where one can go to enjoy a pint or watch the world go by—I will just have to be careful I do not leave my children behind. [Laughter.]
Alongside the Evenlode, we see the beautiful town of Charlbury and, at Cornbury Park, a world-beating charity, SpecialEffect, using video games and technology to enhance the quality of life of people with disabilities. Alongside the Evenlode, the Dorn and the Thames, we see a wealth of wonderful wildlife—for example, at Chimney Meadows—that inhabits the stunning countryside of west Oxfordshire.
But it is the thriving market towns of Witney, Burford, Chipping Norton, Charlbury, Carterton and Eynsham, and the villages that connect them, that give west Oxfordshire its distinctive character. These are filled with clever, industrious, creative, hard-working people creating world-beating industries in IT, Formula 1, travel and clothes, and each year hosting thousands of visitors from across the world. If the rivers are the lifeblood of west Oxfordshire, the market towns are the beating heart.
I pause at this stage to fly, as it were, to proud, modern Carterton and nearby Brize Norton—home of the Royal Air Force’s transport fleet and centre of transport operations. It is, of course, from there that so many flew to Iraq, and, sadly, many have flown back having given everything. Their sacrifice is remembered in the moving repatriation garden at Carterton.
My grandfather and my great-uncle were Bomber Command veterans, and the care of elderly veterans is a particular concern to the people of west Oxfordshire, and particularly those in Carterton, whose very lifeblood is tied up with the wellbeing of that thriving airbase and the people who have served in it. Such veterans are people who have asked for little but given everything; they are the people to whom we owe our freedom, and the care we give them now tells us much about not only our compassion but our sense of duty, and we must not let them down.
I also pause to pay tribute to the men and women of today’s Royal Air Force. They are the heirs of those who fought in canvas and wood machines above the trenches of Flanders 100 years ago. They are the heirs of those who formed the few in 1940. They, together with the Army and Royal Navy, are the people whose strength and bravery make possible the civilised debate that we have in this House.
We must not forget that those who defend our freedom now are no less requiring of our care than their forebears. Sometimes the scars are visible, and I commend the charities that do so much to help those whose injuries are physical, but we should not forget that, so often, the wounds are not visible—that a person may leave the conflict, but the conflict will never leave the person.
I have met many people in my work at the Bar whose lives are blighted by psychiatric illness, and I urge all Members to remember all those who need a little more understanding, both in the armed forces and in the wider public. That underlines the importance to everyone of the health services that underpin this care: the surgeries in our towns and, in my constituency, the hospitals in Witney and Chipping Norton.
I have spoken of rivers that seem to surge with history, and it is perhaps the Glyme that has the most fame—flowing down through famous Woodstock, royalist-garrisoned in the civil war and now with the world heritage site of Blenheim Palace.
Lastly, at the close of our tour, I come to the quiet little village of Bladon, where I live. The sun climbs slowly to illuminate the village in the shallow valley, as it has for 1,000 years. The local red kite floats lazily over the church tower. The river flows through Blenheim Park, round past the yellow sandstone cottages. It is an attractive but typical small west Oxfordshire settlement, with one pub, an active pop-up shop and the thriving church community of St Martin’s, which is where I was married and where my son, Henry, was baptised. But it is also the reason why this small Oxfordshire village is world-famous. I rise for the first time in this House on the birthday of Sir Winston Churchill. He now lies in Bladon churchyard. I walk past his grave every Sunday morning—my house is a stone’s throw away—so his words resonate particularly with me.
Winston Spencer Churchill loved this House and, throughout his long career, defended its strengths and traditions. So, as we come to the end of our tour, following the Thames from the southern bank of my constituency to outside the door of this palace, I would like to pause to consider his words about what it is that we do here. He said:
“The object of Parliament is to substitute argument for fisticuffs”—[Official Report, 6 June 1951; Vol. 488, c. 1179.]
and that the House of Commons
“is the citadel of British liberty; it is the foundation of our laws…I do not know how else this country can be governed other than by the House of Commons playing its part in all its broad freedom in British public life.”—[Official Report, 28 October 1943; Vol. 393, c. 405-06.]
If I may say so, we must all remember that. No matter how great the issues or how strong the passions, the very fact that we can have these debates is proof positive of why our system of representative democracy works.
I am acutely aware of the trust set in me by the people of west Oxfordshire. I will ensure that the voice of the Windrush is heard loudly on the banks of the Thames, and I will strive every day to deserve their trust. Every day that I set foot in this Chamber, I will remember that to sit on these Benches is to breathe fresh life into Churchill’s words—an honour without measure. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]
It gives me great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts). I congratulate him most warmly on an excellent maiden speech. He talked with great descriptive beauty about his constituency. He used humour and he was serious. He talked about his own family’s political journey in having a Labour grandfather. My family has had a political journey in the opposite direction: of my two grandfathers, one was Liberal and one was Conservative. I noticed, however, that he did not talk about the political journey of his predecessor but one—an interesting journey that took place rather more recently than his grandfather’s. I thought that what he said about his predecessor was absolutely right, at a time when a lot of people are saying not very nice things about the previous Prime Minister. I am really pleased that the hon. Gentleman said what he did and put it on the record. I thank him for that.
Before addressing the motion itself, I would like to consider what we might be debating today instead. We could be debating the crisis in the national health service and social care. We could be debating the devastating impact on living standards of the Government’s autumn statement. We could be debating what the Scottish National party Government in Scotland might be doing with the powers they have, but resolutely refuse to use, to mitigate that. Or we could have used this precious debating time to put pressure on the Government to drop food and medicine to the people of Aleppo, who, as the French Government said today, are facing the worst massacre of civilians since the second world war.
But no, we are debating the motion before us—and why? SNP Members are furious, livid and incandescent with rage that Sir John Chilcot did not find that Tony Blair lied. After seven years and five independent inquiries, the lie that our former Prime Minister lied has finally been laid to rest, and SNP Members cannot stand it. The motion, of course, does not talk about lying. However, the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), who supports the motion, let the cat out of the bag when she told The Observer on Sunday
“The Chilcot report confirmed Tony Blair lied to the public, parliament and his own cabinet in order to drag us into the Iraq war.”
She has clearly not read the Chilcot report; it did no such thing.
Without going over the detail as we did in a very full debate on this back in the summer, let me remind the House briefly of what the Chilcot report did say. Volume 4, paragraph 876, says clearly that there was no falsification or improper use of intelligence. Volume 5, paragraph 953 says that there was no deception of Cabinet. Volume 1, paragraph 572 onwards, says that there was no secret commitment to war either at Crawford in April 2002 or anywhere else. Although outside the body of the report, as a number of hon. Members have pointed out, Sir John Chilcot himself, in his appearance before the Liaison Committee, said:
“I absolve him”—
“from a personal and demonstrable decision to deceive parliament or the public—to state falsehoods, knowing them to be false.”
Some people just cannot give up. Some people do not seem able to accept the possibility that reasonable people can come to different views on a difficult subject but do so in good faith. Some people cannot accept—
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
No, the right hon. Gentleman had half an hour and a lot of Members want to speak.
Some people cannot accept that however much one disagrees with a decision taken, it can still have been taken in good faith. So here we are debating a motion that seeks to distort and rewrite Chilcot and, in effect, put Tony Blair back in the dock. I am delighted that my own party is having none of this nonsense and that we will be voting against this mendacious opportunism in an hour and a half’s time.
I think there may be another reason why some people persist in trying to claim falsely that there was deliberate deceit in all this. They are more than a little nervous that as we look at what has happened in Syria, and is still happening in Syria today, where there was no intervention and we left a brutal dictator to continue to slaughter his own people, history will prove our former Prime Minister right.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. I am going to suggest an informal limit of six minutes and see how we get on. It may be necessary to put a formal limit on, but we will start with six minutes.
It is a pleasure to begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) on an outstanding maiden speech. I have a history of sometimes disagreeing with hon. Members from Witney, but on this occasion it was fantastic to be able to nod in agreement and pleasure at every remark he made. He has got off to a tremendous start in this House, and I am sure he can tell from the reactions of Members on both sides of the House the good wishes that flow to him today. Make the most of it!
I welcome the fact that Scottish National party Members and other parties’ Members have chosen to bring forward this subject for debate today. I speak as somebody who voted and spoke in favour of toppling Saddam Hussein in 2003 and who has come to believe that that was entirely the wrong decision to take. It is therefore with a degree of humility that I address the two reasons that I voted and spoke in the way I did: first, because I believed what I was told about weapons of mass destruction; and, secondly, because I had a naive view that if Saddam Hussein were removed we might see something like the emergence of democracy in Iraq—and of course we saw nothing of the kind.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I will, but I am conscious of the informal time limit we have been given.
I am extremely grateful. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that if Saddam Hussein had not been removed, it is very likely that his son Uday, or someone else of a similar nature, would have inherited, and that the problems we have seen writ large in Syria since 2011 would have been even worse in Iraq?
I accept the first part of what the hon. Gentleman says. It is highly probable that if Saddam Hussein had not been removed, things would have gone on in Iraq in the brutal, dictatorial way in which they had gone on previously. The problem is, as we have learned from what happened in Iraq and in Libya, that one can remove these brutal dictators, but instead of seeing democracy emerge one sees re-emerging a deadly conflict, going back more than 1,000 years, between different branches of the Islamic faith. The hon. Gentleman knows my view on this because, as I hope he remembers, in the arguments we had when the same proposition was put forward to deal with President Assad as we had dealt with Saddam Hussein, I made the same argument then as I make now—that in a choice between a brutal, repressive dictator and the alternative of a totalitarian Islamist state, I am afraid that the brutal dictator is the lesser of two evils. If we have not learned that from what happened in Iraq, then we truly have not learned any lessons from Iraq at all.
At the Liaison Committee meeting on 2 November, we had the opportunity to speak to Sir John Chilcot in person and to ask him directly to interpret the results of his own inquiries. I was particularly struck by the fact that of the two arguments I mentioned earlier—the one about the weapons of mass destruction and the one about the naive belief that democracy would emerge if we got rid of the brutal dictator—he was more censorious on the latter than on the former. He said that if the Prime Minister of the day had not exaggerated the certainty of his claims about weapons of mass destruction it would have been completely clear that he had not misled the House in any way. Sir John said:
“Exaggeration—placing more weight on the intelligence than it could possibly bear—is a conclusion that we reached on the Butler committee and reached again with even more evidence in the Iraq inquiry.”
He went on to say something rather curious. I put it to him that one argument that I had found convincing was when Mr Blair had said that there was a real danger of the weapons of mass destruction that were believed to exist in the hands of dictators getting into the hands of terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. Sir John went on to say:
“On the other hand, I do not know that, in putting forward the fusion argument, Mr Blair related it very directly and specifically to Saddam passing weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups.”
I was surprised that Sir John made that statement. In the debate in March 2003, Tony Blair had said that
“there are two begetters of chaos: tyrannical regimes with weapons of mass destruction and extreme terrorist groups who profess a perverted and false view of Islam…Those two threats have, of course, different motives and different origins, but they share one basic common view: they detest the freedom, democracy and tolerance that are the hallmarks of our way of life. At the moment, I accept fully that the association between the two is loose—but it is hardening. The possibility of the two coming together”—
that, I think, is what Sir John meant by fusion—
“of terrorist groups in possession of weapons of mass destruction or even of a so-called dirty radiological bomb—is now, in my judgment, a real and present danger”.—[Official Report, 18 March 2003; Vol. 401, c. 768.]
We discussed in the debate on the Chilcot report the fact that there were plenty of references in the documents of the Joint Intelligence Committee and other intelligence organisations to the intelligence services’ real belief that Saddam still retained some weapons of mass destruction. I share Sir John’s conclusion that Tony Blair was guilty of exaggeration of the certainty with which knowledge was held about Saddam’s supposed possession of WMD, but that he was not guilty of lying to the House about that belief.
I have real concern with regard to the second argument, and it is on that argument that I believe the then Prime Minister Tony Blair will be held to have rather seriously misled the House. I revert to my exchange with Sir John Chilcot on 2 November, in which I said to him:
“I would like you to tell us to what extent Mr Blair was warned of the danger that, far from democracy emerging, Sunni-Shi’a religious strife would follow the removal of the secular dictator, who gave these warnings, and how and why they were ignored. In particular, I would just quote back to you a briefing note from your report which Mr Blair himself sent in January 2003 to President Bush.”
I ask the House to pay particular attention to this note, which Mr Blair sent to President Bush before the war began. The quote is as follows:
“The biggest risk we face is internecine fighting between all the rival groups, religions, tribes, etc. in Iraq when the military strike destabilises the regime. They are perfectly capable, on previous form, of killing each other in large numbers.”
I put this to Sir John:
“Mr Blair knew that and he said it to President Bush, so why did he ignore that terrible possibility that he himself apparently recognised?”
This is Sir John’s reply:
“I cannot give you the answer as to why. You would have to ask him. But what is clear from all the evidence we have collected is that this risk and other associated risks of instability and collapse were clearly identified and available to Ministers and to Mr Blair before the invasion. I can cite all sorts of points, but you will not want me to go into that detail now. It is in the report.
There were other signals, too, from other quarters. Our ambassador in Cairo, for example, was able to report that the Egyptian President had said that Iraq was at risk—it was populated by people who were extremely fond of killing each other, and destabilisation would bring that about.”
Was my right hon. Friend present when I intervened on the then Prime Minister in a debate on Iraq and asked him what he thought about the risk of causing great instability across the middle east by invading Iraq? My recollection is that he laughed at me from the Front Bench and asked me what sort of stability I thought Saddam Hussein represented.
I believe that that is the most serious charge against Tony Blair. It was not that he did not believe that there were weapons of mass destruction, but that he knew—better than did those of us who did not have the advice of experts to give us a wiser steer—that if we removed the dictator the result would be internecine, deadly, lethal chaos, exactly as we saw it. I am not reassured when I hear from Members on the Front Bench that the National Security Council will prevent the same thing from happening again. When the same prospect came up over Libya, and when the Chief of the Defence Staff put it to Prime Minister Cameron that there would be the same consequences in Libya as there had been in Iraq, he was brushed aside. Until the Chiefs of Staff are properly integrated into the National Security Council, we can have no assurance that those deadly errors will not be replicated.
Order. I am afraid that my informal speech limit was an abysmal failure, so I will have to impose a six-minute limit to start with. It will have to go down, unfortunately.
I start by paying tribute to everybody who served their country during the war in Iraq, and to those who tragically lost their lives. It was a pleasure to listen to the maiden speech by the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) and to the speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw). I am afraid I cannot say the same about the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn)—oh, he has gone—or the speech by the right hon. Member for Moray, neither of whom could find a word to say about Saddam Hussein; there was not a word about his use of chemical weapons against the Kurds, not a word about his brutal repression of his opponents and not a single word about his brutality. What a disgrace!
The right hon. Member for Moray was completely wrong when he blamed the conflagration in the middle east on the war in Iraq. The truth is that Libya was already in a brutal civil war before western air forces prevented Gaddafi from killing innocent people in Benghazi. Toppling Saddam did not fuel the rise of Isis or cause the conflict in Syria. As Martin Chulov, The Guardian’s middle east correspondent and expert author of a definitive study of ISIS, says:
“The Syrian civil war was not driven by Isis. It fed directly out of the Arab awakenings and was a bid to oust a ruthless regime from power.”
That is what started the conflagration in Syria, and for the right hon. Gentleman to blame it on Britain is completely wrong.
First, I am not the hon. Member for Moray. Secondly, I did not mention Libya in my speech; I think that the hon. Gentleman is confusing me with other people. Will he address the point about Sir John Chilcot’s clear statement that Tony Blair acted as an advocate in terms of the evidence for weapons of mass destruction, as opposed to giving the House the facts?
I apologise for getting the name of the right hon. Gentleman’s seat wrong. I have obviously not paid him the huge respect that his sense of self-satisfaction, to which we are all so frequently treated, deserves. I want to say—he has asked his question about three times—that it is perfectly in order for a Prime Minister to set out his case and to try to persuade people in this House and elsewhere that the course of action he is advocating is the right one.
I want to put this debate into context. Last week, we had the autumn statement, which is a disaster for working people in Scotland, and yesterday we learned that Scottish councils face a £553 million black hole. SNP Members do not want to debate any of that. They do not want to debate the educational attainment gap between the richest and the poorest that is growing in Scotland. They do not want to debate the fact that Scotland has the lowest percentage of university entrants from the poorest families. They do not want to debate any of that. They do not want to be held to account on their record. They do not want to discuss any of that. Despite all of that—all the problems faced by the people of Scotland, whom they are sent to this House to represent—they do not have a word to say about it. If we look at their recent Opposition day debates, we can see that they chose to debate this today, House of Lords reform in October and Trident last year, instead of the issues that people in Scotland worry about day in, day out—education, the health service, housing. They come here to score party political points, choosing motion after motion to divide the Labour party. That is what this is about—[Interruption.] That is what this is about, and they should be treated with the contempt—[Interruption.] Look at him laughing, as if Iraq was a subject for humour, as if it was a joke.
Sit down! We’ve heard enough from you. Sit down! I want to say this: the Chilcot report—
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.
The hon. Gentleman is doing the House no service. This is a very serious issue. Those of us on the Government Benches who have lent our names to the motion did so in the interests of our armed forces. That is what we are here to discuss.
I accept that, and I paid tribute to the armed forces right at the outset. I now want to discuss the Chilcot report.
The Chilcot report will clearly never settle arguments about whether the war in Iraq was right or wrong, but it should lay to rest allegations of bad faith, lies or deceit. It finds, first, that there was no falsification or misuse of intelligence by Tony Blair or No. 10 at the time; secondly, that there was no attempt to deceive Cabinet Ministers; and thirdly, that there was no secret pact with the US to go to war. That means there is no justification for saying, as the co-leader of the Green party did at the weekend:
“Tony Blair lied to the public, parliament and his own cabinet in order to drag us into the Iraq war.”
That is not true. Whether SNP Members like it or not, the truth is that Chilcot rejected allegations that Tony Blair said one thing in public and another in private. People can be for or against the war, but it is not true to say that Tony Blair lied about it. We have heard repeatedly this afternoon Sir John Chilcot’s response to the question when he absolved Tony Blair of any attempt to mislead or lie.
Let us be honest about this: the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond)—I think I have got that right—has many skills, achievements and attributes, but I do not think that even the most sycophantic member of the SNP fan club would claim that self-effacing modesty or the capacity for self-examination are among them. Let us look at his record and judgment on international issues. In 2014, as Putin’s tanks massed on the border of Crimea and after NATO had warned that Russia
“threatens peace and security in Europe”
and had criticised
“President Putin’s threats against this sovereign nation”,
he said he admired “certain aspects” of Putin’s leadership and that it was a “good thing” he had restored Russian national pride—
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is the hon. Gentleman in order to pursue these particular matters when we are in fact having a very serious debate on Iraq? [Interruption.]
Order. This debate is about the Chilcot inquiry and parliamentary scrutiny. I have given the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) quite a lot of leeway, but I would be very grateful to him if he got back to the subject we are debating.
This debate is also about judgment, and the right hon. Gentleman’s judgment has been found completely wanting at every stage. It is also about intervention—whether Britain intervened rightly or wrongly—and about the consequences of that intervention. For example, when Britain was intervening to save lives in Kosovo, he said it was an action of “dubious legality” and condemned it as “unpardonable folly”. He demanded a ceasefire and urged the urgent start of talks with Milosevic. When challenged, he said that
“we shall see if I am right”.
History has proved him completely wrong—
Order. This is not a debate about the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond); it is about the Chilcot inquiry. I would be grateful to the hon. Gentleman if he moved back to that subject.
This is the final point I want to make: of course we should learn lessons from the invasion of Iraq, but we must also learn lessons from successful interventions, such as those in Kosovo, but the right hon. Gentleman ought to show some humility and apologise for his mistakes and lack of judgment over the decades.
I have to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) that the House is at its best when listening to a maiden speech, but I am afraid it went rather downhill after that. He made an absolutely brilliant speech. He commanded the House, and he brought in a great sense of humour. He was set a very high bar, in following a former Prime Minister, but who knows what will happen in the future. I am very jealous that he lives in the wonderful village of Bladon.
I rise, with pride, to support the motion. It is rather unfortunate that there is bad blood between the Labour party and the SNP—no doubt, if the Liberal Democrats were in the Chamber, there would be bad blood between them and the Conservatives—but I wish to concentrate solely on the lessons to be learned following the Chilcot report.
There are only 179 of us left who were in the House that fateful night in March 2003. To my utter shame, I did not follow my 15 colleagues in voting against the war, so the one lesson I have learned is not always to accept at face value everything that is said at the Dispatch Box. That is a big lesson I have learned. I pay tribute to all Members, including those from other parties, who were much wiser than I was. I genuinely thought that the weapons of mass destruction were targeted on our country and that they could reach here in 40 minutes. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) had a briefing with 11 colleagues, but I was not privy to that. I regret the way that I voted. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his speech, with which I entirely agree, and my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) on his speech. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) intervened, and I congratulate him on everything he said.
As we have heard, the Chilcot report took seven years and cost £13 million. It found that military action had been taken before peaceful options had been exhausted; that the reliability of evidence on Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction was overstated; that the legal justification was far from satisfactory; that rather than bolstering the UN, the UK helped to undermine it; that UK armed forces were poorly prepared; that warnings about the consequences of removing Saddam were not taken seriously; and that the UK overestimated its ability to influence the US. I would have thought that was pretty damning.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), who is not in his place, did an excellent job with his inquiry. He put it to the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood:
“Chilcot actually says, ‘Most decisions on Iraq pre-conflict were taken either bilaterally between Mr Blair and the relevant Secretary of State or in meetings between Mr Blair, Mr Straw, and Mr Hoon, with No. 10 officials and, as appropriate, Mr John Scarlett and Sir Richard Dearlove and Admiral Boyce’.”
In further questioning, he put it to him:
“Yes, but when the Prime Minister sent another letter to the President of the United States, using those now very famous words ‘I will be with you whatever’, he was advised by officials that this position should be shared with other Cabinet colleagues before he sent the letter and he refused to do so.”
The Cabinet Secretary replied:
“I certainly agree with you that private memos from the Prime Minister to the President of the United States setting out…the…position…should have been subject to collective approval”.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe also said that.
I was not in the House at the time of the vote, but I was a civil servant, and I wonder whether my hon. Friend would comment on the fact that the proper involvement of officials, rather than sofa government, could have prevented some of the excesses in 2003.
My hon. Friend makes a wise point. It is yet another lesson to be learned.
On 13 July, there was an exchange between my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe. My right hon. Friend said:
“It seems from the Chilcot report that, at some point between December 2001 and possibly March 2002 but certainly by July 2002, Mr Blair effectively signed Britain up to the American military effort… Under American law, to go to war on the basis of regime change is entirely legal. They do not recognise the international laws that render it otherwise, so for them regime change is a perfectly legitimate casus belli.”—[Official Report, 13 July 2016; Vol. 613, c. 360.]
My right hon. and learned Friend intervened and said that
“with hindsight…given that Hans Blix was perfectly willing to carry on with inspections, if the Americans could have been persuaded to delay for another month, all this could have been avoided… The Americans dismissed Blix, however, and regarded him as a waste of time; they were trying to get him out of the way.”
My right hon. Friend replied:
“That is exactly right. That should have been the stance that Mr Blair took, but he did not. He chose instead to come to Parliament to misrepresent the case… Finally, Mr Blair was asked by Tam Dalyell”—
a great parliamentarian—
“about the risks of terrorism arising from the war, but the Prime Minister did not give him an answer—despite having been told by the JIC and by MI5 that it would increase both the international and domestic risk of terrorism and would destabilise the states in the area.”—[Official Report, 13 July 2016; Vol. 613, c. 362.]
I am grateful that my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex has said that whatever the result of today’s debate his Committee will look at this issue again. In six years, the former Prime Minister involved us in wars in Iraq, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. I am very concerned about that record. With hindsight, I should not have been partisan. Instead, I should have listened more carefully to the wise words of Robin Cook and Clare Short. We owe this to all those British servicemen and women who lost their lives as a result of the Iraq war. The world has been completely destabilised by the disastrous decision that Parliament took, and the general public will not understand if, after spending all that time and money on the Chilcot report, we do not put in place a mechanism by which lessons can be learned. I also think that the former Prime Minister should be brought before a Select Committee.
I also congratulate the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) on his maiden speech, although I note that he had 12 minutes, while I had only six for mine. I have a feeling of déjà vu.
As I did in the two previous debates on this issue, I start by declaring an interest: my brother served on the frontline in Iraq and served two terms of active duty in Afghanistan. I do not therefore participate lightly in this debate.
Many in this Chamber and outside never thought we would reach this point in placing a motion before the House with cross-party support calling on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee to conduct a further specific examination of this contrast between public and private policy and to report to the House on any actions it considers necessary. It was a disastrous series of events that still dogs the path to peace in the middle east and has played a part in undermining unity in the western democracies against an expansion in non-democratic forces both near and far. It was the former Member for Sedgefield who stated the obvious. We need only look at a section of a note from him to the then President of the United States headed “Extending War Aims”:
“There is a real willingness in the Middle East to get Saddam out but a total opposition to mixing this up with the current operation. All said: we know what you want, you can do it, but not whilst you are bombing Afghanistan....I have no doubt that we need to deal with Saddam. But if we hit Iraq now, we would lose the Arab world, Russia, probably half the EU and my fear is the impact of all that on Pakistan. However, I am sure we can devise a strategy for Saddam deliverable at a later date.”
It would seem that the soothsayer whispering a self-fulfilling prophecy in the ear of the then President of the United States had a clear picture of the outcome of the decision to invade Iraq: Saddam removed—done; losing support in the Arab world—done; allowing the Government of the Russian Federation to cast themselves as a defender of state sovereignty—done; a divided Europe—done; undermining the stability of the state of Pakistan—done; inflaming a sectarian divide—done; undermining the credibility of liberal democracy—done. Therefore, to restore the integrity of our sense of democracy it is critical that the House recognises that the inquiry has substantiated the fact that the former Member for Sedgefield and others misled Parliament on the development of the then Government’s policy towards the invasion of Iraq.
This position cannot and will not—at least not in this debate—go unchallenged. Even the former Member for Sedgefield’s advisers suggested in their evidence to the inquiry that a decision to support regime change in Iraq had been made by the time of, or at, the Crawford Ranch summit in April 2002. For example, Sir David Manning, foreign policy adviser to the former Prime Minister, gave evidence to the inquiry, stating:
“On the one hand the prime minister was very clearly urging the president”—
of the United States—
“to go back or adopt the UN route and coalition strategy but was absolutely prepared to say that at the same time he was willing to contemplate regime change if this didn’t work.”
Fundamentally, as far as I and my SNP colleagues are concerned, this undermined the credibility of the UN and its ability to play its true role in delivering peace.
In May 2005, The Sunday Times published a leaked classified document written by the Cabinet Office’s defence and overseas secretariat, entitled “Iraq: conditions for military action”. It stated:
“When the Prime Minister discussed Iraq with President Bush at Crawford in April, he said that the UK would support military action to bring about regime change, provided that certain conditions were met”.
Then in a memo dated 28 March, ahead of the summit, Colin Powell himself told the president:
“On Iraq, Blair will be with us should military options be necessary.”
If we can achieve anything in this debate, surely, as I have stated previously, it must be to enhance the debate about the nature of our constitutional democracy and the duties of the Government in their attitude to war and peace. I will reiterate again, as I did on the publication of the report, that the words,
“I will be with you, whatever”,
will be forever associated with the former Member for Sedgefield and will be his political epitaph. They will forever live, too, in the scars of those who were casualties of the war, whether members of our armed services or Iraqi civilians, and of our democracy itself. That is the true legacy of
“I will be with you, whatever.”
I congratulate the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) on his maiden speech.
The central accusation in the motion is not a rerun of whether anyone was for or against the Iraq war. As we heard eloquently from my hon. Friends the Members for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) and for Eltham (Clive Efford), many Members who voted against the Iraq war will vote against the motion, because they know that that is not what it is about. Instead, the central accusation is that the former Prime Minister lied in making the case for it. The motion does not use that word, but that is the implication.
Sir John Chilcot made some serious criticisms of the decision making in the run-up to the war and in the aftermath, but he did not say that the decision was taken in bad faith. In fact, his report says of the intelligence presented:
“The JIC accepted ownership of the dossier and agreed its content. There is no evidence that intelligence was improperly included in the dossier or that No.10 improperly influenced the text”.
In paragraph 806 of the report, he says:
“There was nothing in the JIC Assessments issued before July 2002 that would have raised any questions in policy-makers’ minds about the core construct of Iraq’s capabilities and intent.”
In March 2002, the JIC said that it was
“clear that Iraq continues to pursue a policy of acquiring WMD and their delivery means”.
These views on Iraq’s capability and intent were not purely British; they were shared by intelligence services throughout the world, including in those countries that were vehemently opposed to military action.
Of the meeting with President Bush at Crawford, the Chilcot report said that Mr Blair said that it was important to go back to the UN and that he sought to persuade Mr Bush to act within a multilateral framework, not a unilateral one. At paragraph 802, the report said:
“Mr Blair and Mr Straw sought to persuade the US Administration to secure multilateral support before taking action on Iraq; and to do so through the UN.”
So the accusation of lying is not true and is not backed up by the Chilcot report.
Other countries, not just Britain and America, believed not only that Saddam Hussein had WMD, but that he had actually used them, perpetrating the largest chemical weapons attack against civilians in history and killing thousands in a brutal attack on his own people.
That is absolutely true, and it is a great shame that the Iraqi MPs who were watching from the Gallery earlier on cannot be heard in today’s debate, because I am sure that they would make that point.
What is true is that the Iraq war and its aftermath raised major questions about military intervention, post-conflict responsibility and our capacity and willingness to act in the future. To go to war is a heavy responsibility and perhaps the most difficult judgment that any leader can make.
There is a temptation to think that history in Iraq began with our intervention. In his opening statement, the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) said that everything could be traced back to the 2003 intervention, but history in Iraq and the use of violence in the country and in the wider middle east did not begin in 2003. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) said, chemical weapons were used in the Anfal campaign against the Kurds, which began long before then, as did the brutal repression of the Shi’a uprising following the first Gulf war.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks, including in Yemen in 1992, Mumbai in 1993, in Nairobi and Tanzania in 1998 and, of course, in New York on 11 September 2001? Terrorist attacks did not begin with what happened in Iraq in 2003.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. I believe that there is a new imperialism afoot, which seeks to trace everything to western decisions to intervene or not intervene. Until we understand that violent Islamist jihadism has an ideology of its own, we will never be able properly to confront it, let alone overcome it. We have to understand that, despite our history, it is not always about us.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I have already given way twice.
The controversy over the Iraq war and its aftermath has coloured every decision this Parliament has made on military intervention since—most notably, the vote in August 2013 not to take military action in Syria, following President Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people. Who can say for sure what the consequences of that vote were, but we have a duty—do we not?—to reflect on them as we watch Aleppo being blown to bits night after night on our television screens. We can tell ourselves that because we did not intervene in 2013, we do not bear responsibility for it, but that is of little comfort to the children of Aleppo, as the bombs rain down on their heads in a horror seemingly without end. There will not be a Chilcot report on Syria because we did not take the decision to intervene, but are the consequences for the victims any less real?
There are certainly lessons to learn from the experience of Iraq and Syria, but they lie not in the sort of detective hunt based on false accusations of lying set out in the motion, but in asking ourselves serious questions about when we should intervene and when we should not and how we live up to the responsibilities that come from intervention. Perhaps most seriously of all, is it really a morally better position never to intervene if the consequences are encouragement for dictators and no defence for their civilian victims?
In the aftermath of the Chilcot report—we have heard a lot about it in today’s debate—there will be a process to learn lessons. Committees will be formed; processes will be changed; the National Security Council might be changed in one way or another— and it might do some good, because we need the best processes that we can, but this is not the heart of the matter. Nothing—no process; no Committee; no Council—will remove the responsibility of a Prime Minister and of MPs to make a judgment on military intervention. In the end, it is a judgment. That is what leadership is all about.
Order. I am going to drop the time limit down to five minutes.
Since we debated the publication of the Chilcot report in July, I cannot be alone in hearing constituents express their doubts about the likelihood of any action on its findings—recalling previous occasions where evidence of failures was debated in this place, only to see the issues disappear without trace as the months and years moved on. Since the time when the matters on which Chilcot reported took place, we have watched the Arab spring rise and fall, Daesh has taken large swathes of the middle east back to the dark ages, and a resurgent Russia provokes NATO—just as the hammer-blows of an ill-thought-out Brexit and the rise of Trump threaten to destabilise the relationships on which the alliance depends.
Already, those of us who believe the public still need answers see others characterise the Iraq war and the events that led up to it as ancient history. This is not a new phenomenon. In the 2010 Labour leadership race, David Miliband said:
“While Iraq was a source of division in the past, it doesn’t need to be a source of division in the future. I said during the election campaign that I thought it was time to move on.”
But, of course, as the Chilcot report makes clear, it is decidedly not time to move on.
The exchanges in July’s debate showed that the route to military action was settled directly between Bush and Blair. One of them was driven by a determination to finish the job left unfinished by his father, while the other was convinced that if he said yes to each step along the road to war, he could drag America back from the brink at the 11th hour.
“I will be with you, whatever”,
wrote Blair, as he subcontracted to Bush the decision on whether the war would go ahead. He committed UK troops to go, if that was what Bush decided. The report is damning on this point. Sir John said in launching his report:
“We have concluded that the UK chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted.”
It might have taken many years and millions of words for the UK to catch up on what its Prime Minister did, behind the scenes, in our name. In the US, the verdict was arrived at long ago and the conclusion was clear: the Iraq war was not an innocent mistake; there was no need to argue over flawed intelligence; and the Bush Administration wanted a war and everything else was pretext. Blair’s decision to hitch the UK armed forces to that wagon of deception is not something that we can allow layers of events to silt over.
The public have long demanded—and deserved—an explanation and action. The families of the servicemen and women killed in Iraq deserve to know the truth, and deserve to know that this will not happen again. Their loved ones were marched to war behind a dodgy dossier that was designed to mislead. Those with family members in the UK armed forces expect to see military intervention used to root out injustice and instability. Instead, that is what the Iraq war left in its wake.
On top of the dishonesty about the reason for going to war, the consequences appear to have received no thought from those leading the charge. If there was any post-invasion plan, it was the Bush Administration plan—to leave behind an Iraq deliberately weakened, politically and militarily. The result of that flawed policy was the first appearance of Daesh, growing from the ashes of the discarded Iraqi army—an Iraqi spark that became a flame in the war in Syria and threatens to engulf communities across the middle east, Europe and beyond.
Some right hon. and hon. Members would like us to move on. I was struck in July by the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) who drew attention to the need to learn the lessons of Iraq in advance of the intervention in Libya, only to be told: “We are not putting boots on the ground, so it isn’t an issue for us.
However, if we move on from Iraq now and leave the drawing of lessons from these events for another day, how many more Iraqs, Syrias and Libyas will there be?
In July, in response to the hon. Member for Bridgend, the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) said that he had voted for intervention in Libya because he was
“terrified that people would be killed.”—[Official Report, 14 July 2016; Vol. 613, c. 489.]
But, of course, people were killed, and are still being killed, in each of those countries and many more. They are dying as they flee once-thriving communities. Much of the destruction is still rooted in that flawed pact between Bush and Blair, and until we understand how we got here, it is not clear how we will find our way back. Why does that matter now? There are many reasons. Two of them are the largest aircraft carriers ever purchased by the UK Government. They are designed to project UK power across the globe, but to what end? If the policies driving the use of those vessels are not open to democratic scrutiny or review, will they and their associated air power add to our security or undermine it?
Since the launch of the Chilcot report, we have seen an increasing number of appearances by the former Prime Minister. He has read the runes and believes that scrutiny is over for him. However, I know that Members in this Chamber believe that the armed forces’ sacrifice means that any decision to send them to war must be made with integrity and based on fact. In this case it was not, and we must scrutinise that further.
I rise to address a misapprehension that seems to have developed that the report of Sir John Chilcot’s inquiry has cleared the then Prime Minister of misleading the House. As the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) said earlier in an intervention, papers released recently as a result of a freedom of information request—after quite some resistance from the current Government—have shown that the Iraq inquiry was designed from the outset to avoid blame and to reduce the risk that individuals and the Government could face legal proceedings.
The hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) is shaking his head. I can give him copies of the civil service memos that were released as a result of that freedom of information request. My point is, however, that not having been charged with investigating blame or accountability, or indeed the legality of the war, Sir John Chilcot—for whom I have the greatest respect—is in no better a position to absolve the then Prime Minister of blame for misleading the House than anyone else who has carefully considered the evidence and the analysis of it that Sir John has set out.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) indicated that he had placed in the Library a detailed report that carries out that analysis and suggests that the House was misled. I am not saying that; it was said by an independent expert who has looked at the evidence set out by Sir John Chilcot. Gordon Brown, the former Prime Minister, said that the inquiry would help us to learn lessons that would strengthen UK democracy, foreign policy and the military forces, but how is democracy strengthened if the House does not scrutinise the evidence and consider issues of blame and accountability when so many people have died?
I am conscious that I do not have much time, but I want to talk briefly about what those memos—the memos that were released after the current Government had fought so hard to prevent their release—show us. They show the thinking and advice at the highest level of government prior to Gordon Brown’s announcement of an inquiry. They show that many officials who took part in the events that the inquiry investigated—including the former spy chief Sir John Scarlett—were involved in setting it up. They reveal that senior civil servants, under Gordon Brown, went against Whitehall protocol when they appointed a civil servant with significant involvement in Iraq policy during the period covered by the inquiry to the key role of inquiry secretary.
The documents, a series of memos from Whitehall officials, cover a four-week period in May and June 2009, and they show that the officials favoured from the outset a secret inquiry to be conducted by Privy Counsellors. In a memo to Gus O’Donnell, the Cabinet official Ben Lyon advised that the format, scope and membership of the inquiry could be designed to
“focus on lessons and avoid blame”.
It was noted that a parliamentary inquiry of the sort suggested by the former Foreign Secretary, Lord Hurd, would
“attract a daily running commentary”,
like the Hutton inquiry. Gus O’Donnell also advised against appointing judges or lawyers who would adopt a “legalistic” focus. Indeed, as we know, there was no legalistic focus. The inquiry did not look at issues of blame and accountability. That is the reason for this cross-party motion: it is intended to enable the House to look at those issues now.
Will the hon. and learned Lady give way?
I will not, because I do not have much time.
It is not a cross-party motion.
The motion is supported by members of seven parties. It has been made clear this afternoon that Labour Members do not support it, and I think that that speaks for itself, as does the behaviour of some speakers. My point is that the purpose of the motion, which has the support of seven political parties, is to ensure that the House does the job that the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, said the inquiry would do—namely, to ensure that democracy was properly served.
If the House does not examine the outcome of Sir John Chilcot’s findings properly and if it does not look at those issues of accountability, democracy and justice will not have been served. That is the point of the motion.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) on his maiden speech. I know how difficult it is to make a maiden speech when your predecessor was Prime Minister, and the hon. Gentleman did an excellent job.
I want to make a couple of points about why the motion is about more than just Chilcot, and about how divisive it actually is. My predecessor was Member of Parliament for Sedgefield for a quarter of a century. For 13 of those years he was the leader of the Labour party, and for 10 he was Prime Minister. I have known Tony Blair for more than 30 years, probably longer than anyone else who is in the House today, and I am proud to say that he is a friend of mine. When I am called a Blairite, which is sometimes seen as a term of abuse, I wear that term proudly as an accolade.
I met Tony Blair in 1983, when he first became the Labour candidate for Sedgefield, in the community bar in Trimdon village. He believed then, as he does today, that the Labour party had a great ability to do good, but his opponents are angry about what he achieved. What he did achieve were great things, from the minimum wage to devolution in Scotland and the creation of the Scottish Parliament, which I would like to say the SNP used a bit more than it does at present. We also became, under Tony Blair, the party that was patriotic. It became “cool” to be British under his leadership and premiership. There is a reason why Conservative Members, in particular, do not want to see another Tony Blair. Given that he kept the Tory party out of power for the longest period since 1762, I understand their disquiet about those years.
Our opponents want to put as much distance between Tony Blair and the Labour party of today as they possibly can. My message to my colleagues today is, “Do not fall into that trap”, and I am pleased to note that Labour Members will oppose the motion. There is another reason why it is wrong. It is not about the rights and wrongs of the war in Iraq; it is essentially about calling Tony Blair a liar, and continuing to do so. That is mendacious, and it is an attempt to second-guess Sir John Chilcot, who said:
“I absolve him from a personal and demonstrable decision to deceive parliament or the public—to state falsehoods, knowing them to be false.”
The SNP motion is part of a strategy to divide the Labour Benches. It is party political, divisive and cynical.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent argument exposing the mendacity of the SNP’s motion. Does he agree that the legacy of our former Prime Minister involves a commitment, ongoing to this day, to peace in the middle east, making him a figure that Labour Members should be proud of?
We should be proud of Tony Blair. We know about the efforts he is putting into the middle east and interfaith dialogue around the world. He spends most of his time with his charities trying to achieve those aims.
Some people want to define themselves against Tony Blair and the 1997 to 2010 Labour Governments. To them I say, “Be careful, because it is not useful or a good idea to define yourself against success.” Like all Governments, Labour did things that generated criticism, disagreement, frustration and anger, none more than on Iraq. I sincerely accept that people outside and Members of this House have strongly held views on the rights and wrongs of the Iraq war, but let us disengage from this witch hunt pursuing a line of criticism abandoned by the Chilcot inquiry. Tony Blair did not lie.
My message to the SNP is this: “Use your Opposition days to talk about the issues that affect Scotland. You use such debates to deflect from your own weaknesses. You have no vision; your policy platform is absent. Labour gave you a Scottish Parliament. Use it. Look to yourselves before you start criticising others.”
The Iraq war is one of the great disasters to befall the world in this century. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed and injured—men, women and children, the culpable and the innocent alike, the invading forces and the often unwilling defenders. Saddam’s vile tyranny was replaced by endless war. Here in the United Kingdom families grieve for their loved ones, lost forever, and survivors who served their country so faithfully suffer terribly. Terrorism spreads across northern Africa and Europe and is indeed a menace worldwide. Today the threat level here in the UK is again at “severe”; an attack is highly likely.
Compared to all that, misleading the House of Commons and the damage done to our reputation might seem to rank somewhat lower, but it is significant none the less, and damage has been done. Trust in Parliament, in Government and in individual MPs has declined disastrously, which is coupled with at best scepticism, and at worst widespread cynicism, about our democratic processes.
I was a Member of this House at the time of the march to war and I have a particularly vivid memory of Mr Blair presenting the House with the so called “dodgy dossier”. Even on first reading, it seemed to me it was a cut and paste exercise. I also took part in the enormous protest against going to war and was astonished by the variety of people joining in—not just the usual suspects but a true cross-section of society. There are many causes of the steep decline of trust in politicians and in our work, but some of the blame can be traced back to the way we were taken to war in Iraq, to subsequent disastrous events there, and to the public perception that no one has really been held to account.
As The Observer revealed last Sunday in a report concerning this debate:
“A spokesman for Blair declined to comment. But, privately, his supporters say similar motions have been tabled before without gaining significant traction among MPs.”
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not, as time is short.
Unsurprisingly, there is much cynical public resignation. Last summer, we had a two-day debate and there was a debate in the other place. On 26 October, the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) asked the Prime Minister for reassurance that, in respect of the Chilcot report, she had, as he put it,
“a cunning plan to ensure that action is taken”.
In reply, the right hon. Lady said that the National Security Adviser was leading an exercise to learn the lessons from the Chilcot report, before adding:
“There is much in it, and we need to ensure that we do learn the lessons from it.”—[Official Report, 26 October 2016; Vol. 616, c. 277.]
Although that is most assuredly the case, for me there is a further question: who is this “we”?
I know nothing of the National Security Adviser. I have no doubt that he is a capable, industrious and conscientious public servant, but he is appointed by the Prime Minister and he reports to the Prime Minister. The House of Commons decides its own ways of working and of holding the Government to account, hence this proposed referral to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee
“to conduct a further specific examination of this contrast in public and private policy and of the presentation of intelligence, and then to report to the House on what further action it considers necessary and appropriate to help prevent any repetition of this disastrous series of events.”
Given that the Prime Minister’s answer of 26 October is only partially relevant, I will refer to two more recent matters on the presentation of intelligence information. First, on the basis of that information was it reasonable to conclude that Iraq posed an imminent threat to the UK and so go to war? In evidence to the Liaison Committee on 2 November, Sir John Chilcot said in respect of the alleged imminence of the Iraqi threat to the UK:
“As things have turned out, we know that it was not.”
That is, the threat was not imminent, but he seems to be saying that a correct judgment on the matter is only possible with hindsight—“as things…turned out”. Significantly, he concluded by saying:
“As things appeared at the time, the evidence to support it was more qualified than he”—
“in effect, gave expression to.”
That prompted a further question from the Chair, referring to the
“test of whether a reasonable man would conclude that this evidence supported going to war.”
Sir John replied:
“If I may say so, that seems an easier question for me to answer, because the answer to that is no.”
The second point I would have liked to make is on the question posed by the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) of absolving Mr Blair, but unfortunately I have no time.
Mr Blair said, famously:
“I think most people who have dealt with me, think I’m a pretty straight sort of guy and I am.”
Referral of this matter to PACAC will give him yet another opportunity to convince the world of his “pretty straight” credentials.
We will have to drop the time limit to four minutes.
I am delighted finally to be speaking in this most important of debates.
From the outside looking in, many people assume that this place is corrupt. Let us be honest: politicians do not have a good reputation. I know the vast majority of MPs are hard-working, diligent and honest, but every example of corruption, perversion, laziness, greed or dishonesty does not just taint the perpetrator; it casts a shadow over all of us and this place. The only way to convince the citizens of the UK that they have a Parliament to be proud of is through ruthless honesty, even when it hurts. The alternative is an electorate who are dissatisfied and feel disfranchised, and so disengage from politics and politicians. We have a duty to support the mechanisms of a democracy. We must respect, cherish and protect them. We do not own them; we are simply guardians who pass them on to future generations. That is why we must investigate thoroughly any possibility that the principles we claim to hold so dear have been abused.
The Chilcot inquiry highlighted serious shortcomings and misgivings. The report stated that the UK invaded Iraq before all peaceful options had been investigated. We now know that there was no imminent threat from Iraq or Saddam Hussein, and that the reasons for our invasion were predicated on flawed intelligence. Crucially, this flawed intelligence was not challenged as it should have been. Quite astoundingly, there is no formal record of the decision and the grounds on which it was made that led to the invasion that started on 20 March 2003.
The rush to war was so fast that our troops did not have time to stockpile the necessary equipment—uniforms, boots and body armour. A lack of helicopters and armoured vehicles made it more dangerous for our forces. By July 2009, 179 members of our armed forces had died. We will never know how many Iraqis died, but conservative estimates suggest at least 150,000, with millions more displaced from their homes. How did this come about? How did this place get it so wrong? How were so many MPs misled?
In 2003, it was already US policy to change the regime in Iraq. Five years earlier, in 1998, President Clinton had signed into law the Iraq Liberation Act. It was
“the policy of the U.S. to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq”.
In 2003, Prime Minister Tony Blair threw his hat in with the US. Chilcot demonstrated clearly that Tony Blair bypassed his Cabinet, instead relying on his so-called “sofa government”. Key decisions on the future of the country were made in informal meetings, sometimes involving only a couple of the then Prime Minister’s friends, and without the input of senior members of the Cabinet. That is not how to solve a problem. The invasion of Iraq was an object lesson in how to escalate a problem. If the mission was to perpetuate instability in the middle east, it is mission accomplished.
The last line of the motion we are debating today is crucial. It calls on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee to
“report to the House on what further action it considers necessary and appropriate to help prevent any repetition of this disastrous series of events.”
As I deliver this speech, our forces are involved in the battle of Mosul, so we can see that the ramifications of decisions made back in 2003 are still with us today.
In conclusion, we are voting today to instruct the Committee to
“conduct a further specific examination of this contrast in public and private policy and of the presentation of intelligence”.
I would say to any Members who were here in 2003 that, with all due respect, their responsibility to the future should outweigh their duty to the past. Supporting the motion today can only enhance the reputation of this place. It should be welcomed by all fair-minded elected Members.
I must apologise to the House for being absent during part of this debate. I was called to participate in a delegated legislation Committee upstairs.
It is a great privilege to speak in the same debate as my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts), who gave an outstanding maiden speech and paid appropriate tribute to his predecessor. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) for the generous words he said about his predecessor.
Talking of distinguished party leaders, the debate was opened in fine style by the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond), a former First Minister of Scotland. He laid out his case, as he does always, with passion and verve and commitment. Unfortunately, skilled as an advocate though he is, as he was laying out the prosecution case against the former Member for Sedgefield, he did not have the evidence to sustain his case. The truth is that the Chilcot report makes it clear that at no stage was there a deliberate attempt by Tony Blair to mislead the House. More than that, the Chilcot report makes it clear that there was a proper legal basis—a Security Council resolution—for the decision to go to war.
The right hon. Gentleman has been out of the Chamber, so he may have missed my contribution. I made the point that papers recently released, as a result of a freedom of information request, clearly show that the inquiry was not charged with looking at issues of blame, accountability or legality. Does he accept that?
It is clear from what was published in the report that a decision was taken by Sir John Chilcot—I will not have any criticism made of him or any of those responsible for the report—that there was no deliberate misleading of this House. It is quite wrong to suggest otherwise. More than that, the right hon. Member for Gordon sought to suggest that the note passed from the former Prime Minister to President Bush saying that he would “be with you, whatever” was the equivalent of a political blank cheque. It was no such thing. When Mr Blair wrote that note he made it clear that there needed to be progress in three key areas: the middle east peace process; securing UN authority for action; and shifting public opinion in the UK, Europe and the Arab world. He also pointed out that there would be a need to commit to Iraq for the long term.
In judging Mr Blair—I think history will judge him less harshly than some in this House—we need to recognise that his decision to join George W Bush at that time was finely balanced. In reflecting on when this House decides to send young men and women into harm’s way, we also need to reflect not just on the consequences of acting but the consequences of not acting—the consequences of non-intervention.
The right hon. Gentleman will remember Chilcot’s findings on page 112 of the report. The note was not discussed or agreed with any colleagues and led to the possibility of
“participation in military action in a way that would make it very difficult for the UK subsequently to withdraw its support for the US.”
Does he not accept that Chilcot found the note to be of huge significance in binding the UK to George W Bush?
It was not a blank cheque. It was not a binding statement. It was of significance, but, as I have explained, Tony Blair at the time laid out to George Bush that certain steps were required before he would agree.
The point the right hon. Gentleman does not attend to is the consequences of inaction: Saddam Hussein remaining in power in a country he had turned into a torture chamber above ground and a mass grave below. Power would inevitably have passed on to his sadistic children, Uday and Qusay, who would have carried on their genocidal conflict against the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs. They would inevitably have taken advantage of the erosion of international sanctions to restock their chemical and biological weapons arsenal.
Whenever we think about the consequences of action, we very rarely think about the consequences of inaction. In front of us now, however, is a hugely powerful reminder of the consequences of inaction: what is happening in Aleppo at the moment. I was not in this House when the decision was taken to vote on whether to take action in Iraq, but I was in this House in the previous Parliament when we voted on whether to take action in Syria. I am deeply disappointed that this House did not vote to take action then, because as a direct result of voting against intervention we have seen Bashar Assad, backed by Vladimir Putin and the anti-Semitic leadership of Iran, unleashing hell on the innocent people of Aleppo.
I have a lot of respect for the SNP position on many issues, but when asked about what is happening in Aleppo and in Syria it has no answer; it can put forward nothing that deals with the huge, horrific humanitarian disaster that is unfolding. My own view is that there is much that we can do both to relieve suffering and to put pressure on Russia, Iran and Syria, but once again the long shadow cast by Iraq, which certainly should call us all to search our consciences, means politicians are sometimes fearful of making the case for intervention now and certainly those like the SNP who are opposed to intervention are emboldened to make their case for neutrality when we are confronting evil.
I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman was in the House on Monday, but if he was or has read the newspapers he will have seen that I and many of my colleagues signed a letter asking the British Government to take action in relation to Aleppo by way of dropping aid on the city. We are not without answers, and I wonder if he would care to withdraw that suggestion.
I was happy to sign that letter as well. It was initiated of course by the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), both of whom, as I have, have argued consistently for muscular intervention in Syria to help the suffering people of Aleppo, and it is simply not good enough—although I have great respect for the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry)—to say we wish to drop that aid but not to be willing to go further to ensure that appropriate pressure, diplomatic and otherwise, is placed on those people who are responsible for mass murder.
It is all very well to look back on Iraq and say that mistakes were made; of course they were, but if we are going to have an Opposition day debate on foreign policy in this House at this time, it is a dereliction of duty to look backwards and try to blame Tony Blair, when the responsibility on all of us is to do something to help the people of Aleppo who are suffering now.
Few would now dispute that the Iraq invasion was the biggest foreign policy failure of recent times. The Chilcot report provides detailed confirmation that military intervention was by no means a last resort, and that all other avenues were not exhausted.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will make a bit of progress and then I will.
Chilcot also showed that Iraq posed no immediate threat to the UK, and, crucially, that hindsight was not necessary to see those things. That seven-year Iraq inquiry, which cost £10 million of public money, also officially recorded detailed evidence of the vast discrepancy between the former Prime Minister’s public statements and his private correspondence. If we do nothing about that and take no steps towards accountability for it, it is unclear to me how we begin to restore faith in our political system.
Sir John Chilcot made it clear earlier this month that Tony Blair did long-term damage to trust in politics by presenting a case for the Iraq war that went beyond
“the facts of the case”.
Sir John told MPs he could “only imagine” how long it would take to repair that trust.
That need to restore trust in politics is a key reason why I support the motion. This should not be pursued as a personal or party political attack, and this should be reflected in our language and approach. This process must be based on the facts and the evidence.
Does the hon. Lady recall that world public opinion, especially in the Security Council, was greatly influenced by a presentation by Colin Powell in which he showed photographs of what he thought was biological weapons equipment? He has since retracted and said he was hopelessly deceived, that the pictures were nothing of the sort and that there was no threat from those weapons. He has shown some penitence; would it not be better if those responsible in this House showed some penitence as well?
I am grateful for that intervention and, unsurprisingly, I agree.
The evidence in the Chilcot report does show that Tony Blair was responsible for fixing evidence around a policy while telling us that he was doing the opposite. It shows he was treating his office, the Cabinet, this House and our constitutional checks and balances with disrespect amounting to contempt. For that he should be held responsible.
But more than that, accountability must mean ensuring that any future decisions are taken with systems in place that guarantee proper Cabinet and parliamentary scrutiny and discussion.
In his report Chilcot does not judge the former Prime Minister’s guilt or innocence, and, as we have recently learned, secret Cabinet documents show the Chilcot report hearings were set up precisely to stop individuals being held accountable and specifically to avoid blame, and that is another key reason why we need a Committee to look at the issue of accountability.
Hon. Members have already cited numerous examples of what could be called misleading statements, deception, untruths or whatever word we choose, but I want to add just one more. Tony Blair stated in March 2003 that diplomacy had been exhausted in efforts to seek to avoid an invasion of Iraq. Yet the Chilcot report shows, without question, that this was not the case, and central to his case was the role of France. To get support from his own MPs, Blair argued that diplomatic efforts to secure a resolution had been exhausted, because the French President was unreasonably threatening to veto any resolution. That was not true, and Chilcot shows that Tony Blair knew it. In a phone call with George Bush on 12 March 2003, Blair and Bush agreed publicly to pretend to continue to seek a second UN resolution, knowing that it would not happen, and then to blame France for preventing it. [Interruption.] I suggest that those who are saying from a sedentary position that that is not true look at paragraph 410 of page 472 in volume 3, section 3.8—
Will the hon. Lady give way?
No I will not give way.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
No I will not.
Chilcot then reveals that Tony Blair did two misleading things. First, he told his Cabinet the very next day that work was continuing in the UN to obtain a second resolution and that the outcome remained open. Secondly, he went on to repeat a deliberate misrepresentation of the French position at Prime Minister’s questions on 12 March, in spite of the fact that, just minutes before, the French ambassador had telephoned No. 10 again to correct this repeated distortion. Blair did this again in his key parliamentary statement of 18 March 2003 and he also included it in the war motion before the House.
In short, the French position was to request more time for weapons inspectors, with war an explicit possibility, but Tony Blair kept deliberately taking out of context phrases from an interview by Chirac given on 10 March, saying that they showed that France would veto in any circumstances. France kept correcting that untruth, as the Chilcot report shows in black and white. Chilcot records that despite this Tony Blair instructed Straw to “concede nothing” in talks with the French Foreign Minister who was, in essence, calling for more time. Tony Blair needed to continue the misrepresentation of France to provide cover for his failure to get UN support for war.
Hon. Members have covered a great deal of other evidence in the debate, including the gross misrepresentation of Iraq as a growing threat to the region and to this country. Blair said that Saddam’s weapons programme was “active, detailed and growing”, and that the intelligence behind that assertion was “extensive, detailed and authoritative”, yet the Joint Intelligence Committee had said just six months earlier:
“Intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction…and ballistic missile programmes is sporadic and patchy.”
I appreciate that it is hard for Labour Members to hear some of these facts, but to barrack us for citing what is in the Chilcot report is deeply disrespectful and shows that we are not learning from that hideous escapade.
One of the most ridiculous arguments put forward here today by a number of hon. Members is that the Scottish National party has no right to have a debate on Chilcot and that we should choose subjects that are of concern to Scotland. I say to them: tell that to the Scottish families whose sons died in that war. Tell it to the Scottish families whose sons were injured and who will have to live with their scars, both physical and mental, for the rest of their lives. Tell it to those people—