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Chilcot Inquiry

Volume 759: debated on Wednesday 28 January 2015

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what lessons they have taken from the conduct of the Chilcot Inquiry to inform the conduct of future inquiries.

My Lords, the Government are committed to learning lessons from the conduct of all public inquiries, including the Chilcot inquiry. Under the Inquiries Act 2005, each statutory inquiry is required to summarise lessons learnt for its successors; others are strongly encouraged to do so.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he agree that the Chilcot inquiry has proven itself wholly incapable of completing its work in a timely manner? Does he further agree that in future public inquiries should be judge led and time limited?

There is no necessary relationship between those inquiries which are judge led and those which are time limited. The noble Lord will recall that the Saville inquiry took 12 years. The question of timeliness is very difficult. I think that part of the problem for the Chilcot inquiry has been that the number of documents to be examined, then considered, then declassified and then in some cases to be negotiated on over access with an allied Government was much larger than was originally anticipated. It would probably have helped if a larger staff had assisted at that stage in the inquiry.

My Lords, the terms of reference of the Chilcot inquiry covered everything that happened both politically and militarily between 2001 and 2009. Is not one of the lessons to be learnt that more consideration should be given to the breadth of terms of reference of future inquiries?

My Lords, I entirely agree with that. It is a huge inquiry, which is one reason why it has taken so long. Perhaps the noble Lord has seen Sir John Chilcot’s letter of 20 January in which he said that they had served longer on the inquiry than any of them had anticipated. It has been longer than they expected. One of the issues for the inquiry on historical child abuse currently being set up is that the number of cases over a very large number of years that it is being asked to cover is almost daunting for an inquiry of that sort.

Can my noble friend give the House an assurance that when the report is finally published it will contain an adequate section explaining precisely what have been the difficulties and obstacles in the way of producing the report earlier?

My Lords, we are told that one of the reasons for the delay in publication is the issue of the Maxwellisation letters. Last week, the Government in their reply washed their hands of all responsibility and said that this was a matter for Chilcot. If it is correct that, after all these years, some of those letters have been sent out only in the past month or so, it would be utterly disgraceful. Is the committee still sitting, on how many days a week, and are the costs rising by the day?

My Lords, the Maxwellisation process is unavoidably a lengthy one. Noble Lords who served on the post-legislative scrutiny committee on the Inquiries Act last year—a particular special committee—raised the question of the length of time it took to carry through this process. There are issues of fairness and equity in making sure that those who may well be sharply criticised by a report should have the right to see those criticisms and comment on them before publication. That is the process that is now under way and, unfortunately, it does take some time.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Trimble; he may not be, but I am. Will the Minister reassure the House that the Government understand that the delays in publishing Chilcot—whether justified or not—are eroding public confidence in the report and in the inquiry process itself? Even allowing for the fact that this is an independent report, is there really nothing that the Government can do to impart some urgency and immediacy to this matter?

My Lords, I have no doubt that the members of the inquiry are fully aware of the urgency. If I had been advising them, I would have put a limit on the amount of time to be taken to respond to these Maxwellisation letters. That is one of the issues that remains. But certainly one of the lessons learnt will be that we need to ensure that inquiries do not take as long as a number of inquiries—not just this one—have taken in recent years.

My Lords, is not the reality of the matter that public confidence in the report and its outcomes is being undermined, not by the delay in publishing the report, as the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, claimed, but by the unfounded, unsubstantiated allegations that people are making?

My Lords, the purpose of inquiries is to restore public confidence, but it would be highly desirable if this report had been completed and published by now. There have been a number of reasons for the delay, and this is not the first time that an inquiry has taken, sadly, a lot longer than was originally hoped.

My Lords, in reply to an earlier question, the Minister referred to the numerous documents that had to be sifted and I am sure that he was absolutely right. Does he not agree with me that this is where having a good-quality counsel for an inquiry is essential? Am I right in thinking that Chilcot decided that he could do without such a person?

My Lords, I am not so sure that the quality of the counsel in this case was important. As I understand it, it was the sheer volume of documents that had to be sifted, a number of which were discovered to be relevant at a later stage of the inquiry, and then the whole question of what could be released. This is a very new kind of inquiry in terms of the amount of highly classified material—much of it relating to discussions with other Governments—that will be released.