Hutton Inquiry

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:51 pm on 4th February 2004.

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Photo of Lord Alexander of Weedon Lord Alexander of Weedon Conservative 6:51 pm, 4th February 2004

My Lords, like the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, one of my predecessors as president of the MCC, I am not in favour of challenging the decision of the umpire, whether with or without the aid of an action replay. The task of a judge at a public inquiry is lonely and difficult. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hutton, conducted his hearings splendidly and sensitively. In considering his conclusions we should all remember that he had the advantage of assessing the witnesses and weighing all of the evidence. I share the relief at his view that the Government did not seek the inclusion in the dossier of intelligence material which was known to be false. That conclusion seems to me to be fully justified, as it does to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, on the evidence.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hutton, did a service in finding the facts, which I would like to return to and I do not think have yet been fully appreciated. I have some concerns about the balance of the report. The BBC made mistakes and they have paid a high price. But they were put under enormous pressure by Alastair Campbell, who the Prime Minister himself has publicly described as "rough and tough". To me that seems to justify Mr Greg Dyke's remarks that it was bullying conduct. Am I alone in thinking that the days when the type of dealings that Mr Alastair Campbell had near the head of government were conducted by senior permanent civil servants were healthier days that should be renewed?

I want to say how much I admire the BBC for so much of its journalism. I am glad that it was prepared to probe so rigorously the case made by the Government for leading us into what so many of us consider to have been an unnecessary and costly war of choice. Throughout, my own party was very largely fully supportive of the Government. That made it more important that the media, and especially the BBC, should join the Liberal Democrats, so wonderfully led by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, in redressing the democratic deficit by making certain that the doubts were heard. I am also glad that Tessa Jowell, over the past few days, has steadfastly said that she will uphold the independence of the BBC and, as I understand it, continue the case for strong public funding. I share the view that it is vital to us as part of our democracy.

For me the central problem flows from the narrow remit of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hutton. He pointed that out. He records with deadly precision some of the material which would have remained buried and out of sight but for his inquiry. I found the way in which he set out some changes in the draft dossiers in September 2002 particularly cogent. On 16 September the dossier told us that Saddam,

"is prepared to use nuclear and biological weapons if he believes his regime is under threat".

By the draft of 20 September that assertion had been queried by Number 10 and the proviso that the regime would have to be under threat had disappeared. The distinction between aggressive use and defensive use had become blurred.

I shall also give another illustration by reference to the first draft of the foreword by the Prime Minister, which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hutton, remarked upon, and which the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, drew attention to this afternoon. It included the statement:

"The case I make is not that Saddam could launch a nuclear attack on London or another part of the UK. (He could not)".

That was deleted from the final dossier. We were left with the repeated claim that Saddam could launch an attack within 45 minutes. Why? The Prime Minister, as a lawyer, should know that the suppression of the truth risks creating the impression of a falsehood. There was no mention at all that battlefield weapons were what the dossier had in mind. Why?

I have spent time on that claim because I believe that it was crucially alarmist and influential. I vividly remember how it was understood and reported. The Evening Standard said simply,

"45 minutes from attack".

The Government knew that that impression gained wide currency. But what did they do to correct a misunderstanding of their own creation? Nothing. Why? That over-dramatic, over-hyped claim had become crucial in trying to shift a deeply divided nation in favour of the war. It was of a piece with the desperation of the effort to persuade people in early 2003 with the infamous and irresponsible "dodgy dossier".

The scepticism is greater now that an extensive search has discovered no weapons of mass destruction. Yet no one who read the reports of Hans Blix back in February last year should be surprised. He made it plain that the jury was still out and that he needed more time. But the Government ignored him and abandoned their long-standing commitments to the United Nations and followed the lead of the United States into war.

Against that background, I would find it deeply disappointing and unwise if the new inquiry, so hastily set up yesterday, focused only on the accuracy of the intelligence material and where it seems to have gone astray. The Government seem not to appreciate that public disquiet goes much wider than that. Many share the suspicions, which Clare Short and Robin Cook have voiced, that we too slavishly followed the lead of the United States. It is the greatest crisis of confidence in the handling of issues of war and peace since Suez.

Any inquiry should take account of the advice that the Government received as to the legality of the war in international law. My concern was reinforced yesterday when the Government argued that war was justified for breach of Resolution 1441. But in international law the right to use force is a last resort and has to be unequivocally spelled out. Resolution 1441 did not do that. That is why the Government wanted a second resolution, until they realised that it would not pass. The Attorney-General then published a summary of his advice in which he based the ultimate authority for war on UN Resolution 678, passed in 1990, to authorise the use of force to expel Iraq from Kuwait. Yet both President Bush senior and Mr John Major publicly stated that this resolution would not have justified them in going to Baghdad. The suggestion that it somehow allowed an invasion for a different purpose 12 years later has been rejected by almost all international lawyers. It is widely believed that Elizabeth Wilmshurst, a very senior Foreign Office legal adviser, resigned because she disagreed. Yet the Government persistently refuse all requests for disclosure of the Attorney-General's full advice. We are apparently entitled to his "view" but not to his "advice", a distinction which seems incomprehensible to me. The noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, has described his view as "straining at a gnat" and for what it is worth I have characterised it as "risible". In his advice, the Attorney-General would have needed to deal with some formidable objections to his view and his advice should at long last be disclosed to the inquiry. There are clear precedents for the Attorney-General's advice to be disclosed to official inquiries.