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Chilcot Inquiry — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:10 pm on 1st July 2014.

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Photo of Baroness Morgan of Ely Baroness Morgan of Ely Shadow Spokesperson (Wales) 7:10 pm, 1st July 2014

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.

On 28 May this year, Sir John Chilcot wrote to Sir Jeremy Heywood, confirming that the inquiry has judged that the disclosure of quotes of gists from the content of communications between the Prime Minister and the President of the United States will be sufficient to explain the inquiry’s conclusions. We will be asked to take on trust that the inquiry members have read this information and that its conclusions will be based on what they have read. We need to be sensitive to the fact that the USA, one of our closest allies, may deal with us differently in future if it believes that any future correspondence or conversations can be put into the public domain at a later date. We are party to certain confidences and have been trusted to protect those confidences. There are therefore questions about what is a reasonable timeframe for us to disclose things which affect our closest allies. Apart from this, if anyone looks at the Chilcot website they will see reams of documents that can be analysed and digested. There has been quite an open process, apart from that one aspect.

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?