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My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity, through the usual channels, to contribute today in a Question for Short Debate on the disturbing delays that appear to be building up in the publication of the much and long-awaited Chilcot inquiry report. The long-distance background to this goes back to the illegal war in Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent inquiry by Sir John Chilcot and his colleagues. At least one political party in this country—I am proud to say that it was the Liberal Democrat party—marched officially as a party to protest against the war. The estimated million to 1.5 million marchers going along Piccadilly were subsequently all disappointed that the then Prime
Minister, Tony Blair, completely ignored their representations on the biggest march that had taken place in Britain in recent times.
I pay tribute to the newspapers and the press in Britain who followed this, especially the Guardian. I assure noble Lords that there is no consortation in any way in this respect. It is just another way to thank the Guardian for its relentless pursuit of the hacking scandal in this country. Its pursuit was much more than that of any other newspaper. Sometimes the Independent managed to keep up, for which we are grateful. The way in which the press generally dealt with it was much less thorough than in the Guardian. The same thing has applied on an unrelenting basis to the delays to Chilcot. It is with deliberate intent that I quote mostly from the Guardian.
“Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the chairman and secretariat of the Iraq Inquiry about possible delays in publication of its report due to responses from officials of the government of the United States”.
I was most grateful to the noble Lord for his reply. He said:
“The drafting of the inquiry’s report and the contents are entirely a matter for the inquiry, which is independent of government”.
I made a supplementary point and I said:
“We remember, of course, the many thousands of Iraqi civilians, including women and children, who were killed after this illegal invasion. Will my noble friend the Leader of the House reassure the House that the Government will attach every meticulous attention to the contents of the report when eventually it is published? It is a very long process and the sooner it is published the better, but there is still a considerable delay. The particular implications of eventual submissions to the ICC should also be borne in mind”.
I was most grateful when the Leader of the House added that,
“my noble friend is correct to draw attention to the report. I can confirm the seriousness with which the Government will accept the report. It perhaps is worth pointing out that Sir John Chilcot, the chairman of the inquiry, has advised that the inquiry will be able to submit its report to the Prime Minister once it has given those who may be subject to criticism in the report the opportunity to make representations to the inquiry before the report is finalised”.—[ Official Report , 29/10/12; col. 406.]
I hope that noble Lords will forgive me for going into detail on this but that is the very serious background to it.
I fast-forward to
“The Chilcot inquiry into the 2003 invasion of Iraq has been locked in dispute with top Whitehall officials over their refusal to release crucial records of conversations between Tony Blair and George W Bush”.
I quote further from the same article:
“Sir John Chilcot and his panel have seen the documents but have been told they cannot disclose them. He has told Cameron that without a decision on what he has described as documents central to the inquiry, he cannot go ahead with the … ‘Maxwellisation’ process”.
The article goes on:
“Blair is one of those most likely to be criticised for his handling of the crisis that led to the Iraq invasion”.
I am delighted to see the former Foreign Secretary, the noble Lord, Lord Owen, in his place today and I thank him for coming to speak in this debate—as I thank the other speakers. Going back a week to
“The former Labour foreign secretary, Lord Owen, has criticised Tony Blair and the coalition over the refusal to release key evidence about what Blair told George Bush in the runup to the invasion of Iraq. Blair's position was an ‘intolerable affront to democratic accountability’, Owen told the Guardian”.
Several paragraphs later, the article states:
“Owen said the whole dispute should be arbitrated by the lord chancellor, who is responsible for the release of official records, rather than any cabinet secretary … ‘Chilcot and his colleagues should stand firm and not be bullied,’ Owen said”.
I was grateful indeed for the noble Lord’s remarks and I look forward with great interest to his further remarks in this debate.
I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, for being here. He is a doughty fighter for justice and morality in politics, in social matters and in the kind of emergency that arose from Iraq. I know he has somewhat different views so I shall be careful not to add any further comments.
I am equally grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley of Knighton, for his attendance today. Many of us are fans of his famous programme on BBC Radio 3, “Private Passions”. He will not mind me sounding corny when I say that we in this debate today have a public passion collectively for getting at the truth of the delays to Chilcot. To make matters worse, with all these delays and no proper explanations coming from government circles or anybody else, and allowing for the fact that Cabinet Secretaries are inhibited in anything that they might do or say—that is a serious problem in the public sector, which we have to admit and understand—I and others were quite appalled that last
“Sir John Chilcot announced last month”— that is, in May, as the article was written at the end of June—
“that after years of heated disputes with successive cabinet secretaries, and discussions with Washington, he had agreed to a settlement whereby summaries, and ‘the gist’, of more than a hundred records of conversations between Blair and George Bush in the runup to the invasion, and of records of 200 cabinet discussions, would be published, but not the documents themselves. Chilcot has described the content of the documents as ‘vital to the public understanding of the inquiry’s conclusions’. In a letter to Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary, last month, Chilcot said ‘detailed consideration’ of the information he has requested had begun, adding ‘it is not yet clear how long that will take’”.
With regard to this delay, I think “disgrace” is the right word to use, and I use it sadly. I do not wish to, but I think that is the essence of the matter.
The same article states:
“Philippe Sands QC, professor of law at University College London, said: ‘How painfully ironic that Britain used force in 2003 when it was manifestly illegal, but will … not do so now in response to a request from the government of Iraq, when it would more arguably be lawful’”.
“Sands, a close follower of Chilcot and earlier inquiries into the invasion of Iraq, added: ‘The situation in Iraq today is terrible and tragic, but it’s a futile exercise to speculate as to the exact connection with decisions taken in 2003 … It would be more sensible to reflect on what might be learnt from the mistakes of the past.’ He continued”—
I support this question—
“‘Who exactly is responsible for the delay [in the Chilcot report] is unclear, but it is hard to avoid the suspicion that political considerations might have come into play’”.
This House and the whole of this Parliament need information on this. I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, for attending this debate and replying to us today. I hope that we will have some good answers from him in so far as he can deal with these delicate and sensitive matters.
My Lords, we are all indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, and welcome this opportunity to debate the timing of publication of the Chilcot report. It provides us with an opportunity to plead the case for a report that is comprehensive in content and fully exploits the inquiry’s original remit as set out by the Government.
Last week, on
I make no complaint. Indeed, in today's debate, I intend to go further and give those self-same critics a further dose of my thoughts in the context of Chilcot and further cause for them to express their anger by setting out another truth over the debate on Iraq—a truth that they conveniently ignore. It is a truth that I hope Chilcot draws on during the course of his inquiry.
In my view, the whole debate on Iraq has been dominated by ignorance of the background, misrepresentation of the facts and public attitudes to the conflict determined by totally inadequate reporting in the media. There are men and women today walking the streets of London, Paris, Washington, Amman and Istanbul who are the real criminals in the story of Iraq. There are hundreds if not thousands of them. They have built their fortunes on the back of sanctions-busting in breach of international law, but because they represented business and financial institutions, they have been left untouched. They have almost never been prosecuted because it was deemed not to be in the public interest in various countries concerned, while they have laughed all the way to their banks as politicians have taken the rap. It is they who are responsible for the war in Iraq and only they.
Blair and the nonsense of WMD divert us from the truth and if Chilcot fails to deal with their criminal activity he will, in my view, have failed. To establish the truth, we need to consider the Volcker report, a UN-sponsored report of 2005, which followed a detailed investigation over 18 months into allegations of bribery, corruption, illegal commission taking and the complete undermining of the Iraqi sanctions regime established under international law. Paul A Volcker, a former chairman of the Board of Governors of the United States Federal Reserve, led the inquiry that identified more than 2,000 cases of abuse and criminal activity. That report offers us a real insight into the scale of international criminal operations, which completely undermined the sanctions regime set in place to bring the Saddam Hussein regime to heel. But the western media gave the whole report a wide berth and scant attention as the story told was simply not sexy enough. The media needed someone to blame for what has turned out to be a qualified failure. I believe that Blair’s unfortunate and, in my view, wrong use of WMD in justification for the war gave them that person to blame.
As I explained last week, I, along with others, had repeatedly appealed to the powers that be in our visits to Washington for action on sanctions-busting. The Americans were just not interested and we could do nothing as they were calling the shots. I remember telling them that unless they acted military intervention to bring Saddam’s brutality to an end was inevitable. On one occasion I led an Anglo-American parliamentary group delegation to Washington and recall discussing sanctions-breaching with State Department officials. The noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising, was there and he will remember what happened. In the critical years prior to the invasion I repeatedly raised in Parliament the issue of sanctions-busting and I understand that British civil servants had no more luck with the Americans than I did. I repeat: it was the failure to stop that criminal activity that made war inevitable. If the sanctions regime had been enforced, Saddam would have been contained.
In the many forums in which we made our case on the need to enforce the sanctions policy, particularly in the case of oil exports, we were able to draw on the extensive work that we had done in the early years of Saddam’s revenue-raising from illegal oil sales. In the 1990s, at a time when I was very closely following events in Iraq on an almost daily basis, I sent my former Commons researcher Jim Mahon to Iraq to investigate the scale of illicit oil trading with Turkey. He replied back at the time in the following words: “Trucks, bumper to bumper, in a line as far back as the eye could see, thousands of them, crossing the border into Turkey; some trucks just converted with large containers carrying oil on their backs”. It was the lack of monitoring of humanitarian imports under the UN sanctions regime, with the rake-off of commissions and Saddam’s oil revenues, that funded the whole machinery of Iraqi government and kept the upper echelons of Saddam’s murderous regime and republican guard in place.
With the failure to act on the sanctions-busters, I saw no alternatives to war, although I now believe that the war option failed for the reasons that I set out last week. I now look to Chilcot to establish the truth. At the time I challenged the Chilcot inquiry remit as being too limited. Nevertheless, they tell me that Chilcot is a wise old owl and if he deploys his wisdom, he should find a way of addressing the important issues that I am raising. Believe me, if Saddam’s revenues had been cut off, that regime would never have survived. There would have been no war in Iraq. Those who insist on attacking those of us who supported intervention as a last resort to end Saddam’s brutality would do well to consider the facts and ignore the media-generated stories that even some politicians have swallowed. I hope that Chilcot will do just that.
The irony in all this is that many of us who supported intervention in Iraq were totally opposed to intervention both in Afghanistan and Syria—unlike the Liberal Democrats. The noble Lord, Lord Dykes, mentioned the position of his party. His party supported the intervention in Afghanistan. I opposed it in Afghanistan and Syria. Perhaps on the next occasion it will be us who are on the streets of London, demonstrating for the enforcement of sanctions against the rogue regimes in an attempt to avoid some war in the future.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for raising this pertinent Question. Before I make the very brief points I would like to make, perhaps I might, by way of a small tribute, say how said it is that Sir Martin Gilbert, a member of the Chilcot inquiry, has been taken so gravely ill that he is unlikely to return to that kind of work.
We have recently been commemorating—if I may say so, very movingly—the fallen of the First World War. The noble Lord, Lord Dykes, very kindly mentioned “Private Passions”, and one of the pieces we most often get asked to play on that programme is part of the “War Requiem” by Benjamin Britten, setting, as it does, the poems of Wilfred Owen.
That is germane to what we are talking about because we owe it to the many people who gave their lives so bravely and to the many families that lost relatives to always look with microscopic attention at the reasons for going to war. We know now that many mistakes were made and we really should be trying to use the example of those errors to never make them again. That is why this inquiry is so terribly important. Then we have the families of those representing us who were bereaved in Iraq and—because of our actions there, arguably—the people who are still losing their lives.
This is an incredibly serious Question and the point that I put to the Minister is that in recent debates about other matters—for example, the police and, indeed, the conduct of Members of this House—the Government reassured us about the importance of the public having confidence in public inquiries, not just inquiries where people are investigating themselves, about which they are all very genuinely worried, but particularly inquiries that concern decisions that cost many people their lives.
I very much look forward to the Minister’s answers because this is a very pressing Question. The point that I put to him is that the public are mystified by what they fear are people covering their backs—by tins of whitewash possibly being opened. Perhaps this is not the case—I would like to think that it is not—but the public need that reassurance and one thing that will reassure them is to stop the shilly-shallying and get this report published.
My Lords, I will raise some of the issues that are going to face Parliament when this report is published, but first I will deal with the question of if this report gets delayed until next year, which now looks very likely, the appropriate way of determining when it should be published in relation to a general election. It would be naive to believe that in the immediate run-up to a general election there will be the sort of objective evaluation of the report that we have every right to do and the inquiry has every right to expect.
I have written to the chairman of the Electoral Commission, which is in my view the only real body that could objectively have a look at this, take the views of the different parties and come to a conclusion, and let the inquiry committee know before Christmas what its feeling is. Obviously, if it is published this year, that is fine, but since, because of fixed-term Parliaments, we know the election date, it would be very ill advised for it to go beyond January or the middle of February. It would be better, after we have waited all this time, to wait until after the general election.
I approach this from the viewpoint of the Suez crisis, which was one of the most emotional experiences that I went through as an 18 year-old. I have always believed that it was a terrible mistake not to have an inquiry into the Suez crisis. We would have learnt things from the handling of that crisis which would have been given greater weight in the counsels of government during the Iraq war. Then there is the question of how you treat the Cabinet in a time of war as distinct from Parliament. We know it is not possible to say everything to the general public in the run-up to a war, but I believe it is essential, if the authority of the Prime Minister is such that they have the prerogative to declare war, to understand that, provided they speak for the Cabinet, there is no way any Prime Minister can go to war in a minority in their own Cabinet. Therefore, the Cabinet discussions are extremely important.
The other thing which is troubling most of us is the fact that the Commission stopped taking evidence over three years ago. This is the real issue and if it is postponed into next year it will be close to four years. This is an intolerable delay and we have to determine how this matter can be resolved in future. It is very difficult for the Prime Minister of a different party to make a determination about a document which basically relates to another Administration. So it has been decided to involve the Cabinet Secretary, but if you are the Prime Minister’s Private Secretary during all this crucial time from 9/11 until 2003, you ought to recuse yourself from making these decisions, or at least when it becomes a matter of such controversy you should bow out and find another person to deal with the issue. This is particularly important since this Cabinet Secretary is almost a new creation. Normally Cabinet
Secretaries come to this position having been senior civil servants in major departments. Although they are often Private Secretaries to a Prime Minister as part of their overall experience, which is very helpful to them, they are not in the rough and tumble of party politics. The present Cabinet Secretary has been Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Prime Minister for Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and now David Cameron. He has been almost constantly involved, both in government and outside government, in the party-political battle. This is not ideal. Since the job has been split, the present Cabinet Secretary having declined to act as head of the Civil Service, it would have been better for the head of the Civil Service to be the arbiter of this, or even the Lord Chancellor, as has been done on official secrets issues. I know the role of Lord Chancellor has changed, but some mechanism is necessary.
The other most troubling aspect about Sir John Chilcot’s letter to the Prime Minister was that it revealed that new information has been given to the committee only this summer—information that fills in gaps. What is the role of Parliament? It seems to me that one of the Select Committees, probably the House of Commons Administration Committee, should now look at why there has been this delay and come to some conclusions. It is no use leaving it until afterwards. But now that there is obviously a gap of four or five months, it should take a look at the administrative aspects, find out whether in future it is tolerable for a Cabinet Secretary to be the sole arbiter of this, and have some idea as to how much a Government, a civil servant and a Cabinet Secretary are obligated to follow the terms of reference and the explanation given by the Prime Minister.
When he was Prime Minister, Gordon Brown made it quite clear that all British documents would be made available to this committee. The record made by British civil servants of a British Prime Minister talking to the President of the United States is a British document. There should be no argument about that. Of course, if the exchange is taking place on the telephone, it is not reasonable to expect that an American President’s words in this conversation would be reported. It would be inappropriate and I do not believe anybody has asked for that. The Cabinet Secretary said that former Prime Minister Tony Blair has had no involvement in this delay. We are then told that the delay has come from America. Who is the person in America who is going to delay it other than former President Bush? It is not a matter for President Obama—again, it is difficult for him to comment. It beggars belief that former President Bush in his decision-making is not totally uninterested in, or unaware of, the views of former Prime Minister Blair.
This whole arrangement has been shown to be so damaging that it has already gravely damaged the credibility of the inquiry report. We need then to look again as a Parliament at how these public inquiries will be held in the future. They are a safety valve. The way in which the Cabinet Secretary has handled it, and the comments that seem have to been made, suggest that there is no understanding that a very serious situation has occurred that is far worse than was the case with Suez. This Iraq inquiry is probing into many things. I happen to agree that it would be a very good idea to probe economic sanctions. Economic sanctions ought to have brought the Saddam Hussein regime to account. After all, it was the intervention in 1991 that stopped the so-called turkey shoot, when an immense number of casualties were being made from firing on the troops as Saddam Hussein came back from Kuwait. A ceasefire was done under the authority of the United Nations. It was the breaches of those resolutions that were passed in the immediate aftermath that had been so serious. I shall not go into the merits or otherwise of the issue—we can discuss that.
There are aspects of this report which are bound to be parliamentary. The first of those will be: was Parliament told the truth? I happened to be in this Chamber in 2007 when the noble Lord, Lord Butler, who was in charge of the review of intelligence, stood up and read out a document, so these were calculated words, in which he accused the former Prime Minister of being “disingenuous”—we know what that word means outside this Chamber; it is the furthest that you can go to accuse the Prime Minister of lying—over the interpretation of the intelligence. I do not care whether the Prime Minister thought something—they were entirely his views—but, once he quotes the intelligence to Parliament, then that quotation has got to be accurate.
The Chilcot inquiry has already looked very carefully at this in terms of the foreword to the document on which much of the debate in Parliament was held, and one can take one’s own conclusions from those reports. Therefore, Parliament needs to have a procedure. We all know what happens with these reports. They are looked at 24 hours beforehand by the people who are criticised; there is great press briefing and distortion of the document; and most people find it very difficult to form a judgment on day one. I suggest that Parliament decides now that it will not have an immediate debate—letting the report be read for a fortnight or three weeks—but that it will ask a committee of the House to look at those aspects which relate to Parliament. Was Parliament misled? Was there a “disingenuous” interpretation of the intelligence? Did we know the full facts in Parliament before that debate? One draws on the report, but it is a parliamentary matter of great importance.
We rightly take very seriously perjury before a court, and many of us who have been in both Houses of Parliament take seriously a lie to the House of Commons. People forget that, in December 1956, it was because Sir Anthony Eden misled the House that it was inevitable that he would have to resign. When he said that there had been no prior sharing of knowledge with Israel and France over the so-called interposition of the British and other forces, that was known by then to be untruthful and it made it inevitable that he would have to resign very soon. In fact, he never came back to Parliament and resigned. I happen to believe that there were medical reasons why one needs to rather charitable in looking at Anthony Eden’s conduct over this whole thing; he was a sick man through most of it. However, that does not in any way diminish the fact that probity before Parliament is an essential question and one that we must face up to. In my view, contempt of Parliament is every bit as important as contempt of court.
My Lords, I rise not to make a speech in the gap but simply to ask the Minister whether he would care to comment on rumours that I have heard from friends in the Washington community to the effect that, before action started on the ground, we knew that the famous weapons of mass destruction were in fact in bottles and already in Syria. Would the Minister care to comment on that as part of the information to which the noble Lord, Lord Owen, and others have referred?
My Lords, I think that the Chilcot inquiry is of such a nature that too much should not be expected of it. Many of the main issues confronting the inquiry were legal; the resignation of Elizabeth Wilmshurst from the Foreign Office was, I recall, on the legality of the Iraq operation. The Netherlands inquiry consisted entirely of lawyers and dealt very thoroughly with the issues. The Chilcot inquiry does not have a single lawyer. It has a couple of historians, which is a good thing, but not a single lawyer. We have been told—among others, by the late Lord Bingham—that the invasion was in clear breach of international law.
Why is the delay so crucial and worrying? First, because the inquiry explores the operation of government—indeed, the operation of government is a major reason for the delay. How could government so malfunction? How could the Cabinet be kept in almost total ignorance? How could the advice of the Attorney-General be so ambiguous and change from week to week? How could the security committee operate in such a way and briefly be chaired, incredibly, by Alastair Campbell? How could the Prime Minister arrogate such overwhelming power? How could he get away with such astonishing mis-statements, including the fact that it had all been agreed with Bush in Crawford a year before yet he pretended that it had not? Those things are very dangerous and should be explored. All serious students of the constitution—of whom I consider myself to be one—should consider them.
Secondly, how could perceptions of policy in the Middle East be so utterly wrong? How could the internal politics and history of Iraq be so misread? How could anyone seriously believe that the British and American invaders would be greeted as democratic saviours, not as brutal invaders killing hundreds of thousands of civilians in their wake? How contemptible a line of logic is that? How could so few preparations be made for the aftermath of the war? We are now seeing the effect in the ISIS militias operating in Iraq. How could people seriously believe that Iraq had its own integrity and that the Government of al-Maliki could be credible? The country of Iraq is now fragmenting into at least three parts. My noble friend rightly said that journalists should be well informed, and I rely heavily on my good friend—I think, the best journalist in Iraq—Patrick Cockburn of the Independent, who has shredded so many of the arguments in this area.
Iraq is a shameful episode. The moral was learnt by some in Syria. It was perhaps learnt the second time around in Iraq. It generated enormous popular protest, as the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, observed. I took part in the march, the greatest statement of popular opposition, popular protest, since the time of the chartists. I also wrote in the
, which I heard get some praise in the opening speech. It was a debacle comparable to Suez, as we have heard. Suez marked the end of empire; Iraq, I think, marked the end of British foreign policy. Our legacy has been shredded in Syria, Libya, and Iraq as well, and there is nothing left.
It raises, finally, the problem of democratic control and, indeed, the role of Parliament, of which the noble Lord, Lord Owen, spoke. The issue of democratic control of foreign policy was first raised during the First World War—we will not hear much of that in the commemorations. We now need democratic control by Parliament to be explored in order to make sure that it never happens again. Michael Foot, of whom I once wrote, talked about the Guilty Men in relation to Munich and appeasement. This time we need to expose and bring to justice these latest guilty men.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for securing this debate. This is not the first time this year that we in this House have discussed the delay to the Chilcot report. We had a comprehensive and detailed discussion in this Chamber in February, initiated by my noble and learned friend Lord Morris, who is very sorry that he could not be with us today. Since then there has been an agreement, in May this year, whether right or wrong, about what the inquiry is able to publish in terms of correspondence between No. 10 and the White House.
At the outset it is worth recalling that we are not here today to debate the substantive issues that the Chilcot inquiry is addressing. We will, I am sure, have an opportunity to do that when it is published and it is probably worth pondering the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Owen, that we need some time to digest it before we look at it in detail. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Iraq invasion, it is worth recalling that it was a Labour Government under Gordon Brown that initiated the Chilcot inquiry in 2009—a public inquiry into the nation’s role in the Iraq war. The report will cover the run-up to the conflict, and it will be interesting to see if it picks up on some of the issues that my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours talked about. It will look at the subsequent military action and its aftermath, and establish the ways in which decisions were made. It will examine what happened and try to identify lessons to ensure that, in a similar situation in future, the British Government are equipped to respond in the most effective manner in the best interests of the country.
It is important to make clear that the Labour Party continues to support publication at the earliest opportunity. Four and a half years on—it has already been four years—it is difficult to explain or understand the prolonged amount of time it has taken to complete. It is worth noting that the previous Labour Government made it clear that the inquiry would begin only once all combat troops had left Iraq, so as not to undermine their role there. As soon as the troops were home, in July 2009, the Labour Government allowed the inquiry to begin and we still believe, particularly in the light of recent developments in the region, that we need to identify the lessons that can be learnt from the conflict.
The delays in the publication of the inquiry’s findings have caused a lot of concern. It is worth taking into account the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Owen, about the need to consider carefully the possible delay of publication until after an election if it is not published this year. However, we also appreciate the vast scope of the report, both in terms of the period it covers and the range of issues that it seeks to address. The committee has faced a huge task and we hope that it will therefore be able to finish its work without undue delay and to submit the final report to the Prime Minister at the earliest opportunity, ideally before the end of this year. Tony Blair himself said in May this year:
“I have got as much interest as anyone in seeing the inquiry publish its findings”.
My understanding is that the blockage has been caused by discussions over certain classified documents, particularly those relating to correspondence with the US President. Members of the inquiry team have had access to and sight of this information; they are all privy counsellors and have had access to thousands of documents that have been declassified from a number of government departments, including the most sensitive intelligence documents. My understanding, therefore, is that Gordon Brown’s promise at the start of this inquiry that:
“No British document and no British witness will be beyond the scope of the inquiry”.—[Hansard, Commons, 15/6/09; col. 23.]
has been honoured. The question, therefore, is how much of this can be published and quoted in the final report to give evidential support to the inquiry’s conclusions.
It is also relevant in terms of the so-called Maxwellisation principle. That principle allows those named in the report to have the right to reply, which means that they will be allowed to see those elements of the report but only the evidence that is allowed to be published. I would be grateful if the Minister could let us know whether the final Maxwellisation letters have been sent and how much time people will be given to respond.
It is essential that we get to the bottom of how and why we went to war in order to learn from our mistakes. Even the most cursory glance at the region today leads us to conclude that post-war preparation was ill conceived and ill prepared. We need to consider whether we can learn anything in terms of the conditions prior to any future intervention. How and to what extent should we take a lead or work with coalition partners in future, and how much influence do we have with them? Can the Minister therefore give an assurance that the Chilcot report will be published, at the very latest, by the end of this year?
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their various contributions to this debate. The Government are also disappointed and frustrated that it has taken a good deal longer than we—or the Labour Government, which set up the inquiry—had originally hoped to complete the exercise. However, let me stress the exceptional nature of this inquiry.
I entirely welcome and agree with the emphasis of the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Ely, on this not being a matter of partisan debate between the parties. We need to get at what went wrong and the constitutional implications of what happened. We therefore want to keep this out of the election campaign, so far as we can. The sort of timings which the noble Lord, Lord Owen, suggested are well understood in government, in terms of not getting too caught up in the pre-election atmosphere.
Let me remind all noble Lords of where we started. The Chilcot inquiry was announced in June 2009 to identify the lessons that can be learnt from the Iraq conflict and the occupation which followed. It has looked at the UK’s involvement in Iraq in the period from the summer of 2001—at the time that the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, announced the inquiry, that was some eight years previously and it is still less than 13 years away—to the end of July 2009, which is now some five years past. The inquiry embraces the run-up to conflict, the military action and its aftermath and the way that decisions were taken and it aims to establish as accurately as possible what happened to identify lessons to be learnt.
We have not previously published documents less than 30 years ahead, except in the most exceptional circumstances. Part of the delay and part of what has been going on is the product of having agreed that we will publish documents relating to recent events and referring to people who are still in active political life. That is part of the exceptional circumstances in which we are working.
Since 2009, the inquiry has taken evidence from more than 150 witnesses; it has travelled to Baghdad and Arbil for discussions with Iraqi politicians; to Washington to meet officials from the United States Government; to France to talk to French officials; it has met the families of British personnel killed in Iraq; and has read more than 100,000 UK Government documents. When Gordon Brown announced the inquiry in the House of Commons, he said that the committee would have access to the fullest range of papers, including secret information, and, as the noble Baroness has quoted, that,
“No British document and no British witness will be beyond the scope of the inquiry”.—[Hansard, Commons, 15/6/09; col. 23.]
It takes a long time to work through 100,000 documents, to consider where there are sensitive issues remaining and, in the process, incidentally, to consider a number of other documents which had not been provided to the inquiry. These are the supplementary ones which were discovered and have been provided in recent months. The inquiry is examining difficult and complex issues. The inquiry has estimated, it has told us, that its final report will be more than 1 million words.
The Sunday Telegraph remarked that the rate of spending had increased over the past two to three months. That is partly because the website has been revamped and expanded in order to cope with the amount of information which will be downloaded on to the website as it is published. It is a part of the preparation for publication.
As part of the process of drafting the report, the inquiry has sought the declassification of material from many thousands of documents from the Government. It says in my brief that this is absolutely unprecedented. If there is any comparison it would be the Saville inquiry in Northern Ireland, which also took a great deal longer than had been hoped, partly because the complexities it raised were much more difficult than had been understood fully at the beginning. As Sir John Chilcot has acknowledged, the process is labour intensive for both the Government and the inquiry. He said in November last year that he was grateful for the work done by departmental teams to deal with the disclosure of documents.
I hope that noble Lords have seen the letter of
Again I have to stress that we regret that it has taken so much time, but we also recognise the sheer complexity of what the inquiry is working on. I have talked to a number of the Cabinet Office people assisting the inquiry and I am impressed by the pace at which they are now working and the hopes that they have that we are now within sight of the end.
The answer on the Maxwellisation process, which comes next, is that the second letters have not yet gone out but we hope to send them out within the near future. The Maxwellisation process will then take, we hope, a matter of weeks rather than months. The
Prime Minister has stated clearly that it is his hope that the inquiry will be able to provide a report before the end of the year.
Will my noble friend specifically address the important point made by the noble Lord, Lord Owen? I recall very well, as a Member of the other place during the time—I am not sure whether any of my colleagues are here—the very specific information given to the House of Commons in preparation for that vital debate and vote. Will my noble friend give the House an explicit assurance that there will be careful consideration by the Government of precisely how we as a Parliament are going to look at the parliamentary implications of the Chilcot report? In that connection, it would be intolerable for the end of this Parliament to come before we yet had sight of the Chilcot report and its recommendations.
I understand fully what the noble Lord says and indeed what the noble Lord, Lord Owen, has said. I stress that this is an independent inquiry that the Government have stood back from, so the Government do not control what is happening in it. However, I entirely understand that when it is published it will be for Parliament, and a number of parliamentary committees, to take on board how much information was given and what the implications are for further information from the agencies and other aspects of government. That will be part of the follow-on to publication.
The noble Baroness was rightly concerned about the delay in Maxwellisation. My noble friend has just said that there is now a further delay in the letters going out. That seems to be excessive, bearing in mind all the delays that there have been so far. Could he explain to the House why there is this further delay?
The Maxwellisation process, in which those who are named in various aspects of the report are given a chance to look at those areas where they are named, depends of course on the prior decision being complete about exactly what will be used in the report. The most sensitive areas will be those that involve the minutes of Cabinet meetings and discussions with the United States. That is why you cannot go on to the Maxwellisation process until you have finalised the question of how far you are able to publish. I reassure noble Lords that my understanding is that the inquiry is trying extremely hard to publish as much as possible. This is an unprecedented expansion, lifting the traditional veil of secrecy that has covered Cabinet meetings and other such things in the past.
A number of noble Lords raised other questions. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Owen, that it was a historic mistake not to have a Suez inquiry. I would say that his remarks on the Cabinet Secretary were ungenerous. The Cabinet Secretary who was originally put in this position was of course the noble Lord, Lord O’Donnell; it was the institution of Cabinet Secretary, not the person, and “the Cabinet Secretary” includes those who assist him in the Cabinet Office.
From my limited interactions with them, I have to say that they are a first-class team; it is not simply one individual.
The noble Lord, Lord Pearson, talked about rumours that he has heard in Washington. We have all heard many rumours in Washington. Since I am not privy to what is in the inquiry at present, I cannot comment on them; no doubt that will come out when the report is published.
Does the Minister agree that if the British and American Governments knew, before action started on the ground in Iraq, that the famous weapons of mass destruction had in fact been in bottles—they were that kind of weapon—and that they were already in Syria, that is not a fact that should be kept from the public in consideration of this matter?
My Lords, that is precisely the sort of thing that the inquiry will be looking at. I do not know how far it will go into the question of the evasion of sanctions in the period running up to war. Neither do I know whether the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, gave evidence to the inquiry; that is something else that might be covered.
The noble Lord, Lord Morgan, raised some large constitutional questions, which of course will be there. When the report is published, we will dive into it and draw what conclusions we can. The parliamentary vote on Syria was itself partly a reflection of the sense in Parliament that the Government were not entirely to be trusted on some of these issues.
I thank the noble Lord for that. I hope that the inquiry may have touched in some detail on that issue.
The noble Lord, Lord Morgan, said in a very strong way that we need to expose and bring to justice the guilty men. This—as Sir John Chilcot has said on a number of occasions—is not a judicial inquiry; it is a historical inquiry intended to get at the evidence as far as possible. The question of guilt is one which perhaps a number of other people, such as the noble Lord, may wish to push once they have the evidence in front of them.
I hope that I have covered most of the issues. It is ungenerous to say that Sir John Chilcot could have been bullied by the Cabinet Secretary. He and his team have been remarkably robust on this.
I wish to say, not as a politician but as a member of the public, that the explanations that the Minister is giving are extraordinarily helpful—which is why this debate in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, is very useful. The more that that can be got across to the public—the complexity involved, and the secret documents—the better it will be. I still feel very strongly that we need to get there, but we all think that. It is very helpful that those matters are explained to a wider public. After all, we have a responsibility to the wider public, and we are sometimes out of touch with what they think.
My Lords, I should also have acknowledged the important point that the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, made—that it is vital that we maintain and re-establish public confidence in public inquiries and in our political institutions as such. One of the biggest problems, which we all share, is the extent of public and media cynicism about the political process in this country. This inquiry is working with great care. Again, I stress that this is an independent inquiry—the Government are not in charge. The four active members of the Chilcot inquiry group are those who are responsible for what emerges, although of course a great deal of negotiation has gone on about the extent of publication. That is a very important part of ensuring that this is not in any sense a whitewashing inquiry.
On a previous occasion I was criticised by one or two noble Lords for suggesting that the Franks inquiry on the Falklands War was not entirely thorough or rigorous. I went back to the review that I had written in International Affairs on the publication of the Franks inquiry to demonstrate why I still hold that opinion. This inquiry is very thoroughgoing. It is being conducted by a number of people whom I personally trust and respect, and who are unlikely to be defenders of the “secret establishment”, so to speak. We very much hope that the report will appear before the end of the year; the Prime Minister has said that publicly. We are doing all we can—with a number of very hard-working officials, who are themselves doing all they can—to complete the final stages of the process of clearing these very difficult and delicate documents so that we can send out the second stages of the Maxwellisation process to those who will be named in the report. We will then move on from that to the presentation of the report to the Prime Minister and, we hope, to publication as soon as possible.
My Lords, we have already agreed that the Government are well aware that it is highly undesirable that publication should run into the election campaign. I stated clearly that I share the views of the noble Lord, Lord Owen, on what that means as regards publication. That is part of the context in which we are operating.