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House of Lords Hansard
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03 November 2014
Volume 756

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to expedite the publication of the report by the Chilcot Inquiry.

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My Lords, the inquiry is completely independent of government. However, Sir John Chilcot has said that it is the inquiry’s intention to submit its report to the Prime Minister as soon as possible. I very much hope that its conclusions will shortly be available for all to read.

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I express sympathy to my noble friend that HMG appear to be at the mercy of pressures from outside to connive in a delay in this report possibly to help Mr Bush and Mr Blair. Will he please come back to the Prime Minister’s exhortation in May that the report should be published by the end of this year at the latest and say when the date will be?

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My Lords, I refute that there is in any sense a conspiracy connected to the former Prime Minister or the former American president. It has taken a good deal longer than was anticipated to clear the many thousands of documents that have been examined and which will be published on the website with a number of redactions. That process is now virtually complete. The Maxwellisation letters, which were sent out as a warning last year, should now be going out and we hope that that process will be completed. As soon as those who are to be criticised in the report have responded, the report will be ready for submission to the Prime Minister.

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My Lords, is this not a scandal following on a scandal? Is it not a public disgrace? In other countries—for example, the Netherlands—there were far more competent professional inquiries, full of lawyers who could comment on international law, which replied very swiftly. We have had this endless delay. Does it not indicate that perhaps the Government as well as the Civil Service have ceased to believe in open government?

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No, my Lords, I do not think that it does. It has taken longer than we had hoped or expected. This is an entirely new sort of inquiry. I suppose it is comparable to the Savile inquiry, which also took a great deal longer than we had anticipated. We underestimated the complexity before we started, but we are encouraging the committee as rapidly as possible to complete and we are anxious to have the report published.

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My Lords, does the Minister accept that repeated press reports of rows between the Cabinet Office and the inquiry over the declassification of documents are deeply hurtful to the families most affected by the Iraq conflict? Does he agree that until the inquiry is completed, many bereaved and grieving families will not be able to move on?

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My Lords, I appreciate that many have been affected by the issues studied by this inquiry. I am not aware of any rows between the Cabinet Office and the inquiry. I am aware of a long series of complex discussions within the British Government, between the British Government and our allies and with the inquiry about the exact nature of what should be published. I am conscious that what will be published includes notes from more than 200 Cabinet meetings, for example, including some extracts from Cabinet minutes.

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My Lords, does my noble friend remember that, before the war broke out, 1 million ordinary people marched in the streets of London telling us not to go to war, yet we politicians did a pretty miserable job in waving that war on willy-nilly? While no one underestimates the difficulties that Sir John Chilcot faces, does my noble friend not accept that any further delay, after all this time, can only increase the sense of injustice that so many people feel about that war?

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My Lords, I remember that march very well: I was one of the marchers. We are very conscious that we now need to bring this to a close. I deeply regret that it has taken three years since the end of the interview phase of the inquiry to get as far as we have. We are all anxious to complete the next stage which, as I stress, is showing to those who will be criticised in the report what it says about them and giving them a chance to reply. As soon as that is completed—so we are a little dependent on them, I am afraid to say, and on their lawyers—the report will be submitted to the Prime Minister and published.

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My Lords, does the Minister regard “as soon as possible” as nearer or further off than “in due course”?

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My Lords, I very much hope nearer. In the debate in the House of Commons last week, my colleague the Minister for Civil Society commented that they very much hoped to have this published before the end of February. We are all conscious that we do not want to have this published in the middle of an election campaign.

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My Lords, could we have the report as a Christmas present?

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There are many things that the noble Lord might like as a Christmas present. I am not sure that I would prefer to read this report, with all its appendices, rather than the novels that I hope my wife will give me for Christmas.

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Does the Minister agree that sometimes in these enormous investigations it might be wise to set a time limit with an understanding that there are some things that simply can never be found out?

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My Lords, I think one of the lessons we will have learnt from this inquiry is that time limits are highly desirable. I stress again that the review of thousands of documents, which were at high levels of classification, was unprecedented and did unavoidably take a great deal of time.

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My Lords, how much has the Chilcot inquiry cost so far? Is it rather like building work in one’s own house that “as soon as possible” ends up costing an awful lot more?

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My Lords, the inquiry has cost £9 million so far. We estimate that by the time it is completed it will have cost £10 million. By comparison, the Savile inquiry cost £100 million.

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My Lords, how far will the extra £1 million take us? Can my noble friend give an assurance that it will not be within the pre-election period before the next general election when silence is observed?

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My Lords, that is the assurance that the Minister for Civil Society gave last week. We are all anxious that if it is not published by the end of February it would be inappropriate to publish it during the campaign period.

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My Lords, I declare an interest as I had the privilege of working very closely with Sir John Chilcot when he was the Permanent Secretary in Northern Ireland. Is my noble friend concerned that the backstage manoeuvring and perhaps even bickering going on as people allegedly seek to protect their reputations could over time start to have a damaging effect on the reputation of Sir John Chilcot? It would be a disgrace were that to be allowed to happen.

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My Lords, I am not sure about backstairs manoeuvring. I would say that the members of the Chilcot inquiry would not pass the necessary test as all being members of the establishment. Indeed, one of the members of the Chilcot inquiry disrupted the first lecture I gave as a university teacher when he was himself a rebellious student. The inquiry does have to consult those whom it will criticise and allow them to provide a defence. That is the process that now remains to be completed before we publish. We all have to accept that in natural justice that has to be allowed to go ahead even if there are lawyers involved.

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My Lords, the process referred to by the noble Lord could take months. It could take a very long time. If criticisms are made in the report they then have to go to the people who have been criticised. They have the right to comment. It then comes back to Sir John Chilcot. He has to consider those representations and then, if necessary, reflect them by amending the report. That is a recipe for a delay that will go on and on and on.

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My Lords, I hope that will not be the case, but I am sure the noble Lord will accept that this is a necessary part of the process. There will be criticisms of people who served in the previous Labour Government and they are entitled to see them before publication.

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My Lords, the question of what happens in the course of inquiries was reported on by the committee, of which I have the privilege to be a member, headed by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt. One of its recommendations was that we should look again at the process of writing to those who may be affected. Many of those who have conducted inquiries said that it led to additional expense and waste of time. The Government were not sympathetic to what we recommended. Does the noble Lord think that the Government should look at the matter again?

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My Lords, when the inquiry is complete and published, it might well be appropriate for some body of government or House of Parliament to look at that question again.