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Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee

Volume 623: debated on Thursday 16 March 2017

We now come to the first Select Committee statement. I cannot resist observing that this is the latest of the statements to the House from the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), and that, as a Select Committee Chair, no one has taken more seriously his responsibilities in these matters or more enthusiastically availed himself of the opportunity to make such statements to the House. Perhaps other Select Committee Chairs will copy the hon. Gentleman in due course; it remains to be seen. The hon. Gentleman will speak on his subject for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of his statement, I—or whoever is in the Chair—will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement and ask the hon. Gentleman to respond to them in turn. Members can expect to be called only once. Interventions should be questions and should be brief. The Front Bench may take part in questioning. I call the Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee of the House, Mr Bernard Jenkin.

(Select Committee Statement): I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for providing time for me to present our 10th report of this Session, entitled “Lessons still to be learned from the Chilcot Inquiry”. The decision to invade Iraq has left an indelible scar on British politics. It continues to be as controversial today as it was at the time, not least because it became apparent after the invasion that it was to become a protracted and bloody affair, costing the lives of 179 UK servicemen and women, as well as those of our allies and of thousands of people in Iraq. The consequences of the decision to invade Iraq remain profound, not only for domestic politics but for our foreign and security policy and the stability of the region.

The Chilcot inquiry was established in 2009 to provide some closure to the controversy. However, in the minds of many, it was already far too late. I am reminded that the House of Commons first voted on the question of whether to have an inquiry in 2002, on a Conservative Opposition motion. For many, the length of the inquiry that was eventually established has itself has been subject to extensive criticism. Most of the reporting and discussion of the Chilcot inquiry has been preoccupied with the substance of the decision to go to war, its legality, and what happened in the aftermath of the invasion. Yet there are also lessons still to be learned regarding the machinery of government and how it operated and regarding the conduct of public inquiries, and that is what Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee therefore agreed to focus on.

PACAC’s report, launched today, examines the striking extent to which Cabinet government and collective decision making were sidelined by the then Prime Minister in the run-up to the Iraq war. As was made clear in the Chilcot report, significant decisions on Iraq, pre-conflict, were taken without sufficient consultation of Cabinet colleagues. Chilcot concludes that there were 11 decision points prior to the invasion on which there

“should have been collective discussion by a Cabinet Committee or small group of Ministers on the basis of inter-departmental advice agreed at a senior level between officials”.

A worrying finding of PACAC’s report is that, if so inclined, a future Prime Minister could override the proper procedures of collective decision making without obstacle. Beyond making representations to Ministers and to the Prime Minister, and short of resignation, a Cabinet Secretary does not have any formal recourse to object if a Prime Minister chooses to disregard the procedures for decision making set out in the Cabinet manual. PACAC is in no doubt that this absence of safeguards cannot persist, and this leads to perhaps the most important conclusion in our report.

We recommend, in line with a proposal from the Better Government initiative, that the Cabinet Secretary and/or senior officials should be able to require a formal letter of direction if they are being instructed to carry out the wishes of the Prime Minister disregarding the normal procedures set out in the Cabinet manual. That would both safeguard the Cabinet Secretary’s independence and clarify their responsibility. It would also make clear to Ministers the vital importance of following proper procedure.

The second key finding of PACAC’s report relates to the establishment, role and conduct of the Chilcot inquiry itself and builds on the work of PACAC’s predecessor committee, the Public Administration Committee, which carried out a number of inquiries into the conduct and effectiveness of public inquiries. PACAC recommends that in future, before an inquiry is established, Parliament should set up an ad hoc Select Committee to take evidence on the proposed remit of the inquiry and to present formal conclusions and recommendations to the House. There should then be a full debate and vote in Parliament on an amendable motion setting out the precise terms of reference and an estimated timeframe and proposed budget for the inquiry. That should ensure that, in future, expectations are much clearer at the outset of an inquiry.

PACAC has not sought to reopen all the issues explored by Chilcot; nor has it explored whether Parliament was deliberately misled by the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Tony Blair. However, by highlighting what the Chilcot inquiry revealed about the weaknesses in the Government’s decision-making procedures, and by exploring what lessons can be learned from the inquiry for the conduct of other public inquiries, I hope that we can ensure that the processes are in place that may enable such controversies to be avoided in future. I commend the report to the House.

I will follow the strictures to be brief.

On Iraq, the British Cabinet, the overwhelming majority in the House, much of the media, the three Select Committees, the civil service, the MOD, and the security services all came to the same false conclusion, resulting in a disastrous military adventure and deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Subsequently, the usual and predictable procrastination, prevarication and obfuscation have, in the end, failed to reveal to the British people the truth of what happened.

The Select Committee’s report is clear that the Chilcot report failed to allow the Committee to answer the central question of whether Parliament was deliberately misled, leaving a gaping chasm right in the heart of the credibility of the British establishment. What a damning judgment after all these years.

I welcome the various recommendations in today’s report, particularly on strengthening the independence of the Cabinet Secretary and the role of the Commons, but the recommendations are, frankly, timid. Does the Chair, and perhaps his Select Committee, agree that root and branch transformative change of all our political structures and culture is required before we can honestly say to the British people that there will never again be such a failure?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. I voted for the Iraq invasion. I still do not know whether I would have voted the same way had we known much more about it. The salient part is the lack of preparation, and I would not have voted for it had I thought that there had been so little preparation. Having said that, I think the jury is still out on whether, in the long term, the invasion of Iraq will have been of benefit to global peace and security.

On whether Parliament was deliberately misled, the Select Committee just did not feel qualified to make that judgment. We do not have the procedures and wherewithal in this House to conduct a fair trial of the facts. Were such a Committee to be established to do that, it would need to be a very different kind of Committee with a different kind of quasi-judicial procedures. We suggest that the House should be prepared to do that if further facts and information emerge, but Sir John Chilcot was clear that he did not hold former Prime Minister Tony Blair culpable in deliberately misleading the House, and we have to accept that view.

Finally, on whether our recommendations are timid, they are limited to what we felt able to make recommendations about. However we organise our politics, I am afraid that there will always be occasions when things go wrong. I do not think that any constitutional structure can protect us from that, although we have made some recommendations that would prevent certain things from happening again.

Being a member of the Select Committee, I come at this from a position similar to that of my hon. Friend who chairs it with such distinction, which is reflected in the calibre of the report. I have my doubts about whether my vote would have been different had we had more facts, but we take our votes in this House on the facts that are presented to us and then we move forward; we do not get our time over again to relive our votes.

One concern that we were able to cover in the report was the length of time and the unacceptable delays associated with the Chilcot report. The Cabinet Secretary indicated that the Government would consider further the question of how the Iraq inquiry could have been carried out more quickly. We urge that that assessment comes as a matter of urgency, so has my hon. Friend received any indication of the timescale, or will we be waiting a long time, as we did for the inquiry itself?

Order. On the matter of timescales, we have until about 12.35 pm, which leaves about 10 minutes to get quite a few people in. If we can keep answers and questions a bit briefer, that would be great.

I will endeavour to be extremely brief. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her question, her participation in the Select Committee and her contribution to the report. The answer is that we are making recommendations about the conduct of inquiries, and I doubt whether the Government will like them because they would limit their control over the process. Most Governments establish public inquiries to avoid issues, not to explore them and open them up. Why did it take so long to get this inquiry? Our report is as much addressed to what the House must take control of itself in order to ensure that inquiries are better conducted in future.

I congratulate the Select Committee, although I am surprised to hear the Chairman say that the jury is still out on the Iraq war. In terms of public opinion, the jury is in, the verdict has been delivered, and the former Prime Minister has been indicted and rightfully so, although I would have preferred more formal proceedings to those which he faced.

The crucial subject matter in the report boils down to two things. First, I congratulate the Committee on the invention of the letter of direction, which is similar to the financial direction that is part of Government accountability. Perhaps the Chairman could say a bit more about that and about why he thinks it would be effective in avoiding the total and absolute breakdown of collective responsibility that was identified in the Chilcot report.

Secondly, the Committee has not been able to make as much progress on the question of parliamentary accountability. If someone, such as the former Prime Minister, says one thing to the American President, and then says something else or does not say anything to the House of Commons, that is prima facie a misleading of the House of Commons. To avoid that accountability, either one sets up a series of inquiries with limited remits that are unable to adjudicate on that which was done, or one spins things out for so long that by the time there is an inquiry with a big enough remit everybody says, “Why are we raking over the past?” If we allow that to stand, there is no effective parliamentary accountability. Can the Chairman see that the timeous nature of parliamentary accountability and our responsibility can be effected in his report and a mechanism produced so that we have the obligation to take forward what our constituents demand, which is to hold any Prime Minister who behaves in the same way as the former Prime Minister to account in a proper and timeous fashion?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. The letter of direction should not be a controversial matter, because we already have it in our procedures for financial matters, as he says. One or two former Cabinet Secretaries have bridled at that, but others are very much in support. It does not interfere with the substance of policy; it merely ensures that proper process is covered. We recommend not that the letter of the direction, which may come at a sensitive time or involve a sensitive issue, should automatically be made public, but that it should, if appropriate and at the behest of the Cabinet Secretary, be made privately available to an appropriate Select Committee, to the Intelligence and Security Committee, to members of the Privy Council or to the Leader of the Opposition. It is just another lever for a Cabinet Secretary to use to secure their independence and the proper process set down in the Cabinet manual that Prime Ministers have agreed to in principle.

On parliamentary accountability and the Prime Minister, it remains open to this House to set up a special Select Committee or privileges Committee to establish proper procedures and provide fair representation for the prosecution and for the defence, but it would be a completely new procedure. Nothing like that has been done in the era when we expect natural justice to be carried to far higher standards. We cannot have a posse of MPs, all of whom have known views on such issues, acting as some kangaroo court to arraign a former Prime Minister. That would be ridiculous and would not do this House any good.

On the establishment of inquiries, my hon. Friend will be aware that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is considering whether to reconvene the Leveson inquiry, which has already sat for 15 months, at a cost of more than £5 million, to examine events approaching 10 years ago. What advice would he give to the Secretary of State?

As perhaps should have been done with the child sex abuse inquiry, I suggest that the Secretary of State comes to this House to ask for a Committee to be set up. Let us have an inquiry into the inquiry before we get stuck on the tramlines of legality and appointing people. She should look before she leaps and accept that Governments should not be able to establish inquiries to get themselves out of inconvenient difficulties. The House is here to assist such scrutiny, and it should be here to provide oversight so that an inquiry is properly conducted in a timely fashion.

I am a member of the Select Committee. I supported the publication of the report, but in the spirit of acquiescence rather than enthusiasm. The Chairman will recall that I was uneasy about one or two phrases that were subsequently corrected. In particular, does he agree with our inserting the possibility of a further inquiry—not by our Select Committee but possibly by others—if further evidence comes to light?

I personally believe that we were misled by the then Prime Minister on weapons of mass destruction and the pretext for war. I was one of 139 Labour MPs who voted against the war, and I stand by that decision. Some of the unease I feel was expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett). Does the Chairman accept that I expressed some unease at the time? I support the publication of the report, particularly the recommendation that it might be worth while for a future inquiry to be carried out, not by our Select Committee but by others.

The hon. Gentleman has been a trouper on the Committee for many years. I accept that this was a difficult inquiry to agree. In our draft, because we were concentrating on process and procedures rather than on the substance of the issues, we had to reflect some of the tone of the anxiety that so many people feel about this issue. I hope he felt able and comfortable to support the inquiry. He fully supports our recommendations, for which I am grateful.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the overriding lesson that most people will think we can learn from Chilcot is that such reports take too long and cost too much?

The inquiry is an extraordinarily thorough piece of work. Sir John Chilcot should be commended for what he achieved, the detail he went into and the seriousness with which he approached the inquiry, but it was not what the public initially expected. The Crimean war was in many respects a far bigger disaster, but the inquiry into that was conducted in the space of a few months, which I think is what the public hoped for with Chilcot—there were some fairly obvious top-level things.

We conduct inquiries using Salmon letters—the Maxwellisation process—and there is a tremendous sense of obligation to provide people with fairness in inquiries that perhaps did not exist after the Crimean war. We need to set down parameters for such inquiries, which is what a Select Committee would do if it studied an inquiry before it was set up. A Select Committee would set those parameters in a motion establishing the inquiry.

I found out only by accident that the statement was taking place. I have not read the report, but I listened with interest to the hon. Gentleman’s statement. Nobody would disagree with due process. I sent out this Twitter message two hours ago:

“My thoughts are with the victims and survivors of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal campaign in Halabja, 28 years ago today.”

That campaign is one of the reasons why I and many others, the majority in this House, voted for the war.

I am grateful for the right hon. Lady’s kind remarks, and it is important that we make such Select Committee statements because they engage more Members in our reports. I regard our report as a serious piece of work that makes serious recommendations, and hon. and right hon. Members of all views on the original conflict can embrace it as a better way of making such decisions in government and a better way of conducting public inquiries.

As a member of the Select Committee, I point out that the Chilcot inquiry was about identifying mistakes that led to loss of life, military and civilian. With that in mind, it is unacceptable that the inquiry took seven years to reach a conclusion. Those mistakes could have been repeated in that timescale. However, the Committee points out:

“The Iraq Inquiry reported that the Blair Government did not expose key policy decisions to rigorous review.”

Backing that up, paragraph 63 says:

“Cabinet was…being asked to confirm the decision that the diplomatic process was at an end and that the House of Commons should be asked to endorse the use of military action to enforce Iraq’s compliance. Given the gravity of this decision, Cabinet should have been made aware of the legal uncertainties.”

I put it to the Chairman that the evidence provided to the Cabinet appears to have been designed to produce the result that the then Prime Minister was looking for.

I think that is an accurate comment, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his contribution to the Committee and this report. It cuts both ways, because the Cabinet went along with being sidelined. Chilcot was clear that plenty of Cabinet Ministers were quite content to leave it to others to make the decisions when they had the right to insist on being consulted. Our report addresses how the legal advice was taken, explored and discussed by the Cabinet, and we make recommendations about that. Our proposals make clear what Cabinet Ministers are entitled to expect. It is not a favour to ask that of the Prime Minister; it is part of the proper procedure of Cabinet government. We do not have a superannuated presidency in this country. We have a constitutional Cabinet Government, which should be reinforced by these proposals.

I am also a member of the Committee, but I do not support this report because I believe it has been interpreted by the press as an act of absolution for the Prime Minister involved and the other culpable people who were led by him, principally the three Select Committees of this House. Going to war was the worst blunder this House committed since sending troops to the Suez war. We should be objective in dealing with our blunders and, although this report has many merits, it does not address the truth that we were led into an avoidable war by a man of vanity who was in a messianic mood—he misled the House in a very serious way.

The hon. Gentleman’s report contains evidence from Dr Rangwala, who rightly says that there are two interpretations of the evidence before Chilcot. One interpretation, which the report suggests should be referred to the Privileges Committee, might lead us to conclude that we went to war in vain. We must remember the principal need to avoid sending soldiers to war in future because of the vanity or inflexibility of this House in making fair judgments. We have that responsibility. If we do not condemn the errors of the past, we are responsible for them.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his work on the Committee, and I respect that we differ on the report. I appreciate the emphasis he wants to make by declining to support the report, but it is open to the House at any time to refer any matter to the Committee of Privileges. There is a procedure for doing that, and he should try to implement it if he thinks there is a case for doing so.

The difficulty, as the Chilcot inquiry said, is that there are two interpretations of all this and that there is no definitive evidence to suggest culpability or that the former Prime Minister deliberately sought to mislead the House. There are lots of lessons to be learned. As an aside, for the House to be able to make an informed decision, it relies entirely on what the Government tell it. We are in a new era in which the House is consulted about such things, which never used to be the case. We used to have rather more retrospective accountability on such matters, rather than forward accountability, and I question whether such forward accountability works. I do not think the House of Commons is competent to make strategic judgments on the spur of the moment and in the heat of a crisis in the way that a Government should be.

As a new Member in 2015, what struck me about the whole Chilcot experience was the unacceptable delay. As the hon. Gentleman just said, we in this place want to take educated decisions, based on evidence, so for us—and more so for the families of the soldiers who died—the length of time it took to produce the report was unacceptable. He made welcome recommendations about having a stricter remit and stricter timing for such inquiries. How can we take that forward in this House to make it happen? Do we need to have a vote on it, or is it in the Government’s gift to do or not do this?

Ultimately, it is in the hands of this House, subject to whipping and all the pressures that are put on it, to decide how inquiries are conducted. If the Government are setting up an inquiry that this House does not like, this House can stop it; we are a sovereign House and that is what we should do. I agree so much with the hon. Gentleman’s comment that the length of time this took was unacceptable. Indeed, we make the point that it undermined not only the credibility of the inquiry, but the very confidence in public institutions that it was intended to try to restore. It did not serve the purpose that this House might have wanted it to serve because it took so long, and of course it was grievous torture for the families of those who had lost life and limb in this conflict.