Hutton Inquiry

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:47 pm on 4th February 2004.

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Photo of Lord Haskins Lord Haskins Labour 6:47 pm, 4th February 2004

My Lords, I should like to raise the issue of trust. I fear that most of us would have to agree that, for a variety of reasons, the public's regard for the Houses of Parliament and for those who play a prominent role in public life has seldom been lower. While we can argue among ourselves about the rights and wrongs of the Iraqi war, we need to recognise, sadly, that the public have a deep suspicion of the Government's position and, even more sadly, near contempt for the position of the main opposition party. Bizarrely, despite its many mistakes, the public credibility of the BBC remains much higher than both. I have every confidence that the BBC will be able to weather this storm.

The public are no longer as impressed as they might have been in bygone deferential days by inquiries led by senior judges and senior civil servants because they believe, rightly or wrongly, that this is merely a process to enable the establishment to close ranks. It seems to me that the American approach to its inquiry is both more transparent and comprehensive than is envisaged for here, which is a pity.

The two inquiries will be taking place during the run-up to two general elections. If the present level of public cynicism in this country does not abate—and at present I can see no reason why it should—we might see a turn-out on polling day far below the abysmal 60 per cent of 2001. The cynics may argue that the Government do not care very much about this as long as they are returned to power, which is very likely at the present time. But we must remind ourselves of what happened in France last year when public cynicism led to a low turn-out and the Le Pen catastrophe. Of course I am not suggesting that a disaster of that kind could happen in Britain but, in very low turn-outs, extremists who can muster their support stand to gain.

The Government may rightly feel that much of this general cynicism is both unfair and nasty. They have not been given full credit by the press for the most successful period of sustained growth for more than a century; nor is there a proper recognition that, as a result of unprecedented levels of investment, most of our public services are at last beginning to show a real improvement; and Northern Ireland is enjoying peace, albeit uneasily.

It seems a tragedy therefore that the Government, and their supporters such as myself, find ourselves so lacking in public confidence. This is not helped of course by a vitriolic tabloid press which seeks, it appears, to usurp the role of the official Opposition.

If we cannot tackle that public malaise—a combination of J.K. Galbraith's slothful culture of contentment and a deep disaffection with government and Parliament—we are heading into dangerous and uncharted waters. When respect for democratic institutions becomes undermined, so do democratic values of tolerance and social justice.

The Profumo affair 40 years ago, culminating in the now much-discredited Denning report, did great damage to the public's perception of the establishment. But then the issues at stake were trivial compared with the subject of our discussions today. There was a credible opposition in Parliament to provide the public with an alternative—that does not appear to be the case today. I believe that it is unlikely that the public will abandon their cynicism and distrust on the issue of the war after all the inquiries have run their course.

However, there is one issue that can restore some degree of public confidence and which cannot await the outcome of the inquiries—the achievement of peace and stability in Iraq. For that to happen, the Americans, the British Government and our partners in the European Union must stand together and involve the United Nations as the only institution that has the ability and the trust of the world and the people of Iraq to deliver that outcome. The British Government must lead the way in persuading our American friends that their ambivalence and shabby treatment of the United Nations is no longer acceptable.