Chilcot Inquiry — Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:22 pm on 1st July 2015.

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Photo of Lord Morris of Aberavon Lord Morris of Aberavon Labour 3:22 pm, 1st July 2015

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress is being made regarding the publication of the Chilcot Report.

Photo of Lord Bridges of Headley Lord Bridges of Headley The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

My Lords, in his letter of 15 June to the Prime Minister, Sir John Chilcot indicated that he would only be in a position to provide a realistic timetable for publication once the inquiry had received and evaluated the remaining responses from those individuals who had been given the opportunity to respond to the inquiry’s provisional criticism. In his reply, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said,

“I … had hoped for publication of your report by now and we are fast losing patience”.

He also asked for an update from Sir John once the Maxwellisation process had been concluded.

Photo of Lord Morris of Aberavon Lord Morris of Aberavon Labour

My Lords, the Chancellor of the Exchequer also said that people were running out of patience with the inquiry. This must be particularly true of the families who lost lives.

Will the Minister recall that, on 4 February 2015, Sir John Chilcot told a Commons Select Committee that there was,

“a settled body of evidence that may be added to, but it will not be subject to revision”.

Is it not deplorable that there was a 13-month argument with the former Cabinet Secretary about the disclosure of notes between Mr Bush and Mr Blair which proved unsustainable? Since Parliament is the ultimate guardian of the independence of any inquiry, and since this one seems incapable of reporting, should not the Prime Minister pull the plug, discharge the committee and, on the basis of the evidence already gathered, come to Parliament for its advice as to a way forward?

Photo of Lord Bridges of Headley Lord Bridges of Headley The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I start by saying that I entirely share the noble and learned Lord’s frustration, as I am sure do those who served and those who lost loved ones in Iraq. The general gist of his question—in fact, there were several questions rolled into one—was that we should scrap the inquiry. I cannot agree with the noble and learned Lord on that. First, the inquiry is independent of government and, most importantly of all, it has taken a long time to get this far—on that we agree—but it needs to be able to complete its work as quickly as possible so we can learn the lessons. Removing its members from office or stopping the inquiry now is not in the best interests of this work. However, I am sure that those involved in the inquiry will heed the views of your Lordships, especially those of the noble and learned Lord, on how long this is all taking.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Crosby Baroness Williams of Crosby Liberal Democrat

My Lords, it is now more than 12 years since the invasion of Iraq. Does the Minister agree that, increasingly, the impression being given is that people do not want crucial facts to be subjected to public transparency, where they can be discussed and debated? Does he also accept that, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, said, this situation is particularly unfair to those such as my late and very outstanding friend, Charles Kennedy, who said that, in engaging with the issue of whether we should have invaded Iraq, he found that, regarding possibly one of the most distinguished commissions that has been appointed by this House and the other Chamber, we have no way of knowing what its conclusions are, no way of knowing what it believes to be the sources of the Iraq war and no way of knowing what it believes the consequences of that war were. It is profoundly unjust and unfair to allow this situation to continue. May we ask the Prime Minister to insist that, at the very least, there should now be a report, even though some parts of it may be kept secret for security reasons?

Photo of Lord Bridges of Headley Lord Bridges of Headley The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I repeat that I obviously share, as does my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, the frustration that clearly many in this House feel about the length of time this is taking. I draw your Lordships’ attention to the letter that the Prime Minister sent to Sir John, in which he asked the Cabinet Secretary to meet Sir John “as soon as possible” to discuss progress on the completion of the report, and said that the Civil Service would continue to assist the inquiry in the “urgent completion” of its work.

Photo of Lord King of Bridgwater Lord King of Bridgwater Conservative

My Lords, does the noble Lord recognise that there is across, I think, all corners of this House total impatience with the present situation? We recognise the difficult position the Prime Minister is in, but while it is right to allow those who may be criticised in the report to have the opportunity to make representations and for those to be considered, in any consideration now and in any future arrangements for a commission of this kind there must be a limit on the amount of time that people are allowed to hold up publication of a report. This report is meant to provide an opportunity for lessons to be learned from what happened over Iraq. No lessons have been learned, a lot of years have gone by and further mistakes have been made.

Photo of Lord Bridges of Headley Lord Bridges of Headley The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

My Lords, on the first point, I draw my noble friend’s attention to what Sir John Chilcot told the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in the other place. He said he had seen,

“no evidence … that anyone is trying to delay the publication of the report by holding out from responding or entering into argument about the Maxwellisation process”.

As regards the lessons we need to draw from this process, I am sure there will be very many indeed, but I humbly suggest that we do so once the report is completed.

Photo of Lord Richard Lord Richard Labour

My Lords, is not the real problem here that, under the present rules for inquiries, the Maxwellisation process is mandatory? It is not discretionary or left to the chairman of the inquiry to decide who ought to be given the opportunity to respond; it is mandatory and it takes an awfully long time. A committee of this House recently considered the operation of the Inquiries Act and one of its main recommendations was that a Maxwellisation process should cease to be mandatory and should be left to the discretion of the chairman. So far, the Government have refused to take that on board. In the light of what we now know about Chilcot, will the Minister undertake that the Government will look again at whether the rules of procedure for inquiries are up to it and, indeed, whether or not the Maxwellisation process should cease to be mandatory?

Photo of Lord Bridges of Headley Lord Bridges of Headley The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I am sorry to disappoint the noble Lord, but I have to refer him to the answer I have just given, which is that we will need to take account of this process and the lessons we might learn once the inquiry concludes. I note that he shakes his head, but this inquiry is independent and it needs to remain independent.

Photo of Lord Trimble Lord Trimble Conservative

My Lords, the underlying problem here is the fact that this inquiry was not constituted under the Inquiries Act 2005. If it had been set up under the Act, as it should have been, the inquiry would have been conducted more efficiently, the Minister setting it up would have had a power to call for it to be concluded and handed over to him, and this problem would not have arisen. Lessons should be learned, and they are contained in the report that the noble Lord referred to. The Government should review their response to that report.

Photo of Lord Bridges of Headley Lord Bridges of Headley The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

My Lords, once again I have to say that we will have to learn these lessons. My noble friend makes a very valid point, but the inquiry is independent and it is following the process that it has set out.

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I am sorry, but the House is calling for the next question, so I think we should move on.