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Iraq: Attorney-General's Opinion

Volume 670: debated on Tuesday 1 March 2005

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2.58 p.m.

Whether they will now publish the full text of the Attorney-General's opinion of 7 March 2003 about the legality of the use of force against Iraq.

My Lords, no, as the Government have made clear on many occasions. The article that appeared in the Guardian on 23 February does not affect the position.

On 17 March 2003, I gave a Written Answer in this House that set out my view of the legal basis for the use of force against Iraq. That was my own, genuinely held, independent view that military action was lawful. The allegations made in the media suggesting that I was leant on to give that view or that my Written Answer was drafted by the Prime Minister's Office are wholly unfounded. There is therefore no reason for the Government to change their view on the disclosure of my advice.

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for his reply. Nevertheless, I am left a bit puzzled. If the Written Answer that the noble and learned Lord gave to the noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay, on 17 March 2003 in this House was in fact an accurate distillation of his legal opinion of 7 March 2003, what is the objection to publishing the original text in its entirety, especially as non-publication is bound to strengthen the suspicion that the original text was doctored for public consumption in exactly the same way as the notorious intelligence dossier on weapons of mass destruction?

My Lords, I have never said that my Written Answer, which was my genuinely held, independent view—I was not leant on to provide it by anybody—was a summary of confidential legal advice. Having said at the time that the allegation that my Answer had been drafted by someone else was nonsense and having proved it to be nonsense, I am sorry to hear the noble Lord suggesting otherwise today.

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General can clarify one aspect of the events leading up to the giving of his advice. According to paragraph 378 of the Butler report, on 28 February 2003, he met the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, who at the time—I mean no disrespect to him—was a relatively junior Home Office Minister, and the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Huyton. Why did he have that meeting? Did the noble and learned Lord and the noble Baroness suggest any clarification to the advice that he was giving? Were officials present and were minutes taken?

My Lords, I am again sorry that the noble Lord puts the question in those terms when I have categorically stated that nobody from the Prime Minister's Office—nor the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, nor the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer—had any part in the drafting. The advice that I gave was my genuinely held, independent view. What happened at that meeting is set out clearly in the report of the noble Lord, Lord Butler; that is, I conveyed to them my view and nothing more.

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend share my outrage that the Guardian, on 23 February, gave headline coverage to a story based on what it claimed were his words to the Butler committee, but then gave nothing like that degree of coverage to the fact that, the tapes having been listened to, the transcript was amended and did not indicate that anyone other than the Attorney-General was responsible for the Answer to my Written Question on 17 March, 2003?

Will he also confirm, as some of us argued at the time, that Chapter 7 UN resolutions on Iraq, especially Resolution 678 of 1990 and Resolution 687 of 1991, were the legal justification for the military action taken against Iraq in 1993 under a Conservative government and in 1998, when my right honourable friend Robin Cook was Foreign Secretary?

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for her remarks in the first part of her question. Corrections never receive the same prominence as the original allegation—I have to be realistic about that. I am glad that the correction was noted. I hope that some people will reflect on what they have written and said about me and my office based on what turned out to be not only a leaked document but an inaccurate document.

The noble Baroness was absolutely right in the second part of her question. The view which I expressed was based on essentially the same legal argument as that on which the British Government relied in 1993 and 1998 for taking military action. On both those occasions, during successive administrations, the Opposition and, at least in 1998, the Liberal Democrats supported this legal argument as the basis for military action, as in 1993 did the then United Nations Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros Ghali. The noble Baroness is of course right about who was Foreign Secretary in 1998.

My Lords, we know from the Butler report that the Attorney-General's formal minute of 7 March 2003 on the legality of the war contained qualifications; for example, the need for hard evidence of non-compliance by Iraq with Security Council Resolution 1441. Why were those qualifications omitted from the Attorney-General's Written Answer of 17 March? Were they thought to be unnecessary or was there some other explanation?

My Lords, I have always made clear that, in accordance with long-standing conventions followed by successive administrations, I am not going to get into the process by which legal advice was reached; nor am I going to disclose confidential legal advice given in government. What matters, and what all these questions about process lead to, is whether the view that I expressed to this House and have expressed subsequently was my genuine view. It was. Was it a view which I reached independently? It was. Was it a view that I reached because I was leant on to give it? No, it was not.

My Lords, will my noble and learned friend confirm that in order that legal advice may be requested and given without inhibition, what passes between lawyer and client is and ought to be confidential? Will he further confirm that, for many generations, it has been accepted that the Government are in the same position for this purpose as anyone else?

My Lords, I confirm that absolutely. Last year, the then chairman of the Bar Council said that disclosure would be clearly against the public interest. He said that,

"the Government might not ask for advice when they should, or might not reveal all the facts when they do".
I entirely endorse what my noble and learned friend has said.

My Lords, I make it clear that I have no doubt at all that the view expressed by the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General in his Written Answer was reached independently and in the manner he has described. What troubles me is the insinuation that other parts of his opinion were not disclosed. I accept that, normally, the opinion of the Law Officers would not be disclosed, hut, in this case, the conclusion that the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General reached has been disclosed. It has not been kept confidential. It would be in the interests of the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General that the full text be disclosed as the best way of disposing of all that has been said in connection with it by others.

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord will know that I hold him in high regard, but I note that when he was Lord Chancellor in a previous administration, exactly the same thing seems to have occurred. The Attorney-General of the day, Sir Nicholas Lyell, when dealing with an extremely controversial issue concerning the Maastricht Treaty and the relevance of the Social Chapter, which Members may recall, came to another place, explained his view, but explicitly refused to disclose the actual advice that he had given. My position is entirely in accordance with precedent. The noble and learned Lord said that it would be in my interests to disclose: what I have regard to is not my interest, but what I believe to be that of the country and future governments.