My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made earlier today by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place on the Iraq inquiry. The Statement is as follows.
“Mr Speaker, this morning Sir John Chilcot has published the report of the independent Iraq inquiry. This is a difficult day for all the families of those who have lost loved ones. They have waited for this report for too long and our first thoughts today must be with them. In their grief and anger, I hope they can draw at least some solace from the depth and rigour of this report and, above all, some comfort from knowing that we will never forget the incredible service and sacrifice of their sons, daughters, husbands and wives—179 British service men and women and 24 British civilians who gave everything for our country. We must also never forget the thousands more who suffered life-changing injuries and we must pledge today to look after them for the rest of their lives.
This report would have been produced sooner if it had begun when those of us on this side of the House first called for it back in 2006, but I am sure the House will join me in thanking Sir John and his privy counsellors, including the late Sir Martin Gilbert, who sadly passed away during the work on this report.
This has been a fully independent inquiry. Ministers did not even see it until yesterday morning. The Cabinet Secretary led a process that gave Sir John full access to government papers. This has meant unprecedented public declassification of Joint Intelligence Committee papers, key Cabinet minutes, records of meetings and conversations between the UK Prime Minister and the American President and 31 personal memos from the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to President George W Bush.
The inquiry also took evidence from more than 150 witnesses and its report runs to 2.6 million words, with 13 volumes, costing more than £10 million to produce. Clearly, the House will want the chance to study and debate it in depth and I am making provision for two full days of debate next week.
There are a number of key questions that are rightly asked about Iraq. Did we go to war on a false premise? Were decisions taken properly, including the consideration of legal advice? Was the operation properly planned? Were we properly prepared for the aftermath of the initial conflict? Did our forces have adequate funding and equipment? I will try to summarise the key findings on these questions, before turning to the lessons that I believe should be learnt.
A number of reasons were put forward for going to war in Iraq, including the danger that Saddam posed to his people and to the region, and the need to uphold United Nations resolutions. However, as everyone in the House will remember, central to the Government’s case was the issue of weapons of mass destruction. Sir John finds that there was an “ingrained belief” genuinely held in both the UK and US Governments that Saddam Hussein possessed chemical and biological capabilities and that he wanted to redevelop his nuclear capabilities and was pursuing an active policy of deceit and concealment.
There were good reasons for that belief. Saddam had built up chemical weapons in the past and used them against Kurdish civilians and the Iranian military; he had given international weapons inspectors the runaround for years; and the report clearly reflects that the advice given to the Government by the intelligence and policy community was that Saddam indeed continued to possess, and was seeking to develop, these capabilities. However, as we now know, by 2003 this long-held belief no longer reflected the reality. Sir John says:
‘At no stage was the proposition that Iraq might no longer have chemical, biological or nuclear weapons or programmes identified and examined by either the JIC or the policy community’.
As the report notes, the late Robin Cook had shown that it was possible to come to a different conclusion from an examination of the same intelligence.
In the wake of 9/11, the Americans were also understandably concerned about the risk of weapons of mass destruction finding their way into the hands of terrorists. Sir John finds:
‘While it was reasonable … to be concerned about the fusion of proliferation and terrorism, there was no basis in the JIC Assessments to suggest that Iraq itself represented such a threat’.
On the question of intelligence, Sir John finds no evidence that intelligence was improperly included or that No. 10, or Mr Blair personally, improperly influenced the text of the September 2002 dossier. However, he finds that the use of Joint Intelligence Committee material in public presentation did not make clear enough the limitations or the subtleties of assessment. He says:
‘The assessed intelligence had not established beyond doubt either that Saddam Hussein had continued to produce chemical and biological weapons or that efforts to develop nuclear weapons continued’.
He says that the Joint Intelligence Committee should have made that clear to Mr Blair. Sir John also finds that public statements from the Government conveyed more certainty than the JIC assessments, and that there was a lack of clarity about the distinction between what the JIC assessed and what Mr Blair believed. Referring to the text in Mr Blair’s foreword to the September 2002 dossier, he finds,
‘a distinction between his beliefs’—
that is, Mr Blair’s—
‘and the JIC’s actual judgments’.
However, Sir John does not question Mr Blair’s belief, nor his legitimate role in advocating government policy.
I turn to the question of legality. The inquiry,
‘has not expressed a view as to whether or not the UK’s participation in the conflict was lawful’.
However, it quotes the legal advice that the Attorney-General gave at the time and on which the Government acted: namely, that there was a legal basis for action. Nevertheless, Sir John is highly critical of the processes by which the legal advice was arrived at and discussed, saying:
‘The circumstances in which it was ultimately decided that there was a legal basis for UK participation were far from satisfactory’;.
Sir John also finds that the diplomatic options had not at that stage been exhausted and that,
‘Military action was therefore not a last resort’.
Sir John says that when the second resolution at the UN became unachievable, the UK should have done more to exhaust all diplomatic options including allowing the inspectors longer to complete their job.
Turning to the decision-making, the report documents carefully the processes that were followed. There was a Cabinet discussion before the decision to go to war and a number of Ministers, including the Foreign and Defence Secretaries, were involved in much of the decision-making. However, the report makes some specific criticisms of the process of decision-making. In particular, when it came to the options for military action, it is clear that these were never discussed properly by a Cabinet Committee or Cabinet. Arrangements were often informal and sporadic, and frequently involved a small group of Ministers and advisers, sometimes without formal records. Sir John finds that at crucial points, Mr Blair sent personal notes and made important commitments to Mr Bush that had not been discussed or agreed with Cabinet colleagues. However, while Sir John makes many criticisms of process—including the way information was handled and presented—at no stage does he say explicitly that there was a deliberate attempt to mislead people.
Turning to operational planning, the initial invasion proceeded relatively rapidly and we should be proud of what our Armed Forces managed to achieve so quickly. This was despite the military not really having time to plan properly for an invasion from the south because they had been focused on the north until a late decision from the Turkish Government to refuse entry through their territory. It was also in spite of issues over equipment which I will turn to later.
A bigger question was around the planning for what might happen after the initial operation. Sir John finds that,
‘when the invasion began, the UK Government were not in a position to conclude that satisfactory plans had been drawn up and preparations made to meet known post-conflict challenges and risks in Iraq’.
He adds that the Government,
‘lacked clear Ministerial oversight of post-conflict strategy, planning and preparation and effective co-ordination between government departments’,
‘failed to analyse or manage those risks adequately’.
The Government—and here I mean officials and the military as well as Ministers—remained too fixed on assumptions that the Americans had a plan; that the United Nations would play a significant role with the international community sharing the burden; and that the UK role would be over three to four months after the conflict had ended.
He concludes that the Government’s failure to prepare properly for the aftermath of the conflict,
‘reduced the likelihood of achieving the UK’s strategic objectives in Iraq’.
And Sir John concludes that anticipating these post-conflict problems,
‘did not require the benefit of hindsight’.
Turning to equipment and troops, Sir John is clear that the UK failed to match resources to the objectives. Sir John says categorically that,
‘delays in providing adequate medium weight Protected Patrol Vehicles and the failure to meet the needs of UK forces ... for ISTAR and helicopters should not have been tolerated’,
and he says,
‘the MOD was slow in responding to the developing threat in Iraq from Improvised Explosive Devices’.
The inquiry also identified a number of moments when it would have been possible to conduct a substantial reappraisal of our approach to the situation in Iraq and the level of resources required. But despite a series of warnings from commanders in the field, no such reappraisal took place. Furthermore, during the first four years, there was,
‘no clear statement of policy setting out the acceptable level of risk to UK forces and who was responsible for managing that risk’.
Sir John also finds that the Government—and in particular the military—were too focused on withdrawing from Iraq and planning for an Afghan deployment in 2006 further drew effort away.
Sir John concludes that although Tony Blair succeeded in persuading America to go back to the United Nations in 2002, he was unsuccessful in changing the US position on other critical decisions and that,
‘in the absence of a majority in the Security Council in support of military action at that point, the UK was undermining the authority of the Security Council’.
While it is right for a UK Prime Minister to weigh up carefully the damage to the special relationship that would be done by failing to support the US, Sir John says it is questionable whether not participating militarily on this occasion would have broken the partnership. He says there was a substantial gap from the outset between the ambitious UK objectives and the resources that government was prepared to commit, and that even with more resources, the circumstances surrounding the invasion made it difficult to deliver substantive outcomes.
While the territorial integrity of Iraq remained, deep sectarian divisions opened and thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians lost their lives. While these divisions were not created by the international coalition, Sir John believes they were exacerbated, including through the extent of de-Baathification, and were not addressed by an effective programme of reconciliation. Overall, Sir John finds that the policy of Her Majesty’s Government fell far short of meeting its strategic objectives and helped to create a space for al-Qaeda.
Of course, the decision to go to war came to a vote in this House, and Members on all sides who voted for military action will have to take our fair share of the responsibility. We cannot turn back the clock but we can ensure that lessons are learned and acted on. I will turn to these in a moment and will cover all the issues around machinery of government, proper processes, culture and planning. But let me be the first to say that getting all of these things right does not guarantee the success of a military intervention.
For example, on Libya, I believe it was right to intervene to stop Gaddafi slaughtering his people. In that case, we did have a United Nations Security Council resolution. We did have proper processes and comprehensive advice on all the key issues and we did not put our forces on the ground. Instead, we worked with a transitional Libyan Government. But getting these things right does not make the challenges of intervention any less formidable, and the difficulties in Libya today are plain to see.
As the Prime Minister for the last six years, reading this report I believe there are some lessons that we do need to learn and keep learning. First, taking the country to war should always be a last resort and should be done only if all credible alternatives have been exhausted. Secondly, the machinery of government does matter. That is why, on my first day in office, I established the National Security Council, to ensure proper co-ordinated decision-making across the whole of government, including those responsible for domestic security. This council is not just a meeting of Ministers; it has the right breadth of expertise in the room, with the Chief of the Defence Staff, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, heads of the intelligence services and relevant senior officials. The Attorney-General is now a member of the National Security Council. I also appointed the UK’s first National Security Adviser, with a properly constituted team in the Cabinet Office to ensure that all key parts of our national security apparatus are joined up.
The national security machinery also taps the experience and knowledge of experts from outside government. This helps us constantly challenge conventional wisdom within the system and avoid groupthink. It is inconceivable today that we would take a premeditated decision to commit combat troops without a full and challenging discussion in the National Security Council on the basis of full papers, including written legal advice, prepared and stress-tested by all relevant departments, with decisions formally minuted.
Thirdly, the culture established by the Prime Minister matters. It is crucial to good decision-making that a Prime Minister establishes a climate in which it is safe for officials and other experts to challenge existing policy and question the views of Ministers—and the Prime Minister—without fear or favour. There is no question today that everyone sat around the NSC table is genuinely free to speak their mind.
Fourthly, if we are to take the difficult decision to intervene in other countries, proper planning for what follows is vital. We know that the task of rebuilding effective governance is enormous. That is why we created a Conflict, Stability and Security Fund and beefed up the cross-government Stabilisation Unit so that experts are able to deploy in post-conflict situations anywhere in the world at short notice. None of this would be possible without the historic decision we have taken to commit 0.7% of our gross national income to overseas aid. We now spend half of this on conflict-affected and fragile states, not only assisting with post-conflict planning but also helping to prevent conflicts from happening in the first place.
Fifthly, we must ensure our Armed Forces are always properly equipped and resourced. That is why we now conduct a regular strategic defence and security review to ensure that the resources we have meet the ambitions of the national security strategy. We are meeting our NATO commitment to spend 2% of our GDP on defence and planning to invest at least £178 billion on new military equipment over the next decade. We have also enshrined the Armed Forces covenant into law to ensure that our Armed Forces and their families receive the treatment and respect they deserve.
Sending our brave troops on to the battlefield without the right equipment was unacceptable, and whatever else we learn from this conflict, we must all of us pledge that this will never happen again. There will be further lessons to learn from studying this report and I commit today that this is exactly what we will do.
In reflecting on this report and my own experience as Prime Minister over the last six years there are also some lessons here that I do not think we should draw. First, it would be wrong to conclude that we should not stand with our American allies when our common security interests are threatened. We must never be afraid to speak frankly and honestly, as best friends always should. Where we commit our troops together, there must be a structure through which our views can be properly conveyed and any differences worked through. But it remains the case that Britain and America share the same fundamental values, that Britain has no greater friend or ally in the world than America and that our partnership remains as important for our security and prosperity today as it has ever been.
Secondly, it would be wrong to conclude that we cannot rely on the judgments of our brilliant and hard-working intelligence agencies. We know the debt we owe them in helping to keep us safe every day of the year. Since November 2014 they have enabled us to foil seven different planned terrorist attacks on the streets of the UK. What this report shows is that there needs to be a proper separation between the process of assessing intelligence and the policy-making which flows from it, and as a result of the reforms since the Butler Review that is what we have in place.
Thirdly, it would be completely wrong to conclude that our military is not capable of intervening successfully around the world. Many of the failures in this report were not directly about the conduct of the Armed Forces as they went into Iraq, but rather the failures of planning before a shot was fired. There is no question that Britain’s Armed Forces remain the envy of the world and that the decisions we have taken to ensure that they are properly resourced will ensure that they stay that way.
Finally, we should not conclude that intervention is always wrong. There are unquestionably times when it is right to intervene—as we did successfully in Sierra Leone and Kosovo. I am sure that many in this House would agree that there have been times in the recent past when we should have intervened but did not—like in failing to prevent the genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica. Intervention is hard. War fighting is not always the most difficult part. Often, the state building that follows is a much more complex challenge. We should not be naïve to think that just because we have the best prepared plans, in the real world things cannot go wrong. But, equally, just because intervention is difficult, it does not mean that there are not times when it is right and necessary.
Yes, Britain has and will continue to learn the lessons of this report. But, as with our intervention against Daesh in Iraq and Syria today, Britain must not and will not shrink from its role on the world stage or fail to act to protect its people. I commend this Statement to the House”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, I thank the Deputy Leader of the House for repeating the Statement. It is longer than is usual, but I think that is appropriate and I am sure that the House is grateful for the additional information.
Few will have had the opportunity to read more than the executive summary and to have seen Sir John Chilcot’s statement and some other comments. I am grateful to the Government for providing advance access to the executive summary this morning. In the weeks, months and years to come, this exhaustive, detailed report will be digested and analysed in greater detail that we are able to do today.
First, I pay tribute to all our Armed Forces and to those who serve in a civilian capacity. When young men and women take on the responsibility of joining the Army, the Navy or the RAF, they do so in the knowledge that they are joining one of the highest forms of public service. They become our front line, both in peacetime and in conflict. As a nation we are very proud of the work they do, the way they do it and the high standards that they set, but we must always recognise that, in conflicts such as this, lives are lost, others suffer physical and mental injury, and the families who support our service men and women are hugely affected.
In Iraq, 179 of our Armed Forces and 23 civilians lost their lives. Their families will never be the same. We mourn their loss and recognise that this is a traumatic time for them all. We must also never forget that both in this conflict and before it thousands of Iraqi people lost their lives.
Decisions about when our Armed Forces are deployed are not theirs; they are made by politicians with advice, including from senior military and intelligence services. We have a duty to ensure that such decision-making is of as high a standard as we ask of our military.
When Gordon Brown set up the inquiry, he was clear that it was to ensure that lessons could be learned. We are grateful to Sir John Chilcot and all those who took part in the extensive work that was required. It was clearly a greater task than had been anticipated. When compared with other reports, it has taken a very long time, and some of those who most wanted to see the outcome are no longer alive.
As well as any lessons to be drawn from the report, there may well be lessons to be learned from the process of the inquiry itself. Would it have been of assistance, for example, if there had been legal representation on the inquiry team? Also—this will be something to examine from the report—in the past the very process of an inquiry has itself led to changes.
I appreciate that in his Statement the Prime Minister took on board how decision-making across government can be changed and improved. That may already have come about to some degree because of the process of this inquiry, with those involved in the machinery of government considering and reflecting on these issues and identifying deficiencies.
The report makes a number of criticisms that must be addressed. What it does not do, however, is either make a case for a non-interventionist policy in future or conclude that anyone acted in bad faith. That is important. The report shows how difficult and often how finely judged such decisions are, including the analysis and use of intelligence information. It identifies some very real criticisms about process and procedure, analysis and decision-making, planning and preparation, and our relationship with the United States. Sir John Chilcot provides us with an opportunity to examine these issues in the light of all the detail in his report and to take decisions today to ensure that any mistakes are not repeated.
It is worth recalling that this was the first time in Parliament that the House of Commons voted on taking military action. I took part in that vote, so I know how thoughtful and solemn MPs were in making their decisions. No MP, however they voted, took the decision lightly, and for the most part there was mutual respect for people who took, and still hold, differing views. Although the decision had to be binary, the reasons and views behind it were much more diverse. Within all political parties there were people who took different views—for honourable reasons.
Sir John’s report is clear that in both the UK and the US there was what he calls an “ingrained belief”—a genuinely held view that Saddam Hussein possessed the ability to use chemical and biological weapons. Whatever view was taken on the military action, no one believed that Saddam Hussein was anything other than an evil dictator. Given that he had used chemical weapons before and that he had been unco-operative with international weapons inspectors and with the intelligence information provided, it was not unreasonable to conclude that he was seeking to hide these weapons. Sir John identifies this as a failure in the decision-making process. The proposition that that was no longer the case in 2003 was not identified and examined.
The Prime Minister’s comments about the National Security Council are welcome. However, if lessons are truly to be learned, there is a broader issue about the role of ad hoc Cabinet committees. Reading through Sir John’s comments, we should consider, when such major issues are being examined and at some point decisions have to be taken, whether an ad hoc Cabinet committee can be established for that very purpose. It would include key Secretaries of State, key officials, experts—such as, in this case, military and security intelligence experts—and possibly legal advisers, and it would be chaired by the Prime Minister, with papers circulated beforehand and decisions minuted. That would bring an identifiable rigour and challenge to the decision-making process. It should not preclude less formal consideration as well, but the key decisions would be taken at such meetings.
On planning, the report is critical of both pre- and post-conflict planning, but some of the strongest criticism is of the situation immediately after. I have read only the summary, but further examination of the full report later will allow the Government and the military to make a clearer analysis of how this can be improved. It is not about equipment and resources only; it is about understanding what comes next and how to respond. The report states that the military on the ground had no instructions on the process for establishing safe and secure areas, and different decisions were taken in different places. There are lessons to be learned from other conflicts. What any country needs post any kind of conflict are stable and functioning institutions—of administration, of policing, of utilities—and the ability to establish and support that safe and secure environment.
Sir John’s report is critical, and there are lessons to be learned about the assumptions we made about our role and the assumptions made about the role of the US and the United Nations. I have two questions for the Minister on this point. First, the Minister referred in the Prime Minister’s Statement to the National Security Council. I understand that the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy has expressed its concern more than once about the lack of regular National Security Council meetings and the fact that it meets only when the House is sitting. In addition, it is not a body that can take executive action. Will the Minister ask the Prime Minister and his successor to reflect on my suggestion about the use of ad hoc Cabinet committees not just on decisions about military operations, but on any strategic decisions of national importance?
Secondly, in his report, Sir John Chilcot reflects on the lack of effective co-ordination between government departments. May I draw the Minister’s attention to the report of the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, entitled Persuasion and Power in the Modern World? This was a landmark report on the use of soft power. It made the case that military force alone is today insufficient for defending a nation’s interests. The committee made a key recommendation to the Government about co-operation between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence and DfID—that the Government should look at the co-ordination of those departments in the context of Afghanistan and report back to this House with a view to learning lessons for any future post-conflict reconstruction. When the report was debated, the Government declined to take that route. Will the Minister now accept it in the light of the Chilcot report, which also highlights such deficiencies? That decision should now be reconsidered.
This report is difficult and challenging, but it provides an opportunity to investigate decision-making processes about how as a country we should intervene, whether militarily or for humanitarian reasons, although they are not mutually exclusive. I think the Minister made the same point in the Prime Minister’s Statement: this is not about whether we should intervene, but about having a superior process that better informs decision-making when we consider doing so.
In every case where military intervention has been considered, there have been both consequences of intervening and consequences of not doing so. Interventions in Sierra Leone and Kosovo were widely recognised as well executed and positive—they were undertaken under the same processes—and we should never forget the role of military personnel in helping to tackle Ebola in west Africa. It is right that we also reflect on when there has not been intervention: was that the right thing to do when such a decision was taken, and could we have done more? The Prime Minister referred to Bosnia and Rwanda. We may all have different views, but the principle is sound. It is absolutely right that the tests we set for ourselves about when intervention is right and appropriate should always be high.
The key challenge that Chilcot sets us is how we learn the lessons of the Iraq conflict. As we digest the detail of the report, more issues will arise and greater consideration and reflection will be needed. As we go through that process, we as parliamentarians have to consider how we should do things differently in future.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Earl, Lord Howe, for repeating the Statement this afternoon, and I too begin by paying tribute to all the service personnel and civilian staff who served bravely and with distinction in Iraq and to their families. I do so particularly in remembrance of all those who lost their lives, and I also remember the countless thousands of Iraqi citizens who died in the conflict. Indeed, today we have heard that the number of people killed in a suicide attack in Baghdad at the weekend has risen to 250. That is the latest in a much-too-long list of terrorist outrages in Istanbul, Paris, Brussels and—11 years ago tomorrow—London.
Today we have seen the judgment of Charles Kennedy to lead my party in opposition to the war in Iraq, back in 2003, as truly vindicated. His words at the time, in a debate in the House of Commons, were profoundly and devastatingly prophetic. He said:
“Although I have never been persuaded of a causal link between the Iraqi regime, al-Qaeda and 11 September, I believe that the impact of war in these circumstances is bound to weaken the international coalition against terrorism itself, and not least in the Muslim world. The big fear that many of us have is that the action will simply breed further generations of suicide bombers”.—[Official Report, Commons, 18/3/03; col. 786.]
The Chilcot report sets out clearly that the United Kingdom chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted. Military action was therefore not a last resort. The inquiry concludes that the judgments made about Iraq’s capabilities were not justified and that the Joint Intelligence Committee should have made it clear that the assessed intelligence had not established beyond doubt either that Iraq had continued to produce chemical and biological weapons or that efforts to develop nuclear weapons continued.
However, there can be no satisfaction in saying that we got it right at the time. Instead of improving our security, the war that ensued in Iraq has, sadly, made our country and our world less safe. The choices made by those at the time to go to war have contributed to a failed state that continues to be a source of extremism and instability across the Middle East. The decision to lead UK forces into the invasion and the occupation of Iraq in 2003 not only meant that we took our eye off the ball in Afghanistan at a crucial time in our military engagement there but directly contributed to the continued instability in the Middle East and the threats that the world now faces from Daesh.
Of course the terrorists themselves are responsible for these horrific attacks, but the actions of a Government were responsible for helping to create the vacuum in which terrorism was allowed to develop—actions taken despite being advised by the Joint Intelligence Committee that such a development was a risk. Its assessment on 10 February 2003 concluded that,
“al-Qaida and associated groups will continue to represent by far the greatest terrorist threat to Western interests, and that threat will be heightened by military action against Iraq”.
Perhaps one of the more devastating and shaming findings of the report is that the United Kingdom failed to plan or prepare for the major reconstruction programme required in Iraq. That, together with the exaggeration of the threat posed by the Iraqi regime to the public to justify this war, has damaged public trust. It has damaged our country’s standing in the world and has almost certainly undermined the ability of the United Kingdom to intervene abroad to prevent crimes against humanity. A further consequence has been hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fleeing their country as refugees, in turn resulting in millions of Iraqi children missing out on education, which has resulted in yet another generation of young people growing up without hope for the future.
It is easy for us all to agree that lessons must be learned, so what do the present Government consider to be the most important lessons that can be learned from this report? How have the Government addressed the issue of legal advice in such situations so that never again can it be said that the circumstances in which it was ultimately decided that there was a legal basis for the action taken were “far from satisfactory”? Will the noble Earl reflect on the governance issues—on the one hand, so-called sofa government and the inadequacies of that, but also the difficulties and dangers that we have if we have an ineffective Opposition unwilling to challenge and scrutinise?
Does he agree that we must reaffirm this country’s commitment to the international rule of law, and to collective decision-making through the institutions of the United Nations? Does he agree that before we would ever commit to further armed interventions in the future, it is vital that we have a post-conflict reconstruction plan, as well as an exit plan? Finally, does he share my concern over findings such as that at key times,
“UK forces in Iraq faced gaps in some key capability areas”?
Has any assessment been made of the extent to which such gaps could have contributed to casualties? Can he reassure the House that in future there will be transparency on the preparedness of our troops to be deployed for war, and the adequacy of the equipment and logistical support that they are fully entitled to expect?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness and the noble and learned Lord for their comments and questions. May I first associate myself with the tribute that they each paid to our Armed Forces, and with their references to the implicit duty to have systems in place to ensure that we treat the members of our Armed Forces and their families fairly, particularly soldiers, sailors and airmen who suffer grievous, sometimes life-changing, injury? That is why, with support from all political parties, the previous Government were proud to have put into law the principles of the Armed Forces covenant—which, of course, can never produce a perfect situation. But we are constantly working at it, and I think it has produced a very much better and fairer system for our brave service men and women. It is notable that 1,000 businesses and organisations have now pledged their support for the covenant in various ways.
Both the noble Baroness and the noble and learned Lord referred to the importance of reliable intelligence. Successive Governments have implemented the recommendations of the 2004 Butler review about the way in which intelligence is used in government. When the coalition Government came into office in 2010 we introduced the consolidated guidance to provide clear direction to intelligence officers about obtaining and using intelligence from sources overseas. Formal routes for challenge and dissent within the intelligence community have also been established and strengthened, which is an important innovation. We ensured that at the very beginning of every National Security Council meeting, the Joint Intelligence Committee chair provides relevant intelligence assessments, so that we know what basis of intelligence and other information we have at our disposal. Through the Justice and Security Act 2013 we improved the oversight of the security and intelligence agencies.
The noble and learned Lord asked a profound question about whether the invasion of Iraq created a vacuum for terrorists, and whether we are therefore less safe as a result. It is never possible to prove a counterfactual—what would have happened if Iraq had not been invaded—but I would point noble Lords’ attention to a passage in Sir John’s report in which he says explicitly that the JIC’s assessment in February 2003 was that the threat from al-Qaeda,
“will be heightened by military action against Iraq. The broader threat from Islamist terrorists will also increase”.
As we reflect on the report in the days and weeks ahead, we should perhaps reach our own conclusions about whether the judgment of the Government at the time to downplay that advice was the right one.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, referred to the virtues of ad hoc Cabinet committees, and the noble and learned Lord criticised the practice of what he called sofa government. These are exactly the reasons why, when the coalition Government came into office six years ago, the National Security Council was established as a Cabinet sub-committee. It is not an ad hoc committee; it is a standing committee. Indeed, the noble Baroness asked why it met only during parliamentary term times. It meets every week during parliamentary terms but it also meets, with officials only, in the recess as well, and it can advise the NSC, as a full committee, to meet if required. For example, that happened during the Libya campaign.
The noble Baroness also questioned whether it might have been wise for the Chilcot panel to have had legal assistance or legal representation within it. There are a number of different ways of constituting inquiries, as she will know. The then Prime Minister, Mr Brown, decided that a committee of privy counsellors should conduct the questioning of witnesses themselves rather than through counsel. I think that most people will feel, when reading the report, that they succeeded very well in managing the hearings that took place.
I am the first to say to the noble Baroness that the report makes no inference or statement that anyone in government acted in bad faith. The decisions that were taken rested clearly on the judgment of Ministers—in particular, Mr Blair. I think that we all need time to digest the report and reach measured conclusions of our own as to whether we believe that the judgments made were well founded. That is for another day perhaps, but it is clear that the need for Ministers to have a proper framework for decision-making is very powerful. Again I come back to the National Security Council, which I think is doing a good job in that respect, although I would be the last to claim that no improvement could ever be made to the decision-making process.
I end by saying that the task for us all now is to look at the report in detail. We should examine how further to improve our structures, policies, the procurement systems that we have and training. We should recognise in all humility that there is always more we can do to improve what we have, and that not every improvement sticks. Certainly, the aim of the Ministry of Defence is to become an organisation that is able constantly to adapt, to manage its resources properly, and to deploy our Armed Forces in defence of the nation efficiently and effectively. I think that a great deal of progress has been made in those regards since 2003, but there is always more to do.
My Lords, war is terrible and a number of us in this Chamber have been involved in wars. When one’s people are dying around one, it gives one cause for thought. Does the Minister agree that the duty of a military man is to fight for his country and to do whatever he has been told in terms of fighting for his country? The people involved in Iraq did that to their very core, and their families and friends should be very proud of them for doing their duty. Often in history our service people have fought in wars that might make one think, “Well, why on earth did that happen?”. That is not the point in terms of them and their behaviour. It is very important for their families, friends and everyone to realise that they did their duty; they did it well; and these other issues, although important, have no stain on those people involved.
My Lords, it is very important to make that distinction. At the same time, it behoves those in the Ministry of Defence, particularly at a high level, to reflect on what more might have been done to support troops in the field. There is a criticism in the report, as the noble Lord will know, about the equipment that our troops had—the noble and learned Lord referred to this. There are two elements to that criticism: one is that the equipment was inadequate and/or deficient; the other is that the Ministry of Defence and the senior military did not respond quickly enough to reports from the field that improvements should be made. It is very much the latter, as much as the former issue, that we should now reflect on.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that, while there are many criticisms of the Government contained in the Chilcot report, we should remember that Mr Blair and his colleagues were not actuated by ignoble motives but were, rather, seeking to sustain the national interest? I say that as one who was not misled by what happened—I voted against the Iraq war. I am glad to say that I played a part in drafting the Motion against it. I also had a Motion on the Order Paper in the other House calling for Mr Blair to be called to account, if necessary by impeachment. But, that said, is it not right that we should temper our criticisms by bearing in mind that Mr Blair and his colleagues were seeking to serve the national interest and were not motivated by ignoble motives?
I fully agree with my noble friend. I think that, in reading the report, there is no suggestion that Sir John has reached that adverse conclusion about Mr Blair’s motives. Indeed, it is apparent how dedicated Mr Blair was at the time to pursuing what he judged to be the right course for the nation. We may or may not agree with what he did, but there is no doubting his integrity or his dedication.
My Lords, I take the opportunity to draw out what has already been implicit in what has been said so far this afternoon about the deep moral dimension of what we are discussing. I agree with the noble Lord that our troops need not only the assurance of our support, through the covenant, that they have been doing their duty, but the right to believe that what they had been entered into was right and that, when they sacrifice their lives or their continued health, they understand that they were doing something that was entered into with great integrity in the service of others.
In our reflection upon this over time, how can we—and the Government—ensure that we look again and restate our moral obligation towards not only our service personnel and their families, but those with whom we share our common humanity in Iraq? And how can we ensure that, in the operation of government, not only do we dwell on the practical, the process and the strategic, but that we are deeply aware of what is required in terms of waiting, paying due attention to our calling and being concerned about not only the consequential aspects of our decisions but the profound wisdom of them?
The right reverend Prelate makes some extremely important points. It is important for us to say to our Armed Forces that the work that they did was beneficial. Saddam was a brutal dictator; he was a threat to Iraq’s neighbours and Iraq is undoubtedly a better place without him. We can see that, in its development as a country since the war, Iraq is a healthier and better place. Of course, we cannot deny that it is going through a difficult time and that the people of Iraq continue to suffer, but there are glimmers of hope: there have been free and fair parliamentary elections three times since 2003; unemployment has fallen by half; oil production has doubled; there is more freedom of speech; homosexuality is now legal; it is the only Middle Eastern country with a national action plan on women, peace and security; and a quarter of MPs in Iraq’s parliament are women. We as a nation have continued to support Iraq in every kind of way. Between 2003 and 2012, we provided more than £500 million in support, including £180 million in life-saving, humanitarian assistance. Our troops and our civilian personnel need to know that they have made a difference.
My Lords, some of those involved in overseeing our intelligence community at the time know now, as has been confirmed in this report, the extent to which some of their work had weight placed upon it that it could not possibly have borne. Others found their expert contributions ignored or set aside. Is it not vital, as the Statement indicates, that we use the machinery that has been set up since the Butler committee to ensure that the intelligence community’s work is properly used and that those who work in it can have the confidence of knowing that it will not be abused?
The noble Lord is, of course, correct. Much depends on the culture that exists and is encouraged, in particular within the National Security Council, but also across government departments. We should constantly question and challenge our sometimes ingrained and deeply held views about a particular situation and the way to address it. We should never dismiss, as I am afraid was done at times during the Iraq conflict, the clear advice and guidance from commanders in the field when things are not going as we would wish or expect.
My Lords, as a member of the Cabinet and of the inner Cabinet at the time, I accept my share of responsibility and commend the responses that have been evident in this House this afternoon. I will deal with one simple issue—the question raised by Sir John about undermining the authority of the United Nations. There is a paradox around the effort that went on in 2003 and before and the enormous emphasis that has been placed by those who did not want to go to war in getting a second resolution, following Resolution 1441 in November 2002. Would it not be perverse in the extreme if we were not able in future to join with our allies because our action was vetoed by Vladimir Putin at a moment when he is bombing civilians in Syria without any process or authorisation as sought by either this Government or the previous Government?
The noble Lord makes some very important points. Of course, it was not just the Russians who opposed the second resolution; we did not succeed in commanding a majority in the Security Council for it. Nevertheless, the Russians were extremely unhelpful and unco-operative at that time. I entirely take the point the noble Lord has made about their actions in Syria. This particular passage of Sir John’s report is something on which each of us will need to make a judgment. Whether it carries a particular weight is something for us to reflect on.
My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that it is important that we learn the vital lessons from this tragic episode? Perhaps the main lesson to learn is that these Middle Eastern societies are extremely complex. When we try to interfere with them—particularly with military force—the outcome can be unforeseen, extremely dangerous and terribly damaging for the people themselves. Will we learn that lesson when it comes to Libya and Syria? With Libya, I think we are; with Syria, we have a distance to go.
The noble Lord, with his immense experience of the Middle East, draws attention to a particularly important message in Sir John’s report—the sheer complexity of the situation on the ground. That was not sufficiently appreciated by the Government of the day, although there were those who provided some good insights into what might happen post the conflict and the risks that were posed by intervening in what would undoubtedly prove to be a febrile situation. The noble Lord’s central point is well made.
With regard to the principle asserted in the Statement that,
“taking the country to war should always be a last resort and should only be done if all credible alternatives have been exhausted”,
can the Minister confirm that that principle should be endorsed and followed?
Yes, undoubtedly so. It is perhaps one of Sir John’s most serious criticisms in the report that going to war in this instance was not the last resort and that there were diplomatic avenues still open at the time that the order was given to commence military action. I am sure that all noble Lords would agree that that should never happen again.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his repetition of the Prime Minister’s Statement. Like my noble friend Lord Blunkett, I was a member of the Cabinet which supported the invasion. It is very important that the people of our country benefit from the lucidity of the report by Sir John Chilcot and his team, and are able to make sense of the many claims and counterclaims that an issue which has aroused such passion creates. However, will the Minister join me in recognising three certainties that have emerged from the report? First, there was no falsification of the intelligence; secondly, the Cabinet was not deceived; and, thirdly, there was no undisclosed plan made between the Prime Minister and the President of the United States to go to war before the processes of government were invoked. We obviously all have to bear responsibility for the judgments but it is important to start with an assertion of fact.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness. I have had precisely an hour, prior to its publication, to look at the executive summary of the report. I cannot claim to stand here and recount to your Lordships every nuance of the report; that can only be done over time by us all. I do not have full answers today but, certainly from my reading of the executive summary, there is no question of intelligence being falsified. However, I think Sir John concludes that there was a gap between the ways in which the intelligence was framed and presented to the general public, and that he leaves open the explanation for that. There was certainly no suggestion in anything I read that the Cabinet was deceived nor of an undisclosed plan to go to war, although there was a certain point in 2002 at which Sir John says that the Government committed themselves to a course of action which would have been very difficult to reverse. They did not necessarily commit to military action but committed to a chain of actions which, if unsuccessful, might almost inevitably lead to war. While what the noble Baroness says is correct, there are nuances in this that we all need to take on board.
My Lords, is there not a striking parallel between the failure to plan for an aftermath in 2003 and our worries about the failure to plan for the aftermath of the recent EU referendum? I want this to be not about Brexit but about the machinery of government. What has been learned in 13 years about how that machinery must be ready to go in that context, after an event?
With respect to the noble Baroness, we are dealing with two very different situations. It is not the business of Sir John Chilcot to comment on issues of that kind. Indeed, there is an opportunity for the noble Baroness to make points of that sort during the debate that is continuing later today. I shall have to reflect on what she said but I do not have a ready answer at the moment.
My Lords, as a member of the then Cabinet, along with my noble friends, I first express my condolences, with everyone else, to the Armed Forces and congratulate them, as my noble friend Lord West said, on carrying out their duty to the country. When I say that, I mean every member of the Armed Forces, up to and including the Chiefs of Staff and the Chiefs of the Defence Staff, who have committed their lives to this country and to doing their duty. We should accord that. They are people who have risked their lives themselves.
I do not like commenting on a report that I have not read in full and I freely admit that I have not had time to do that—it has not stopped others, of course, in the other place. I simply urge one thing on the Government: in congratulating John Chilcot and his team on the report they have produced, can we make a judicial distinction—I do not mean in a legal sense—between legitimate criticism of processes or other failures and what are political judgments? There is a danger that the Government will get themselves into a position regarding political judgments, which is what are exercised on intelligence and what are exercised, for instance, on the question of whether something was the last resort. Whether sanctions could have worked, or whether there were other diplomatic means, was very much in the minds of the Cabinet. Our political judgment was that they would not be sufficient to deter what we believed was the spread of chemical and biological weapons over there, not under democratic control, while over here, the other element of threat—intention—had been shown to be absolutely constrained at 9/11.
I welcome the report, I will study it carefully and we will learn the lessons, but at the end of the day it is elected Ministers who must exercise the judgment on some of these questions.
First, I express my agreement with what the noble Lord has rightly said about the Chiefs of the Defence Staff and the Chiefs of Staff generally during the Iraq war and immediately afterward. They are all men of the highest ability and we owe them our gratitude, as much as we owe to the men and women in the field. I also agree that there is a distinction to be drawn between the processes of decision-making and the political judgments that are made. I simply point out that, in my view at least, the strength and integrity of the process underpins the reliability of the political judgments.
My Lords, I add to the tributes paid to those who fought, those who died and those who were injured in this conflict. We must regret and mourn those who have been affected by doing their duty. I also thank those who served on this remarkable report that has taken so long and will require so much reading before we can finally come to judgment.
I express one small regret that the committee was not allowed to consider the military action taken by the Blair Government in 1998 against Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction centres. Military action was taken in Operation Desert Fox, when cruise missiles were launched against what we believed at that time to be the centres for weapons of mass destruction. In a very brief reading of the report, I notice that paragraph 496, which is worth reading, covers the basis on which Robin Cook and I, Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton, Bill Cohen and the Prime Minister came to the conclusion that Saddam was breaking the UN Security Council resolutions that had previously been there and that he represented a threat to his neighbours and therefore to the region.
As my noble friend has said, it comes down eventually to a political judgment. We underestimated Saddam in 1990 when he invaded Kuwait and thousands died. We chose not to take action when Saddam massacred hundreds of thousands of Shias in the marshes of southern Iraq. Decisions can be taken one way or the other but, if they are taken in good faith, at the end of the day they have to be supported, although we must draw lessons where they are there.
I am sure that the House listened with great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, and takes account of his direct experience of those times prior to the Iraq war. My understanding is that the report does take into account Desert Fox but, in doing so, as I am sure the noble Lord would agree, it puts into context Mr Blair’s clear belief that Saddam Hussein was giving the runaround to the international community and was out to deceive. I am sure that that will be one of the points that everyone should consider when reflecting in a measured way on what the report tells us.