I beg to move,
That this House
regrets that the Iraq Inquiry has decided to defer publication of its report until after
and calls on the Inquiry to publish a timetable for publication and an explanation of the causes of the delay by
The second Iraq war led to the deaths of more than 4,800 allied soldiers, 179 of them British. The lowest estimate of Iraqi civilian fatalities is 134,000, but plausible estimates put that number four times higher. So let us be clear—at least 134,000 innocent people died. The war created 3.4 million refugees, half of whom fled the country. It cost the British taxpayer £9.6 billion and it cost the American taxpayer $1,100 billion.
The war has done untold damage to the reputation of the west throughout the middle east, and indeed among Muslim populations both at home and abroad. Initiated to protect the west from terrorism, it has in fact destroyed the integrity of the Iraqi state and triggered a persistent civil war that has created the conditions for perhaps the worst terrorist threat yet to the west—ISIL. It has done huge harm to the self-confidence and unity of the west, neutering our foreign policy. The war was, with hindsight, the greatest foreign policy failure of this generation, and I say that as someone who voted for it. So that is why the Chilcot inquiry was set up.
The Iraq inquiry was announced in 2009 with broad and proper terms of reference. Sir John Chilcot, the inquiry’s chairman, made it clear that this was principally about learning lessons. He said that these
“lessons will help ensure that, if we face similar situations in future, the government of the day is best equipped to respond to those situations in the most effective manner in the best interests of the country.”
Governments are often prompted by acts of terrorism into making mistakes. The United States rushed into extraordinary rendition, torture, illegal surveillance and Guantanamo Bay. We attempted to introduce 90-day detention without charge, which everyone now accepts was unnecessary and wrong. But the greatest and most dangerous errors are in foreign policy. As Lady Manningham-Buller, the former head of MI5 stated, the invasion of Iraq “undoubtedly increased the threat” of terrorist attacks in Britain.
Since the announcement of the inquiry, three major foreign policy decisions would have greatly benefited from the lessons that arose from the Iraq war. In Libya we undertook a military intervention that was intended to prevent a massacre, quite properly. It was successful, but it was the precursor to protracted conflict and unrest following our nominal military victory. In Syria, the Government were blocked by this House from military intervention, an intervention that would have led us to be the military supporters of our now sworn enemies, ISIS. And now in Iraq the UK has become embroiled in the ongoing civil war that has raged since the invasion in 2003.
I will, but as the Government have, in my view improperly, made two statements on a Backbench Business day, I will have to limit the number of interventions I take.
As someone who voted against Iraq and Libya, I can only concur with what my right hon. Friend has said. Does he accept that the Chilcot inquiry has made it clear that it has cleared a lot of evidence for publication, but has not published it since 2012? Would it not be right, in the absence of the report itself, to get the evidence published, which would be the next best thing?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I will refer in a moment to the Winograd commission, which produced an interim report before the final report. Either of those approaches would have been sensible and worth while, and are still possible.
When decisions such as those that were made in Libya, Syria and Iraq are made without knowledge of all the facts, mistakes are made and sometimes people die as a result. So it is not hyperbole to say that the delay to the Iraq inquiry could cost lives because bad decisions could be made.
When it was announced in 2009, the inquiry was expected to take one year, and that was thought by the then Leader of the Opposition to be too long. Had the inquiry stuck to that timetable, the Government would have had the benefit in all the actions I have mentioned of any lessons that might have been learned from the final report. Six years on from the start, Sir John Chilcot has said that the report has taken
“longer than any of us expected would be necessary”.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not for the moment.
That was perhaps the understatement of the decade. It has been claimed that it is not an unreasonable period of time for such an important inquiry, but the Franks report on the Falklands war took six months, and we should not forget that that war had a controversial start. There were controversial aspects to the continuing diplomatic negotiations. It was incredibly sensitive in diplomatic, national security, military and espionage terms, yet it took six months.
The Winograd commission—the Israeli Government-appointed commission of inquiry into the war with Lebanon in 2006—is another relevant example. The commission held its first session in September 2006, released a preliminary report within seven months and then published in January 2008, less than a year and a half after the inquiry was announced. Any argument for delay on the grounds of political sensitivity or national security would be far more pertinent in Israel, where the immediate threat to life is considerably greater than in any other country in the world.
By the time we get to see this report, we will be in the third Parliament during which it has been written and considered. Is my right hon. Friend aware of any precedent for that and is there any possible legitimate excuse for the delay?
When the hon. Gentleman listens to what I intend to say shortly, he will realise that Sir Jeremy Heywood certainly does not want to rush the report, and there are some reasons for that of which I do not approve.
I have been asked by a number of colleagues why I believe that the delay has occurred. The truth is that no one in this House knows, not even the Minister. There is not enough information in the public domain, which is why the motion requires an answer to that exact question from Sir John Chilcot. Nevertheless, there are some clues. For clarity, I should say that I do not believe, at this stage at least, that the witnesses are the cause of the delay, and I say that because I think that one of them will be speaking later.
Some of the delay is undoubtedly down to the conflict between the inquiry and Whitehall—Sir Jeremy Heywood and others—about what can and cannot be disclosed. What the inquiry can publish is wrapped up in a series of protocols that have criteria so broad that a veto on publication can virtually be applied at Whitehall’s discretion. Compare this with the Scott inquiry into the Iraqi supergun affair. It also covered issues of incredible sensitivity in terms of national security, international relations, intelligence agency involvement, judicial propriety and ministerial decision making. Sir Richard Scott was allowed to decide himself what he would release into the public domain, unfettered by Whitehall. By contrast, Sir John Chilcot, who is a past Northern Ireland Office permanent secretary, who chaired an incredibly sensitive inquiry into intercept evidence, and who is considered a responsible keeper of Government secrets, is tied up in protocols, subject to the whim of Whitehall.
We know there have been long negotiations between the inquiry and Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, and his predecessors over the disclosure of some material, most notably correspondence between ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair and George W. Bush. There is no point whatsoever in the inquiry if it cannot publish the documents that show how the decision to go to war was arrived at. Chilcot himself wrote in a letter to the Cabinet Secretary:
“The question when and how the prime minister made commitments to the US about the UK's involvement in military action in Iraq and subsequent decisions on the UK's continuing involvement, is central to its considerations”.
The negotiations between Chilcot and Jeremy Heywood concluded only in May last year, when it was announced that an agreement had been reached. The process was clearly frustrating for the inquiry: Sir John Chilcot queries why it was that
“individuals may disclose privileged information (without sanction) whilst a committee of privy counsellors established by a former prime minister to review the issues, cannot”.
“vital to the public understanding of the inquiry's conclusions” were being suppressed by Whitehall. That is ridiculous. If that is the approach taken, nothing will be learned and there is little purpose in the inquiry.
The inquiry protocols are symptomatic of a mindset that seems to assume that serving civil servants are the only proper guardians of the public interest. That leads me to a particular problem: if a Minister is asked to make a decision that affects him, his family, his property or even his constituency, he is required to withdraw—in the jargon, to recuse himself—from the decision and have somebody else make it. That does not say that the Minister is corrupt; it simply means that one can avoid the appearance of corruption and any chance of an improper decision, and it removes the risk of unconscious bias. It is a proper procedure. No such rule applies for civil servants.
This inquiry process is littered with people who were central to the very decisions the inquiry is investigating. Sir Jeremy Heywood was principal private secretary to Tony Blair for the entire period, from the 9/11 atrocity through to the first stage of the Gulf war, yet he is Whitehall’s gatekeeper for what can and cannot be published. Even the head of the inquiry secretariat, Margaret Aldred, was deputy head of the foreign and defence policy secretariat and therefore responsible for providing Ministers with advice on defence and policy matters on Iraq, and she was nominated to the inquiry by the Cabinet Secretary of the day.
All of that would matter less if the ridiculous restrictive protocols that Whitehall has imposed on the Chilcot inquiry were not there. Like Scott, Sir John Chilcot should be allowed to publish what he thinks is in the public interest, and not what Whitehall thinks is acceptable.
To finish my point, if that had been the case, we might well have had the inquiry report already and there would be less public concern about an establishment cover-up.
We also know that the Maxwellisation process is causing some delay. Those due to be criticised in the final report are being allowed lengthy legal consultation. Although this is a necessary part of the process, strict time controls are needed. It cannot be right that those who are to be criticised can delay publication for their own benefit.
Finally, let me deal with the question of preventing publication during the run-up to the general election. Purdah periods exist for a simple reason: to prevent Governments from using their power to publish information that would give them electoral advantage. They are not to prevent impartial information from being put in the public domain—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear”]—so why delay a deliberately impartial report of vital interest to the nation just because the election is pending? It is nonsense. I say to those who are cheering that, frankly, it is not clear that there will be much political advantage anywhere. It was started by a Labour Government, but it was supported by the current Prime Minister, who spoke in favour of it even as late as 2006; the current Labour leader did not vote for it because he was not in the House. There is complete confusion about where there could be any advantage, but the public interest should trump any interest of party advantage and that is why publication should not be delayed by the election.
The Iraq inquiry has been a missed opportunity. Terrible mistakes were made but, fatally, we have so far failed to learn our proper lessons from them. Douglas Hurd, the former Foreign Secretary and in no way an anti-establishment figure, has branded the endless delays a “scandal”. He is right. It is a disgrace. It is an insult to those who died on our behalf in that war and a betrayal of the people they died to protect. That is why I ask the House to pass the motion today.
Order. I would like to suggest that Members speak for up to 10 minutes. Otherwise, we will have to impose a time limit.
I am pleased to follow Mr Davis. I welcome the debate, and in doing so I formally draw the attention of the House to the fact that as Foreign Secretary between 2001 and 2006, I have been a witness before the Iraq inquiry.
Of all the many decisions I had to make as a Minister, none was more serious than my decision not just to support military action against the Saddam Hussein regime, but actively to advocate that course in the final speech in the momentous debate in this House on
If one accepts the privilege of high office, one has to accept the consequences that flow from the decisions one makes. It was therefore entirely right that there should be a comprehensive and independent inquiry about the Iraq war, not least to hold those of us who had to make those decisions properly to account. There was an issue between the parties about the timing of the inquiry, and I shall discuss that briefly later in my speech, if I have time. The inquiry was established in mid-June 2009 and when it began its oral evidence sessions, in November 2009, its chairman, Sir John Chilcot, said:
“We aim to report, if possible, by the end of 2010”.
Any inquiry of this nature has to follow rules of natural justice and public law principles, including that it judges decision takers on the circumstances that obtained at the time, on the information then available and without the benefit of hindsight. Alongside that, there is the Maxwellisation process to give witnesses an opportunity to respond to the drafts of any criticisms intended to be made of them, and the inquiry then has to have time and space to consider those representations.
Is the right hon. Gentleman now going to admit something that his party and a good number of people on my side have not admitted, which is that we went to war on a false premise? There were no weapons of mass destruction. Is he willing to admit that now?
With great respect, no, and this is not the occasion to do that. I gave extensive evidence to the Iraq inquiry, as I will explain.
As part of the process of Maxwellisation, all relevant witnesses were required to sign undertakings of confidentiality. The House will therefore understand that those who are part of the Maxwellisation process are constrained in what they can say. I would, however, like to say this. I gave oral evidence to the inquiry on three occasions: twice in early 2010 and then on
“going to take some months to deliver the report itself”, which was taken to mean that publication would take place by the end of 2011. However, 18 months later, in July 2013, the inquiry announced that the Maxwellisation process would begin in October of that year. As the House now knows, it did not begin for more than 12 months after that.
I am afraid that the answer to that is well above my pay grade. My hon. Friend would have to ask the inquiry, or those responsible for the inquiry, about that. But I just say, parenthetically, that when this is all over, there will be many issues for parties on both sides of the House to consider about the conduct of such inquiries, not least whether they would be aided, as I soundly believe they would be, if counsel and high-grade legal teams were available to them.
There has been much nonsense around suggesting that it has been witnesses who have caused the extensive delays in the inquiry’s progress, and therefore its final report. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden for what he said, because these claims are wholly without foundation. A moment’s thought should convince anyone that no witness has had any interest in the inquiry’s being dragged out for this long. For example, to prepare for my evidence sessions in 2010 and 2011, I had to study hundreds of records. If the Maxwellisation process had taken place at the time, the detail from those records would still have been fresh in my mind. As it is, a further four years has elapsed, requiring fresh study of reams of documents. I am conscious too, as the whole House will be, of the anxiety and concern of those who have lost loved ones in the conflict at the delays in publishing the report.
When Sir John wrote to the Prime Minister last week with an update on the progress of his inquiry, he said that he could confirm that,
“individuals are currently being given the opportunity to respond to provisional criticism in the inquiry’s draft report”.
The House should note the use of the adverb “currently”, to which the adverb “recently” might have been an informative addition. It follows from this that no witness to the inquiry has remotely been responsible for any of the delays that have occurred to date. Nor, as Mr Blair has made clear in a recent statement, has he or any other witness been involved in delaying the process of declassifying previously sensitive documents.
Is there not then a question as to any obstruction that might have come from the office of George Bush, the former President of the United States, or the current White House, which seem to be very reluctant to reveal the details of correspondence and communication between former Prime Minister Blair and former President Bush?
I have no information about any of the process of declassification.
At the same time, my hope is that in the Maxwellisation process, which is only “currently” under way, no one is suggesting that any person who is the subject of provisional criticisms by the inquiry should not be given a proper opportunity to consider those and to respond, with sufficient time, proportionate to the volume and complexity of the material involved. It has, after all, taken the inquiry more than five years finally to produce its initial report, and as the Prime Minister has conceded, even that may not be complete.
Let me deal briefly with the claims that if the last Government had established in inquiry earlier, we would have had the report by now. There are two responses to that. The first, the obvious one, is that no one anticipated delays of the length that we have seen. The then Leader of the Opposition’s complaint, when the announcement was made in June 2009, was that the inquiry
That is after that general election. There was never the remotest suggestion from anyone, nor anticipation, that this report would not be out well before the 2015 general election.
Secondly, although they were the subject of controversy, the previous Government did have sound reasons for not establishing an inquiry earlier than we did, because British troops were heavily involved in combat operations at the time when earlier calls were made. Our rationale—
With great respect, it was not. I have looked at the precedents. There can be inquiries in the middle of wars. I have looked, as it happens, at the precedents of the Dardanelles and the Crimea. A contemporaneous report of the conclusions of the report on the Crimea, which were read out to the House by the Clerk for one hour and 25 minutes, spells out that the difficulty of the task
“has been materially enhanced by the impossibility of summoning some persons by considerations…of State policy”, and the committee admits that
“they have been unable satisfactorily to complete” the inquiry.
The Franks inquiry was the subject of huge controversy at the time. I was in the House. Yes, it did report in six months, but it was a committee of privy counsellors, four of the six were former Labour and Conservative Cabinet Ministers, and one had been the former permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence. Some said that they were parti pris. They took all their evidence in secret and, as far as I know, they published no documents to be declassified. It can be done in that way, but it is not acceptable these days.
There were many debates about a meaningful inquiry, for example the one in October 2006. At the time it was said,
“important operations are under way in Iraq. Major political decisions…and efforts to contain the insurgency appear to be in the balance…Any inquiry should be able to examine what happens in the coming months…as well as the events of recent years. To begin an inquiry now would therefore be premature.”—[Hansard, 31 October 2006; Vol. 451, c. 183.]
Those powerful words were the argument that we were advancing. What is interesting is that they were not offered by a Minister, but from the Opposition Front Bench by
I do not envy members of the inquiry the burden they have had to face. The unanticipated delays in the inquiry’s progress now make for additional pressures on the inquiry members themselves. In particular, as the months go past, wholly unfounded suspicions fall on the inquiry about a whitewash, and there is an equal and opposite concern that they may feel obliged to respond to these pressures by conclusions more starkly drawn than the evidence would allow.
I am just coming to the end.
Everyone bears a heavy responsibility for ensuring that the inquiry is not put in a position where it becomes impossible to conduct a fair process and reach a fair and independent conclusion. As the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden importantly noted outside the House on
“The purpose of the inquiry is not vilification or vindication—it is to learn lessons.”
That is the path all of us wish the inquiry to follow, and I hope, as we all do, that it can be published as quickly as possible.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr Straw. He and I have sparred over this issue for the best part of a decade, but I welcome the clarity of his remarks. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Mr Davis on securing the debate. On his very last point about political advantage,
I could not agree with him more. This was a political decision, and when can the public pass comment and judgment on a public decision but at a general election? So it would be entirely appropriate if the report was ready for publication in the next few months.
There have been no fewer than four inquiries into this subject during my time in Parliament. None of them has taken more than six months. The first was conducted by the Foreign Affairs Committee, of which I was a member, and resulted in a split decision. The key passages of the report were carried on the casting vote of the Chairman, but I did not agree with its conclusion that the action taken was justified by the information available at the time. That inquiry was triggered by a report on the “Today” programme by Mr Andrew Gilligan, who said that he had evidence that the case for war had been “sexed up”. That led to war between No. 10 and the BBC, largely provoked by Alastair Campbell. It led to the resignation of the director-general, Greg Dyke, and the chairman, Gavyn Davies.
During that inquiry, the Government put up Dr David Kelly to give evidence to the Committee. It was done by a devious process and eventually the media managed to ascertain the name of Dr Kelly. It was an unfathomable tragedy for him and his family, and the mystery to this day is why the Government put him up to give evidence in the first place. During his evidence he denied that he said to Andrew Gilligan the words that were quoted, but more critically, he had given a briefing to Susan Watts of “Newsnight”, and “Newsnight” published the quotation that he had given to it. When questioned by myself and David—now Lord—Chidgey as to whether he had said those words, Dr Kelly denied saying them. In fact, the BBC had recorded the conversation, and it is believed that he died on the day that he discovered this and was about to be outed as having misled the Committee.
That led to the second inquiry, the inquest conducted by Lord Hutton, which concluded that Dr Kelly took his own life.
I will not give way to the right hon. Gentleman because I know exactly what he has to say and I will let him give his conspiratorial twaddle to the House in his own time, rather than mine. [Interruption.] I am sure he will let the House know shortly.
In the inquest conducted by Lord Hutton, he concluded that Dr Kelly took his own life. Although the case for war may have been exaggerated, he concluded that it was not “sexed up” in the sense that it contained false or unreliable intelligence. But the evidence that came out during that hearing was that the weapons of mass destruction that we had invaded Iraq to remove were, in fact, small-calibre shells and battlefield weapons—in other words, they were defensive weapons, not offensive weapons that would threaten the security of the western world.
When the report was published and we had the debate in the House on the Hutton inquiry, I intervened on Tony Blair and asked him if he knew that information on the day that we voted to go to war, and if not, why he had not told the House that. He replied that he did not know. So the question is, how could we be going to war when the Prime Minister of the day, who made the decision to go to war, was not properly briefed about the threat that we faced? I, the House and the nation want to know the answer to that. We expect that the Chilcot inquiry will provide the answers.
That the threat was only battlefield weapons was confirmed by the third inquiry, which was conducted by the Intelligence and Security Committee in 2003. It made no judgment on the rights or wrongs of the case for war, but it looked at the use of intelligence and it accepted that there had been convincing intelligence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction programmes. That has subsequently been established to be manifestly wrong, so why was that information there? Again, we want the Chilcot inquiry and the Iraq inquiry to provide the answer.
The Intelligence and Security Committee inquiry led to the fourth inquiry—the Butler inquiry of 2004, which was a continuation of the ISC inquiry. Two members of the Intelligence and Security Committee sat on the Butler inquiry, together with Lord Butler, the chairman, who is now a member of the ISC, and Field Marshall Inge, who gave military advice to the committee. The final member was Sir John Chilcot. This was by far the most in-depth inquiry and looked at the many issues that had surfaced. It concluded that the 45-minute claim should not have been made in the way that it was. But—and it is an absolutely critical but—the inquiry still had not had full access to all the information, and questions remained. Those questions continue to reverberate. Eventually the Chilcot inquiry was established, and Chilcot had the great advantage that he was at least briefed when he started.
I feel that I have only scraped the surface of the high number of unanswered questions. I appreciate the enormity of the task faced by the Iraq inquiry. It has had to deal with former President Bush’s office, the security services, the Cabinet Office, Tony Blair’s office and the offices of the witnesses. It has had to cope with hundreds of hours of oral evidence and thousands of pages of written evidence. There has been personal illness on the committee. The committee has my sympathy, but six years? The prediction at the time, as has just been said, was that it would take two years. The Franks inquiry took six months and the issue in 2009, as has been said, was whether the Iraq inquiry’s report would be ready by the 2010 election. My only regret is that when it is published, I will not be here to debate fully the issues that have been raised.
The right hon. Gentleman and I have been involved in all the debates on Iraq. Does he recall that a number of us, maybe including himself, felt that the whole inquiry process was wrong, and that there should have been a judicial inquiry that could have been seen to be totally independent of what has been revealed by Mr Davis, which is, essentially, that pretty well everybody is involved in some way along the line in the decision making or the prevention of evidence coming forward?
The hon. Gentleman is right—we have been debating these things for a long time. He neatly leads me into the final part of my speech, which is the appearance of Sir John Chilcot before the Foreign Affairs Committee next Wednesday, when, I hope, we can establish answers to such questions. I want to give him a chance to put the record straight.
Sir John Chilcot is a distinguished public servant who has done his best to assist the country. There is no finger of blame pointed at him, or there will not be next Wednesday afternoon, and I quite accept that he will not be able to discuss substantive matters when he appears before us. What I want him to talk about is the process, and I want him to guide us on how to streamline procedures for the future, and maybe to provide the answers to Jeremy Corbyn.
I am pleased that my right hon. Friend is going to see Sir John Chilcot in front of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Would he ask him about the role of the Cabinet Secretary? It is suggested by some, as we heard earlier from my right hon. Friend Mr Davis, that somehow he is irrevocably conflicted, even though he is only negotiating what might be published, not what the inquiry can see. Will my right hon. Friend put that question to Sir John, so that he can fairly say whether he feels that the Cabinet Secretary has been obstructing or not? I suspect not.
That is a fair point and I will have a look at my hon. Friend’s request. I do not make a promise but clearly, the Cabinet Secretary and the role of the Cabinet Office are highly relevant to all this. I want to give Sir John an opportunity to answer the questions. Whether he chooses to do so or feels able to do so is a matter for him.
In conclusion, what we want to try and find out is what has gone wrong and how we can deal with such matters in the future, so that these situations never happen again.
In the words of Lord Hurd, the circumstance we now find ourselves in is a scandal, and one compounded by the acres of empty green Benches all around us today. There are some 30 Members of the House present. There are some seven members of the Labour party which took us into the war, and most of those were resolute opponents of the war, and another is in the dock in the inquiry. I will come to him later.
The Schleswig-Holstein question took a long time, but that is because nobody knew the answer. Everybody knows the answer to the question of why Sir John Chilcot has come forward—a week before our debate, when he knew that it was on the Order Paper—to tell us that this inquiry will not report before the general election. Everybody knows the answer to that, however much flannel is pulled around it. It is to avoid the fact that the report can only highlight the iron-clad consensus that existed at that time between the two Front Benches: the then Prime Minister and his acolytes, only one of whom has the courage to be here today, and the then Leader of the Opposition, who is not here today but whose principal role in these matters was to egg the Prime Minister on to war, bigger and faster, as those of us who were here well remember—bitterly remember.
I declare an interest. I am the maker of the film “The Killing of Tony Blair”, which will be out soon, and will no doubt hugely benefit from the postponement of the Chilcot report. In the absence of Chilcot, we will have to be the report. But I have many other interests, of a non-pecuniary nature, in this. Like some of my friends who were not so gullible as the highly expensively educated right hon. Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), we did not look into the Bambi eyes of the then—[Interruption.] I am talking about his university education; I probably helped to pay for it.
But you went to an expensive university that the rest of us paid for.
The right hon. Gentleman says, and many others now say, that they gazed into the Bambi eyes of the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and he was their Prime Minister, so what could they do except follow him over the cliff? What kind of parliamentarian takes such an approach—that because somebody tells you something is true, you must follow them, when the consequences were easily predictable and were predicted by millions of ordinary citizens out in our streets, without the benefit of that education and without the benefit of a seat in this House? “What kind of parliamentarian?” is a question I want to concentrate on. I could talk for hours, and regularly do, about what all this has cost the people of Iraq and the people of the wider region, but I want to concentrate on what it has cost us—and I do not mean financially either.
When the Chilcot inquiry was announced in this House, I described it as a parade of establishment flunkeys. Who will now say that I was wrong? I decried the fact that there was no soldier on the panel. One could have had Mr Davis—a man who knows what military affairs are about. I decried the fact that there was no lawyer on the panel. I had in mind Sir Menzies Campbell, who could have covered for the fact that there was no parliamentarian on the panel. I decried the fact that nobody would recognise some of the panel members if they were sitting next to them on the Clapham omnibus, and it was difficult to understand why they had been chosen. I decried the fact that two of the members of the panel had described Bush and Blair as the Truman and Churchill de nos jours. Talk about parti pris! They were proselytisers for the war they were now being asked to inquire into. The principal gatekeeper to the Chilcot inquiry—I am grateful to Mr Llwyd for this information; he is in our film, by the way, and very eloquent too—was the principal gatekeeper between the Foreign Office and the intelligence services, and Ministers, in the run-up to the war. Talk about parti pris! These individuals were either unqualified for or disqualified from participation in this inquiry.
That this has taken so long and been so expensive would be tolerable if our position in the world had not continued to deteriorate, and the conditions in the world had not continued to deteriorate. I tell Mr Straw—who is, as I said, in the dock here—that he will never escape the consequences of what he has said and done. He looks to me a haunted figure compared with the Spring-Heeled Jack that he used to be—as well he might, because he will never escape this. It will follow him to the grave and into the history books that he proselytised for something which has turned into an unmitigated catastrophe for the world, but also for us. I do not blame Sir Jeremy Heywood—Sir Humphrey. I do not blame even the Chilcot inquiry. I do not blame Tony Blair, at least not for this. I blame us. This is a poor excuse for a Parliament, if only its Members could more clearly see so. It is a poor excuse for a Parliament that sets up an inquiry, funds an inquiry, and then says, three Parliaments on—as the former Defence Secretary, Dr Fox said—that we might, who knows when, get the fruits of that inquiry.
This is Pontius Pilate. This is washing our hands of something that is bleeding us at home and abroad. What do I mean? I mean this. This has cost us millions, yes; it has cost us six years, yes; but the world is hurtling to disaster. The decision that was made in here on the basis of the arguments made by the Government at the time has torn Iraq and its region asunder. It has fantastically, unbelievably and incalculably inflated the danger of extremism, fanaticism and terrorism. Iraq no longer exists as a state. One third of it is controlled by the heart-eating, head-chopping, amputating, crucifying so-called Islamic State. And Members still will not say that they were wrong, let alone the then Prime Minister skating around in Davos—Mr Blair, the former Prime Minister, who still says he was right and would do it all again.
Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. The argument for the war was therefore false, if it was not a falsehood. It has been a catastrophe. I told the then Prime Minister, “There are no al-Qaeda in Iraq, but if you and Bush invade, there will be hundreds of thousands of al-Qaeda in Iraq.” Little did I know that al-Qaeda would spawn something even more horrific than al-Qaeda. I told the then Prime Minister, “The fall of Baghdad will not be the beginning of the end but merely the end of the beginning, and the fanaticism and extremism that you will unleash will travel and cascade everywhere, including on to our own streets.”
I will close now, as I see that you are anxious, Mr Deputy Speaker. I close with this. No one outside can really understand how all these political professionals—highly remunerated, highly rewarded, with all their intelligence and education—can have made such a catastrophic error when millions of people outside who did not enjoy those privileges already knew that it would end in the disaster in which it has ended.
It is always a pleasure to follow George Galloway, who made a very powerful speech. He touched on some really serious and important issues surrounding the process of making the decisions on which we went to war in 2003. I hope that he will forgive me if I do not follow him on that, but concentrate on one or two discrete matters on which I may be able to help the House.
I find the current delay in the publication of the Chilcot report very regrettable. The mere fact that we are having this debate highlights the growing public unease about how the inquiry has been conducted and how the report has been handled. Almost inevitably, that will have the knock-on consequence of reducing trust in its conclusions.
The irony is that everything I saw in my time in government—limited as it was—suggests that Sir John Chilcot has been trying to produce an extremely thorough report and, indeed, that he is leaving no stone unturned, even at the cost of embarrassing those who may be criticised. It troubles me even more to see a process that I certainly do not think will prove to be meaningless undermined by a delay that is in no one’s interest.
I am quite satisfied from my time in government that my ministerial colleagues in the Government have no role at all to play in the inquiry, and are not in a position to influence its progress. Suggestions that there may be some political motivation either for them or, for that matter, for witnesses who have given evidence to the inquiry are completely without foundation.
The difficulty that seems to me to have arisen is the lack of explanation of why the delays have accumulated. As my right hon. Friend Mr Davis said, it was made quite clear at the outset that there was a timetable on which the inquiry was designed to run. It is also quite clear that that timetable has not been followed.
It has been suggested—rightly, from what I know of the matter—that a lot of the delays following the conclusion of the evidence sessions relate to what documentation can or cannot be published. Before it is said that that may somehow be suspicious, let me say that it was probably inherent in the inquiry that the documentation would cause difficulties. Conspiracy theorists might say that the documents are not being published because they will give rise to embarrassment, but I have very little doubt that issues of national security and of international relations will arise in relation to some of them, and those issues cannot be lightly brushed to one side. Sir John has undoubtedly had to wrestle with that matter.
I can only give the House an impression, but my impression when I left office was that such problems had been resolved. Of course, I may have been mistaken, but it was certainly my understanding by early 2014—indeed, this was suggested by facts communicated publicly—that the inquiry could move on to the Maxwellisation process.
As so often happens in government, there has perhaps been a tendency for Sir Humphrey-isms to creep in. I noted with amusement that when, on
“There has been a delay of sorts as we processed tens of thousands of requests for declassification of very complicated and sensitive documents. I don’t think that has held up the inquiry. It is a very difficult thing. The controversy around this continues today. It is very important that the whole story is told.”
As I have already said, I have no doubt—this is my impression—that Sir John Chilcot’s wishes the whole story to be told, but the fact remains that there is an internal contradiction in Sir Jeremy Heywood’s statement. If the processing of “tens of thousands” of requests was complicated and has caused “a delay of sorts”, I do not see how that cannot have been one of the factors holding up the inquiry. I would have thought that that was capable of clarification.
The issue that has caused me most concern—it is why I supported and signed the original motion—relates to what has happened since last year. My understanding was that it would have been possible, despite the delays, for the matter to be concluded by the end of 2012. That was my impression, which is all I can call it, when I was in government. I therefore find it strange, in almost February 2015, to find from what others have said that the Maxwellisation process is going so very slowly. I would have hoped that it could be resolved earlier.
I know that my right hon. and learned Friend’s remarks will be closely followed outside the House. For those not familiar with the term, will he confirm that Maxwellisation is the opportunity given to people who are going to be criticised in a report to defend themselves before it is published?
Yes, my hon. Friend is right. Maxwellisation provides people with the opportunity to respond to passages in a report that relate to them. In such circumstances, a reasonable period needs to be allowed for the process.
The point made by Mr Straw is valid: if it is many years since a witness gave their evidence, it will take them longer to consider their response than if the process occurs a few weeks afterwards. However, I would still hope that a period of a few months was sufficient to conclude the process. That was why I was surprised, first, that the report was not published at the end of 2012 and, secondly—I must say that I am even more troubled by this—that we will not get it before the next general election.
I will commit the sin of asking a question in the House to which I do not know the answer. Why is it called Maxwellisation? We used to talk about Salmon letters.? Is this process different or more protracted, and is it an opportunity for lawyers to extend the process for which they are paid?
The terms mean one and the same thing. As with so many descriptions used in government, there is no difference between them. They started out as Salmon letters, but since Mr Maxwell’s experience the process has been described as Maxwellisation. I am sure that either term can be used.
Is Maxwellisation an opportunity for lawyers to crawl over the report? I hope not. At the end of the day, it gives the person going to be criticised an opportunity to explain whether they agree or disagree with the criticisms, and in the light of any representations made it gives the inquiry members an opportunity to think about whether they wish to change their conclusions.
I must say, however, that the report is not ultimately holy writ. It will obviously have a marked effect, but it is the opinion of the inquiry. As long as the opinion has been arrived at reasonably and the process has been fair, the inquiry has to go ahead and produce its conclusions. Disagreements should not therefore lead to endless ping-pong. At some point, the inquiry has to come to a conclusion about whether or not it wishes to accept a representation. That is why I would not expect a Maxwellisation process to go on endlessly.
What has made me anxious is my impression that the Maxwellisation process seems hardly to have begun in many cases. For me, that raises these questions: has a further problem over the documentation led to the delays or has some other phenomenon crept in and caused the delays, and why has the Maxwellisation process taken so long to commence?
As the inquiry is not a judicial one, do its findings have the legal immunity required to protect the authors of the report from judicial proceedings if they publish something defamatory or deeply unfair? Is that part of the reason why the process is taking longer?
I can see where my hon. Friend is coming from, but his question goes into the realms of speculation. On the face of it, if the inquiry, which has been properly set up and conducted, makes a report—a Privy Council report—to Parliament, I do not see why such an issue should arise. My concern is to get an explanation.
In 2012, the right hon. and learned Gentleman was in government and he had the impression that the inquiry would report at that time. He was still in government after 2012. What impression did he have then about the delays?
No, I should not. I am mindful of my responsibilities and I want to help the House as much as I can.
I simply make two points to Mr Cunningham. First, I saw nothing in my time in government to suggest that Sir John Chilcot is not trying to be absolutely thorough or that he is being diverted from his conclusions in any way by external pressures from anyone. Secondly, it is quite clear, because it is public knowledge, that after 2011 there was a substantial difficulty over the documentation because of its nature. That was an inherent difficulty and I would not read into it any conspiracy theories or adverse view whatsoever—it just had to be resolved. The point that I am making is that it was my impression at the time I left office that, despite those difficulties, it ought to have been possible to publish the inquiry by the end of last year. Therefore, the further delay causes me concern.
I am pleased to hear that my right hon. Friend Sir Richard Ottaway will have Sir John Chilcot in front of him next week, because that will provide an opportunity for the clarification that is needed to restore public confidence in the way in which the inquiry is being conducted. For the reasons that I have set out, it really is in the public interest that there should be public confidence in the process. The public are entitled to have the conclusions on something that was done—I am the first to admit this, having voted in 2003 for military action—on a series of flawed premises.
Twelve years ago, the UK went into what I believe to have been an unlawful war against Iraq. That happened against the background of the protestations of thousands of members of the public and dozens of Members of Parliament, and on the basis of legal advice that Parliament was not allowed to see.
The impact of the war can be measured in bodies. Between March 2003 and May 2011, when UK operations ended, 179 UK armed forces personnel lost their lives in Iraq. Of those, 136 died in combat. As was mentioned by Mr Davis, whom I congratulate on leading the call for this debate, the Iraq Body Count project estimates that between 134,000 and 151,000 civilians have been killed as a result of violence in Iraq since March 2003. The number of violent deaths, including combatants, stands at 206,000 and is still growing. The website reports that only yesterday, 26 people were killed in Iraq. That is because Iraq was not left in anything like a stable condition when the UK and US armed forces pulled out in 2011.
In March 2005, I visited Iraq and travelled to Basra and Baghdad. It was plain to see then, as it is now, that little preparation had been put into planning for peace after the war ended. It is a distressing place to visit. We found open sewers, a lack of any infrastructure and badly underfunded social services, if any. The thinking in Washington, after all, was that it would take only weeks to get rid of Saddam. A former White House adviser, Kenneth Adelman, said that
“demolishing Hussein’s military power and liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk.”
Instead, Iraq is a troubled, crippled state. How wrong the establishment was.
Six years ago, the inquiry was set up with the express aim of finding out why such a colossal mistake as this war was allowed to be made. At the launch of the inquiry, its chairman, Sir John Chilcot, said that the inquiry would be
“considering the UK’s involvement in Iraq, including the way decisions were made and actions taken, to establish…what happened and to identify the lessons that can be learned. Those lessons will help ensure that, if we face similar situations in future, the government of the day is best equipped to respond to those situations in the most effective manner in the best interests of the country.”
The scale of the inquiry was significant. Those of us who had opposed the war from the beginning had some hope that at last we would hear answers to the questions that we had posed since 2002.
How disappointing it is for me to stand here today, four years since the inquiry concluded taking evidence, with the knowledge that those answers are no closer to being published. Indeed, if the reports are to be believed, the conclusions are yet to be written. Those criticised by the report have, of course, been given the right of reply by means of the Maxwellisation principle, which we have just discussed.
After all is said and done, the Chilcot inquiry finished taking evidence in early 2011—I believe that Mr Straw was the last to give evidence—and the expectation was that the findings would be published in the autumn of that year. Prevarication followed each delay and in November 2013 the inquiry said that it had reached an impasse over the release of crucial documents, including transcripts of the conversations between Mr Blair and Mr Bush. In May 2014, the inquiry announced that those transcripts would have to be published in a redacted form. Now, in January 2015, we learn that the findings of the inquiry will not be published until after the election, with no guarantee of when they will be published. It is becoming a farce—a very expensive farce—and an affront to democracy.
I have had grave misgivings from the very beginning about the independence of the Chilcot inquiry. I believe that it may well have been flawed and even compromised from the beginning. I have a particular interest in the transcripts of the conversations between our former Prime Minister and the then American President.
The right hon. Gentleman points to what I suspect will be a grave disappointment when the Chilcot report finally comes out. Would he then favour a totally independent judicial inquiry, so that we get to the bottom of this? I, for one, will not leave this subject, and I am sure that he will not either.
The hon. Gentleman is right. He and I agree, as I believe does the right hon. Member for Blackburn, that it should have been a judge-led inquiry. It might have had two lay assessors, but it definitely should have had a counsel to the inquiry, who would have directed the line of questioning forensically and would not have been batted away by the simple answers that were given, often in artistic and heroic terms, by some individuals, the right hon. Member for Blackburn excepted.
The inquiry did not go into any real depth. Being a Privy Counsellor does not make one a forensic analyst. I am a Privy Counsellor and I happen to be a lawyer, so I am able to ask the odd question, but the fact that someone is a Privy Counsellor does not take them any further on from Joe Public on the Clapham omnibus. It was quite ridiculous. Those are some of my misgivings.
As I said, I have a particular interest in the transcripts of conversations between the former Prime Minister and the former American President. In 2008, confidential documents were dispatched to my office from an unknown source. The documents showed that discussions had been held between the leaders of the two countries in 2001 and 2002 relating to removing Saddam using military force. Mr Blair had committed us to war even then, before seeing any proof of weapons of mass destruction.
My colleague, Adam Price, and I were visited by two very senior Metropolitan police officers—I believe they were from SO13—and questioned about the documents. The fact that they visited us made me believe that the documents were genuine. They were marked “Top Secret”. I believe that one was an American transcript and the other a British transcript. To this day, I have no knowledge of where they came from. I thought that the proper course of action was to say to the police, “I do know where the documents are, but I am not going to make them public until we have an inquiry. When that inquiry is set up, I shall take them to the inquiry personally so that it can look at them.”
I therefore decided to hand the documents over to the Chilcot inquiry when it was set up. I have doubts that they ever saw the light of day, but I do not know what has happened. After submitting the documents, nine months went by before I received any response. When one came, it simply informed me that I would not been called to give evidence. That is fine, but I have since found out that the way in which the gatekeeper to the inquiry, Ms Margaret Aldred—George Galloway referred to her a few moments ago—was appointed as the inquiry’s secretary did not follow the procedures in the civil service code. The Cabinet Office refuses to disclose any paper trail relating to that appointment, if indeed there is one. Ms Aldred was appointed on the nod by Sir John Chilcot —the same Sir John Chilcot, by the way, who criticised Tony Blair’s Government as a “sofa Government”. A good example of sofa government is when someone rings their pal to say, “Come and be a secretary to my inquiry.”
Margaret Aldred’s appointment showed a glaring conflict of interest, since she had regularly chaired the Iraq senior officials group, which co-ordinated across Government. Ms Aldred met US officials in October 2008 to discuss Iraq, and she even flew to Washington for discussions with her counterparts in the three weeks before the inquiry was announced. It was Ms Aldred’s section of the Cabinet Office that drew up the plans for regime change, and it was the Cabinet Office—the Joint Intelligence Committee and its staff—that produced the so-called dodgy Iraq dossier.
What I would like to know is the following. Why has the inquiry stopped publishing documents on its website? It did so for the first year, then it stopped. What is the total number of individuals who have been granted a right to reply to the accusations against them, when were they contacted by the inquiry, and what time scale have they been given to respond? Why has the inquiry been allowed to be so cowed by the establishment?
I am afraid that those and many other questions have not yet been answered. I sincerely hope that they are in the near future, because otherwise it will be an affront to democracy, an insult to Parliament and, more importantly, a gross offence to people who have lost loved ones out in Iraq and to the people of Iraq themselves. Democracy demands that something is done urgently, otherwise this Parliament will be the laughing stock of the world.
I share with most Members of all parties a deep disappointment at the postponement of the release of the Chilcot report. It is massively disappointing to us, but emotionally exhausting for the families of those who lost their lives in Iraq as they wait for closure and for the answers to which they are entitled.
The former Prime Minister, Mr Brown, sanctioned the report in 2009 and, as we have heard, advised that there should be a report within one year. We are now six years on. Motions in the last Parliament on an earlier inquiry into the Iraq war were voted down by the Labour Government, including the current Leader of the Opposition, so it would have been entirely possible for the process to be concluded sooner. As things stand, the next general election after the Chilcot report is released will be in 2020—17 years after the Iraq war. As Mr Llwyd said, that is an affront to democracy.
I have absolute sympathy for Sir John Chilcot and his inquiry team, not least because of the difficulties that they have experienced with the illness of some team members. I support the rigorous and forensic way in which Sir John has gone about the process and insisted on the fairness of allowing those who are likely to be criticised in the report the right to respond—the process that is referred to as Maxwellisation. That strikes me as fair.
It is worth the House reiterating and getting behind the offer that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister made last week of additional resources for the inquiry team’s secretariat. That would ensure that Sir John Chilcot could speed up the process of communications between the team and those given the opportunity to respond if they are mentioned in the report. I have written to senior witnesses including Mr Straw and the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to give them the opportunity to clarify that they have responded in a timely fashion to the letters from Sir John. That would enable them to make it clear that any hold-up is not their responsibility. That is important, and I hope that they will take the opportunity to do so.
I do not believe that the House needs to wait to know that the Iraq war was a disastrous episode in British and international history. We have heard that something in the region of 100,000 to 150,000 civilians in Iraq lost their lives as a result of the conflict, and that 179 British servicemen and women died in it. I strongly suggest that the narrative that Islamic State is able to hide behind and run with has been hugely fuelled by the illegal intervention by the United States and United Kingdom in Iraq from 2003 onwards. International law and international institutions were undermined as a consequence of that attack, and in these dangerous and unstable times, the importance of maintaining the integrity of those institutions could not be greater. British interests and influence overseas have been set back by our involvement in that illegal war.
I suspect that the Chilcot inquiry will confirm that the Labour Government were obsessed with the special relationship with the United States and allowed their judgment to be not just clouded but eclipsed, out of a desire to be part of the maybe exhilarating experience of being at one with the leader of the free world. I suspect that it will show that UK foreign policy, going back decades, has tended to be simplistic in simply snuggling up to the United States.
I am grateful to my Cumbrian colleague for giving way. Is there not a paradox at the heart of this? One way in which the United Kingdom has responded to the humiliation of Iraq is by reducing our capacity to develop our own foreign policy and missions. If we look at our current position in Iraq, we see that we are in even less of a position today to provide an independent assessment of the US mission and strategy than we were in 2003.
My hon. Friend and neighbour makes a very good point. In many ways, the lessons to be learned from Iraq are about how we exert soft and hard influence throughout the world in a wise way, using methods of diplomacy but acting in concert with regional powers as well as those we have traditionally worked alongside.
It is important to state that I support our relationship with the United States. It is important, and we do have a special relationship. I believe that the United States thinks of the United Kingdom in a specific light, just not as being nearly as significant as we would perhaps like to believe. Our emphasis on the relationship with the United States has been at the cost of our relationship with Commonwealth countries and, particularly, with our colleagues, friends and neighbours in the rest of Europe.
Must we not face the fact that post-Iraq, and perhaps with the decline of the imperial mindset, the relationship between America and the UK is in fact that of master and poodle?
One would hope not. One would hope that in any relationship, one good friend tells the other when they are making crass mistakes, rather than just nodding their head and going along with it. The hon. Gentleman’s analogy is useful, and I hope it is not the case, but I suspect that, as he says, we will find out that it was the case in the Iraq process.
That is why we need Chilcot, to tell us these things. My assumption is that that is what happened, but I would like to get to the bottom of it, which is why the Chilcot report must come out soon.
I strongly suspect that we will also find from the report that the enthusiasm of, dare I say it, Labour and the Conservatives to stand with George W. Bush in a wrong response to the 9/11 outrages, irrespective of the evidence, was a major factor in why we went to war with Iraq. Among other things, the assurances by the United States that ordinary Iraqis would welcome western intervention with open arms now strike me as having been as faulty as the intelligence on the existence of weapons of mass destruction. Instead of assisting Afghanistan in its fight against the Taliban, we diverted our resources and attention to an Iraqi state that had nothing to do with the 9/11 outrages, although 97% of the US population at the time believed that it did—because, one assumes, the likes of Fox News and George W Bush and his friends said so.
The United Kingdom focused on a lengthy Iraq campaign, before shifting its attention back to the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan in 2006, two wars that pushed our military resources to breaking point. The Iraq war was a shameful blot on our country’s history and indeed the biggest foreign policy disaster since the Suez crisis. As a country and a Parliament, we are now in a position in which legitimate intervention will be much harder. I am proud of my party’s stance against the Iraq war, but I am just as proud of my party’s stance in favour of intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s. I am no pacifist: I am in favour of wise intervention when necessary. But we have been denuded of our ability to get involved in legitimate action when necessary, largely because of this appalling error.
I am proud of my right hon. Friends the Members for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr Kennedy), for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Michael Moore) and, of course, for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) for their leadership of the opposition to the Iraq war. But I am proudest of all of the brave men and women who fought in Iraq. We owe them more than this. We owe their families an explanation and we owe our country the right to hold its leaders to account. We must sort out the delays and publish the Chilcot inquiry before the election.
I shall be brief, not least because I am anxious to take part in the next debate, which is very important to my constituency. I concur with the final comments of Tim Farron about the sacrifices that were made and where the whole debacle leaves us in relation to legitimate intervention and our general foreign policy approach.
We are here to talk about the delay in publication of the report and to press for its early publication. I welcome the debate on this very important matter and, as we know, the Government have said that the report will not be published before the general election if submitted after the end of February. Whether we agree with that or not, the reality is that the general election has effectively already started in all but name—one aspect of a fixed term Parliament that is different from what went before.
The report should have been published long ago, and I recognise the pressure to question its delay. I particularly recognise the work of the Public Administration Committee which has tried to get to the bottom of what is holding up the publication, as well as looking more widely at the use of inquiries by both
Parliament and Government. That is something that should be followed up again after the report is eventually published. What has more than £10 million of public money actually achieved, when the families still have no chance of closure or moving on all these years later and the public are becoming more cynical by the day, if that is possible? We seem to see this so often with inquiries—it takes years to persuade Governments to hold them and that is followed by lengthy delays and often unsatisfactory conclusions, leading people to think it was all a waste of time and money.
I agree with George Galloway—he never said a truer word—that this House is to blame. We should have pressed much more firmly for the report to be published long ago. We did not apply enough pressure.
The problem is not just one of administrative delay and cost, but that on this time scale of 17 years or more so many of the actors will have left public life. It becomes an exercise in history, not accountability.
I agree, and that has happened time and again, leading to public cynicism. I hope that, after the publication of the report, the Public Administration Committee will look at that issue again.
It is not good enough, 90 days before a general election to call this debate. Welcome though it is, it should all have been done long ago. Publication of the report was never going to happen before the general election, however. I hope that when he comes before the Foreign Affairs Committee next week, Sir John Chilcot will be able to give an indication of time scale, but I am not holding my breath.
I am appreciating the hon. Lady’s speech, but can she explain why she voted against holding an inquiry when the Labour Government were in power?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the policy at the time was to wait until the forces had withdrawn from Iraq, and that is why I voted against.
As I say, I am not holding my breath for Sir John Chilcot to throw much light on the situation next week. He has already made it clear that he will not be pressurised by Parliament into anything. It is worth having the session, but I am not confident that much will result from it.
Finally, we were told that the inquiry would help learn lessons that would strengthen the UK’s democracy, diplomacy and military forces to ensure that if we face similar situations in future, the Government of the day will be best equipped to respond to them in the most effective manner in the best interests of the country. I was worried before the debate but I am even more worried now, especially when I hear from Mr Llwyd about how his information was treated. I hope that we will get the opportunity next week to ask Sir John Chilcot about some of the questions the right hon. Gentleman raised.
When I look at the situation in Iraq, Syria and throughout the Arab world today—thousands being slaughtered, an Iraqi army unable to cope in spite of the millions of pounds spent building it up after the Iraq war and wholly inadequate resources for our diplomatic effort through the FCO—I see few lessons learned so far. I cannot imagine that the Iraq inquiry will give us the answers we need. It may tell us the mistakes that were made, and it may tell us that civil servants are more worried about damaging UK relations with the US than satisfying the justified demands from many people in this country for the truth. I accept that diplomatic relations with the US are important, but the question is, how important. Do they cancel out the wishes and desires of the British people for the truth about this matter? I do not think so. Above all, for the sake of those who lost their lives and the families who grieve, I hope the inquiry will report as soon as possible after the general election.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend Mr Davis and other hon. Members on bringing forward this debate. There is no doubt that pressure in this House and the other place—I also had a small debate in October in Westminster Hall on the Chilcot inquiry—was undoubtedly one of the reasons why Sir John Chilcot wrote to the Prime Minister. He realised that a large head of parliamentary steam was building, wanting to know the facts.
Sadly, I have concluded that whatever Sir John Chilcot’s inquiry finally says, there will be a considerable body of opinion in this country who—unless he actually names individuals and says they were guilty of duplicity and treason—will dismiss it as a whitewash. As several hon. Members have already said, this is now a matter of history. This is more like an official history than an inquiry, for many reasons. It was Mr Straw who put his finger on it, and it is at the heart of what we are debating today. When such a momentous series of decisions is made, and the Government are reluctant to investigate it, although there is political pressure to do so, should we go for the short, quick inquiry, which may not be able to look at all the evidence but will probably have a good, broad picture of what happened, or do we go for a long inquiry that tries as much possible to question everybody and to get as much information as possible? With the best will in the world, the latter will take several years—although possibly not as long as this inquiry has taken.
I declare an interest as a military historian. With the best will in the world it is no good trying to compare this inquiry, under these circumstances, with perhaps the Crimean war or Mesopotamia for example. It is the equivalent of a decision at the end of the second world war to have an inquiry into British foreign policy in the 1930s—an inquiry on appeasement. It would be just as difficult. There is no doubt—I accept the point made by George Galloway; it is a pity it is such a thin House—about the emotions that have developed here in this House to try to reach some form of agreement about what should happen, but we are here today to debate the timing of this report.
My hon. Friend will have noted that I deliberately avoided the Crimea, Dardanelles and other examples. The example I did cite was the Israeli
Winograd inquiry, which was equally controversial and very sensitive. That inquiry was brought out, during the tenure of the Prime Minister involved, within seven and 17 months. Surely that is possible?
I agree with my hon. Friend, but the other factor, which has been touched on by a number of hon. Friends and colleagues, is that this is not a stand-alone British inquiry. We were the junior partner in an alliance with the United States of America. That lies at the heart of the Iraq inquiry. I would like to emphasise—I have discussed this with a number of hon. Friends and colleagues—that the Iraq inquiry is only act one of a two-act play. The second act is, of course, Afghanistan, and one feeds into the other. This is obviously a much broader subject, but we need to bear it in mind.
The hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting that we have reached the end of the road for inquiries. Does he foresee a time when it might be a matter for the courts in The Hague?
No, I do not. I have to say, with the greatest respect to my right hon. and learned Friend Mr Grieve, the former Attorney-General, that my heart sinks every time I hear we are going to have lawyer-led inquiries. Ironically, despite the suspicion that it would be a cover-up, I actually think it is a great pity that we cannot have a parliamentary-led inquiry. There is enough talent in both Houses—experienced men and women—for Parliament to elect a person to chair such an inquiry and for the resources to be allocated. I would like to see that. That does not get around the length of timetable.
Only to agree with my hon. Friend. I certainly do not think that these inquiries have to be led by lawyers—I want to make that absolutely clear. That was not in any part of my speech and I would not wish the House to think that I took that view.
I, of course, accept that from my right hon. and learned Friend. In my opinion, it is a great pity he is no longer Attorney-General—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]—but that is above my pay scale, as they say.
How can we help my hon. Friend Rory Stewart, the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, in his approach towards questioning Sir John Chilcot? One way around the problem is to suggest to Sir John Chilcot—other colleagues have touched on this—that he puts into the public domain, when he publishes his report, a lot of the correspondence and communications that went on between his inquiry, the Cabinet Office and various other organisations. My experience as a military historian is that when the official histories were published on the first and second world wars, they were interesting, but it was not until 30 years later that we were actually able to see the correspondence between official historians, individual commanders and others. We could then see how at times the official historians stood up to pressure, but how at other times things were massaged. I would be particularly interested to see the e-mails, correspondence and telephone conversations between Margaret Aldred, who ran the secretariat, Sir Jeremy Heywood and perhaps members of the Cabinet Office. That may be beyond his remit.
My final point is that we are where we are. When Sir John Chilcot publishes his inquiry, he will have a press conference. I assume that the Prime Minister of the day will make a statement, with questions and answers, but it is very important indeed that we have a full debate in both Houses, not immediately or on the next day, but within about three or four days. A report consisting of 1 million words will be a lot for us to consider. I do not blame Sir John Chilcot. I am not a man who sees a great conspiracy behind this, but I believe in transparency. It is about not just learning lessons, but trying to establish the truth.
It is always a pleasure to follow Mr Simpson, but I disagree with him on the idea that we see the events of 2003 as history. We see them under the cold light of eternity. They are not a matter of history for the loved ones of the 179 of our brave soldiers who fell. They still suffer a living wound that will never heal. I would like to repeat a speech I made in 2009 when I was sitting where the hon. Gentleman is sitting now. I am not allowed to repeat that speech, but not a word of it would change. The speech consisted of 10 minutes of reading out the names of all the British soldiers who died. I believe that that is a far more effective way of making the point that, as the result of a decision taken here in this House by many of us, those young people lost their lives.
An American-British enterprise was not inevitable. We need not have been involved. The Americans were going in anyway and we had the choice to stay out, as Harold Wilson did many years ago. The main reason I am offering myself to my electorate in a few months’ time is because of this. I want to see the end of this and I want to see us get to the nub of the terrible mistake we made. It is to do with the role of Prime Ministers and their relationship with Back Benchers in this House.
Something happens to Prime Ministers when the war drums start to beat. They talk in a different way. They drag out the old Churchillian rhetoric. The rolling phrases come out. They walk in a different way—they strut like Napoleon—and they are overwhelmed by hubris. No longer are they dealing with the boring detail of day-to-day operations; they are writing their own page in history. Usually, it is a bloody page in history.
We do not need an inquiry into the whole Afghanistan enterprise, on which there was general agreement, but we certainly need one into why we went into Helmand when only half a dozen British soldiers had been killed in combat. We went in with a belief that not a shot would be fired and we would be out in three years, but 453 deaths followed. That is what we need an inquiry into.
There has been a profound change in this House. It happened on
Along with others, I believe there is nothing political about this in any way. Those of us who remember the vote, which was the most serious vote we ever took, remember the imprecations of the Front Benchers. One hundred and thirty-nine Labour MPs voted not to go to war, against the strongest three-line Whip of my time here, but 50 others, who were very doubtful, were bamboozled, bribed and bullied into the wrong Lobby or into abstaining—and nearly all of them bitterly regret it now. It was a misuse of the organs of this House. Virtually every Committee that looked into it—those that are supposed to know better, such as the Intelligence and Security Committee, the Defence Committee, the Foreign Affairs Committee—were all cheerleaders for the war. And where were the Opposition? There is nothing political here. The then Leader of the Opposition was more gung-ho for war than Tony Blair. Only half a dozen hon. Members on the Conservative side voted against the war, and to their great credit, of course, the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru voted the same way.
We are being denied the truth. I find it astonishing that Mr Straw does not agree there were no weapons of mass destruction. It is amazing if he still believes there was an imminent threat to British territory. I have a document—I have no time to go into its detail—referenced by Tony Blair as evidence of the existence of weapons of mass destruction and the threat posed. It concerns a meeting on
I dealt only briefly with the intervention from Mr Baron because this debate is about the Iraq inquiry and its timing, not about the substance, and I would have been slapped down very quickly. For the avoidance of doubt, however, the whole Security Council judged in November 2002 that there was a threat to international peace and security from Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction.
Order. This has been a good debate, and we do not want to spoil it. Let us continue in the manner we have done so far. I want to get to the end and make sure everybody gets to speak.
The intervention was contemptible. On that point, I share the view of George Galloway. We remember the ignominy of the right hon. Member for Blackburn walking behind Colin Powell after the latter had presented a tissue of lies about the threat. It was not true, and our representative was supporting him in those lies, and they sent all those young men and others to their deaths.
At the time, I wrote a letter and got a reply from the right hon. Gentleman. It was on my blog, and I will put it back up now. In March 2003, I told Tony Blair, “If we go into Iraq alongside George Bush, we will deepen the division in the world between the Christian western world and the Muslim eastern world, and we will create a division that will cause bloodshed from my local mosque to the far corners of the world.” The right hon. Gentleman replied to that letter, and a contemptible reply it was too—as was his reply today. He should recognise the terrible error of his ways and what he did. I agree with Mr Baron. It is nonsense to suggest there were weapons of mass destruction or a 45-minute threat to Britain. We, as Members of Parliament, the people who took that decision, should be thoroughly ashamed of it, and I will stay in this House, and I will fight to be here, until the truth is known and those who committed this terrible crime are brought to book.
I am grateful for the chance to take part in an important debate that strikes at the heart of our role as Members of Parliament, for many of the uncomfortable reasons presented by the hon. Members for Newport West (Paul Flynn) and for Bradford West (George Galloway). It touches particularly on our responsibility, as the legislature, to our constituents. Our reaction, therefore, as Members of the House of Commons and on behalf of our constituents, to the grotesque delays in producing the report is a matter of great importance.
This debate is not about former Prime Minister Tony Blair. However, like my right hon. Friend Sir Richard Ottaway, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, I was here for that debate in 2003. Although advised by the Opposition Whips, I had not made up my mind how to vote when I entered the Chamber. I could not get a seat, so I sat in the Gangway, and I listened to the Prime Minister. To some extent, this answers the important question from the hon. Member for Bradford West about how we, who were supposedly well educated and informed, knew less than the phenomenal number of people out on the streets demonstrating against the Iraq war. Sitting in the Gangway, with the Prime Minister a few feet away, speaking about the threat to Britain and the international order and the importance of military action, I was persuaded.
The question whether we were duped is exactly the reason the process of this inquiry is so important. As I sat there, I firmly believed that the
This was a hugely divisive matter. In my constituency, there were very deep divisions that had nothing to do with party politics. I remember the bizarre occasion when the entire executive committee of the Sutton Coldfield Labour party—not a large body—came to urge me as their Conservative Member of Parliament to vote against the Iraq war and their own party’s Prime Minister. During the debate, I remember going home to have dinner with my wife, who has always been viscerally opposed to the war and believes it was a terrible mistake. So these divisions run deep.
At the end of the day, however, this is not an attack on the former Prime Minister. It is inconceivable—this is an incredibly important point—that he could have made the case he did that afternoon without the passive acquiescence, if not the active support, of the full panoply of the Government machine. In my judgment, the Chilcot report is required not to expose an idiosyncratic Prime Minister—if that is the charge—but to hold to public account the workings of our Government machine.
Last December, we saw the long-awaited publication in the US of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report into the CIA’s use of torture in the aftermath of 9/11. It was certainly controversial, possibly flawed, but such reports, and the problems they throw up for politicians and Administrations, are crucial to the democratic process and our ability, as the legislature, to hold to account those who make these decisions. There is a clear benefit to be derived from revisiting these profound and significant decisions and actions, and although it might leave us open to criticism and reopen old wounds, it is a fundamental step in the process of moving forward and building on past actions.
For this House, therefore, this debate is an important and timely one. It follows the pertinent and important comments made in the other place by former Foreign Secretary Lord Hurd. His remarks should ring around the political establishment. I also congratulate the three promoters of the debate, and as ever my right hon. Friend Mr Davis did the House credit in introducing it. It is a debate not about the substance of Sir John’s report, which none of us should prejudice, but about the manner of its conduct and timing and the way these issues have been pursued.
In allowing the inquiry to drift on in this way, Sir John and all of us are doing great damage to the process of accountability—a process that Parliament has a right to expect and a duty to pursue in order to hold the Government to account. It really matters that it is taking so desperately long for the report to be delivered. The failure to have this report before us will undoubtedly have had some impact—probably both ways—on the way in which Members voted on the Government motion for action on Syria.
On the Libya campaign, when I was the International Development Secretary, I had responsibility for the Government’s humanitarian duties and role, and my first question to officials in my Department was about the lessons to be drawn from the Iraq war, most especially on the plans for the aftermath of that conflict, which were fundamental to the plans we were making in respect of Libya. The lack of a proper inquiry meant relying on the memory and understanding of officials, which is what we had to do.
We come to the meat of the matter. This inquiry is entering its sixth year; it has already cost £9 million. That is clearly not the fault of the current Government. The events did not take place on our watch. Indeed, both the Prime Minister and I voted to set up this inquiry in 2006. The delay is an insult to every one of our constituents, to every taxpayer in the country and to every parent, spouse and loved one of the 179 servicemen and women who died in the Iraq war and of the many who were wounded and still live with those wounds today.
The Foreign Affairs Committee, led so ably by my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South, is absolutely right to call Sir John before it next week to ask him not for the contents of his report, but for a full and detailed explanation of the delays, the timing and the process over which he has presided. It is essential that we, the legislature, prosecute this matter vigorously and fully if we are not to bring ourselves into considerable disrepute. It is our role to hold the Government to account, and what could be more important than the issues surrounding a decision like this one—to go to war?
I was a Whip that day, and I remember observing the Government Whips rounding up the recalcitrant, the doubters and those who were trying to make up their minds. I remember lots of good women and men being dragooned into the Lobby—against their better judgment —to support the Prime Minister and the fabrication of a case on Iraq. It was a horrible day—a day that should be ingrained in the collective consciousness of this House and remembered for its eternal shame. It was the day that we voted to go to war on a total fabrication, and we must find out why this House decided to do that.
I was not a Member of the House at that time, but my hon. Friend reminds me of the time when the then Deputy Prime Minister was arguing that the road map for Palestine was somehow connected to the maiming and the murder in Iraq.
To try to get a flavour of what the House was like that day, I watched a YouTube video of Tony Blair’s speech that morning. I know that sounds a bit masochistic, but I wanted to find out what was said and what the case for war was. What I had to listen to was absolute and utter nonsense—fabrications and flights of fancy that Blair must have known were totally false and ridiculous. He said there were weapons of mass destruction that could, without doubt, reach us within 45 minutes. But there were none—there was nothing there. This House was misled; this House was duped.
I have listened to Conservative Members saying that they believed the Prime Minister. The rest of the country knew. The rest of the country was not fooled by his mendacious nonsense—of course not. We were on a march in central Glasgow, and 100,000 people turned up to march against that war. Some 1 million people turned up in London to march against it. Yet this House voted to go to war on the basis of a lie—a House that was duped and misled. If anybody needs to know the reason why this House was misled, it is because of us, the parliamentarians.
I am disappointed in Mr Davis. He should not have changed his motion. We should have demanded today that we got that report. I do not want to hear the reasons why we are not getting it. I do not want to hear about the process of getting it in the future—we should have it now. We should have it before the general election, and this suggestion that it is political and somehow gets in the way of a democratic process in the run-up to an election is just fatuous nonsense.
I, too, recall that day, and I concur with everything the hon. Gentleman says about how people who were feeling very strongly about the issue were pushed and cajoled, with notes and letters being sent asking me to meet all sorts of people. Does he agree that this tells us the lesson that this House must always be very careful that the Whips and the party machine do not always get their way?
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady, who makes such a powerful and potent point about something as important as going to war. I was just a new Member, having been in the House for just a year; I was a young whippersnapper barely out of my shorts, yet I was listening to a Prime Minister making this case. I thought, “Surely, there must be something in it,” but I realise now, along with many other Members, that an issue as important as going to war should not have been whipped on this basis.
The House passed the vote on Iraq by 412 to 149. I was among the 149; my right hon. Friend Mr Llwyd was among the 149; I see two Liberal Democrat Members in their places —Sir Andrew Stunell and Norman Baker—who were among the 149. This was the proudest vote of my 14 years in this House. It was a vote that defined the Parliament between 2001 to 2005. It was a vote, I now believe, that characterised the Labour Government. It was a vote that is now personally associated with Tony Blair, and it will follow him to the grave and be on his tombstone. Such his association with it that he might as well have it tattooed on his forehead. The Iraq war will for ever be bound up with the last Labour Government and the personality of the last but one Prime Minister.
I want to come on to that; it is so important because this House was misled. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman agrees with that, but
I am sure that, as someone who looks at and understands these issues, he knows that this was a total fabrication. I see him shaking his head. The case for war was non-existent. We have got to understand why a majority of Members voted for it. We have to start to get to the bottom of why this was allowed to happen.
We are still feeling the implications and repercussions: half a million presumed dead; a region destabilised; a country divided; international diplomacy discredited. A point that George Galloway made was that we have alienated a generation of young Muslims—here and around the world—dangerously radicalising many of them, giving them a grievance for some of the perverted causes that have been picked up to justify what they see as their perverted agenda. These are things that we now have to deal with for our own security. That is what Iraq bequeathed us. We have got to find out how this happened and why this set of conditions was allowed, enabling us to pursue this particular course of action.
I remember the almost ingenious lengths to which the Labour Government went to try to invent this case. I remember that the House was recalled. It was not just that day in March; we were recalled in September of the previous year. We were told to come down and find in our pigeon-holes the document that subsequently became known as “the dodgy dossier”—100-odd pages of utter drivel, manufactured fabrications and plagiarised sources. We found that most of it came from the post-doctoral work of some student called Ibrahim al-Marashi. It almost seemed like a script for a comedy sketch, yet this was the UK getting prepared to go to war in the 21st century!
We now know, of course, that there were never any weapons of mass destruction—still less any that could be deployed in 45 minutes. There was no collusion with al-Qaeda, even though jihadists now wander at will in the IS forces across Iraq. There was no evidence of any uranium project, and nothing whatsoever could be found relating to any nuclear programme. We were misled; this House was misled.
There are several Members in the House who understand and realise that they were duped, but there are still some who believe that it was right to go to war. I am very fond of Mr Straw, but he must at some point say that this was a total fabrication, that the House was misled, and that a case was fabricated to go to war. The sooner the right hon. Gentleman does that, the sooner he will get himself off the hook, because this will pursue him, and the others who made the case for war, to the very end of their careers.
I do not think that the issue will end with the publication of the Chilcot report. We seen had four whitewashes—there have been four attempts to put this to bed—but it is not going to end. We will have the Chilcot report, but I do not think that it will get us there; I think it will be another generation before we get to the truth of Iraq. It is possible that there will be a judge-led inquiry, and that might help to get us there, but this is going to go all the way. I foresee that significant people will eventually be taken to The Hague, because this is such an important issue which has redefined so much contemporary foreign history. People say that it was a disaster bigger than Suez—of course it was. This was the biggest single foreign policy blunder and disaster ever made by any Government in modern history.
So we need the Chilcot report. Do I believe that it we will get us to the heart of this with the Chilcot report? No, I do not, but I think it will go a long way towards describing and explaining some of the things that happened. It will be another generation before we arrive at the absolute truth. There are too many big reputations to be tarnished—again, I say that to the right hon. Member for Blackburn. There are people who will be in a position to try to ensure that this is kicked into the long grass. The only reason I have any confidence in the Chilcot report is that the establishment is trying to prevent us from seeing it, so there must be something good in it. I hope that that means that we may get a glimpse into the workings of this Government.
We are where we are. We hope that we shall see the Chilcot report soon. We should have demanded its publication in this debate, and I am disappointed that we have not been given an opportunity to do so. However, I do not think that the report will be the end of the process. I believe that this will go all the way to The Hague. We engaged in an illegal war on the basis of a fabrication and a downright lie, and we deserve to know the truth. Some day we will get the truth, but I do not believe that we will get it from Chilcot.
It seems to me that the challenge in relation to the Chilcot inquiry is our inability in Britain to come to terms with failure, our inability to come to terms with what exactly went wrong with Iraq, and our inability to reform. As a result of all that, we have a real problem when it comes to acting in the world in the future. Unless we go through the process of coming to terms with who we are and how we got this wrong—whether through the Chilcot inquiry, through our Parliament, or by some other means—we will remain paralysed.
At present, Iraq is sitting like some rotting corpse in a cupboard, the nature of which we do not quite understand. We can see the consequences of that in the problems of British foreign and defence policy in the last 13 years. We can see the inability to come to terms with Iraq in our mistakes in Afghanistan. We can also see the inability to come to terms with Iraq in our current inaction. Britain is currently in a very paralysed state. There is a deep insecurity, and an anxiety. We are not pulling enough weight in NATO, and we are not pulling enough weight in the United Nations. We are failing to commit ourselves to spending 2% of our GDP on defence, which is symptomatic of our inability to come of terms with Putin or Ukraine.
All that brings us back to the four-letter word “Iraq”. Iraq has become, for us, a kind of Vietnam. It has become, in the British consciousness, something that we cannot get beyond, something that we cannot see through. The Chilcot report needs to be published to enable us in Britain to understand what happened in Iraq—understand exactly what happened in Iraq—to enable us to introduce the reforms that the Government need in order to be able to act again in the future, and to enable us to recover our confidence as a nation.
One of our problems with the debate, and, perhaps, with the Chilcot inquiry, has been that the understanding of what went wrong in Iraq is still too limited. We are still understandably obsessed with the legality of the war, and also with the issue of post-war planning. In Afghanistan we went into a war that was legal, in those terms, and in which, at least in Helmand, a great deal of planning took place; yet the results there were also a mess. In other words, the problem of Iraq cannot simply be reduced to legality and post-war planning. There is a deeper problem in Iraq, and the deeper problem in Iraq, with which I think we all struggle to deal, is a problem with ourselves. It is the problem of who Britain is, and what Britain does in the world. One way of expressing it is that we are failing to come to terms with our limits—the limits of our knowledge, the limits of our capacity, and the limits of our legitimacy.
The hon. Gentleman has called for reflection. He may recall the reaction of the American ambassador, when he appeared on “Question Time” after 9/11, to some of the things that were being said to him. There seemed to be an inability to look in the mirror, and to see the effects of foreign policy in the west pre-9/11 in the form of some of the things that were happening in the world and the anger that was being created in the world. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his call for us to use a mirror to look at ourselves, and to look at ourselves very hard.
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman in that I am calling for more confidence and more seriousness, not less. The problem with our interpretation of Iraq is that we have ended up with despair. This empty House, the lack of interest among journalists, and the general lack of focus on the issue imply that Britain wants to put this in the past—to put it in its history—and to behave as though it related to some other country and some other Government rather than to us.
The lessons of Iraq must be, among other things, lessons of seriousness. We are not serious, as a country. What Chilcot needs to focus on, above all, is our lack of seriousness on the ground—one problem with the Chilcot inquiry is that it did not spend enough time taking evidence from people who had operated in civilian roles in provincial areas—and that will involve our criticising ourselves in ways that we do not like to criticise ourselves. It will involve us, as a country, getting beyond our anxieties—and this is a very difficult thing to say—about soldiers dying in vain.
A soldier’s life cannot be held relative to the decisions of politicians. A soldier’s courage, a soldier’s sacrifice, is a commitment to his or her country. The danger of reducing every mistake that this country has made—from the Boer war to the Afghan war of 1842 to our recent debacle in Iraq—to the question of a soldiers’ life is that it stifles debate. No one can stand up and criticise what we did for fear that someone might say that soldiers died in vain.
Criticism begins with accepting that we were not serious enough in our commitment to Iraq. American soldiers did 13-month tours; why did we only do six-month tours? American civilians took leave once every six months; British diplomats took leave every six weeks, for two weeks. We remained highly isolated in compounds, under security restrictions which made it very difficult for us to engage with the local population. There was a serious failure to reach out to people who understood Iraq and the area. There was a lack of seriousness and commitment on the ground.
There was also an obsession with abstraction and jargon. We stood up in the House, and we stood up in the foreign service, talking all the time about “the rule of law”, “governance”, “civil society” and “human rights”. We had absolutely no idea how to relate that kind of jargon to the reality on the ground in Iraq. In fact, what we were doing, again and again, was using words that looked like a plan, but were simply a description of what we did not have. Every time we said that what we needed to bring to Iraq were “governance, the rule of law and security”, we were simply saying that Iraq was corrupt, unjust and violent. Every time we said that we needed to create transparent, predictable, accountable financial processes, we were simply saying what we did not have.
As we move forward, and as Chilcot—hopefully—helps us to come to terms with this catastrophe, we must reform, but what does reform mean? Reform means becoming serious. What I hope we can take from the Chilcot inquiry is that seriousness begins with investing in knowledge and understanding of other people’s countries. Where I differ, perhaps, from the Scottish nationalists is that I do not think that this means that the future for Britain is to become Denmark. I do not think that the future for Britain is to withdraw. I think that the future for Britain is to reach out, and to understand.
I have got to disagree with the hon. Gentleman. Denmark was once in the empire game, but historians have noted that Denmark withdrew itself from that. It is time for us to learn from Denmark.
I understand absolutely that that is the hon. Gentleman’s position, but our position should be different, and this is where Britain differs from a country like Denmark. First, we should be investing in knowledge—investing in knowledge in the Foreign Office, which means ensuring that there are proper language allowances and that we dismantle the grisly core competency framework for promotion, and that we get out of the situation of there being only three out of 15 ambassadors in the middle east who can speak Arabic.
I admire the hon. Gentleman, but as he is speaking I can almost see him in his pith helmet striding across the Punjab as a district commissioner in another era, and his remarks about Denmark compound that. He and I both know that we almost lost our own country just last September; we were almost severed—dismembered—because of the collapse in the credibility of the British political class, and I promise him that we are not going to get that back by being better imperialists than the last group of politicians.
We will get it back by being serious again. We will get it back by showing the British public that we have acknowledged the failure and we have understood that failure—that we have learned the lessons and that we have reformed—and we will get it back by showing the superiority of Britain through a smaller conception of ourselves that is ultimately to do not with wearing pith helmets but with being an engaged global power. That does include, within the Ministry of Defence, having an ability to challenge ourselves, and having an ability, which we have lost in Iraq today, to provide an independent assessment of US missions. It includes, ultimately, our chiefs of staff recovering their confidence.
This is a good time to remember that, because I think where I and Opposition Members will agree is that on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau the conclusion that Britain should draw from Iraq is not one of isolation. It should not be that we should be doing nothing; it should instead be that we need to recover our confidence as a country—recover the confidence that we are the fifth largest economy in the world, that we have unique skills and expertise, that we have an enormous amount to contribute to the world—and that what we should take from the Chilcot inquiry is not despair or paralysis, but a need to recover our compassion, our common sense and our confidence.
Order. It will be helpful to other hon. Members if speakers restrict their remarks to about nine minutes, which is quite a long time.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was worried for a moment that you were going to come up with the dreaded four-minute warning, so I am obliged to you.
It is a pleasure to be able to speak in this debate, but it is a pretty big indictment of our Parliament that there are hardly any Members here to take part in what ought to be an incredibly serious discussion, and a process of very serious self-criticism of the failure of Parliament both in 2003 and since to hold to account those who took crucial decisions on our behalf, the consequences of which all of us will live with for the rest of our lives, and the population of this country, and indeed of western Europe and the USA, are going to live with for many, many decades and generations to come. What happened in 2003 was a seminal disaster.
I respect Rory Stewart for his knowledge, his interest and his commitment, but I profoundly disagree with his analysis. It is essentially that we were good imperialists, then we became weak imperialists, and now we have got to be better imperialists. I have two messages. The first is that we cannot afford it. The second is that the lesson from the disaster of Auschwitz in the 70th anniversary of its liberation should surely be to say never again—never let racism raise its ugly head, be it against Jews, Muslims or anybody else—and also that we must learn a fundamental lesson: that the crazy triumphalism of the treaty of Versailles and that whole period in the 1920s led to the growth of the Nazis and to the disasters. The whole middle east region is still living with the disasters of Versailles—of the Sykes-Picot agreement and the borders we inherited.
The danger of the hon. Gentleman’s anti-imperialist rhetoric is that we are not going to come to terms with how to prevent genocides in the future. What is he proposing in terms of reform, energy, compassion and confidence to deal with an Auschwitz-Birkenau, a Bosnia or a Rwanda in the future, if all he has to say is that we are a small country that cannot afford to do anything in the world?
I propose a process of international law, a process of human rights engagement, a process of truth and honesty, and process whereby we do not denigrate whole peoples and turn the other way when human rights abuses take place.
On a lesser example, but nevertheless an important one, we are apparently more interested in selling weapons to Saudi Arabia than we are in human rights in Saudi Arabia. That example can be multiplied in country after country across the world. If we were serious about human rights, we would not provide the Government of Bahrain with equipment to kill and injure demonstrators who oppose what they do. There has to be some honesty in the whole of our foreign policy, and if this debate does anything to make us start to think more seriously about foreign policy, rather than racing headlong into spending £100 million on Trident, developing more weapons and yet more weapons for our armoury, that will be something.
We have had inquiry after inquiry on Iraq. Parliament showed itself to be a failure and could not do it, and then there was the Butler inquiry and a Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry. We ended up with the Chilcot inquiry.
In 2006 I voted for an Opposition motion, despite the endeavours of the Labour Whips Office. I was not that bothered with its endeavours at that time—or on one or two other occasions for that matter—because I thought setting up an inquiry was the right thing to do. However, I do not think it is the job of Parliament to pass its duties on to somebody else and then complain vaguely when they do not report while saying that we are not going to interfere with the inquiry. This really is our failure. There should have been a serious inquiry, judicial-led in my opinion, with counsel that could have asked some really good questions of Tony Blair, Mr Straw and a whole lot of other people. Michael Mansfield QC would have been a very good interrogator, and I think that after a few days of interrogation by him we would have gained far more truth than we did from these showman-like trips by Tony Blair to the inquiry and his lucrative tours around the world to say he would do the same again. He clearly has not learned the lessons from this.
I remember those debates very well. I am chair of the Stop the War coalition, and I have been involved in every demonstration I can think of against this war. Indeed, I spoke to that million-strong audience in Hyde park on
I shall not go on much longer, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I just want to say this. The idea that Members were not aware of the misinformation concerning Iraq really does not cut much ice. We had the dodgy dossier. I remember arriving in Parliament at 8 am to read that heroic document; I was the first to arrive at the downstairs Table Office. I knocked on the door at 1 minute to 8 and the people there would not open it, but the moment the door opened at 8 o’clock I put my hand in and grabbed two copies. I gave one to Glen Rangwala, an excellent academic from Cambridge, and I kept the other for myself. He went off to read his, and I went to my office to read mine. When we spoke on the phone 20 minutes later, we said, “This thing is utter nonsense. Who could possibly believe this stuff?” But the House did, and some members of the Security Council did, although France, Russia, China and a lot of other countries did not.
I also remember the extraordinary pressure that MPs were put under to vote in that debate. A number of us who could reasonably be described as Iraq sceptics met Tony Blair in a room at the back of the Chamber. After we had been around the track several times, with him not wishing to engage in the discussion and others wishing to do so, he started looking at his watch and saying, “We’ve got to go now.” I said, “Tony, just one question: why are we doing this?” He slapped his hand on the table and said, “It’s the right thing to do. That’s why we’re doing it.” When I said, “That’s not an answer”, he said, “That’s the only one you’re going to get.” That was the enthralling answer that we got from him.
The lesson surely must be that when the Foreign Affairs Committee interviews Sir John Chilcot next week, they must ask him how he is getting on with obtaining records of the barbecue discussion between Blair and Bush and the correspondence that took place, along with the handwritten notes that civil servants and the Foreign Office maybe did not know about. Perhaps a lot of people did not know about them, because I understand that it was part of Tony Blair’s charm and style to do things differently from anyone else so that people did not know what was going on. I also hope that the Committee will get from him an exact date for the publication of the report, but I think I shall be disappointed when it is published. I suspect that it will be full of redactions and that we will have to read a million words before we discover which bits have been redacted. This issue is not going to go away. We need to get to the truth, and we need a war powers Act to ensure that every MP is involved in decisions to send British troops abroad to war.
To follow up on something that the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border said, I agree that we need a serious debate on foreign policy and on our place in the world. Other countries that once had massive empires have learned these lessons. I recall being in Vienna in December when the Austrian Government proudly said, “Our Government have no nuclear weapons, want no nuclear weapons and will never have any nuclear weapons. We want to be a force for peace in the world.” That was once the centre of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Most of the other European countries that were once the centre of empires have learned lessons. Maybe the disaster of Iraq and the growth of al-Qaeda, ISIS and all those other forces that have been let loose by the disaster of the Iraq war will provide a lesson that we will have to learn the hard way, but if we do not learn it, we will suffer by having to repeat it again and again. I do not want to go to war memorials. I do not want to go to memorial services. I want us to be a real influence for peace, for justice and for human rights around the world. We do not achieve that by lying to Parliament. We do not achieve that by invading countries that do not have the weapons it was claimed they had.
Order. There is now a competition to see who is the most honourable Member by sticking to nine minutes. I call Mr Adam Holloway.
I have no idea of the reason for the report’s delay—I do not think anyone has—but it does matter. This should not be about a pre-election period, or about bashing Blair or anyone else. As my right hon. Friend Mr Davis has said, more than 150,000 civilians and 632 British troops died in two completely idiotic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we need the Chilcot report in order to ensure that we do not make the same mistakes again. The report will go some way towards helping us to work out why we made those mistakes. We need to learn.
It was Sir Basil Liddell-Hart who talked of the motivation to achieve the task in hand and of effective leadership from those placed in authority. Our failure in Iraq was caused, first and foremost, by a failure of effective political and military leadership. From what I have seen on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, we seem to have a deeply dysfunctional situation right across what my right hon. and gallant Friend Mr Mitchell referred to as the “full panoply of the government machine”. I shall divide this into four parts: an inexperienced class of political leaders; ambitious civil servants, most of whom have since been promoted; “can-do” military officers, most of whom have also since been promoted; and experts who were ignored or marginalised.
I shall start by talking about the inexperienced political leaders. Obviously, I am not including the right hon. and brave Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) in that category. There were no experts at the Prairie Chapel ranch when Tony Blair and George Bush agreed to go to war—when Tony Blair basically allowed his mate to drive the car while drunk. You don’t do that. Then there was the dodgy dossier, written late at night like something produced during a politics, philosophy and economics essay crisis. The line that the analyst had written in the intelligence report to say that the missiles no longer existed was completely ignored. We somehow convinced ourselves and most people in the House that there were weapons of mass destruction, and I think most people voted in good faith.
We then went on to convince ourselves that the reason we were in Afghanistan was that we were fighting them over there so that we would not have to fight them over here. Only about two years ago, after I had given a presentation to the National Security Council, an immensely senior person in our Government took me aside and said, “Adam, are you really saying that the Taliban aren’t a threat to the UK?” That revealed the most fundamental misunderstanding of the difference between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. It almost beggars belief. If I told you who had asked me that question, you would be appalled. [Hon. Members: “Go on! Name them!”] No. We cannot be too unfair on the politicians, because I think that they have been badly served by ambitious civil servants.
Some of those civil servants had a “good news only” culture. General Petraeus spoke in that context of putting lipstick on pigs. A Secretary of State for Defence was at a briefing at Basra air station attended by two of my friends. Apparently—he denies this—he banged the table and said, “Why have you not been telling me the truth? I had no idea that things were quite so bad.” There is a sense that civil servants play back what the politicians want to hear. I shall never forget the briefing in Helmand when we were told everything was going well. A few weeks later, when I was back in Kabul on a private visit, I was in a bar and the same official bounded up to me and said, “Adam, I’m really sorry about that briefing in Helmand. The thing is, we just don’t get promoted for telling the truth.”
The same is true of senior military officers. I do not think anyone thought about our responsibility to the people of Basra after the invasion. Indeed, one of my friends was on the recce in 2004 before we went into Helmand. When he got back to England, he went to see a very senior guy at Permanent Joint Headquarters. That very senior general asked him, “So, what’s the insurgency like in Helmand?” My friend replied, “Well, there isn’t one, but I can give you one if you want one.”
We have the same sort of thing with helicopters. Senior military people are constantly saying, “We’ve got enough helicopters to do the job”. We all remember the deaths of Rupert Thorneloe and Trooper Joshua Hammond. Before he died, Rupert wrote in a report of “unnecessary…road moves”. He stated:
“This increases the IED threat and our exposure to it.”
And yet, as I have said, the top brass were saying that we had enough helicopters to do the job.
A senior British general who had been in Kabul attended a Defence Committee meeting, at which he basically tore my head off for being a nay-sayer. When I went back to Kabul a few weeks later on a private trip, I went into his office and said, “General, are we still winning? Ha ha ha!” He said, “If we f***ing are, I’ll be dead by the time we do.” So there was a real mismatch.
We also ignore the experts. Of the people who knew anything about Iraq, who suggested it was a good idea to dismantle Ba’athists from the various structures of government? Nobody thought about that. As a soldier I was in Iraq before the war in 1991, and in 2003 I was back on the ground in Iraq, partly with Marie Colvin, who was killed in Syria a couple of years ago. I will never forget driving into Mosul literally in the minutes the city was collapsing. It was the first occasion in my time in journalism that I was nursing a submachine gun under the chair of my four-wheel drive. There was the odd body on the streets, chaos and a threatening, nasty environment. American jets were coming down really low to intimidate. I went to the police station, where there were all these Saddam lookalikes. The chief one said to me, “You’re looking for the Americans, aren’t you?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “When you find the Americans, can you get them to send someone up here to tell us what we should do?” That was an amazing thing to hear from an Iraqi an hour after the city had, in effect, capitulated. So I found the American and did my business with the colonel and I said to him, “The Iraqi police brigadier wants you to go up there and tell him what his instructions are.” The American colonel said, “You can tell him to go f*** himself.”
In Afghanistan, we ignored the experts. I was there in 1984, the year before I went to university, and we had plenty of experts on Afghanistan then, but they were all ignored later. My hon. Friend Rory Stewart, a former Foreign Office official, had been living in Kabul. He spoke a great deal of sense about it, but we ignored him. We ignored people such as Semple and Patterson, after their failed attempt to make a deal with the Taliban, until it was just too late. We ignored the Russians and their ambassador Kabulov, who had been there for a decade. I remember sitting, in his house in Kabul, with the Afghan general who held that city for two years after the Russians left. He had four mobile phones in front of him. I said, “So, presumably the British have been asking you how to run Helmand?” He looked down at his phones and said, “I am still waiting for them to ring.” We still have not rung him.
In Syria, we are now largely ignoring the Foreign Office officials who, over the past few years, have been deployed forward with the Syrian opposition. I am talking about those who argue that ISIL is fundamentally a political and counter-terrorist problem, not a military problem: ISIL is a function of broken politics of the middle east. Those people are ignored.
I have not got much time left, so let me return to the importance of Chilcot. Clearly, Iraq went very badly wrong, and, similarly, the NATO deployment to Afghanistan was a disaster. Our overall approach since 9/11 has given this country an enormous level of strategic risk. After the chemical outrages in Damascus we were asked to bomb the Assad regime, yet a year later we were asked to bomb his enemies. So it is little wonder that the public do not have much confidence when Ministers tell them that they deserve their backing. As my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border says, we need to get serious and to learn. I hope that Chilcot goes some way to making the people of Gravesham safer.
I do not have a military background, as is obvious if one looks at my shoes—according to my wife, I am terribly untidy—but the House of Commons contains many military and foreign affairs experts. I recall
Following on from what colleagues have said earlier, when it came to the vote on Syria I did not discuss the matter with any colleagues. I dare say they said, “We’ll take the hon. Member for Southend West for granted. He is going to support the Government.” They were surprised, because I decided to use my own judgment and not make the same mistake again. I was one of the 30 Conservative Members of Parliament who voted against that particular involvement in conflict. Just to pick up on what one hon. Member said earlier, it was not six Conservative Members of Parliament who voted against the Iraq war—I believe it was 16 to 18. Oh, how I wished I had done what they did.
I am sorry, but I just feel that to do so would be unfair on others.
I pay tribute to Lord Hurd and Lord Dykes, who have done a lot of work on this issue. I am in complete despair that this House has suddenly burst into life on this matter. It happened two Prime Minister’s questions ago, when the Father of the House mentioned the issue and other Members chimed in behind, and I am puzzled as to why the Government have not done anything about this. In my naivety, I thought it was a clever ploy and we were going to have the report announced just before the general election. Clearly, that is not the case, and it is absolutely pathetic that this House is going to allow that situation to prevail.
I have taken advice from the Clerks in the House, having asked questions about this matter since 2010 and I have always been given the same answers. I have always been told, “The timing of the delivery is a matter for the inquiry as it is independent of the Government.” There are three things this House can do. First, we can move a motion for an unopposed return of the documents to Parliament, as was the case with, for instance, the Scott report in 1996 and the Hutton inquiry in 2004. That would ensure that the report enjoys the protection of the Parliamentary Papers Act 1840, which would make it subject to privilege. That would bring the lengthy Maxwellisation process to an end, without opening up the prospect of defamation proceedings—that was mentioned earlier in the debate—enabling the report to be published quickly.
Secondly, we can ensure that the report is published as soon as possible by converting the Chilcot process into an inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005. That can be done under section 15 of that Act and would require the consent of the Prime Minister who put in place the original inquiry. The Government would then issue new terms of reference, including a time frame, which is currently unspecified. Although the requirements of the Act are for warning letters to be sent out to those subject to criticism, it might be arguable that that requirement has already been satisfied by virtue of the Maxwellisation letters that have already been sent.
Finally, this House could adopt emergency legislation to put the Chilcot inquiry under special provisions, and to include in those provisions immunity from process and a deadline. Some £9 million of public money has been spent on this inquiry, which has been delayed over and over again. I regret the fact that, since 1997, the mother of all Parliaments has lost much of its power, but it is quite wrong to say that we can do nothing about when this report is published. There was a huge loss of life as a result of the war, and it is naive to suggest that, as a result of our involvement in Iraq, there has not been a huge destabilisation of the area and that there is no link whatever with what is going on with Islamic State and all the developments since then. There is no doubt at all that when we went to war there were no plans in place for regime change or for what would happen in the future.
I hope that Parliament will not accept this idea that the Government are not able to do something about the inquiry; they are able to do something and I have given three practical suggestions as to how this report can be published before the general election.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend Sir David Amess spoke before me and came up with some very practical suggestions about how things could be done. I am particularly pleased because those suggestions really underline the fact that we allowed the Government of the day to set up this inquiry in a haphazard and casual way.
I speak as someone who straddles two aspects of this matter. I was shadow Defence Secretary at the time and often spoke from the Dispatch Box in the run-up to the Iraq war. I am also taking part in this debate, in answer to Jeremy Corbyn, as someone who feels a deep responsibility for what has happened as a consequence of that war. It may surprise Pete Wishart that I agree with a phrase of his speech. It is that we need to understand the “set of conditions” that allowed us “to pursue this particular course of action”. It would have been nice if that had been put into the terms of reference, to which I will come in a moment.
The origins of the Chilcot inquiry go back beyond 2006, to which my right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell adverted. I also congratulate my right hon. Friend Mr Davis on securing this debate, because it has proved already to be a very informative and interesting discussion.
Just to go back to the origins of the inquiry, I have in my hand the resolution that was tabled by the then Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. Friend Mr Duncan Smith. Another five of us were named on the motion, including me and a future leader of the Conservative party, now Lord Howard of Lympne. The motion said:
“This House is concerned at the growing public confusion since the summer adjournment as a result of increasingly conflicting accounts of intelligence relating to and events leading up to the recent Iraq war and what has happened since; and calls for the setting up of a comprehensive independent judicial inquiry into the Government’s handling of the run-up to the war, of the war itself, and of its aftermath, and into the legal advice which it received.”
How long was it before we actually got an inquiry, and a rather watered down inquiry at that? Let me explain why we called for the inquiry at that point—and this is a significant point. I came back from Iraq shortly after the invasion, having been on a shadow ministerial visit to Basra and had a comprehensive briefing. I then tabled a paper to the shadow Cabinet on what I had found that had caused me a great deal of concern. The paper on post conflict Iraq mentioned
“the widening gap between expectations and reality.”
“Many are wondering how much longer before the coalition’s window of opportunity closes.”
I went on to explain that what we needed was a proper comprehensive plan, a road map and benchmarks in order to structure a proper coalition provisional Administration, backed by the necessary civilian and military resources. In the addendum to the paper, I wrote, “Quagmire?” and for that I pay tribute to George Galloway—and it may disturb him that I am doing so. Of all the speeches that we heard on that fateful day when we voted to go to war, his was the most disturbing. I chose the word “quagmire” because I remembered him saying that we were entering into a quagmire.
We had done our best to satisfy ourselves from the Opposition perspective that there was plenty of planning. It is true that there was plenty of planning in Washington, but the problem was that the Americans had more than one plan. They had a Rumsfeld plan and a State Department plan and there was a competition between the two of them over which should be implemented. But neither plan was based on any proper understanding, depth of assessment or analysis of what we were going to find when we got in there, which is why it became evident so quickly that we were facing a disaster. I wrote:
“Currently all the elements for protracted insurgency warfare exist, though there is every opportunity to prevent the situation deteriorating.”
There was an inability to get anyone to hear this message in Government and, I confess, even some in my own party—this was the Government’s problem, not our problem. It is the same kind of truth blindness to which my hon. Friend Mr Holloway referred in the British political establishment, in the civil service, among the political leaders.
Who does the hon. Gentleman think took the extraordinary decision to destroy the whole of the state structures in Iraq after the invasion, dismiss all the armed forces and the police and leave chaos behind?
Yes, it was Ambassador Bremer. In my paper, I wrote:
“The Bremer administration has 3,000 US officials, only 16 of which are Arab speakers. 650,000 Iraqi Government officials have failed to return to work.”
There was a complete misappreciation in the first 100 days —the golden 100 days after the invasion—that we were sitting on a volcano. I remember asking questions from the Opposition Benches such as, “What are we going to do about the Iranian insurgents coming over the border?” The border between Iraq and Iran was completely open. There was flat denial that any of this mattered or was actually happening.
What this inquiry cannot do is resolve the controversies about legality or intelligence, which have been raked over so many times. So many other inquiries have looked at those things. What this inquiry must do is address the machinery of government problem, the capacity problem—the understanding problem to which my hon. Friend Rory Stewart, the Chairman of the Defence Committee so capably referred.
The Select Committee on Public Administration produced—this is the other side of the equation in this debate—no less than three reports in the last Parliament about how to conduct inquiries. We produced a report at the beginning of this Parliament entitled “Who does UK National Strategy?” The informal answer that I received from the then Chief of the Defence Staff, which we put in our report, was nobody. Nobody holds a strategic concept for the United Kingdom. No one creates a single document and keeps it updated on how we are to conduct our statecraft in this increasingly troubled world in which we are increasingly vulnerable.
I say to Mr Straw that we found that the Foreign Office had an aversion to any kind of strategy. Culturally, it does not like the idea of being tied to a plan, misunderstanding that a plan is different from strategy. We need to learn. How does the machinery of government allow us to go to war without a better understanding of the consequences? Those consequences have led to a complete loss of confidence in this Chamber in the ability of Whitehall to make those judgments, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham said.
What sort of reform do we want to be able to drive—as my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border asked? Why does this disconnect exist between what people in Whitehall think is going on or think that they are able to control and what the people on the ground find out is actually going on and are unable to control?
When I came back from Basra on that occasion, I remember reporting to the shadow Cabinet that I had asked the General Officer Commanding in Basra what message he wanted me to take back home. He said in slightly less proper language, “Where the hell is DFID? What is the plan? What are we meant to do now?” There was no plan. I do not apologise for complaining about the lack of a plan in the aftermath because it reflects exactly what the General was saying. There is a lack of seriousness, a lack of trusting people who come with challenging information and uncomfortable truths.
We need more capacity in Whitehall to learn and understand, to gather real knowledge and information—capacity for analysis and assessment, which paradoxically we do quite well in the intelligence field through the Joint Intelligence Committee, unless it is sat on by political appointees. We need the ability to choose realistic objectives for our foreign and security policy; to formulate comprehensive plans and then be able to implement them.
As we wait for the inquiry to conclude and to report its findings, we must reflect on the process that we feel has failed us. The first lesson is that it is too late—much too late. It started too late, and it is taking far too long. Why did we not set a time limit? Leveson was set a time limit; why did we not set one for the Iraq inquiry? I have struggled to find definitive terms of reference for the inquiry. In fact, the terms of reference are drawn from a long and rambling statement made from that Dispatch Box by the then Prime Minister, who boasted about how broad and comprehensive and utterly large it was going to be. One wonders whether the words “long grass” were lurking at the back of his mind—the longer the better.
This House failed. This House failed to create an accountable inquiry process. We let it happen. We were all so desperate for an inquiry, so desperate to get it started, that we lost our perspective. If this was a judicial inquiry, as we originally called for, the issues of conflict of interests of people involved on the fringes of the inquiry would not be allowed to arise. There would not be any question about people being able to give their evidence in public, immune from prosecution, which the Chilcot inquiry has been unable to do. We could have ensured the inquiry’s independence. Speakers in this debate have asked why there are no politicians, lawyers or military figures on the inquiry. All those questions were asked when the inquiry was set up, and we are all now ruing the fact that those suggestions were not adopted.
I will recommend that my Committee follows up this inquiry in the next Parliament, covering such questions as how inquiries are established, why, what for, how they operate, judicial or parliamentary, lessons from the terms of reference, how the timing is organised when they are set up and how long they are allowed to sit. I fear this inquiry will turn out to be a shadow of what we really need and we will not learn the lessons. We did not learn the lessons before we went to Afghanistan, before we went to Libya, before we threatened Syria, and these are lessons that we must learn.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for facilitating this debate in my name and those of my right hon. Friend Mr Davis and my hon. Friend Greg Mulholland, who for personal reasons is not here today. I regret that we are debating the non-publication of the report rather than the report itself—a report that, as others have said, the previous Prime Minister, no doubt in good faith, indicated in 2009 should be published within a year. We still have no date for publication. Last week’s letter from Sir John Chilcot to the Prime Minister talked about taking “further months”—a phrase I think was also used in 2011. It is crucial that we have a time scale, which we do not have now.
It is a great disappointment to me and an insult to the British people that the report is not to be published before the general election. I am grateful that the Foreign Affairs Committee is to question Sir John Chilcot on
May I ask the Foreign Affairs Committee to address these questions when it has Sir John Chilcot before it next week? How many people have been sent information to which they have been invited to respond? I am not asking for names, simply numbers. When did they receive the letter from the inquiry? What deadline was set for a response? There is some suggestion in the media that Maxwellees, if I can call them that, have sought expensive legal advice. Is any such person having his or her legal costs met from public funds? I think we ought to know that. Maxwellees have been given full access to the original documents or evidence used to support the criticism, and that is quite right, but we need to be clear whether their lawyers have been given the same access. I imagine they have been, if they are defending those individuals, in which case, have they been subject to clearance vetting for the material they see? Those all seem to me to be relevant questions.
Sir John Chilcot must have known of the desire of Members of Parliament to have the report published in good order, and of its importance. That is a point that many Members have made to Sir John, both publicly and privately. I made it to him when I saw him personally shortly after his inquiry was set up, and I reiterated it in a letter to him of
It is clear that Sir John Chilcot is totally independent—that is absolutely right—but we have a right to a statement from him next week on the process as to why the report is taking so long and a deadline for his action, which is one reason why I urge hon. Members to support the motion today.
The report is important because in the period 2002-03 the normal processes of Government were bypassed, the normal safeguards were trampled over, and a case was made for war that I believe the then Prime Minister knew to be false. We have talked about sofa government; that is exactly what happened at the time. I did not vote for the war, but other hon. Members did, believing that they should support the Prime Minister of the day when he had given such a clear undertaking that there was a problem. They feel betrayed by that process, as do our British servicemen and their families as a consequence of that war.
In September 2002 the Prime Minister told the House that the dossier—the famous dodgy dossier that was referred to earlier—was “extensive, detailed and authoritative”. Lord Butler, in his subsequent and underrated report—in civil service jargonese, but quite useful—called the report “vague and ambiguous”—very different from what the Prime Minister said. But the dossier had one element that the press were actively encouraged to cover—the 45-minute claim. So we had headlines in The Sun, saying “Brits 45 mins from doom”, and in the Evening Standard, “45 mins from attack”. What utter nonsense. There was no basis for that whatsoever. It was known by those in government—I include Mr Straw, for whom
I also have time—that if it was accurate in any sense, it related to battlefield munitions, not long-range weapons. Robin Cook raised those matters with the Prime Minister and others in government at the time, as he says in his diaries. The 45-minute claim was clearly bogus, yet it was allowed to be the headline, without correction. The then Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, when asked about this in the Hutton inquiry, refused to correct it and said it was not his business to correct what newspapers said that was not accurate.
How did this happen? We know that it happened because the Prime Minister of the day asked Alastair Campbell to chair meetings overseeing the production of the dossier. How can it be right that a political special adviser is asked to oversee intelligence information and is able to change the details of that intelligence information in the report? Alastair Campbell suggested 13 changes, 10 to strengthen language and three stylistic. These are not simply minor matters. The dossier, when it came to Alastair Campbell, said:
“The Iraqi military may be able to deploy chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes of an order to do so.”
He changed “may be” to “are”, and John Scarlett agreed with that alteration, which he should not have done either. Yet Alastair Campbell told Lord Hutton that he had no influence “whatsoever”—that is his word—on the words in the dossier. Hans Blix subsequently said that question marks in the dossier had been replaced by exclamation marks.
The second dossier, in February 2003, entitled “Iraq: Its Infrastructure of Concealment, Deception and Intimidation”, was copied, as has been said, from an article in the Middle East Review of International Affairs, and not even copied very well. It refers to the 1991 Gulf war, in any case. What a disgrace that that should have been put out in the Government’s name at the time.
Lastly, there is the Matthew Rycroft memo from July 2002, which subsequently appeared in the papers before 2005. That included an assessment from the head of MI6 at the time, Sir Richard Dearlove, of his recent visit to Washington. He was reported as saying:
“C reported on his recent talks from Washington…Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam through military action…but the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”
“we must be prepared to act where terrorism or weapons of mass destruction threaten us…if necessary…it should involve regime change.”
There can be no question but that this was all ramped up in order to get the House of Commons to agree to a war that had no justification whatsoever, and that the Prime Minister was party to that, as were others in government at the time, who were clearly very serious.
The events of 2002 are important in themselves and also highly relevant to today. Processes were abandoned. One process that was abandoned—I tried to intervene on Sir Richard Ottaway, who would not give way—was the so-called inquest on David Kelly. The right hon. Gentleman called it an inquest. It was not an inquest; it was a non-statutory inquiry under Lord Hutton. The inquest was stopped by Government Ministers, who took the coroner off the case. What a schoolboy error from the right hon. Gentleman. I am sorry to say that if he is going to throw insults at people, he should at least get his facts right when he does so.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee and Mr Davis for bringing this important debate to the Floor of the House. The discussion has been wide-ranging and I have listened with interest to Members in all parts of the House who have expressed many different views both about the decision to go to war in Iraq and about the decision to set up the inquiry and the way that it was established. Most of all, what unites all those contributions is concern about the length of time that it has taken for the inquiry to report. The delay is deeply frustrating. When the inquiry was announced in June 2009, it was never anticipated that in 2015 we would still be awaiting its publication.
In 2001 Sir John Chilcot said that it would take “some months” to deliver the report, given the complexity of the issues, the nine-year period that the report covers and the sensitivity of some of the information that it looked at. We accept that there is a balance to be struck between the need to be thorough and the need to remain relevant, but when the inquiry was announced it was expected to be published within a year. Mr Grieve spoke compellingly about the subsequent delays, why they may have occurred and what that has meant for the inquiry.
We are keen for the report to be published as soon as possible, but the inquiry was established on an independent basis and we believe still that it would be wrong for the timing to be influenced by political parties. That in no way lessens the potential seriousness of the delay in publication. All of us are, or should be, acutely aware of the impact on the families affected by the Iraq war—179 British servicemen and women lost their lives and many others were injured, and we should remember, too, the thousands of Iraqi families who will be watching these events unfold. I know from my own experience of working with some of the families affected by Hillsborough just what a heavy price families pay for such delays.
Many of the questions that surfaced during the debate are questions for the inquiry. It is right to acknowledge that the reasons for the delay have not yet been made clear. When Sir John Chilcot appears before the Foreign Affairs Committee next week, I hope he will be able to provide some of the answers that Parliament and the public seek. Questions have been raised about the role of the Labour Government in setting up the inquiry, and I want to deal with the accusation that Labour voted against establishing an inquiry and in doing so caused unnecessary delay.
It is fundamentally untrue to suggest that Labour was opposed to establishing an inquiry into Iraq. It was the Labour party that established the Chilcot inquiry, and Labour MPs voted against initiating an inquiry on the basis only that there were still troops on the ground, and that it would have been wrong to undermine their role and potentially jeopardise their security. This was also the position advanced by the shadow Foreign Secretary at the time on behalf of the Conservative Opposition. In 2006 the shadow Foreign Secretary said that the Opposition
“do not believe that such an inquiry should be established now. As the Foreign Secretary said, important operations are under way in Iraq. Major political decisions in Iraq and efforts to contain the insurgency appear to be in the balance.”—[Hansard, 31 October 2006; Vol. 451, c. 183.]
It is important to remember, too, that the scale and the breadth of this inquiry are unprecedented. It was established with such a wide remit to ensure that the full story was told. Given the numbers of people who lost their lives or were affected by this conflict, it was essential that the inquiry had broad parameters and commanded the confidence of families.
Does the hon. Lady not accept that the inquiry could have begun and taken evidence while troops were still committed but not published until after the troops had come home?
Looking back in Hansard at the debates of the time, we can see that many Members in all parts of the House felt very strongly that to do so would have undermined the role of the troops.
My hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn talked about some of the problems that he sees in the way that the inquiry was set up. As my right hon. Friend Mr Straw said, when it reports there will be lessons for all political parties about how we establish such inquiries in future. At the time, the then Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend Mr Brown, said:
“No British document and no British witness will be beyond the scope of the inquiry.”—[Hansard, 15 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 23.]
Some Members have raised concerns about why it was established with evidence heard in private—a decision that was, again, debated at length at the time. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn said, that potentially provides lessons to guide us in the way we conduct these inquiries in future.
Iraq was one of the most controversial episodes in recent history. It is right to acknowledge that it was a huge moment in this country’s history. It divided Parliament, as we have heard today. It divided my party. As my hon. Friend Paul Flynn said, 139 Labour Members of Parliament voted against intervention. I worked for one of them at the time, and I am proud still to call him a friend today. Mr Mitchell talked about how it divided not just his party but his own family. All hon. Members should remember, whichever side of the debate we are on, that it divided the country too. At the time, it did not appear to be black and white to the people or to parliamentarians.
Many of us still hold as strong views now as we did when the war began over a decade ago. The Chilcot report, when it is published, will not remove that controversy. However, as the hon. Member for Perth and North
Perthshire (Pete Wishart) said, it should at least be able to answer some key questions about the decision to go to war and how it came about. The inquiry was established to provide a reliable account of events and, crucially, to help to guide foreign policy making in future. Understanding the decision-making process is a question of justice, but, as Rory Stewart said, it is also vital for the future of this country.
We must learn the lessons from what happened. In order to do so, we must respect the sovereignty and the autonomy of the inquiry. That is why we say that it is not appropriate for any political party to seek to influence the timing of the report. However, we understand the frustration that has been expressed, on behalf of much of the public, by many Members here today. Those who initiated this debate and have taken part in it have helped to ensure that this report and this important issue are not forgotten, and for that we are extremely grateful.
I congratulate the right hon. and hon. Members who secured this debate on the Iraq inquiry. I thank all colleagues who have contributed to a very thoughtful and, at times, stirring debate. At times, with passions running high, it felt as though we were back debating the decision to go to war in the first place, all those years ago.
I am sure that I speak for all in the House in saying that when this inquiry was started in July 2009, none of us thought it would still not be completed by January 2015. It is frustrating and very disappointing that we still do not know when it will be published. It is clear that once it is published, the Government will need to look very carefully at what lessons could be learned for future inquiries. I am sure that everyone here will agree that the inquiry is unprecedented in its scope and scale. I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend Mr Grieve that Sir John Chilcot is trying to leave no stone unturned. Never before has a UK public inquiry examined in such depth and detail a decision to go to war and its consequences over a nine-year period.
At the risk of junking the rest of my speech, I will try to deal with as many of the points that right hon. and hon. Members have raised as possible. May I first pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Mr Davis, who made an excellent speech? He raised important questions about potential conflicts of interests, particularly regarding the Cabinet Secretary. The Cabinet Secretary was identified as a final arbiter in discussions about the declassification of documents because he is the most senior civil servant, is bound by the civil service code on impartiality and, crucially, can see the papers of a previous Administration. I am not aware of any opposition to his appointment to that role at the time.
I understand my right hon. Friend’s concerns about the process, but I have seen no evidence to date of Sir John Chilcot being prevented from going wherever his inquiry wished. The inquiry panel has had access to every paper, memo, e-mail or minute of a meeting—classified or otherwise—that it wished to see. As my hon. Friend Mr Jenkin rightly said, there is a difference between what is declassified and what is published.
Mr Llwyd raised the involvement of the secretary to the Iraq inquiry in the foreign and defence policy secretariat. The appointment was agreed by Sir John in the full knowledge of that involvement, and he saw no conflict of interest, but the Foreign Affairs Committee may want to take that up and ask further questions.
Jeremy Corbyn and others asked about the involvement of the US. The US Government have not at any stage made any attempt to delay the publication of the report. They have not sought to block the disclosure of evidence, including the exchanges between the Prime Minister and the President of the USA, despite the fact that those exchanges are a privileged channel of communication. Because that decision was a very difficult one for the Cabinet Secretary, he consulted a number of parties, including US officials.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the declassification process. As Sir John has confirmed, the process of declassifying the most difficult and sensitive documents has been completed. In respect of other documents, Departments continue to meet every request made.
If the British side is not blocking any correspondence or communications records between Blair and Bush, are the US or Bush blocking them? We need to be assured that all of that will come out if the inquiry is to have any credibility.
As I have said, there has been no attempt by the US to block any element of the inquiry. There have been discussions about the scope of what in the communications should be released. The gist of some conversations will be published, although they were previously confidential.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield asked why the Maxwellisation process has been held up. In a letter to the Prime Minister on
Paul Flynn, who is no longer in his place, asked why we could not subpoena the evidence. The inquiry has identified the evidence it needs to reach its conclusions. The publication of that evidence without the context provided by the final report would lead to the issues being only partially understood.
My hon. Friend Steve Baker, who is not in his place, asked about Maxwellisation and Salmon letters. Salmon letters are sent before a witness gives evidence, while Maxwellisation happens before an inquiry publishes its report.
Tim Farron asked about additional resources for the inquiry. That offer has always been on the table, not only from the Deputy Prime Minister but from the Government. The inquiry has, on occasion, asked for additional assistance and the Government have always provided it. I am not sure that Maxwellisation, which only recently started, as Sir John Chilcot has confirmed, could be speeded up by additional resources.
As many have recognised, it is a question of fairness that those who are provisionally subject to criticism are given the opportunity to make representations, and that the inquiry considers those representations properly. That process will take some time. It does not mean that the report will be watered down, as I understand the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale suggested recently. It will be up to Sir John and his colleagues to decide whether they accept the representations that are made.
Sandra Osborne asked why the report should not be published before the general election. The inquiry is completely independent of Government, and the timetable and processes for completing its work are matters for the inquiry. I can imagine the outcry there would be if the Government interfered in an independent process, and rightly so. If she listened to my highly respected colleague my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield, she would have heard that there is still a real possibility that this will be a very good report indeed.
I am not sure whether the Minister has quite understood me. I was never under any illusion that the report would be published before the general election. My point was that we are now in the run-up to the general election. Does he not think that it is reasonable that Members of this House question the delay and ask for an indication of when we will get the report?
I hope that I will have time to come to that point in a moment.
Members asked why it was not a judicial inquiry. The terms of reference for the inquiry were established by the previous Labour Government. As Lord Wallace of Saltaire said yesterday in the other place,
“the Government are committed to learning lessons from the conduct of all public inquiries”.—[Hansard, House of Lords, 28 January 2015; Vol. 759, c. 200.]
That might be one such lesson that we need to consider.
Why did the inquiry stop publishing declassified documents? It published documents to accompany the evidence sessions that took place up to February 2011. Since then, Chilcot has said that he does not want to publish further documents, as it would be unwise to have a running commentary on events.
Like my hon. Friend Mr Simpson, I well remember the debate in Westminster Hall. If memory serves me correctly, we were the only two Members present. I congratulate him on getting up a head of steam behind this issue. I note his suggestion regarding a parliamentary inquiry. That should probably form part of the lessons that we learn. We have had a number of suggestions on that subject. He made an interesting one about publishing correspondence between the secretariat of the inquiry and the Cabinet Secretary. Again, it is for the independent inquiry to decide whether to do so. That, too, might be one of the lessons to be learned after the report is published.
Pete Wishart asked about compelling the publication of the report before the election. The inquiry is completely independent of Government, and the timetable and processes for completing its work are matters for the inquiry. It would not be appropriate for the Government to dictate to an independent inquiry how it should conduct itself. We know of no mechanism by which members of the inquiry panel could be required to put their signatures to a report that they did not consider to be complete and suitable for publication. I hope that that answers his point.
As I have said, the Government cannot say when the report will be delivered to the Prime Minister. That is a matter for the inquiry because it is fully independent of Government. However, Sir John will appear before the Foreign Affairs Committee on
“cannot give an accurate estimate for how long it will then take to complete” the inquiry’s work.
All I can do is to echo the recent words of the Prime Minister. He hopes that the report will be delivered to him as soon as possible. Once the report has been presented to the Prime Minister and published, there will be an opportunity—this was asked about by one hon. Member—to debate its findings in both Houses. In relation to our accepting any recommendations that the report might make, it would be wrong to pre-empt the inquiry’s findings. The important thing now is to get the report published.
The Iraq conflict was a seismic political event, and it evokes strong feelings on all sides of the political debate. The Government recognise that it is of paramount importance that the inquiry is able to complete its work to provide a balanced, evidence-based report that shows why decisions were made and the lessons that must be learned. In October 2006, members of the current Government voted for an inquiry into the Iraq conflict and its aftermath. If the inquiry had been established then, it would have reported long ago.
This has been an excellent debate, with cogent and well informed arguments delivered with both passion and forensic skill. There have been divisions between Members, of course, but virtually everybody in the House agrees that six years is too long and that the report should have been published some time ago. Although some think it is too late to hold people to account for what happened, it is not too late to learn. I believe that everybody agrees we should get this thing published as soon as possible.
Next week, the Foreign Affairs Committee will meet Sir John, I think largely as a result of this debate being called, and will ask him for the reasons for the delays and for a timetable. I hope that he will be able to provide that. Part of the aim is to put pressure on him for a very fast delivery of the report. The reason is simple—the Iraq war was a disaster, and we need to understand why, simply so that we can make sure it never, ever happens again. To that end, I ask the House to support the motion.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House regrets that the Iraq Inquiry has decided to defer publication of its report until after