Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the case for discharging the Chairman and members of the Chilcot Inquiry, and inviting the Cabinet Secretary to set out a mechanism for an interim report to be produced on the basis of the evidence gathered.
My Lords, I welcome at last the opportunity to debate the Chilcot inquiry. I have been very critical of the scandalous delays in publication. It may well be that the members of the committee will, after all, turn out to be knights in shining armour and produce an authoritative report that completely justifies its delays—in which case, I would withdraw my criticism. This committee was set up in June 2009, but it is still not able to give us a firm date for publication. Sir John recently promised to write to the Prime Minister in November with a timetable but, crucially, will not give a date for publication. The proposed legal action of some of the families of the 179 soldiers killed may have moved him. They are the ones most directly concerned in the establishment of the truth as to why we went to war. They have been badly let down: justice delayed is justice denied.
As an ex-Law Officer, I am concerned with upholding the rule of law in all its manifestations. A public inquiry is set up where there is widespread public concern on an issue of great importance. Although the cynical may portray it as kicking something into the long grass, we have no means other than that: to identify distinguished persons, be they lawyers or others, to identify the facts, deliver an authoritative judgment and publish their conclusions in good time for lessons to be learned. Respect for good governance is undermined if reports do not see the light of day before issues become dimmer and dimmer in public memory. Failure to publish reports in a timely way is indeed kicking it into the long grass.
The Franks committee into the Falklands War took about six months. Prime Minister Brown accepted the Cabinet Secretary’s recommendation to accept it as a model, and probably its terms of reference, the choice of members and perhaps also the mistaken advice to choose a non-statutory inquiry without the controls of the Inquiries Act 2005. I believe that the committee’s remit into an eight-year war might have been more tightly drawn. In the view of the noble Lord, Lord Butler, the terms of reference are so wide as to be almost infinite.
Sir John has said that he was not given the opportunity to discuss the scope of the inquiry. The Cabinet Office was in such a hurry that he was given only 10 minutes to decide whether to accept the chair or not.
I trust that the inquiry has concentrated on two fundamental issues, rather than chase every hare. First, what was the cause of the war? Did the Government believe the claims about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction or was the aim regime change, which has no basis whatsoever in international law? Was this the real motivation? Secondly, when was the decision taken to go to war? Was it at Crawford or Camp David, in April 2002, in discussions between Prime Minister Blair and President Bush? Even the British ambassador was excluded from those discussions and apparently no note was taken. If the decision was taken then, any subsequent discussions at the United Nations would have been a charade. It might explain why, blaming the apparent unwillingness of the French, no further effort was made to get an agreed political solution at the Security Council. In my memoirs I say that the Chilcot Inquiry may tell us.
The saddest feature of the inquiry process was the strenuous efforts of the Cabinet Office to block the committee from having access to whole swathes of vital documentation, including notes from Blair to Bush. Eventually, the Cabinet Office’s arguments could not be sustained and the committee deserves our congratulations on winning this argument. However, the agreed redactions and the agreement to publish just some of the documents will need very close examination. Sir John is not clear as to how much time was lost in the argument. At one stage the evidence was 13 months, but it could have been up to two years. The Minister’s comments on these two aspects will be of great interest.
The lost time is not the most glorious period in the history of the Cabinet Office. I presume that the committee has not considered the memorandum, disclosed last weekend, from Secretary Powell to President Bush. Sir John has stated that he has seen 30 minutes from Blair to Bush and records of conversations between Powell and Jack Straw. However, he did not have access to the archives of foreign Governments. Assuming the validity of the memo, will the committee need to reflect on it and will it affect its conclusions and the date of publication? Regrettably, there was no counsel to the inquiry, which can do the spade work, assemble the evidence and save a great deal of time.
The next cause of delay is the doctrine of Maxwellisation—briefly, in common law, fairness to all concerned. The criticised should have the opportunity to comment before publication. The Times has published some very important letters on Maxwellisation—for example, from Sir Robert Francis and Sir Stanley Burnton. In my view, the process of Maxwellisation, much criticised by a Select Committee of this House on which I had the honour of serving, is open to criticism for statutory inquiries. This doctrine and the fear of judicial review have been elevated to a far higher level than previously envisaged. We do not know how much time has been lost, how many witnesses were involved, and what has been deemed a reasonable time for replies. In his evidence, Sir John kept his cards very close to his chest.
The Prime Minister, who complained so much when the inquiry was set up about its estimated time of one year, has since been wringing his hands as he says the inquiry is independent. It may now be counterproductive to dispense with the committee’s services, although I have been calling since 1 July—and indeed earlier—for the Cabinet Secretary to assess the evidence and produce an interim report for Parliament to consider what further action could be taken. If this had been a statutory inquiry, Section 14 of the Inquiries Act 2005 would have allowed the Minister, with notice, to pull the plug and bring the inquiry to an end. Every public inquiry, one way or another, is subject to the will of Parliament. In this instance, I have a feeling that we went down the wrong way in not having a statutory inquiry with the controls of such an inquiry.
My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, for his speech; it was a privilege to listen to it. Earlier this month, I showed the great Beatles historian, Mark Lewisohn, around the House of Lords. He hopes to finish his biography of the Fab Four by 2028—by which time he will have spent almost a quarter of a century on it. Next week, the great Lyndon Baines Johnson historian, Robert Caro, will be here. His first volume on Johnson was published in 1982 and he still has not finished. Proper history—proper accounts of history—take a long time.
Sir John Chilcot has been asked to conduct a proper inquiry into one of the most controversial and complex events of modern times. It is not just, or even at all, a trial of Tony Blair. It is about, of course, how and why we went in, but also everything between 2001 and 2009. We may reflect on whether the terms of reference were correct, but, given the terms of reference, we have to understand that proper history and proper accounts of history take time.
Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel prize-winning social psychologist, says that it is a special cognitive illusion that, this time, things will be different and that our book will be quicker to write than everyone else’s. The Hillsborough inquiry, on a single afternoon, took from 2009 to 2012 to publish. The Saville inquiry took 11 years for the events of a single day. I calculate that if Sir John Chilcot proceeded at the same pace as the Saville inquiry, his inquiry should take 32,000 years—he is actually going quite quickly.
I am a journalist, and there is a trade-off between depth and speed, completeness and deadline. It is one of my central jobs to judge that correctly, so I wish to make two points. First, if Sir John is choosing depth over deadline, I believe that he is making the correct choice. If the House is anxious for an interim report on the Iraq war, I can give it one: it did not go as well as we had hoped. But he is supposed to try to do better. That is the only point of having the inquiry—we have already had so many books, articles, speeches and other inquiries. We have asked Sir John Chilcot to produce an inquiry which provides us with depth and authority, and such things take time.
Secondly, even if Sir John had made the wrong trade-off, the trade-off is his to make: it is an independent inquiry. Hurrying him is an infringement of his independence, and it is being done basically only as an insurance against him reaching inconvenient conclusions. A lot of my colleagues in the press believe that if they can discredit him in advance it will be a useful insurance policy in case he does not agree with what they already think about the Iraq war.
I supported the Iraq war, and that is why I want as much as anyone to hear what was right and what went wrong. It is extremely important to me to learn those lessons. But I do not want to learn the lessons that I already know from all the things that have been published; I want to learn the lessons from the deep inquiry that we have been engaged in. Of course we are all impatient for the outcome of anything we have invested time and energy in and wish to hear the results of, but we need to behave less like children in a car saying, “Are we nearly there yet?” and more like people who have asked for a big inquiry to tell us some very important things—which we are all going to hear, as we all realise, soon enough.
My Lords, I agree with almost everything that the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, said. He is absolutely right that getting the truth about this very complex and troubling story is more important than having a particular deadline in mind. An attempt to have an interim report would be very dangerous; it would lead to Maxwellisation and counter-Maxwellisation in an endless effort to find out the truth.
One difficulty of the whole report is that we were still getting substantial chunks of serious evidence as late as last weekend. The discovery of the Powell memorandum that went to the President of the United States, which explicitly set out in terms that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom was willing to consider military action, is of the first importance, not just because of the issue itself—many of us would disagree about military action; others would support it—but on an another issue that is equally important. It was March 2002 when the Powell memorandum was sent to the President, shortly before the summit meeting that took place at the ranch of the President in Crawford, Texas, in March 2002.
One of the crucial aspects of this was illuminated by the fact that, in February 2003, I asked the then Leader of the House, the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, whether there was any prospect of military action. I repeat the date: March 2003. The noble Baroness said: “I repeat that there is no prospect of military action at the present time”. The statement about Mr Blair’s view, dated March 2002, and the question that I asked the Leader of the House in February 2003, raise key constitutional questions. The immediate question which needs to be pursued by the Chilcot commission is whether the British Cabinet knew anything about the proceedings and negotiations between the Prime Minister and the President of the United States.
Mr Blair was a great believer in presidential leadership. One of his views was that something called “sofa diplomacy” was central to getting serious outcomes discussed and agreed. The difficulty with sofa government is that it excludes something which is critical to our way of doing politics, in which collective decisions are made by the Cabinet of the United Kingdom, not just by the Prime Minister. That has major implications. Presidential decisions—at least in theory—can be made by the President on his own. It is up to him whether he consults advisers or not. That is not the situation in the United Kingdom, and many of us would not wish to see it become the situation. The concept of Cabinet responsibility is deeply bound up with that of parliamentary responsibility.
What was the Chilcot commission asked to do? It has been harshly criticised on grounds it could not have avoided. First, as the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, correctly said, it was given an almost impossible mandate of exploring the period from 2001 all the way through to 2009: eight years of endless negotiation and discussion. The report is intended to cover not just the run-up to the war and the invasion of Iraq but also the issues of what the aftermath should be, what the exit strategy was and what steps should be taken to protect Iraq during the reconstruction. We now find that very little of that was ever openly discussed in Parliament or even in the US Congress.
I will take a moment to look at what was discussed in the US Congress. In September 2002, still well before the invasion, Congressmen asked Mr Powell and—perhaps more significantly—the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, where the money was going to come from for the reconstruction of Iraq. This reconstruction would be crucial to the prospects for peace in the Middle East and the surrounding area. Donald Rumsfeld answered that he did not know. He was asked if it was suggested that the money should come from the United States. The question was: “Will it be dollars for the reconstruction?”. His brutal reply was: “I do not think it will be dollars and I do not think it is likely to involve us”. In other words, he buried the issue of expenditure on reconstruction without the matter being discussed by Congress, which was crucially involved in giving support for any budgetary demand of that kind.
I will not go on—but, before I touch briefly on a couple of other matters, I will say that the Chilcot commission was confronted with an awful problem. The commission consists of five privy counsellors, selected not only for their long experience in international affairs but also, bluntly, for their outstanding reputation as people of integrity. I suspect that the issue of integrity was central for Sir John Chilcot and, as the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, implied, he is determined to find out the truth, however difficult that may be. We then roll on to the long, terrible story about the aftermath, in which it is increasingly clear that the British Government were hardly involved at all and that the issue was treated as a unilateral issue by the then Government of the United States.
I conclude by saying that we need desperately to have the truest possible account of this, which I think is the second-gravest mistake ever made in the history of the United Kingdom’s foreign policy after the end of the Second World War. It is on rather the same scale as the effects of Suez. Today, when we look at what has been tragically not only an attempt to try to invade Iraq but, perhaps more crucially, an attempt to see the Middle East fade away into a situation where there is almost no legally available support, let us not forget that an invasion based on the argument that you need regime change has no place in international law and no place in the United Nations.
Last of all, and perhaps most important, there is the straightforward fact that when we went along with the proposals for the aftermath, one issue that was never discussed with us was whether the Baathists should be completely expelled at the level of the police, the level of the army and the level of the civil service from a country which was then left in a desperate vacuum from which it has not to this day recovered. With peace in the Middle East very much in doubt today and very much sweeping towards a kind of nihilism, having a serious look at the truth of this report is probably the most important thing we can do to avoid anything like that happening in the future.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness. Just over 45 years ago, during the 1970 election, I opposed her and lost but I could not have asked to lose to a better person. I congratulate the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, on this timely and healthy debate but I hope that the House will allow me to say a word about Lord Howe of Aberavon whose funeral was held this morning. As his former Parliamentary Private Secretary and a Minister of State at the Foreign Office, I had many conversations with him about inquiries. We both gave evidence to the Scott inquiry, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scott, is here today. Had Lord Howe been alive and well, he would have undoubtedly wished to speak in this debate. Indeed, he chaired the Ely Hospital inquiry in Cardiff in 1969 when he had already taken Silk.
We are all familiar with Lord Howe’s distinguished career but, in my view, he was one of the most civilised, thoughtful and intelligent of post-war politicians, and a great parliamentarian. In a week when we are marking the state visit of President Xi, I should say that one of Lord Howe’s greatest achievements was negotiating the future of Hong Kong. It is worth saying that when he was negotiating with Deng Xiaoping in Beijing in 1983, I was on duty on a Saturday as a Minister in the Foreign Office when the British ambassador reported to say that Deng Xiaoping had disclosed that he trusted Geoffrey Howe. He authorised talks to go ahead and to conclude with the “one country, two systems” position. That was an act of great statesmanship.
It is the word “trust” on which I want to dwell because it is relevant to this debate. Clearly, it is essential that there is trust and confidence in the Chilcot inquiry and it has been continually under challenge. Like everyone else, I share the frustration about delays. But, as a former Civil Service Minister, I have to say that I suspect the most frustrated people of all are Sir John Chilcot and the other three distinguished members of the committee. Sir John is known for his fairness, impartiality and sense of duty, and all the members of the committee are known for their integrity and abilities.
Sir John has already made it clear that he never expected or wanted this inquiry to last this long. So why has it happened? First, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, that unlike the Butler and Hutton inquiries—I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Butler, will speak shortly—the terms of reference of which were tightly drawn, the scope and terms of reference of this inquiry were immensely broad. It has lasted over eight years of study. The run-up to the conflict, the period of the conflict and the post-conflict period were all included in the terms of reference.
Secondly, I recall that, after the inquiry was announced by the then Prime Minister in 2009, the Select Committee on Public Administration called for transparent and open procedures, rather than having evidence given in private. I gave evidence to the Franks committee in private and that has its merits. However, in an atmosphere of little trust in Governments, and so on, it is right to hold proceedings in the open—but surely they are bound to take longer.
Thirdly, as has already been mentioned by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, the amount of documentation the committee has had to study has evidently been absolutely massive. There are also questions of declassification and of the disclosure of exchanges between Bush and Blair—all that has to be sorted out and looked at. There were major delays, but I am told that 150,000 documents had to be studied and one should not underestimate the time it takes to work through all that. However, when the report comes, it should indicate who is responsible for the delays.
Fourthly, there is the matter of Maxwellisation. There are arguments for and against Maxwellisation, but that is not my point. Many people have suggested that that was the main cause of delay, but the Maxwellisation procedures did not start until the end of last year; I understand that they are now completed. They may have prolonged the process a little, of course, but I do not believe they were the main reason for delay. The big problem is the scale and complexity of the inquiry.
I agree with all those who suggest that it is not sensible to have an interim report. It is too late for that, in any event, and all stages of the inquiry are interrelated. It is also essential for Sir John to go on working to retain the confidence of the public and Parliament in what he is doing. What are the main causes of delay? It is perfectly reasonable for him to take opportunities to explain to the public the reasons for these frustrating delays, in order to retain the confidence of Parliament. Once the report is published, Parliament can debate the lessons to be learnt over Iraq and the lessons to be learnt about the nature and type of inquiries we hold in this country.
My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, for securing this debate. As he rightly pointed out, no other inquiry in our public life has taken so long. It was announced in June 2009 and it is now 2015. I have two questions to ask. What explains the delay? Was that delay justified?
It seems to me that five factors are responsible for the delay in submitting the report. The first is that it was not set up under the Inquiries Act 2005, and therefore the committee had to make up its own rules as it went along—for example, the rules governing the publication of documents within less than 30 years.
The second difficulty was that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, pointed out, its remit was extremely wide—not just the lead-up to the war in Iraq but what happened afterwards and what we should have done.
The third factor that explains the delay was the dispute over access to various documents. For example, it took nearly a year to obtain the Blair-Bush correspondence and the notes Mr Blair is supposed to have left with Mr Bush, to read them and to decide whether to include them in the report.
The fourth factor is Maxwellisation, and the fifth, which I shall concentrate on, is the chairman’s determined attempt to be absolutely fair and to produce as accurate an account of events as possible. As the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, said, every relevant fact had to be gathered, every “i” dotted and every “t” crossed. That is where my difficulty begins. I want to ask whether these five reasons for delay were all equally justified. It is obviously true that no inquiry can be exhaustive. If I were to write the history of the House of Lords, or of Parliament, it would not be definitive, for obvious reasons. Different facts and angles emerge, and you can look at the whole thing in many different ways.
In the case of this inquiry, we have already been told by Sir John Chilcot that transcripts of discussions and dialogues with foreign government officials were not properly written down or will not be circulated, so even this report will not be entirely accurate or comprehensive. Simply no report can be, because new facts constantly keep emerging. If you aim to write a definitive and comprehensive account on an event as momentous as this, you will have to wait until the end of eternity. The chairman was wrong to aim to produce that kind of report.
Maxwellisation is another factor. I am not entirely sure that we should have gone along that road. Maxwellisation emerged in a certain context and it was justified, but should it be applied to every situation? It may lead to counter-Maxwellisation: someone might stand up and say, “Look, he is involved in a public inquiry; he should be able to defend himself against every criticism”. The public inquiry body would then say, “Look, we want to be able to answer your criticism”, and there is no end to the process.
Also, a report such as this, which tries to cover every aspect, ends up saying that someone is responsible for this and someone else for that, and there is no focus of responsibility—no single agent is responsible for the war in Iraq. My feeling is that the inquiry needed to be limited in its remit from the beginning, but that is neither here nor there.
If one looks at what is happening now, there are two things to bear in mind. First, an inquiry of this kind is supposed to attain certain objectives, such as closure for the families and the country; to get at the truth of the matter; to suggest ways to restore trust in politics; and, as the terms of reference set out—in a rather strange form of English—to,
“strengthen the health of our democracy … and our military”.
If these are the objectives, the question is: how will they be realised? The longer the delay in the report’s publication, the greater the chance that public trust in our system will be weakened, or that closure for the war, the families and the country will not be obtained.
In my view, these objectives require that the report should have been published much earlier, or at least that it now needs to be published as soon as possible. Having said that, I want to make it absolutely clear that this does not imply that there is any reason at this stage for discharging the chairman or the members of the committee. They have done a most honourable job. As I pointed out, where they have faltered, they have done so with good intentions and a sense of honour. We need to learn lessons from the inquiry itself and ensure that it is allowed to publish its report as early as we would like it to be.
My Lords, I too thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, for initiating the debate. It is important for us to realise that this inquiry is crucial to the family and friends of those who lost their lives in Iraq, who must feel very badly treated in this sorry affair. To them it must feel that the decision to lay down the lives of their loved ones must have been taken in weeks or perhaps months, yet the analysis of why those decisions were taken—the basis of their understanding why it appears that this was embarked on almost with such carelessness—is still incomplete 12 years after the commencement of that war.
I start by making it clear that I have the greatest respect for the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, but I do not agree with discharging the inquiry at this point. It would be invidious because the report would be published incomplete—we all want a full and thorough account of what happened. Also, in any event, it would not come out very shortly because security clearances would have to be obtained before publication.
Before I go any further in my analysis of the failings of the inquiry, I should say that we have been talking about what led to the Iraq war. I bring to the House one other fact that my noble friend Lady Williams, in her extraordinary recall of how hard the Liberal Democrats worked at the time to influence the outcome of that decision, pointed out to me: that Liberal Democrat spokespeople in both Houses repeatedly pressed for UNMOVIC—the team of UN inspectors—to be given full authority by the UN to inspect Iraq for any evidence of weapons of mass destruction. Focusing on getting rid of such weapons would have been more effective and cost far less in lives and destruction than an invasion.
The British Government’s own dossier, published on 24 September 2002, stated that the inspectors had achieved a great deal in Iraq. The leader of the Iraq inspectors, Hans Blix, pleaded for more time to complete the inspection of all the suspect sites, but the US Government were not in any mood to concede this. So we lost an opportunity at that point, and it was clear that that particular US Government did not really want evidence or inspection; they just wanted to proceed to war—and it might now appear that that is what they had been promised by their ally, the United Kingdom.
Coming back to the Chilcot inquiry, it is worth noting that Sir John Chilcot has announced that he will write to the Prime Minister on 3 November with the timeline. I do not know to what extent the fact that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, had tabled his Question to be debated today led to Sir John deciding to do that. I suspect that the Question was on the Order Paper before the decision was taken to set a date to publish the timeline.
In this sorry affair there have been big issues of judgment. The inquiry was announced on 15 June 2009. In this House on that day, as is recorded in the Hansard report, I said that given the very wide scope of the inquiry it should be in two parts—the first looking at the events that led up to the war, and the second looking at the conduct of the war. The response of the then Leader of the House, the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, was that:
“It is up to the committee how it structures its work”.—[Official Report, 15/6/09; col. 866.]
Three days later, the Public Administration Committee also recommended the same thing—a two-part inquiry into the decision to go to war, and another on the conduct of the war. The Labour Government again stated that it was up to the inquiry to decide what it wanted to do. So the question has to arise: given how very wide the scope was—everybody who has spoken has commented on that aspect—and that that was known from the outset, why did the inquiry decide to do its work as a single comprehensive exercise? Ultimately, that is a matter of judgment.
When Sir John gave evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee in the other place on 4 February 2015, he admitted that he was not consulted on the scope of the inquiry; the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, said that in his opening remarks. In other words, Sir John was given the absolute thinnest of job descriptions: perhaps an analogy would be the kind of initial job advert that we see in newspapers. Rather than asking for a detailed job description with a detailed specification, and arguing the case for a different kind of inquiry or a different timeline—or different staff, more resources or whatever—he accepted the job in 10 minutes flat; frankly, I felt embarrassed reading that part of his evidence.
It therefore seems a fair criticism to ask why, once he had agreed to do the job, he did not take the opportunity to consider the recommendation that he proceed down a different course. Never mind the fact that I made that recommendation; it was also made by a serious committee in the other place, the Public Administration Committee. Sir John said in his evidence that the inquiry took evidence from 150 witnesses and saw thousands of documents. One is tempted to suggest that he might have foreseen that.
My second point is about the delays. Looking at the sequencing of events, it is clear that there was some kind of stand-off between the Cabinet Secretary and the inquiry team, which lasted for a while. Sir John is not ready to criticise the Cabinet Secretary for delay; none the less it took from July 2012 to January 2015 to reach an agreement on publishing the Blair-Bush correspondence. It is perhaps worth noting that Messrs Blair and Campbell, and Jonathan Powell, had been able to publish their reports of these conversations without hindrance.
I am running out of time, so let me conclude with this: the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, has put up a spirited defence about how long it takes to measure the march of history, by telling the House how long it takes to write a biography. I say to him that his colleague Charles Moore has written volume 2 of Margaret Thatcher’s biography, which I am reading at the moment, with great aplomb, in an extremely short time.
I want to pick up the issue of our continuing intervention in the Middle East. Let us go back to the August 2013 vote on not intervening in Syria. We as a country cannot, and should not, make a decision on that until we know of our hand in setting that region ablaze in the first instance. That is the least we owe the country.
My Lords, I start by following the noble Lord, Lord Luce, in making a brief reference to Lord Howe, whose funeral was today. I would have liked to attend that funeral, but I decided not to because I felt that I should take part in this debate. However, seeing the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, in his place, who attended the funeral, I perhaps made the wrong choice, but I do not think I could have been sure of doing it. I had the privilege of knowing Lord Howe well from 1979, when he became Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was a major political figure and a great public servant. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and his family have been very much in my thoughts today.
I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, for giving us the opportunity to have this debate. For the most part it will have given deserved comfort to Sir John Chilcot and his team because very many supportive things have been said. I think that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, made it clear in his remarks that his suggestion that the committee should now be discharged was really a vehicle for the debate rather than a suggestion that he wanted the Government to take seriously. Many speakers have referred to the sense of frustration, which I am sure is shared by Sir John Chilcot and the members of the inquiry itself, that it has taken so long. But although the precise timing of the finish has not yet been specified by Sir John and the team, it is now in sight. To dissolve the committee and to produce a report which is only 90% baked would go a very long way towards wasting all the effort and the resources which have gone into the report so far. It would deny satisfaction to those who have been waiting for a full conclusion on the matters which are of so much concern to so many people, particularly those who lost loved ones in the war. It would require a gigantic learning curve for those who would be charged with taking up the task of producing an interim report, and it would almost certainly take longer than allowing the present team to conclude its task.
There has been much reference, rightly, to the problems which the inquiry has faced. First, as has been said, its terms of reference, settled in the dying days of the last Labour Government, I think in haste and under pressure, were ridiculously wide. They covered everything that happened, both politically and militarily, between July 2001 and 2009. The mind boggles at the number of documents and the number of people involved during that period. In the review which I led into intelligence on weapons of mass destruction, on Iraq alone there were many thousand intelligence reports. The number of documents and the number of people in this case must be many multiples of that. Then, of course, there is also the question of the confidential exchanges with allies, particularly the United States, which has been referred to. That is not a straightforward matter. My sympathies are, as noble Lords might expect, with the Cabinet Secretary in his difficulties over that because, if the President of the United States cannot speak frankly to the Prime Minister of Britain and expect those confidences to be preserved, future presidents will not do so. So that has been a genuine problem and, if I may say so, trying to deal with United States Administrations over the release of papers is also not a matter that you can conduct quickly, as I have found in my experience. Then there is the question of the Maxwellisation process and fair treatment of the people who were criticised. That, no doubt, led to more documents, which had to be accessed and assessed. And so the problem has gone on.
Whatever lessons the inquiry teaches us about the Iraq war, there are, as has been said, lessons to be learned about setting up inquiries of this sort. During my time in Government, I was involved in setting up inquiries and since then I have been set up myself, if that is the right term. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner—I am sure other people who have conducted inquiries would share the view—one does not often get the chance to discuss the job description before an inquiry is announced.
When an inquiry is being set up, there are huge pressures on the Government to widen the terms of reference to cover every angle. If the Government wish to confine the terms of reference, they risk being accused of covering up. I am particularly glad to see the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scott, in his place because I was concerned about the setting up of the arms-to-Iraq inquiry. I remember, vividly, that the Government were concerned about the charge that, by bringing a prosecution against Matrix Churchill, they had tried to put innocent people in jail. That was the subject which prompted the inquiry. The Opposition pressed, understandably, for it to be widened to cover the whole subject of the export of arms. The Government, because they did not want to give the impression they had anything to hide, agreed to that and the whole subject was opened up. An inquiry which they had expected to take three months—I do not know what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scott expected, I have not asked him—took three and a half years to cover that very big subject.
The experience of the Chilcot inquiry shows that when we press for inquiries to be set up we should be careful what we wish for. In this case, it is a very big subject and it deserves proper treatment. If the inquiry has taken the time it has taken, I think we should judge it by its outcome and be patient until it is delivered.
My Lords, I have an interest to declare. I was a TA officer serving in Iraq on Op Telic 1, in the spring of 2003, and I served in the headquarters of the divisional support group of 1 (UK) Armoured Division.
I assumed that the Prime Minister at the time had a very good reason for invading Iraq. It was not my role to worry about why; my job was to do my duty. For me, the purpose of the inquiry is to find out what, if anything, went wrong, to learn from our mistakes and to inform future policy. I do not see the report as purely of academic or historical interest and I think it will help us with our current problems in the Middle East. I do not believe that democratic leaders can lead a country to war without being held to account for the decisions that they made on our behalf. I could see the dodgy dossier for what it was and the inquiry of the noble Lord, Lord Butler, told us about how sofa government worked.
In Iraq, when we crossed the start line on Operation Telic, we honestly believed that there were weapons of mass destruction, in military significant quantities, in Iraq. I well recall one evening when the Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Warfare Warrant Officer looked like death warmed up. We asked him, “What’s wrong?” and he said that the meteorological conditions were absolutely perfect for a chemical attack and that we had already crossed several strategic trip wires.
Fortunately, there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But in the first missile attack, I, along with all the other servicemen in Iraq, donned my full NBC protection equipment. I do not know what the temperature was but it must have been at least 40 degrees centigrade. I did not know whether I was going to survive the next hour but I did know that if I did not get my drills correct, I could be killed by my own mistakes.
Maxwellisation seems to be aptly named. It seems to be an invitation to be as economic as possible with the volume of the evidence that you give to the inquiry because the witness is safe in the knowledge that if the inquiry gets on the money, they can come back with better particulars. Surely it would be much better to make it quite clear that there will be no Maxwellisation or very limited Maxwellisation, so you had better tell the inquiry everything you know.
Many noble Lords have pointed out the difficulties that Sir John has experienced. It is worth pointing out that he could have declined to take the mission or could have changed the mission. He could have gone back to the Prime Minister and said, “I have had a look at it and it is far too difficult. We need to do two inquiries. We need a much more closely focused inquiry”. The key issue for people is: was this war—because that it what it was—legal and necessary? Actually, there was plenty of time to appoint the inquiry and to think about the terms of reference, because the inquiry was set up several years after we started the invasion.
On the Blair-Bush communications, if you take two democratic states to war, you must expect to come under a certain amount of scrutiny post the event. I accept that there would have to be some redaction but I think that the inquiry is entitled to refer, without all these delays, to what was going on between our Prime Minister and the President. I do not accept the arguments that we must never know what the two were discussing—because it is absolutely critical to understanding what, if anything, went wrong.
As someone who took part in the military operation in Iraq, I think that the inquiry is a complete waste of time. It is too late and it is too wide. It does not yet hold anyone to account. It also does not yet exonerate Ministers and officials who, in my opinion, have been unfairly pilloried—and, I am sorry to say, by senior politicians in my party who should have known better. Actually, in terms of the conduct of the operation, the logistics side of it, the Ministry of Defence did exceptionally well and there were some really unfair attacks on Labour Defence Ministers.
When we do get the report, it will really help us to understand how we got to the current situation in the Middle East, because Saddam Hussein was the first leader that we deposed and we are now not sure whether that was the right thing to do at all. Finally, of course, the delay in the report and in setting up the inquiry is extremely unfair to the Liberal Democrats because they have gone through several general elections without the benefit of the report, which would tell the electorate whether they were right or wrong to oppose the war.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, for launching this debate and raising some of the very searching questions that he did, quite rightly. On 1 July at Question Time he referred to these matters and suggested that there should be some kind of interim publication.
None of us can be other than extremely sympathetic to the role that the hapless—I use the word deliberately—Sir John Chilcot has had to undertake in this inquiry. He is regarded as a person of great integrity, probity and distinction in his field. In many ways, there could not have been a better choice. But I was very struck on 4 February when the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Commons, chaired by Richard Ottaway, had its hearing with him. The then right honourable Sir Menzies Campbell—now the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem—asked,
“do you ever rue the day that you were asked to take on this responsibility, Sir John?”.
Sir John Chilcot said:
“I try very hard not to rue the day”.
He went on to say:
“May I put it this way, Sir Ming? All of us, and I say this in seriousness, are determined to get this thing done. None of us thought it would take this long. We want to get it done, but we are not going to get it done by scamping the work or failing in the essential principles that we have set ourselves: everything we say and conclude must be based on evidence. It’s got to be fair; it’s got to be impartial; it’s got to be rigorous—all of that”.
That must therefore be the background once again to the putative timetable for the eventual publication—I very much agree with the analysis of the noble Lord, Lord Butler, on these matters—of the substance of what happened in those terrible events in 2003: the declaration of a war that was illegal, only certificated by the UN under pressure afterwards; the worst possible post-war Foreign Office decision apart from Suez for the United Kingdom; the mistakes that were made.
In the debate which I raised in July 2014, which I think was probably the last substantial debate on this matter in this House apart from exchanges at Question Time, I was very struck by the contribution of a non- politician and a non-lawyer, the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley of Knighton, who is not here today. He said this of the commemorations of the First World War and all that:
“That is germane to what we are talking about because we owe it to the many people who gave their lives so bravely and to the many families that lost relatives to always look with microscopic attention at the reasons for going to war. We know now that many mistakes were made and we really should be trying to use the example of those errors to never make them again. That is why this inquiry is so terribly important. Then we have the families of those representing us who were bereaved in Iraq and—because of our actions there, arguably—the people who are still losing their lives”.—[Official Report, 1/7/14; col. 1698.]
That was when events were still taking place afterwards. It also applies to the fate of Iraqi civilians. That should be a substantial part of this report.
I remember vividly an exchange at Question Time before 1 July 2014 when I complained about the delay and the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, a former Foreign Secretary, who is not here today, said that the delay was a scandal, whatever the reasons for it, on the body politic and the public interest. Why was it so important for them to turn on Saddam Hussein if regime change was not the main driver? Why did Tony Blair have those embarrassing exchanges in 2002 when there was no question of there being any declaration of war? Why did the then Government ignore the instinct and feelings of 1.5 million people marching down Piccadilly to protest about what was still an illegal war? Why did the Americans and the British ignore the wise advice of the French Government under President Chirac and Foreign Secretary Dominique de Villepin about the mistake of going to war on that occasion? Those things must come up now and all I say in response to the very apposite points made by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, is that it has to be quam celerrime and not too soon. We look forward to seeing the timetable on 3 November and then making a judgment. Possibly there should be another debate in the House of Lords on this matter as soon as possible after that.
My Lords, I told the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, that if I got back from the funeral of Lord Howe of Aberavon I would try to say a few words in the gap. I begin by endorsing everything that my noble friends Lord Luce and Lord Butler said about Lord Howe. This morning’s service was a very moving one and the feelings of love were palpable throughout because he was a great man who deserved the affection in which he was held. There was much laughter as well, which was entirely appropriate.
I have great concern about this subject. When the inquiry was established I was worried about it. I was worried that we should have an inquiry which could jeopardise international relations and conversations between national leaders—the noble Lord, Lord Butler, has already referred to this—and I was also worried about its open-ended nature. However, in those immortal words, we are where we are. I endorse very strongly the general sentiments of my noble friend Lord Finkelstein. There is no point in having an interim report and abandoning what is there. We now need and deserve to know. There must be a thorough examination. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, I am especially concerned about what happened in the immediate aftermath of the invasion.
I supported the war, as did my noble friend Lord Finkelstein. He supported it in print; I supported it in speech in the other place. I believed that our Prime Minister was entirely patriotic in his designs and desires. I do not resile from that now, but I want to see a thorough inquiry. Sympathetic as we all are to those who lost loved ones who laid down their lives in this war—a small number but, nevertheless, each one an individual who means a great deal to his family—we must not allow our sympathy to create a sense of panic. So, Sir John, who has come in for much undeserved criticism, should know that he has the confidence of your Lordships’ House, that he and his team have our trust and that we trust that they will produce a report that is serious and far-reaching and makes conclusions and judgments that are entirely fair. They must not be rushed into so doing. We are grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, for giving us this opportunity, but the message that goes out from your Lordships’ House should of course be that we await with eagerness the publication of the report, but we do not wish to create any sense of undue pressure on those who have been charged with producing it.
My Lords, I, too, commend the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, on securing this debate. I share with him and others the concern and frustration at the serious delay that has, I fear, damaged the credibility of the Iraq inquiry. However, like all the other speakers, I do not believe that discharging the inquiry would be sensible. In my view, that would send us back to square one, and for us now effectively to go back to the drawing board would be a great mistake. Indeed, were that course adopted, we might never, after all the expenditure of time and money, secure a final report—and securing an authoritative report is vital in the public interest.
What is required now is for the full report to be completed and published as quickly as reasonably possible. The public, those involved in the events of and around the Iraq war, within and outside the armed services—in particular, the families of the casualties— deserve nothing less than a thorough and convincing report within a clear and achievable timetable.
This inquiry has exposed a serious weakness in our arrangements for inquiries, whether or not established under the Inquiries Act 2005. Unfortunately, and no doubt in the interests of protecting his independence and that of his inquiry, Sir John’s correspondence has reflected the view that timetabling is a matter for the inquiry and is almost entirely free from scrutiny. Indeed, he resisted providing a timetable until 13 October, when he promised to write to the Prime Minister by 3 November with a timetable to completion. I agree with the suggestion of my noble friend Lady Falkner that that was probably in response to the tabling of this debate. As recently as 8 September, Sir John had written thus to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee:
“There is, inevitably, further work for my colleagues and I to do to evaluate these submissions”—
he was referring to the Maxwellisation responses—
“which are detailed and substantial, in order to establish with confidence the time needed to complete the Inquiry’s remaining work. As soon as I am able to I shall write to the Prime Minister with a timetable for publication of the Inquiry’s report”.
I do not accept the view of the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, that there is no need for the Maxwellisation process, but I suspect that its management has been insufficiently strict. I also suspect that, had a senior judge been in charge, with experience of bringing difficult cases to readiness for trial, much tighter deadlines would have been imposed, and imposed publicly. The need for a public timetable is one of the things we should stress. I cannot believe, for example, that any individual needs more than two months to respond to indicative criticisms. I am also clear that only one response should be permitted, in the absence of the most exceptional circumstances, to avoid the process that fairness requires becoming a negotiation. In my view, the chairperson of the inquiry should publicly set out a timetable, subject to necessary adjustment, with a clear explanation of any need for extension.
When the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, announced the inquiry in 2009, he said that he was advised that it would take a year. It is unacceptable that, more than six years on, we have had only partial explanations for the delay, despite Sir John’s evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee in February of this year. For my part, I entirely agree with the noble and learned Lord that I see no reason why this inquiry was not established under the Inquiries Act 2005. The Select Committee on the Act, established under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Shutt of Greetland, which reported last year, recommended that,
“inquiries into issues of public concern should normally be held under the Act. This is essential where Article 2 of the ECHR is engaged”,
as it is, of course, loosely, in this case.
Sir John, in his evidence to the Select Committee, did not agree. He felt that the power of compulsion contributed to an overly formal or court-like adversarial process, and said:
“The absence of legal powers to subpoena witnesses and to take evidence on oath was also the subject of debate when the Inquiry was launched…In my statement of 30 July , I said that the Inquiry is not a court of law and nobody is on trial, and that remains the case”.
I disagree with Sir John as to the thrust of that. I regard the power of compulsion, along with firm time management, as essential. It is also quite clear that the protection of national security can be properly managed on an inquiry under the Act. There is a strong case for the Act to be amended to give the commissioning Minister the power to require the inquiry chairman to give a full timetable for his work at the outset and keep it updated as the inquiry develops, much as this House often does when establishing committees to report to the House.
I do not believe that an interim report on the basis of the evidence gathered would be helpful. Such an interim report would be no more than a recitation of the evidence to date, without conclusions or recommendations, or it would draw provisional conclusions open to reversal at a later stage. A record of evidence without the conclusions would be of limited use because the whole purpose of an inquiry is to draw such conclusions, and without them, the report—interim or not—is of no help. Moreover, I agree strongly with others who have spoken that an interim report containing the evidence and interim conclusions would be confusing and unsatisfactory. It would leave the inquiry open to charges of interference if any of the provisional conclusions were altered, and neither set of conclusions—interim or final—would command any respect. If they turned out to be the same, the final conclusions would be criticised on the basis that they were reached precisely in order to accord with the interim conclusions—by definition, the incompletely considered conclusions. If the conclusions were different, then the final conclusions would be criticised for inconsistency with the provisional conclusions earlier expressed.
Therefore, let us await the timetable for publication on 3 November in the hope that this debate has brought home to the public and the inquiry members the importance of completing an authoritative work and producing a report with expedition.
My Lords, I first stood at this Dispatch Box about a year and a half ago, and the issue we were discussing at that point was Chilcot; we were awaiting the imminent publication of the report. But here we sit, £10 million poorer and still waiting.
I thank my noble and learned friend Lord Morris for his perseverance in pursuing the publication of this report, but we do not believe that it would make sense, after all the money spent and all the time committed, to dismiss members of the inquiry team and produce an interim report. However, I cannot emphasise enough that Labour would like to see the report published as soon as possible without compromising the thoroughness of the inquiry.
It is worth recalling that we are not here today to debate the substantive issues of the Chilcot inquiry. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Iraqi invasion, a Labour Government under Gordon Brown initiated the Chilcot inquiry in 2009—a public inquiry into the nation’s role in the Iraq war. We appreciate the vast scope of the report, both in terms of the time period it covers and the range of issues which it seeks to address. The report will cover the run-up to the 2003 conflict, the legality of military action, faulty intelligence, the subsequent military action and its aftermath, and will attempt to establish the way decisions were made and the handling of Iraq after the invasion. It will also identify lessons to be learned to ensure that in a similar situation the British Government will be equipped to respond in the most effective manner and in the best interests of the country. The task set for the committee is huge.
Six years since the establishment of the inquiry, with hearings completed in 2011, it is difficult to explain, in particular to the families of those who lost loved ones in the war—alluded to by my noble and learned friend Lord Morris and the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner—the prolonged length of time it has taken to complete this difficult exercise. The people involved in decisions on intervention in Iraq have also stated that they are keen to see the report published. Tony Blair himself said in June last year:
“I have got as much interest as anyone in seeing the inquiry publish its findings”.
However, the delay in the publication however does not matter just to them but to all of us. Even the most cursory glance at the region today leads us to conclude that post-war preparation was ill-conceived and ill-prepared. The area of Iraq is still extremely unstable, with IS having taken control of large swathes of the country. The United Kingdom Government, with support from Labour, have already agreed to go back into Iraq to help support the democratically elected Iraqi Government, who are finding it hard to withstand the incursions of ISIL. It would have been useful to know prior to that decision whether we could have learned lessons from our previous intervention.
With the Tory Government hinting very strongly that they are anxious to intervene in Syria, it would be invaluable to learn whether and how mistakes were made so that they can be avoided in future. That may determine whether and how we intervene at all—who knows? How and to what extent we should take a lead or work with coalition partners in future in the Middle East neighbourhood, and how much influence we have on them, are crucial questions for our long-term strategic plans in the region.
We know that there have been many reasons for the delay in publication; they have been outlined very clearly by my noble and learned friend Lord Morris and other noble Lords. It was caused partly by discussions over certain classified documents, in particular in relation to correspondence with US Presidents.
Members of the inquiry team have had access to and sight of this information; they are all privy counsellors and have had access to thousands of documents which have been declassified from a number of government departments, including the most sensitive intelligence documents. My understanding therefore is that Gordon Brown’s promise at the start of this inquiry that,
“No British document and no British witness will be beyond the scope of the inquiry”,—[Official Report, Commons, 15/6/09; col. 23.]
has been respected.
The Maxwellisation process has also caused severe delays and, while we do not object to this process, it seems extremely odd—as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Marks—not to have given deadlines to witnesses within which time they needed to respond.
It is important that not only do we learn lessons from the invasion of Iraq so that those mistakes are not repeated but that we learn lessons from our system of carrying out inquiries in this country. Even independent inquiries need budget and time restrictions. This is not the first time that an inquiry has taken so long. The al-Sweady inquiry took five years to report and cost £24 million. The Baha Mousa inquiry took three years and cost over £13.5 million. The Bloody Sunday inquiry cost £195 million and took 12 years to report. These are obscene figures and we cannot continue to function in this way when the country is under such immense financial pressure.
We believe that it is time for the truth on this matter to come out. It is time for the report to be published but we are prepared to be a little more patient so that the job is completed properly.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, on securing this debate on the Chilcot inquiry. I also thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate—there have been some extremely good and informative speeches. Once again a number of your Lordships, but by no means all, have spoken eloquently of the need for the inquiry to publish the report as soon as possible. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, and my noble friend Lord Dykes, said, uppermost in our minds are the families and friends who lost loved ones in Iraq, as well as those who were severely injured, who have been waiting for years for the publication of the report.
Despite this sense of disappointment that the report has still not been published, I am sure that everyone here would agree that, as my noble friend Lord Finkelstein remarked, this inquiry is unprecedented in its scope and scale. Never before has a UK public inquiry examined in such depth and detail a decision to go to war and its consequences with unprecedented access to question the people who took those decisions and advised on those decisions, as well as having access to the papers surrounding discussions. I think there will be surprise at the number and extent of highly classified and sensitive material that will be published with the report.
As has been said, it is more than six years since this inquiry of privy counsellors was set up by the previous Labour Government and no one at the time expected it would still not have published its findings in 2015. Sir John himself said, not long after the inquiry was launched, that he expected it to conclude within 18 months. However as Sir John said earlier this year:
“I don’t believe it was possible then … to have foreseen the nature and range of issues that would be disclosed progressively from the examination not only of witnesses in the oral hearings, but of the extraordinarily wide-ranging and voluminous archive”.
As a number of noble Lords have said, I am sure that when the report is published and its conclusions have been considered, we will also wish to debate what lessons we can learn from this inquiry, as the noble Baroness just said, in terms of the process that has been followed, be it on Maxwellisation, that the noble Lord, Lord Marks, spoke about or other matters, such as its remit or how it was established. However, I would argue that that debate is best had when the report is published. As to the publication of the report, since I last answered the noble and learned Lord’s Question in the Chamber last July there has been some progress. As we have heard, Sir John has confirmed that all the individuals who received provisional criticisms under the Maxwellisation process have responded and Sir John is currently evaluating those responses. Crucially, last week, the inquiry informed No. 10 that Sir John would write to the Prime Minister by 3 November with a timetable for the completion of the report. Therefore, by early next month, we should know when the report will be delivered.
I turn now to the noble and learned Lord’s question for debate. In the light of these developments, he will not be too surprised when I say that the Government do not believe there is a case for discharging the chairman and members of the inquiry and inviting the Cabinet Secretary to set out a mechanism for an interim report to be produced on the basis of the evidence gathered. As the noble Lord, Lord Butler, said, in less than two weeks we will have a timetable for publication, and we owe it to the families to continue with this inquiry as it aims to provide the answers that they desperately want. Discharging the inquiry at this stage would obviously not help that process.
As has been mentioned, the inquiry is fully independent of government. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, said, this inquiry was not set up under the Inquiries Act. This means, of course, that it has no statutory basis as such. If the Government were to accept the course of action set out in the Question, it would undermine the fundamental independence of the inquiry. Therefore, we have to see it through, otherwise any outcome will be significantly devalued and it will delay closure on what has been such a controversial episode in British political history, as the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, set out very eloquently.
Once the report is published, there will be an initial Statement from the Government in both Houses. Then, once we have all had the opportunity to read and digest what the report has to say, there will be an opportunity for a full debate in both Houses.
I will now touch upon a couple of points that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, mentioned, in particular about the release of papers relating to Tony Blair’s correspondence with President Bush, a point that the noble Lord, Lord Butler, also referred to. I should make it completely clear at the outset that the inquiry has had full access to the information that it has requested. The discussion was about the disclosure of the information that the inquiry had access to. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me for setting out in a little detail what actually happened.
On 15 July 2013, Sir John Chilcot wrote to the Prime Minister confirming that he had begun a dialogue with Sir Jeremy Heywood about the material that the inquiry wished to reflect in its analysis of discussions in Cabinet and Cabinet Committees and the references that the inquiry wished to make about the contents of Mr Blair’s notes to President Bush and discussions between Mr Blair and Mr Brown and Presidents Bush and Obama. As Sir Jeremy Heywood made clear when he addressed the then Public Administration Committee in the other place in January this year, he approached the question of declassification with a bias towards transparency, including Tony Blair’s memos to George Bush and the Cabinet minutes. I should add that Sir John told the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in the other place:
“I have no indication that Sir Jeremy acted otherwise than properly throughout”.
On 28 July 2014, Sir John wrote to Sir Jeremy Heywood confirming that agreement had been reached on principles underpinning the disclosure of notes and records relating to the Prime Minister and US President’s discussions, and that agreement had been reached on the detail of what the inquiry would release in relation to the Cabinet and Cabinet Committee discussions. As Sir John told the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, this process took 13 months.
The noble and learned Lord is perfectly justified to ask why this process took so long. The simple answer is that disclosure in this way of papers involving communications between a Prime Minister and a US President is, as far as I understand it, almost unprecedented. I say almost, because the Franks report into the Falklands War did refer to the contents of communications between Margaret Thatcher and President Reagan, although these were direct references rather than extracts.
As the noble Lord, Lord Butler, said, the inquiry’s request for disclosure raised issues of long-standing principle; for example, the importance of preserving the privileged channel of communication between the Prime Minister and the US President. In taking the decision to allow disclosure of this information, Sir Jeremy had to balance the possible damage to UK-US relations, and the potential that, in future, free and frank exchanges might be inhibited by this disclosure, against the exceptional nature of the inquiry and the central importance to the inquiry’s work of these exchanges. The negotiations were worked through in good faith, with the aim of enabling the inquiry to publish as much material as possible. However, all this took time to resolve.
I turn to an issue that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, the noble Lord, Lord Parekh and the noble Earl, Lord Attlee also raised—about the value and worth of releasing such material if it is redacted. Clearly, the best time for us to judge the answer to this question will be when the report is actually published. However, as Sir John Chilcot made clear earlier this year when he appeared before the Foreign Affairs Committee in the other place, it is essential to establish an account of what happened—an account that people can trust.
The inquiry has spent time and effort in ensuring it can publish the material it needs from those documents. I would, however, make a few observations. First, as Sir John Chilcot wrote to the Cabinet Secretary on 28 May 2014, regarding the use of quotes from the gist of notes pertaining to communications between the Prime Minister and the President of the United States:
“Consideration will be based on the principle that our use of this material should not reflect President Bush’s views. We have also agreed that the use of direct quotation from the documents should be the minimum necessary to enable the Inquiry to articulate its conclusions”.
Secondly, in all inquiries where national security is an issue, documents have to undergo a declassification process to protect sensitive information. As your Lordships will know, for the Iraq inquiry this process was conducted under a protocol agreed between the Government and the inquiry which established strict parameters within which the Government could seek redactions, principally on national security or international relations grounds. This states that, if the inquiry believes proposed redactions are not desirable, it can write to the Cabinet Secretary to seek a redaction. If no agreement is reached and the material is not published,
“it would remain open to the Inquiry to refer, in its report, to the fact that material it would have wished to publish had been withheld”.
Our aim has always been to allow the inquiry to publish as much material as possible.
In conclusion, we all agree that this inquiry must be fair and impartial but, above all, rigorous, with its conclusions firmly based on the evidence. To do that, it must be independent of Government and therefore, however frustrating it may be that the inquiry has not published its report, it must be allowed to complete its job.
House adjourned at 5.27 pm.