It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the Minister on his new appointment. He understands the problems of research, writing and getting things cleared, as the author of a much respected book, “5 Days to Power”, on the formation of the coalition in 2010. He had perhaps a slightly less happy experience on publishing “The Eye of the Storm: the view from the centre of the political scandal” in 2014, as it might have delayed his promotion to the Front Bench. I am also grateful that Lisa Nandy, the main Opposition spokeswoman on this subject, made it—just in time—for the debate.
The full house we have here today enables me to range fairly widely over the important subject of the Chilcot inquiry. I should explain that when I applied for the debate, the Clerks quite rightly made it clear to me that I would not get a debate if I called it merely “The Chilcot inquiry”, as the Government do not have responsibility for the inquiry, which is independent. However, it is legitimate to ask about the costs of the inquiry, and I will be interpreting “costs” in a fairly broad way, so that we can have a proper debate.
My purpose is not to second-guess the content or conclusion of the inquiry’s report, nor, I emphasise, to raise the inquiry for party political reasons. As a Conservative Front-Bench spokesman at the time, I supported and voted with the then Government in nearly all the relevant major debates, including the one about going to war, even though, along with other colleagues, I expressed some concern or reservations about some aspects of the policy and the operational decisions.
I am raising the topic because the costs of the Chilcot inquiry do include not just the financial costs. There are the costs to relevance and timeliness because of the length of time the inquiry has taken so far, which is just over four years; costs to reputations, past and present, of Ministers, the military, the intelligence services and civil servants; the costs to public confidence in government, transparency and the decision to go to war; and, last but not least, the costs in terms of the anguish of relatives of those of our servicemen and women who were killed and wounded in the conflict, and who want to know why and how it happened.
A lot of expectations have built up about the inquiry’s final report. I fear that many members of the public have already made their minds up about the inquiry, and are not only allocating blame but have the fear that, somehow or other, it is an establishment stitch-up. That view was expressed at the time, even before the inquiry was announced by the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown). He announced the establishment of the inquiry in June 2009. Hearings began in November that year and the final public hearing was on
Frustrations at that delay have been expressed by Members of both Houses of Parliament in questions and debates, as well as by the media and relatives of those killed and wounded. There may be good reasons for it, but neither Sir John Chilcot nor the Government have really adequately explained them. That has exaggerated the suspicion that the inquiry is an establishment stitch-up or is not a proper inquiry. At the end of the day, some people are asking: to whose benefit is it that there is a delay? I suspect that I am probably more of the view that there are understandable reasons and, perhaps, cock-ups behind the delay than I am in the camp of conspiracy.
Are the administrative costs of the inquiry related to its terms of reference? Do those costs reflect the fact that the riding instruction for the initial inquiry was too broad and comprehensive? I remind hon. Members of the instructions laid down by the then Prime Minister in June 2009. He announced that it would be
“an independent Privy Counsellor committee of inquiry which will consider the period from summer 2001, before military operations began in March 2003, and our subsequent involvement in Iraq right up to the end of July this year”— meaning 2009. He went on:
“The inquiry is essential because it will ensure that, by learning lessons, we strengthen the health of our democracy, our diplomacy and our military…Its scope is unprecedented. It covers an eight-year period, including the run-up to the conflict and the full period of conflict and reconstruction. The committee of inquiry will have access to the fullest range of information, including secret information. In other words, its investigation can range across all papers, all documents and all material. It can ask for any British document to be brought before it, and for any British citizen to appear. No British document and no British witness will be beyond the scope of the inquiry. I have asked the members of the committee to ensure that the final report will be able to disclose all but the most sensitive information—that is, all information except that which is essential to our national security.”—[Hansard, 15 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 23.]
It is important to note that, in that original riding instruction, the then Prime Minister kept emphasising “British”. One problem the Chilcot inquiry has faced is that a considerable amount of evidence and a considerable number of individuals were from or in the United States of America. Understandably, that caused major problems.
Sir John Chilcot, in replying to then Prime Minister, wrote:
“Our terms of reference are very broad, but the essential points, as set out by the Prime Minister and agreed by the House of Commons, are that this is an Inquiry by a committee of Privy Counsellors”.
He went on to explain that the inquiry would consider the long period stated. He also emphasised the importance of the lessons of the inquiry:
“Those lessons will help ensure that, if we face similar situations in future, the government of the day is best equipped to respond to those situations in the most effective manner in the best interests of the country.”
There is a problem with that. The Chilcot inquiry has not reported and we do not yet know what lessons have been learned. Yet, ironically, in the past year, roughly, we have faced two situations in which the Prime Minister has tried to get the House of Commons to support military action. The first, last year, was over Syria, which—
Order. The title of the debate focuses on the costs of the Chilcot inquiry. In his opening remarks, the hon. Gentleman chose to interpret “costs” in quite a wide way, and I am mindful of that. However, the direction of his speech needs constantly to refer back to the title of the debate. He is not out of order, but I am trying to be helpful by steering him in a direction that will keep him in order for the remainder of his speech.
I am grateful, Mr Howarth, and take note of that. I am not going off into a byway—one of my interpretations of “costs” is to do with the lessons of the inquiry, which I think have direct relevance not only to this debate but to the interests of nearly all colleagues in the House of Commons. Naturally, I will take note of what you have said.
The problem always was that the inquiry’s sheer breadth would incur extra costs in every possible sense of the word. Interestingly, the Government considered the historical precedents for the inquiry. They included the two inquiries from the first world war—the special commissions on the Dardanelles and on Mesopotamia—both of which were relatively cheap. The Mesopotamia inquiry reported within a year, and its lessons were immediately applied in 1917, while the financial costs of the Dardanelles inquiry, which lasted until 1919, were also pretty reasonable, although the inquiry did not, of course, have an impact on the conduct of the war. As far as the Government were concerned, however, the immediate precedent was what was called the Falklands inquiry, or the Franks inquiry, which was also a Privy Council inquiry. It reported within six months of being established and, once again, cost a relatively small amount. Once again, however, there was controversy because of the different interpretations regarding how the inquiry was set up and what lessons could possibly be learned from it.
In historical cases, as well as in the Chilcot inquiry, terms of reference are crucial. The important point about the Chilcot inquiry is that it is independent of the Government but relies on them for resources, so there is a cost factor. It is also reliant on them in terms of the cost of clearing secret and confidential documents, including those between the United States President and the British Prime Minister and those involving Departments and intelligence agencies. Will the Minister tell us, based on Government sources, the extent to which such procedures have held up the drafting of the final report, and whether Sir John Chilcot is satisfied that all those matters are now resolved? I will return to that point in greater detail.
In a letter Sir John Chilcot wrote to Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, dated
If any has been, will that be reflected in the final report? In other words—this may cost more—will sections of the report be flagged up as having been redacted?
A great deal of the delay has been attributed to what is called the Maxwellisation process. For those colleagues who are not too sure what that means, it is the process of warning those who have been criticised in a report and allowing them to respond before publication. It takes its name from the experience of Robert Maxwell, who was criticised in a Department of Trade and Industry report in 1969 and took the Department to court, where the judge ruled he had been unfairly treated. In future, therefore, individuals who were to be criticised would be given advance notice and a chance to comment. Obviously, the Government wanted to allow that not only because there had been a legal judgment, but because they did not—once again, Mr Howarth, I am following your direction—want to incur the costs of legal action.
From Sir John Chilcot’s letter to Sir Jeremy Heywood in May, we can see that the process of Maxwellisation has, in one sense, only just begun. Sir John Chilcot makes it quite clear that, now that everything else has been cleared in principle, it is possible to start the process of Maxwellisation. From reading the documents, I conclude that the delay has been in two parts. One was the negotiation between Chilcot and the Cabinet Office over the US-UK political and intelligence documentation. In addition, until that was resolved, the process of Maxwellisation could not seriously begin—in fact, is has only just begun. We will therefore see more financial costs one way or another.
Given the Cabinet Office discussions with Chilcot, what is the time scale for publication? Can we realistically expect Sir John Chilcot to publish his report before May 2015? That is important because there will be a cut-off date around Christmas—probably just into the new year—when the civil service will say that Chilcot forms part of the pre-election purdah, so the report will be postponed. That has financial costs, but I would suggest that it also has costs relating to the reputation of the British Government and the individuals concerned.
Of course, Chilcot is an independent inquiry into the Iraq war, but can the Minister tell us what departmental inquiries have been held into general or specific aspects of the war, from policy through to implementation and lessons learned, by the Cabinet Office, the National Security Council, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Department for International Development, and perhaps the intelligence agencies? We have no idea what individual departmental reports have been done, and whether Sir John Chilcot has had access to them. If he has, that might cut down the time he needs to investigate and the cost of the overall report. Does the Minister have details of any US Government or congressional inquiries into the Iraq war, which may have published documentation that would have been relevant to Chilcot or saved time?
I now return to—literally—the costs of the Chilcot inquiry. According to a House of Commons document, the total financial cost incurred by the inquiry, from its establishment on
There is also the cost to the reputations, past and present, of Ministers, the military, the intelligence services and the civil service. We in this House would want Sir John Chilcot to be as fair as possible in any criticism he makes of any individuals, so that they have the right not only in law, but in terms of natural justice, to respond. The trouble is that that could go on for a long time, and Sir John Chilcot must have a cut-off point in mind. Has he perhaps indicated what it is to Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary?
On the costs in terms of public confidence in Government transparency and the decision to go to war, I understand the practical problems behind the delay, which I have outlined, but the longer the Chilcot inquiry continues without publication, the greater will be the public’s suspicion that the process is not transparent. In addition, the central part of the report, which is about learning lessons, will become mainly historical, although we know that such lessons could have been relevant to more recent events.
Then there is the cost in terms of the relatives’ anguish. The Chilcot inquiry will perhaps not satisfy many of them, but there is a wound there that many of them feel. They want, as far as possible, to get at the truth, and Sir John Chilcot is only too well aware of that.
On the procedures connected with the eventual publication of the Chilcot inquiry, there will presumably be a press conference, and the full report and evidence will go online—we are talking about a report of, possibly, 500 or 600 pages, with several thousand pages of evidence. From Parliament’s point of view, the danger will be that a lot of this will be in the public domain. There will be headlines naming and shaming individuals or organisations before Members of this House and the other place have the benefit of being able to debate the issue. Does the Minister think that the Prime Minister of the day will make a formal statement to the House, which will be duplicated in the other place? Will there be an opportunity for a full parliamentary debate? Colleagues will expect that, and there may even be pressure to have a vote. Will the Government accept the recommendations of the Chilcot inquiry, or will they pick and mix? Does the Minister think that the process will be rather like what happens with a Select Committee, when the publication of a report is followed by a Government response that accepts, or does not accept, some or all of the report?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He makes a point about a pick-and-mix approach to the report. Although the Saville inquiry was quite different in nature and content, it was also exceptionally expensive and long. However, when it was concluded, the Prime Minister thought and hoped that that would be an end to the matter which, it transpired, was not the case. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is important that the expense should be limited and there should be caps on legal fees, but that there should be no pick-and-mix approach on the outcome?
I have every sympathy for Sir John Chilcot and his inquiry. With such a broad inquiry, he has been tasked almost with an impossibility. On the one hand he wants to get to the truth, within the riding instructions, and wants to be fair to individuals, Departments and agencies. However, at the same time he has been aware—I suspect he would argue this—that the delay has not been his fault, as the Government of the day had major problems in getting agreement about putting information from the Americans in the public domain. It is understandable, for intelligence and security reasons, that there must be negotiation on what can be put in the public domain.
So far, the financial cost has, I think, been reasonable. My concern is that we are almost there, and Sir John Chilcot needs to be minded that while Parliament accepts the pressures on him, we would like the process to be concluded as reasonably as possible. He will present his report with recommendations, and will take questions on that. It will then be up to the Government of the day to say, “We accept all these recommendations,” or “In fact, we only accept some of them.” I suspect that Sir John Chilcot will be criticised by individuals, groups and some of the media for a range of issues that I have raised. As to what some of the families may conclude, if no one is put in the dock as responsible overall for mistakes that were made—taking the country to war illegally and such issues as are all out in the public domain—I suspect that the final Chilcot inquiry report will not end the matter. The Government of the day will have to take a view. It is right for Parliament to debate the matter. Colleagues in both Houses were active in government at the relevant time and will have a view. I fear that if things continue as they are for much longer, Sir John Chilcot will, through no fault of his own, lose public sympathy and perhaps come in for unfair criticism.
The Government do not have direct responsibility for the Chilcot inquiry, which is independent, but they have acted, as it were, as a control mechanism, because they control the flow of Government and non-Government foreign information. I do not think that they have tried to slow the process down, but nevertheless I suspect that the situation has at times proved very frustrating to the inquiry. We live in an age in which more and more people are suspicious of government. When a Government say that there are good intelligence and security reasons for doing something, a significant part of the public no longer accept that, even in terms of our physical security. When we debate issues such as the European arrest warrant, arguments will focus narrowly on that.
I hope that the Minister will be able to answer my questions. In particular, I should like to know from him whether he has had any indication through Sir John Chilcot of a likely notional date for the report to be published, and whether he thinks that there is a cut-off point, when the civil service will say that the period of purdah before the general election is approaching, meaning that that publication may be postponed until after the election.
I want to express our gratitude to Mr Simpson for securing this important debate, which we welcome. His tone and approach were exactly right. One of the difficulties of trying to take a forensic approach to such complex and controversial events as the Iraq war is that often the facts are clouded or distorted by people’s emotions. The hon. Gentleman chose the right approach, trying to ensure that we record, and keep in the public mind, something so important to the British people. He was right, also, to say that we need to learn the lessons of the event, and consider the costs—both the financial costs, and costs in the fullest sense.
Many hon. Members, including me, represent families that have been deeply affected by the conflict. The report is important to them, and it will be difficult for them to bear it, when it is published. I agree that their lack of certainty is difficult, and that as far as possible we should try to ensure that they know what to expect, and when to expect it. I shall listen with interest to what the Minister says about those points.
The Iraq war was a crucial moment in our history. It was complex and controversial, dividing the nation, friends and families. Feelings about the events leading up to the war, the war itself, and the aftermath in this country and throughout the world, are still strong. The eyes of the world will be on us as we publish the report. The war was a key moment in our history and it matters that we should learn the lessons. The then Prime Minister said when he announced the inquiry in 2009 that it would
“strengthen the health of our democracy, our diplomacy and our military”—[Hansard, 15 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 23.]
It was right to announce the inquiry: it was the right thing to do then, and it remains the right thing now.
Given the context, it was also right to establish the inquiry as fully independent of Government. The hon. Member for Broadland referred to that fact. We recognise and accept that there will be certain things that the Government can and cannot do in relation to the inquiry. That is right and proper. Given the circumstances of the conflict, there is no other basis on which the inquiry could have had the necessary legitimacy. It was also essential to give it a broad remit, including the time span of 2001 to 2009, which I understand was unprecedented. It covered the run-up to the conflict, the action itself and the aftermath. The Prime Minister said at the time that the report would
“disclose all but the most sensitive information”—[Hansard, 15 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 23.]
That was extremely important, and we have learned from past inquiries how important it is to get that right at the very beginning. However it was always going to be complex in practice. It was to be expected that it would take time to work through that.
Of course a balance is needed between the time it takes to conduct an inquiry, the costs incurred, and the need to put as much information in the public domain as possible without compromising our security or stability, or people’s lives. I shall listen with interest to the Minister when he tells us what he can about the progress that has been made in that important respect.
Mr Campbell was right to draw attention to the Saville inquiry. For me, the events around Hillsborough are also very close to home. I represent many of the Hillsborough families, and we have learned many things from that awful event and from the process which has been drawn out for nearly a quarter of a century, with families fighting for justice.
If we do not take the time to get this right, to put as much information as possible in the public domain and to support a thorough investigation that commands families’ confidence, we shall compound their misery and anxiety for a very long time. Families here and in Iraq will be watching closely. I know from working with Hillsborough families that when the report is published, the families involved will relive their experience all over again. It is important to take the time to get the inquiry right and to recognise that the balancing act is difficult because of the costs and the period between the Iraq war and when the report is published.
In initiating this debate, Mr Simpson has helped to keep the matter in the public’s mind, and for that we are extremely grateful.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Simpson on securing this important debate and thank him for his kind words of congratulation. I also thank him for his impressive and detailed speech which was measured and touched on all the key issues that should be discussed. I expect nothing less from someone with his great experience in foreign affairs and defence matters and who is a historian.
I am sure that not many of us here this morning would have expected to be still debating this matter in 2014, but I am sure that everyone here accepts this inquiry and agrees that it is unprecedented in its scope and scale. Never before has a UK public inquiry examined in such depth and detail a decision to go to war and its consequences, although I am sure that some individuals will be assured of that when the report is published.
I shall deal with some of the cost issues of the inquiry so that they are on the record. Until
The costs in both 2009-10 and 2010-11 were significantly higher than in subsequent years. That was due mainly to the cost of running the public hearings and increased staffing levels. The costs over the last three financial years have been relatively stable. The major costs cover the employment of the inquiry’s secretariat, committee and advisers and office accommodation.
The final cost of the inquiry will, of course, be higher as it will include running costs for the current financial year and is also likely to include the costs of Maxwellisation and publication. However, I do not expect current total expenditure to rise significantly. The sum of £9 million is not insignificant, but comparing it with the cost of the Bloody Sunday inquiry, which came in at over £100 million, demonstrates that the cost to taxpayers has been significantly lower than might have been expected.
The Chilcot inquiry was announced in June 2009 by the former Prime Minister, Mr Brown, to identify lessons that can be learned from the Iraq conflict. The terms of reference set out by Sir John Chilcot on
The inquiry consists of five Privy Counsellors: Sir John Chilcot, who is its chairman, Sir Lawrence Freedman, Sir Martin Gilbert, Sir Roderic Lyne and Baroness Usha Prashar. Unfortunately, Sir Martin Gilbert has been unable to fulfil his duties since 2012 owing to serious illness.
The last such inquiry was the Franks report on the Falklands war; it too consisted of Privy Counsellors. It met and took evidence in private, and when its report was published there were accusations of an establishment stitch-up. This inquiry is completely different. It has been open and transparent, taking oral evidence in public and publishing it with written evidence and declassified documents on its website. When the report is published, thousands of other official documents, including once highly classified material, will be published. They will include whole Cabinet records and other previously secret material.
Since 2009, the inquiry has taken evidence from more than 150 witnesses. It has travelled to Baghdad and Irbil for discussions with Iraqi politicians, to Washington to meet officials of the United States Government, and to France to talk to French officials. It has met the families of UK personnel killed in Iraq and has read tens of thousands of UK Government documents.
When the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath announced the inquiry in the House, he said that Sir John and his colleagues would have access to the fullest range of papers, including secret and other highly sensitive material. He also made it clear that
“No British document and no British witness will be beyond the scope of the inquiry.”— [Hansard, 15 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 23.]
Throughout that time, the Government have co-operated fully with the inquiry so why has it taken so long to report? Its scope is unprecedented and it is examining difficult and complex issues. It has estimated that its final report will be more than 1 million words. As part of the process of drafting the report, the inquiry has sought the declassification of material from many thousands of Government documents. The process, as Sir John Chilcot has acknowledged, is labour-intensive for both the Government and the inquiry. It has included extremely sensitive documents. To gain some idea of the scale of this exercise, it has requested the declassification of just over 7,000 documents, of which 1,400 will be disclosed as whole documents. During the past two years alone, it has made more than 200 separate requests, including 100 since July 2013, to declassify official documents.
Sir John wrote to Jeremy Heywood on
My hon. Friend asked about redactions, which have been made to some documents that we published alongside the report. The redacted passages will be flagged up. The report itself will not include any redactions.
When declassification has been completed, Maxwellisation can begin. That will offer individuals facing criticism the opportunity to make representations to the inquiry. It has said that it is determined to adopt an approach to Maxwellisation that is balanced, considered and fair. It is a confidential process and the inquiry will not comment on the number or the identity of those subject to criticism. It expects a similar duty of confidentiality from those concerned. The inquiry is not a court of law and nobody is on trial. As Sir John said in his evidence to the Select Committee on the Inquiries Act 2005, the absence of judicial leadership has not hindered the inquiry, which has been able to focus on learning lessons rather than on apportioning blame, although Sir John also said that the inquiry would not shrink from criticism where it was justified.
My hon. Friend the Member for Broadland asked about the report’s publication. I cannot say when the report will be published—that is a matter for the inquiry. As he has noted, it is fully independent of the Government. However, technically it can be published right up to the end of February if publication is to be before the May general election. All I can do is echo the recent words of both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House that the report will be published shortly, and I hope that it will be published as soon as possible. Sir John Chilcot has said that the report will be presented to the Prime Minister once the Maxwellisation process has been completed.
As I have said, the inquiry is completely independent of the Government, who have absolutely no input into what the report will say. On the Government’s responsibilities, we have given the inquiry full, unfettered access to all the Government papers that it has wanted to see. At the outset of the inquiry, the Government assured the inquiry of their full co-operation. They continue to support the inquiry fully. Sir John Chilcot has confirmed that the material the inquiry has requested is sufficient to explain its conclusions. He has also been grateful for the Government’s assurances that they will do everything possible to assist the inquiry in submitting its report to the Prime Minister as soon as possible.
Once the final report has been presented to the Prime Minister, he will make a statement to Parliament and there will be an opportunity to debate its findings in both Houses. In relation to accepting any recommendations that the report may make, it would be wrong to pre-empt the inquiry’s findings. It will be for the Prime Minister and Parliament to decide how to proceed once the report is published.
The Iraq conflict was, as we were reminded by the Opposition spokeswoman, a seismic political event, which still evokes strong feelings on all sides of the political debate. The Government recognise that it is of paramount importance that the inquiry is able to complete its work, and to provide a publicly persuasive, balanced, evidence-based report, which shows why decisions were made and the lessons that can be learned.
It is important to re-emphasise a point made in June 2009 by the then Prime Minister which was that, although the inquiry receives the full co-operation of the Government, it is fully independent of the Government. The costs of the inquiry and the completion of its report are a matter for the inquiry. Sir John said on