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Iraq: Chilcot Inquiry

Volume 744: debated on Monday 22 April 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will hold discussions with the administrators of the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war to ascertain a date for publication.

My Lords, the Government do not have any plans to hold such a discussion with the Iraq inquiry. Sir John Chilcot advised the Prime Minister last July that the inquiry would be in a position to begin the process of giving those subject to criticism in the report the opportunity to make representations by the middle of 2013, and that the inquiry would submit its report once that process had been completed.

With thanks for that Answer, can the Leader of the House reassure the House on a very important point—that high official circles in the UK and the US have not sought to interfere with the independent findings of the Chilcot inquiry, especially on the crucial decision to go to war together?

I can give that assurance. It is extremely important that this inquiry is independent; it was set up very deliberately to be independent and it must have that independence. It must consider the evidence that it has and reach its conclusions, which we will all be able to see in the fullness of time, but it must have a free hand to do that.

My Lords, having been involved in the setting up of some public inquiries, I have noticed a tendency for them to be longer and longer. I understand the need to collect all the material evidence, and for all due processes to take place. In future, if any public inquiry is set up, should not a time limit be imposed and, furthermore, an extension granted only in exceptional circumstances?

I understand that point. However, with some of these very big inquiries it is difficult to be absolutely clear at the outset about what a suitable length of time is. It is right that the Chilcot inquiry on Iraq has been able to follow the leads that it feels it needs to follow, and had the time to do that. On the more general point about inquiries, I am sure the noble and learned Lord will know that one of the post-legislative committees that this House will set up in the new Session will look at the operation of the Inquiries Act 2005 and ask exactly these kinds of questions about whether we can learn lessons about the conduct of these inquiries, whether they can be done more quickly, their cost and so on.

My Lords, I was one of those in this House who was perhaps most extensively and intensively involved in the whole of the Iraq issue—the invasion of Iraq and the situations that arose from the post-victory occasions, including the involvement of many contractors in the building up or otherwise of Iraq after the war. While I fully take the points made by the Leader of the House into careful account, it is also the case that the lessons to be learnt from an inquiry—and the lessons to be learnt from this are probably among the most important of all—depend a little on the passage of time between the findings of that inquiry and the use of those lessons to affect policy. I ask him to bear in mind, as he considers this, the gap between the necessary and right attempt to give people the right to respond, but also the importance of the conclusions for the future work of this Government’s policy as well as the policy of the Opposition.

I agree with the points my noble friend makes. To be clear, the timing of this inquiry is set by the inquiry itself. The Government have not set a timetable and we are not seeking to rush it. It must take the time. However, I take the point that we need to learn the lessons and that it has to be within a reasonable timeframe.

My Lords, could the Leader of the House tell the House how the Government will take account of the conclusions and recommendations of the Chilcot inquiry on Iraq in deciding their policy on Syria?

First, we need the report to be concluded. Then, as the Chilcot inquiry has made clear, there needs to be a process whereby those people who are mentioned in the report have the chance to comment on it. Then the report will be published. Then everyone in this House, as well as the Government, will be able to draw the conclusions from the Chilcot inquiry, wherever that takes us.

Could my noble friend inject a little urgency into this process? The furthest we got from him today was that we would have the benefit of the report in the fullness of time. In our experience, the fullness of time is fairly full.

We all know that certain formulations have a certain elasticity, and I take his point. The most recent pronouncement from the Chilcot inquiry itself is that it hopes to finish the report by the middle of this year. Then the process—the formal word is “Maxwellisation”—of giving individuals the chance to comment would follow. That is what the inquiry has said is its current expectation of the timetable to which it is working.

My Lords, does the Leader of the House agree that the terms of reference of the Chilcot inquiry are so wide as to be almost infinite, and that the timing of the report’s publication depends not just on the handling of the representations but on the Government’s own clearance of what is to be included in the report? Will he undertake that that process will be done as quickly as the Government can manage?

I take both those points. On the Government’s co-operation with the declassification of documents as the process goes on, the Chilcot inquiry has said on the record that that process is working well. I know that the Government will co-operate as closely as they can to expedite that process of declassification as rapidly as possible.

My Lords, can the Leader of the House tell the House what is the period within which the people mentioned in the report have to respond to the report?

I am not able to give a precise timescale for that because that will, by definition, depend on what the findings of the report are, what the criticisms of individuals are and how long that process will need to take. However, I am sure that Sir John is as keen to publish his report, so that we can all see it, as everyone in this House is to get it done.