[1st Allotted Day]

Part of Prevention and Suppression of Terrorism – in the House of Commons at 4:54 pm on 13th July 2016.

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Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Labour, Leeds Central 4:54 pm, 13th July 2016

For those of us who took that fateful decision on 18 March 2003, the Chilcot report makes difficult and uncomfortable reading. Our thoughts today should, above all, be with the families, Iraqi and British, who lost loved ones in the conflict; but Members who voted for war—and I was one—did so in good faith.

I agree with my right hon. Friend Margaret Beckett; I do not think that we were misled or lied to. Nor, more importantly, does the Chilcot report reach such a conclusion. However, we must all take our full share of the responsibility for that decision. As we now know, the intelligence was wrong, although, as my right hon. Friend said, many countries and many people—including Iraq’s neighbours, some of its own military, and the United Nations—thought that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Had we known the truth at the time, the House would never have voted for war, and nor would I. For that we should apologise, and I certainly do, but at the time we could decide only on the basis of what we thought we knew. Let me also say this, however. If I am asked whether I regret the fact that Saddam Hussein is no longer in power, my reply is “No, I do not”, because he was a brutal dictator who had killed hundreds of thousands of his own citizens, and had used chemical weapons against them.

I want to reflect, very briefly, on three issues: the task of reconstruction that we faced, why Iraq was as it was, and some of the wider lessons. The problem faced by the Department for International Development in Basra and the surrounding provinces in 2003 was not the humanitarian crisis that we had anticipated, but a different set of circumstances altogether. There was the dysfunctional nature of the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. There were the problems of the coalition provisional authority, caused by a failure to plan. There was the legacy of Saddam’s dictatorship—when we tried to persuade the authorities in the south to talk to Baghdad, that was the last thing that they wanted to do, because they remembered what dealing with Baghdad had been like in the past. There was the legacy of the repression of the Shi’a, there was the malign neglect of infrastructure, and there was the absence of the United Nations, which no one has mentioned so far this afternoon. The bomb that killed Sérgio Vieira de Mello and 23 of his staff in August 2003 in the Canal Hotel was, in truth, the beginning of an insurgency that grew stronger with each passing month.

The problem facing reconstruction was not money. The Chilcot report itself concludes:

“There are no indications that DFID’s activities in Iraq were constrained by a lack of resources.”

Iraq was, and is still, a middle-income country with oil. In fact, the problem was spending money, including money from the World Bank, because of rapidly deteriorating security. No sooner did we manage to fix something—we made a real contribution to improving the water and electricity supply in the south of the country—than people would try to blow it up.

I want to place on record my thanks for the huge contribution that was made by many courageous individuals with whom I had the privilege of working—people from DFID and other Departments, British and Iraqi, military and civilian, non-governmental organisation staff and humanitarian staff—who tried to help the people of Iraq in the most difficult and dangerous circumstances. They all acted in the best traditions of public service, and we should thank them for what they did.