Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:38 am on 24th January 2008.

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Photo of Lord Fowler Lord Fowler Conservative 11:38 am, 24th January 2008

rose to call attention to the position in Iraq and the lessons to be drawn; and to move for Papers.

My Lords, in a few weeks' time, in March, we will come to the fifth anniversary of the start of the conflict in Iraq. It is also just short of 12 months since my noble friend Lord Hurd set out in this House the case for an inquiry into some of the most important questions arising from that decision to go to war. I know that another former Foreign Secretary, the noble Lord, Lord Owen, who is in his place, has also called for an inquiry. I want to renew that call for an inquiry because I know of no other way that the lessons from this conflict can be learnt. Perhaps I can explain why I asked my noble friends on the Front Bench that I should raise the subject of this debate.

Three events in the Middle East have had particular significance for me. In 1956, at the time of Suez, I had just joined the Army. I was opposed to the invasion, and in my officers' mess being a national service second lieutenant and opposed to Suez was not a notably popular position. It was not a popular position, but, as it happens, it was right. In 1967, I was a correspondent for the Times in the Middle East war reporting from Beirut and Amman. I returned to Britain saying and writing that the dominating issue was Palestine, but in the wake of the massive Israeli victory, that was also not a message that everybody wanted to hear. It was not popular, but again it was conceivably right.

In the Iraq conflict my connection was rather different. I did not report it but my stepson did. His name is Oliver Poole and some of your Lordships with long memories may recognise he has the unique disadvantage of having both his grandfather and his stepfather as chairmen of the Conservative Party. At the start of the conflict I listened to him from Iraq—these days communications are so much easier than through the old cable offices—as he made his way with a tank unit from the Kuwait border to Baghdad among American soldiers who had been told that they would be welcomed as liberators. I followed the position as it deteriorated. Where once at the beginning a journalist could go on to the streets of Baghdad to collect material, the position rapidly changed. Travelling security became essential and interviews were constrained to 20 minutes in case news should spread that there was a western journalist in the area. I read of the tragedies: of his hotel blown up, killing not western journalists but Iraqis living nearby; of the destruction in 2006 of one of Shia Islam's holiest shrines, the Golden Mosque in Samarra, and the retaliation in Baghdad against Sunni mosques there; of neighbours who had lived side by side for generations turning on each other; of militia growing up both to defend and to attack; and of course of the indiscriminate murder and torture practised on both sides, leading to plans announced in Baghdad for the construction of two new morgues to cope with the influx of bodies.

For me there was a major question. Unlike my noble friend Lord Hurd who opposed the invasion from the outset, I, like so many people in this country, had supported the Government's decision. I had even written to both the Prime Minister and the then Foreign Secretary, supporting them in their efforts to persuade Parliament and the United Nations. I had never done that before and probably will never do it again. It can of course be said, "What right have you, someone who initially supported the invasion, to ask questions now?". My reply is that in some ways people like me have even more right. Not unreasonably, we trusted the information we were given by the Government. We expected, and had to every right to expect, that proper plans would be made not just for the war but for what would follow. We assumed that Ministers had taken account of the skilled Foreign Office advice available and that decisions were made having proper regard to this advice. We now know that some of those conditions were not met and that, at least in some respects, the public were misled. We know that the weapons of mass destruction proffered as one of the reasons for the invasion did not exist. We also know that the Prime Minister, Mr Blair, substantially overstated his case. On 23 August 2002 the United Kingdom intelligence community told the Prime Minister that,

"we ... know little about Iraq's chemical and biological weapons work since late 1998".

Just over a month later the Prime Minister told the Commons that the picture painted by our intelligence services was,

"extensive, detailed and authoritative".

As the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, who I see in his place, said in our debate in February 2007:

"Those words could simply not have been justified by the material that the intelligence community provided to him".—[Hansard, 22/2/07; col. 1231.]

I certainly acknowledge the improvement in the security position recently in Baghdad. I also acknowledge that some benefits have resulted from the invasion. The position in Kurdistan is much improved and above all there is the removal of Saddam Hussein, who not only murdered his own people but had already been responsible for the conflict over Kuwait in 1991 and much more. I weep no tears for him but his overthrow alone does not provide legal justification for military intervention and certainly it does not cancel out the massive consequences of the invasion which in my view makes out the case for an inquiry.

First and foremost, there have been the casualties of this conflict—the British troops who have been killed and injured. Regiments such as the Royal Anglians, of which my old regiment is now part, have suffered badly. I pay tribute to their courage and that of all the forces that have fought in Iraq over the past five years. But of course the chief casualties have been among the Iraqis themselves. Some have died in the fighting, some have died in the sectarian murders that have accompanied the fighting, and some have died in the criminality which we have been unable to control. No one knows exactly how many have died. A conservative estimate is 100,000, but there may well be many thousands more; I doubt that there have been fewer. We do know that death has often been accompanied by torture, and that fear has taken hold to such an extent that 2 million Iraqis have been displaced in their own country. Even worse, more than 2 million have fled to surrounding countries such as Syria, Jordan and the Lebanon. The refugees have gained a degree of safety, but at a price. Families have been uprooted and have struggled to survive without jobs and with dwindling or non-existent savings.

In short, the conflict has created the worst refugee crisis in the Middle East since 1948. Against this background, the public in this country, whatever their original stance, are entitled to ask a number of questions which an inquiry is best placed to put. They are entitled to ask for more detail on how the decision to invade was reached. I was a member of the Cabinet at the time of the Falklands. Events moved very quickly after the Argentine invasion, but not so quickly that it was impossible to arrange a full Cabinet meeting at which the Prime Minister asked each of us in turn whether we agreed to the task force being sent. The issue was debated and an alternative view was put.

Recently, Mr Blair gave a lengthy television interview in which his impatience with the checks and balances of the Cabinet system of government came over loud and clear. In essence, his case was that it could get in the way of action. Of course it is true that it can, but equally it is true that it can act as a corrective to prevent unwise action. Governments usually get into trouble when collective judgment is replaced by the informal meeting of small groups.

At the same time, I would like to know about the nature of the Foreign Office advice. I do not claim for a moment that Ministers should automatically take that advice, although in the policies of the Middle East they would well advised to give it some weight, but the public should be reassured that the full advice reached Ministers and was discussed by them. I hope that, as has been suggested, the Foreign Office was not simply sidelined in this decision. Secondly, the public are entitled to ask what planning took place for the aftermath. It is all very well saying that this was all down to the Americans, but that casts doubt on the whole nature of the alliance.

Britain has an obvious history in Iraq, and some knowledge based on that experience and experience elsewhere. Surely that knowledge should have been put to some use, or did we believe that our troops would be welcomed as liberating forces and not forces of occupation? I assume not, but I acknowledge that there is conflicting evidence here and that a former British ambassador, Christopher Segar, told the Guardian this week that British officials underestimated the prospect of insurgency and that British Ministers failed to ask for detailed analysis of the consequences of an invasion. For whatever reason, the planning for this stage seems to have been woefully inadequate, and although the security position in Baghdad has now improved, it is still a long way from what we want. Marie Colvin, a very brave reporter for the Sunday Times who was in Basra without military protection a month ago, reported that she found Islamic militias now waging a brutal campaign for control.

Thirdly, an inquiry should examine the British response to the massive refugee problem caused by the conflict. We owe a particular duty here. Has our response has been sufficient, or have we relied too heavily on the resources of a country such as Jordan, which already has existing refugee problems to tackle, as I saw a few months ago when I was there?

I say to the Minister that the reassurances we heard at Question Time in this House on Monday do not sit altogether easily with the response of the United Nations refugee agency. A few days ago, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees told me that the UNHCR would welcome greater support from donor Governments, including the United Kingdom, for its operations in the region, and that it would like further direct bilateral support for the two main countries of asylum, Syria and Jordan. Looking back on 2007, the UN refugee agency said that it received £3.51 million from the United Kingdom, against its £62 million Iraq region budget, while no United Kingdom funds were forthcoming towards the agency's health and education programmes, jointly implemented with WHO and UNICEF.

Another part of the refugee problem is the future of the interpreters and other staff who have helped the British and have consequently put themselves and their families in danger. As the House will know, I have raised this issue on a number of occasions, first in April 2007. The problem is limited in size, but seems symbolic of our attitude. It took until last October for the Government to announce a scheme, but it is carefully limited and constrained. So far, it has helped very few and all the guidance appears to be worded to deter applications to come to this country, rather than help some very brave people. Not all the interpreters who work for the British work for the British Government. For example, there are the interpreters working for the correspondents of British media organisations. Shamefully, their best prospect of resettlement is in the United States under a scheme run by the Americans. The question remains of whether, even now, five years later, we are facing up to our responsibilities.

Finally, the public are certainly entitled to ask whether our troops have always been properly equipped and supported for the conflict. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Walker of Aldringham, when he said in our February debate that there must be a covenant between Government and the Armed Forces—an unwritten contract that, in return for the sacrifice made by those in the forces, the Government ensure that they are equipped properly, given the best possible care and treated fairly. There are, in this House, far greater experts than me in this area; one of them is sitting next to me. I hope that this contract has been honoured.

Like my noble friend Lord Hurd, I believe that issues such as this should be investigated by a committee of privy counsellors together with others with expert knowledge. It is right that it should be a committee answerable to Parliament. It is certainly not the occasion for a lengthy judicial inquiry, such as that into Bloody Sunday, or, for that matter, the marathon of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scott. The focus of such an inquiry should not be on blame, but on learning the lessons—lessons which might help us in formulating policy elsewhere.

To be fair to the Government, they have not set their face totally against an inquiry. Rather, they have sought to smother the call by setting out a range of less demanding options. In the debate last February the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, gave the response that,

"nobody has set their mind against an inquiry or some form of debate and discussion of these fundamental policy issues in the long term".—[Hansard, 22/02/07; col. 1255. ]

I do not find that reassuring and I hope the message of this House will be that only an inquiry will do, and that the Government will give a more solid reply today.

I also hope that the Government will not take refuge in the argument that nothing can happen until all our troops come home. Among the precedents is the inquiry into the operations of the war in the Dardanelles. It was set up in July 1916 in the middle of the First World War, with Britain directly threatened, under a Bill introduced in the Commons by the then Prime Minister, Mr Asquith. Our troop numbers in Iraq are now reduced to about 4,500, which is radically fewer than three, four and five years ago. I in no way devalue their role but I simply reject the argument that they will be demoralised by such an inquiry. Conceivably, an inquiry could help for the future and aid those troops who follow. But if nothing is done until the very last soldier returns, action could be deferred for years to come.

We are almost at the fifth anniversary of the start of this conflict. Many of the players have already given their accounts—Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and Sir Michael Jackson. We have also had investigations, such as that of the noble Lord, Lord Butler, which have shone a light on particular issues. Surely, the time has come for a comprehensive inquiry, while memories are reasonably fresh, so that the lessons from these momentous events can be learnt. I see no reason for further delay. The time for an inquiry is now. I beg to move for Papers.