UK Military Action in Iraq: Declassified Documents

– in Westminster Hall at 4:56 pm on 13 December 2023.

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Photo of Neale Hanvey Neale Hanvey Alba, Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath 4:56, 13 December 2023

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the matter of UK military action in Iraq and declassified documents from 1998.

By way of introduction, I pay tribute to Declassified UK, and in particular its co-founder and editor, the journalist and author Mark Curtis, who has provided an invaluable public service by shining a light on declassified British documents from 1998 at the National Archives. The documents, which run to over 900 pages, reveal what actually went on behind the scenes when the UK Government decided to take military action in December 1998 in what became known as Operation Desert Fox: the four-day bombing campaign in Iraq from 16 to 19 December 1998 by the United States and British militaries. This is important in and of itself, but also because it was the precursor to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Before I turn to the key findings from the declassified documents, let me recap the human cost of military action in Iraq. This House will forever remember the sacrifice of the 179 British servicemen and women, as well as the 23 British civilians, who lost their life during the conflict in Iraq. Yesterday, I joined the War Widows Association for its Christmas gathering; I pay tribute to its secretary, my Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath constituent Sue Raw, and to the amazing women and men who have lost a loved one during a conflict, or as a result of the lasting consequences of conflict.

In addition, there is also the horrific human cost of the war in Iraq. A research study published in The Lancet in 2006 estimated that more than 655,000 Iraqis had died as a consequence of recent wars. In November 2006, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that 1.8 million Iraqis had been displaced to neighbouring countries, and 1.6 million were displaced internally. As recently as March 2023, the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University estimated that 1.1 million Iraqis are still displaced internally or live as refugees abroad. According to an April 2014 report in The Guardian, the war cost the British taxpayer £9.6 billion. Doubts over the legality of the invasion of Iraq have done irreparable reputational damage to the western world, including the United Kingdom, throughout the middle east and among Muslim populations both at home and abroad.

I turn to the key findings from the declassified documents in relation to discussions involving, and advice given by, the then Foreign Office legal adviser, the Solicitor General, the Chief of the Defence Staff, the Attorney General, the Deputy Secretary for Defence and Overseas Affairs.

On 12 February 1998, the Foreign Office’s legal adviser, Sir Franklin Berman, wrote to his Department’s senior civil servant. He said that

“the only valid claim to employ force (in this case) is under the authority of the Security Council…my view is that a new resolution in suitable terms is a sine qua non.”

He added:

“The Ministerial Code requires Ministers to comply with the law, including international law…I cannot believe that Ministers would wish to order British servicemen into action unless their legal advisers were able to assure them that it was legally justifiable.”

The then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was again told of the Foreign Office view two days later, on 14 February, in a meeting with the then Solicitor General for England and Wales, now Lord Falconer. Referring to the UK’s invasion of Egypt over Suez, Lord Falconer told Tony Blair that in the Foreign Office

“some lawyers argued very strongly that it would be the first time since 1956 that the UK had used force without the backing of the Security Council resolution”.

Lord Falconer stated that some lawyers

“might feel strongly enough to resign”, as they might be expected to implement decisions

“that they believed were incompatible with international law”.

Five days later, on 19 February, Prime Minister Tony Blair, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and the then Defence Secretary, now Lord Robertson, attended a briefing by Chief of the Defence Staff Sir Charles Guthrie and Air Marshal John Day on

“targeting plans for operations against Iraq”.

The minutes note that the Chief of the Defence Staff

“mentioned that he was worried about the legal side;
he hoped this could be sorted quickly”.

The minutes then state: “The prime minister”—Tony Blair—

“noted that the legal advice was that securing another”

Security Council resolution “was preferable.” They added:

“The prime minister concluded that…he did not want to have everything depending on securing a further Resolution”.

What on earth did he mean by “everything”? What exactly had he committed to? We know that Tony Blair had been told by then—in a communication entitled “The Legal Use of Force”, from Michael Pakenham, deputy secretary for defence and overseas affairs, to John Holmes, principal private secretary to the Prime Minister—that a further resolution was essential, not preferable. Tony Blair’s statement in the minutes of the meeting with the Chief of the Defence Staff implies that he would be prepared to use military force without such a resolution. That is unlawful, yet that is exactly what happened as events transpired.

One note in the bundle of papers, which is undated but likely to be from February 1998, appears to be from officials in advance of a meeting between Tony Blair and Attorney General John Morris. This note suggests that Tony Blair pressed Morris to legally justify the use of force. The “Speaking Notes for the Prime Minister: Iraq—The Legal Position” reference Morris’s memo of 14 November 1997 and say that it “helpfully indicated” there could be “exceptional circumstances” in which the use of force could be justified without a Security Council statement. The note then says:

“I trust that you can confirm now that my description of what would constitute ‘exceptional circumstances’ is correct”.

However, Morris’s memo clearly states the following:

“Such a situation has not yet arisen;
and even in such extreme circumstances, the UK could expect to be questioned closely about the legal basis for its resort to military force. The Government would need to have the strongest factual grounds for such action.”

This advice from Attorney General John Morris makes it clear that a Security Council statement was “an essential precondition” to using force.

In July 1998, Michael Pakenham, deputy secretary for defence and overseas affairs, wrote a confidential note entitled “The Legal Use of Force”. That was sent to John Holmes, principal private secretary to the Prime Minister. In it, he said that the Foreign Office legal team were continuing to advise that

“the bottom line remains that in most foreseeable circumstances, a Resolution of the UN Security Council is required before the use of such force can be authorised”.

He added that

“acting against UN principles or without”

UN Security Council resolutions

“may in the short term meet…immediate need but is in the long term wholly contrary to our interests”.

The communication also states:

“the advice given by the FCO legal team, and closely followed by the Law Officers, is that there are certain fundamental rules which any Government must follow, and tests they must meet, before authorising the use of force by our Armed Services. Without such tests being met, there would be a very real risk of members of the Armed Services being subject to criminal prosecution.”

In summary, the then Foreign Office legal advisers stated that the

“only valid claim to employ force” was under the authority of the United Nations Security Council. The Solicitor General warned Tony Blair that there were lawyers who might resign rather than have to implement decisions “incompatible with international law”. It is absolutely clear that neither the Foreign Office’s legal adviser nor the Solicitor General was willing to advise that military action was legally justifiable.

We have evidence of the then UK Prime Minister pressing the then Attorney General to provide a legal justification for military action. If that was not concerning enough, we also had the Chief of the Defence Staff stating that he was worried about the legal side. Crucially, the deputy director for defence and overseas affairs offered absolute clarity that

“the bottom line remains that” a UN Security Council resolution is required before the use of force can be authorised. In fact, the communication sent to Downing Street makes it clear that the Prime Minister’s office was told that that was essential.

On 14 November 1998, Tony Blair authorised the strike on Iraq, but UK and US forces were stood down at the last minute, when Saddam Hussein agreed to permit weapons inspections. Just before Iraq’s climbdown, Tony Blair held a meeting with the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, the Defence Secretary, now Lord Robertson, and the Chief of the Defence Staff, Charles Guthrie, in which he affirmed:

“The time had now come for military action to be taken against Iraq.”

According to the minutes of that meeting, there was no consideration of legality, except that it was agreed to justify the use of force

“not because he [Saddam] was in technical breach of UN Resolutions but because he posed a real and imminent threat to peace and security in the region”.

As Declassified UK has stated:

“This was a de facto acknowledgement that the threshold demanded by Britain’s legal advisers—new Security Council authorisation—had not been met.”

On 16 December 1998, the US and UK struck Iraq in a wave of air attacks. Almost 100 sites were attacked by US and British aircraft and cruise missiles from US navy ships and B-52 bombers. General Peter de la Billière, a former head of the SAS who commanded British forces in the 1991 Gulf war, questioned the political impact of the bombing campaign.

It is clear from the declassified documents that Tony Blair misled Parliament. When he announced military action to Parliament on 17 December 1998, he said:

“I have no doubt that we have the proper legal authority, as it is contained in successive Security Council resolution documents.”—[Official Report, 17 December 1998;
Vol. 322, c. 110.]

But that was clearly misleading, as he had been consistently advised—by the Solicitor General, the Attorney General, the Foreign Office legal adviser and the deputy secretary for defence and overseas affairs—that further UN authorisation was required for the use of force. Thus, British officials justified their action by claiming that other UN resolutions previously passed in 1998 revived the authorisation to use force provided in resolution 678, a remnant of the Gulf war, passed eight years earlier in 1990.

Since the other resolutions did not explicitly authorise the use of force, the UK argument was a spurious one. Of the 15-member Security Council in 1998, only three members supported the action: the US, Japan and Portugal. Five years later in 2003, the UK and US relied on the same resolution, 678, to justify their subsequent invasion when they again failed to secure a further Security Council resolution for the use of force.

These files from 1998 suggest that Tony Blair was motivated more by maintaining relations with the US than by upholding international law—something of which he was again culpable in 2003. On the same day, President Clinton told Tony Blair during a phone call that military action against Iraq might have to be used. Blair replied, saying that he agreed and that Mr Clinton

“could count on our support throughout”.

That commitment of support was not underpinned by international law.

On the point about Saddam Hussein being unwilling to co-operate, Tony Blair said:

“we would have to enforce our will”, adding,

“even if there were some differences between us on the legal front”.

According to Declassified UK,

“Blair was intimating to the US president he was prepared to override British legal concerns” and obligations.

On 14 February 1998, as Washington and London were close to striking Iraq, Blair told Solicitor General Lord Falconer:

“it was inconceivable that we would refuse the Americans the use of the base at Diego Garcia. At the very least this had to be legally possible.”

So far, the Government have not declassified all files relating to this period. They have kept secret several of the Iraq files from the Prime Minister’s office, which cover the end of 1998 and the beginning of 1999. Can the Minister explain why these documents have not been put in the public domain and when we can expect publication? The files do not appear to contain the minutes of the meeting between Prime Minister Tony Blair and Attorney General John Morris. Can the Solicitor General confirm whether that is the case and whether the minutes will be published in full, and if so, when?

These declassified documents show that Tony Blair was determined to take military action against Saddam Hussein in 1998, against explicit advice and in the absence of sound legal arguments or justification. They show that Tony Blair dismissed legal objections to his 1998 bombing campaign. That was the direct precursor to his stance on the invasion of Iraq five years later in 2003, which was also deemed illegal by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, when he said of the war in September 2004:

“From our point of view and from the charter point of view it was illegal.”

Indeed, it was the then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw who privately warned Tony Blair in 2002 that an invasion of Iraq was legally dubious, stating that

“regime change per se is no justification for military action”, and that

“the weight of legal advice here is that a fresh…mandate may well be required” from the UN. Those words chime with, and are foretold in, the declassified documents that I have highlighted.

I want to place on record my appreciation to parliamentarians who have raised similar concerns in the past, including former Labour MP Dennis Canavan, Jeremy Corbyn, and the SNP’s Margaret Ewing and Jim Sillars. I recall that Margaret Ewing questioned the Prime Minister directly in the House at the time, and in 2016 Jim Sillars called for a retrospective Iraq war crimes Act to be passed by the Scottish Parliament. It was Mr Davis who stated:

“The second Iraq war was started to liberate the Iraqi people. Instead, it shattered their country. It was intended to stabilise the middle east. Instead, it destabilised the middle east.”—[Official Report, 14 April 2016;
Vol. 608, c. 530.]

He deserves credit, as does my own party leader, the right hon. Alex Salmond. Mr Salmond was right when he said:

“Through the long debates on Iraq, many of us suspected that the Prime Minister had given commitments to the American President which were unrevealed to this House and to the public. The Chilcot report outlined these in spades. The famous phrase

‘I will be with you, whatever’ will go down in infamy in terms of giving a commitment.”—[Official Report, 30 November 2016;
Vol. 617, c. 1531-1532.]

In both instances—in 1998 and in 2003—we know that Tony Blair received legal advice warning that military action was illegal; and, in both instances, he ignored that legal advice and went on to authorise the deployment of British service personnel. Blair pressed officials, in particular the Attorney General, to provide legal justification for the use of force. He received none, but he did it anyway.

Blair misled Parliament by claiming that a legal basis for military force without a UN Security Council resolution existed, when in fact it did not. The consequences have been devastating for Iraqis, for the region and for military personnel and their families. Lives lost in the theatre of war are well understood, but the lives wrecked by the trauma of conflict are less easily quantified, yet every bit as real. I heard such stories yesterday when speaking to the war widows. Such loss and devastation is met with great courage by those affected, but every person’s loss should surely be based on a lawful instruction.

How can it be that a Prime Minister who prosecuted two wars against lawful advice and instruction has been rewarded with a knighthood? It is an insult to every single life lost; it should be withdrawn forthwith and a path to full justice secured. Governments should not lie to go to war, and the truth must now be told.

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Labour, Bootle

I intend to call the Opposition spokesperson no later than 5.40 pm. Hon. Members should bear that in mind when making interventions.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 5:16, 13 December 2023

First, I thank Neale Hanvey for setting the scene so well. I also thank him—I spoke to him beforehand—for his focus, quite clearly, on the truth of the matter and the sacrifice of those who gave their lives. Some of their families, I understand, are in the Gallery today. I convey my sincere sympathies and thoughts to those who lost loved ones and live with the pain of that loss. The hon. Gentleman said that incredibly well in his contribution, and I thank him for that. I know that others will focus on that as well.

As we are all well aware, in April 2023, Declassified UK, a media organisation that focuses on the work of the British military and intelligence agencies, published an article about classified documents that are now declassified. It said, and indeed suggests, that the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was informed that military action was unlawful without UN authorisation, but proceeded with Operation Desert Fox in Iraq in 1998 none the less. I well remember at that time that we had been dealing with the fallout of the troubles, and I did not relish the thought of war, yet I was also mindful that evil triumphs where good men do nothing. I declare an interest as a former solider: for the record, I served in the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Artillery for some 14 and a half years. I enjoyed the service, but I should put that on the record as I speak about these things.

I have not had a chance to read the reports in their entirety, but I have read a number of articles on the issue, and it is clear that things were withheld from the public. In Northern Ireland, there is a circumstance that we are all too familiar with. The taste left in people’s mouths when they see the difference between their lived memory of a timeline, which I and others lived through, and the events and facts behind the scenes is not a good taste. The declassified British documents in the National Archives appear to show that Blair was already set on taking military action against Saddam Hussein’s regime throughout 1998, in the absence of legal arguments to justify it. I find that difficult to grasp, yet I know that sometimes open information is not the same as intelligence passed on. I am loth to comment too deeply on the matter, as I am also aware that documentation does not accurately cover what I lived through in Northern Ireland either.

I will state clearly that opinions on whether Blair’s Government took the right steps in 1998 on the right information do not alter the irrefutable fact that our armed forces acted with dignity, and our pride in them and their actions must be clear. We cannot allow those who have sought to undermine our armed forces for so many years to grasp these documents as part of their war on the honour and integrity of our armed forces personnel.

Forgive me, Mr Dowd, but I omitted to welcome the Minister to his place. He has been in post the past week or thereabouts, perhaps less, and I want to wish him well. He has been a good friend of mine—of us all, by the way—over the years. I very much look forward to what he will say. I also look forward to the contribution of the shadow Minister, Karl Turner, because he is a man I have known for a long time and I value his contributions.

To go back to the subject, the presence of our military, our armed forces, was called for by their Government. Their conduct was regimented and measured, and their names must retain our sincere thanks and appreciation. I believe that that must be clear in this debate, regardless of anyone’s opinion of Blair’s decisions and the documentation. If anyone feels that what we now know about the intelligence should call into question the need for the war, we should remember that the presence of the armed forces is not something that can ever be questioned or ever be in doubt. I know that hon. Members all agree with me when I say that.

The deaths of those young men and women were not in vain. The actions they took and the position that our Government put them in lives with them to this very day and they were right and proper. We remain proud of their contributions and actions. History must never forget. It reminds us all of their contribution, their service and their sacrifice. Again, I commend the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath for securing the debate, and to those in the Public Gallery who lost loved ones, my sincere commiserations.

Photo of Richard Foord Richard Foord Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence) 5:21, 13 December 2023

It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Mr Dowd.

I pay tribute to Neale Hanvey for securing this debate, because we do not often have debates on things that are historical. It is normal for Parliament to focus on the present day and things that are current, but it is helpful sometimes to look back in history and to learn lessons from our recent past. It is excellent that this information has been extracted from the National Archives, which he and others have reported on.

I congratulate the new Solicitor General on his post. I met Robert Courts shortly before he became Chair of the Defence Committee. He did an excellent job in that role, but his services are now obviously required by Government instead.

Today, I will draw specifically on some of the things that the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath talked about in relation to Operation Desert Fox in 1998. I will also make reference to the invasion of Iraq by the US, UK and others in 2003. Finally, I will ask one or two questions about the role of Parliament in a declaration of war, or in the commitment of UK armed forces to going to war.

We have already heard a great deal about how the Prime Minister in 1998 operated with knowledge of what was legal, but perhaps decided to park that, or in large part he put it aside and decided to press on with Operation Desert Fox none the less—hence the four days of bombing of Iraq. Alongside the international law issue, however, it was fascinating to hear from the reporting of that time and from this newly released material what was being said to the Prime Minister from a pragmatic perspective. It was not just legal advice that he was receiving; he was also receiving advice about UK interests. For example, the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee at the time, Sir Michael Pakenham, told the Prime Minister that to engage in military action would be “acting against UN principles” and

“in the long term wholly contrary to our interests”.

Given that the material that has come out of the archive is largely about legal advice, it is fascinating to read that Robin Cook—the Foreign Secretary of the day—and other legal advisers were suggesting that there would have been a serious problem unless the UK acted with further UN Security Council resolution mandates, and that we might instead have sought to get a new Security Council resolution stating that Iraq was in material breach of previous UN Security Council resolutions.

I was also very interested to hear from the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath about those fascinating insights of how the Chief of the Defence Staff at that time was saying to the Prime Minister that we really did need legal support for military action if it was to go ahead. That does not surprise me, because Sir Charles Guthrie was an excellent CDS. I had the privilege of having a conversation with him at a bar while he was still serving. Just prior to that, he had written a book, “The Just War Tradition: Ethics in Modern Warfare”. This dealt partly with jus in bello—just war theory as it applies to the conduct of war, which we have been talking about a lot in the House in recent weeks, in relation to Israel-Gaza. He also wrote about jus ad bellum—how wars are initiated. He clearly knew a lot about international law.

Lastly, I would like to talk about the light these revelations cast on the relationship between Parliament, the Executive and the judiciary. Until 2003, it was customary for our armed forces to be committed to war by royal prerogative. Indeed, it is the sovereign decision of the Executive to commit our armed forces to war. On 18 March 2003, something changed. There was not just a debate in Parliament, but a vote on the invasion of Iraq. People will recall that on that day, there was a very large majority vote by MPs in favour of the UK joining military action in Iraq. In opening, Tony Blair offered,

“it is right that the House debate this issue and pass judgment.”—[Official Report, 18 March 2003;
Vol. 401, c. 760.]

Clearly, he said those words knowing full well that he had the support of many on his own Benches and on the Conservative Benches. As a footnote, I add that Tony Blair referred that day to the Liberal Democrats as unified “in opportunism and error.” He said that because we were indeed, as a party, unified in opposition to the invasion of Iraq.

The point is that this was a case of Parliament getting an opportunity to have its say on the commitment of UK armed forces to war in Iraq. I raise that because the documents we are discussing today reveal that the Executive were going beyond legal advice and beyond even the advice of really expert opinion, such as the Chair of JIC, and the CDS. They were making an executive decision that essentially came down to the view of the Prime Minister. It is troubling that so much authority was ultimately vested in that individual. What we can take from that period is that, in future, the legislature ought to have greater scrutiny of decisions to commit our armed forces to war. Finally, when the Minister stands to his feet, I would be interested in hearing his reflections on how UK armed forces will be committed to war in the future.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Alba, East Lothian 5:29, 13 December 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. Like others, I pay tribute to my party leader at Westminster and colleague, my hon. Friend Neale Hanvey, for a forensic examination, and I pay tribute to Declassified UK for the information it has provided. It is appropriate that we should be debating this, because it is something we must never, ever forget. It is ironic—I noticed this on social media—that today is the anniversary of Saddam Hussein being discovered in hiding and the dishevelled despot being brought out. I have a moral objection to the death penalty, but like everybody else, I shed no tears for Saddam Hussein. He was a deeply evil man, although it would have been better had he been brought to trial at the International Criminal Court, according to normal rules, than simply hanged.

The consequences of the Iraq war, as was said by my hon. Friend, live with us and reverberate with us to this day. We were taken into war on a false prospectus. We were taken in on deceit and, indeed, on lies. It is important that that be brought to account. The world is a far less safe place from that war. Millions have died, not simply in that country but around the world. A refugee crisis that we now see and live with was kicked off and has continued. Perhaps also more worryingly, the moral authority of western democracies has been lost and we can trace that back to the war in Iraq. I will go on to comment on that.

I have some sympathy for the Minister because he is having to deal with the sins of a different Administration. However, as has been mentioned by others, the Tories were joined at the hip with Labour in the war and have to take account for the consequences, even if the principal villain was Tony Blair.

There were rebels and people’s names have been mentioned. Indeed, there were two in particular who we should thank for their actions. Robin Cook has been mentioned as deeply principled. I knew Robin Cook and stood against him. I disagreed with his position on the constitutional status of Scotland, but nobody should forget not just the courage he had but the convictions he retained. In speaking out against the Iraq war, we should never forget him and it is a tragedy that he is not here with us today.

Equally, Charles Kennedy spoke out against the Iraq war. He was decried for it, but it was principled. I recall marching with Charles Kennedy in Glasgow, when more than 100,000 people in Scotland marched, as they did in London and other cities, not simply across the UK but across the world, to say, “This is not in our name.” Yet Tony Blair took us to war despite the objection of principled people such as Cook and Kennedy and despite the millions marching across the United Kingdom. We live with the consequences today.

Where is the accountability? Yes, we have had Chilcot and yes, we have had some matters put out there, but nobody has been held to account. We were told it was weapons of mass destruction. We were told we were only minutes away from doom and gloom and, indeed, it was portrayed as the death of democracy and almost the death of humanity. That was shown to be a lie. That same lie was perpetrated by the United States about going into Afghanistan, when it said it was all about 9/11 even though it was quite clear that if they were going to deal with the perpetrators of 9/11 they should be addressing Saudi Arabia. As with Khashoggi, people turned a blind eye to an ally or, indeed, as with the United Kingdom, one that is viewed as bankrolling the armaments industry.

That was formed on a strategic lie and done for access to oil and for wider geopolitical positions. The problem is that we have to live with that today and the consequences reverberate. As is often mentioned in political debates, that brings back Santayana’s words about those who cannot learn from history being doomed to repeat it. Repeating it we have been and repeating it we are.

We have seen the disaster that has befallen Ukraine, but we worry and wonder why 85% of the globe has not signed up for sanctions against Russia. I believe there should be sanctions against Russia. I condemned Putin for the invasion, even if I think that some of the actions that have been taken have been wrong and I do not support the actions of the United States. Let us remember that, at the end of the day, the rest of the world does not see this with the same eyes as us. They are saying, “Where is your moral authority when you were prepared to go into Iraq but now you condemn Putin?” We are paying the price for Blair’s folly.

Equally, I have to say that I remember that there was criticism, and rightly so, of the Wagner Group. But what was the precursor of Wagner? The precursor of Wagner was Blackwater. Let us remember that, after Iraq, we privatised war. We saw war privatised and we saw private militias that made a lot of money for individuals basically come in and take over something that would previously have been dealt with by a military that represented the state. Before Wagner came on the scene, it was Blackwater, and that affected us. It was not just a corporation in the United States. I met young Scottish soldiers who told me about colleagues of theirs who were deliberately failing drug tests, because it was better to go and get paid £100,000, as they got for going to be militia or contractors. Let us remember that, when we talk about contractors in places like Iraq, they were not bricklayers or scaffolders; they were soldiers carrying out private work for what America and the UK carried out. That was the precursor. As I said, it started with what Blair did, then it reverberated out, and now it lives with us and we have to face those consequences.

And now we have Gaza. We see western democracies again failing to speak out: we see the UK abstain and the United States object. And people wonder why countries such as South Africa and Brazil look at the western world and say, “Who are you to lecture us? Who are you to go on about Putin? Who are you to go on about the sins of Saddam Hussein, when you are prepared to turn a blind eye to what you are doing by funding and supporting the Israel Defence Forces?” All of that comes back, and that is why there has to be honesty and accountability—because the UK’s action in Iraq has fundamentally damaged not just the United Kingdom but western democracy. We were lied to as a people. The objections of the people, who were vociferous—people marched in their hundreds of thousands—were literally ignored by Executive diktat. That must not be allowed to be repeated. That is why we need to get these documents out there and why those who perpetrated this sin—because it was a mortal sin—must be held to account.

Photo of Karl Turner Karl Turner Shadow Solicitor General 5:37, 13 December 2023

It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under you in the Chair, Mr Dowd. It is also a great pleasure to welcome to his place the new Solicitor General, Robert Courts. We are both relatively new to our roles, although I have had the benefit of this being, I think, my second tour in this particular circuit. I am sure that the tone of our debate will remain as thoughtful and constructive as that which was maintained by the previous occupants of our roles—just as it has been today—and I look forward to those debates in the weeks and months ahead.

I commend Neale Hanvey on his determination in securing this debate. I know that he has previously made attempts at securing urgent questions on this important issue, and no one can doubt the sincerity of the concerns that have led the hon. Gentleman to pursuing this matter and securing this debate. Whether or not we reach the same conclusions, I applaud and commend him for his persistence in raising this issue.

The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath argues, powerfully, that there is a through line from the discussions that took place within Tony Blair’s Government in 1998 over the decision to carry out airstrikes against military assets in Iraq, without authorisation from the United Nations, and the decision, five years later, to take military action against Saddam Hussein. The contention is that that decision in 1998 paved the way for the decision in 2003 and that, despite the 12 volumes and more than 2.5 million words of the Chilcot report, we cannot fully understand the process that led to the 2003 decision until the 1998 decision is subject to the same level of scrutiny, including the release of all outstanding papers on the issue.

Let me say that I understand the point that the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath is making. As I have said already, I do not doubt the sincerity of the concerns that lie behind his campaign on this matter. It is worth saying, however, that there is another, more immediate throughline from the decision taken in respect of Iraq in 1998, which was the decision taken by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton just a year later in respect of the intervention in Kosovo.

There again, a UN resolution in favour of action could not be achieved because of the permanent Russian veto; there again, as we will surely discover when the relevant papers are released, there were debates both inside and outside Government about the legality of acting without the cover of a UN resolution; and there again, the judgment ultimately made by Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and other NATO allies was that the air strikes they authorised against military assets were justified because of the civilian lives at threat if those assets were left intact.

People may disagree with the air strikes in Iraq in 1998. They may even disagree with the air strikes in Kosovo in 1999. But it is important to recognise that what was going on in that era was not some specific obsession with the regime change of Saddam Hussein, which would lead to the tragedy of the Iraq war in 2003, but a constant debate about whether the world could afford to wait for action from the United Nations following the tragedies of Rwanda in 1994 and Srebrenica in Bosnia in 1995.

I hear what the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath is saying, but while he may maintain that the willingness to set aside legal concerns over the 1998 action was the precursor to what happened in Iraq in 2003, we must also remember that if that same willingness to act had not been present in 1999, we would still be talking today about how the world stood by and allowed the genocidal destruction of the Kosovan people.

Photo of Karl Turner Karl Turner Shadow Solicitor General

I will not, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind, because I want the Minister to have the full opportunity to respond to him.

The final point I want to make relates specifically to the issue of which documents have been published in relation to the 1998 action and which are still being withheld from publication. I have no knowledge of how those decisions were arrived at, but I would urge a bit of caution before we leap to any conclusions or encourage any theories that already exist out there about what the still-unpublished papers may or may not contain. In my experience, when officials—in whichever Department it is—sit down and sort through these documents, and decide what to publish and what to withhold, they are always rather more concerned with what precedents will be set for the future and whether there are any security implications for individuals still alive in the present, and rather less concerned with what revelations will emerge about the past.

Personally, I am in favour of maximum transparency wherever possible. I am also in favour of Government Departments being clear about the broad reasons for their decisions when they feel obliged to hold material back from publication. If there are any more concrete reasons that can be provided today as to why the particular papers at issue have not so far been published, then I would welcome that too. That is not because I think there is any great mystery being covered up, but precisely because I think the opposite is true and the Government could dispel a lot of unnecessary and ill-founded speculation if they were clearer about the broad reasons why some material is withheld. If that were to be one positive outcome from this debate, I would welcome it. Another would be to recognise that what motivated much of the action during that period in history was not the desire for regime change in Baghdad, but a compulsion that many leaders rightly felt not to repeat the grave mistakes of Bosnia and Rwanda.

Finally, I offer my sincere commiserations to the loved ones of those military personnel and civilians who lost their lives in these terrible and tragic conflicts.

Photo of Robert Courts Robert Courts The Solicitor-General 5:45, 13 December 2023

It is a great honour and pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this evening, Mr Dowd. I thank hon. Members and right hon. Members who have been kind enough to welcome me to my role. I look forward to working with them on this issue and many others, and to serving the House in this role. Karl Turner and I know each other well from maritime matters already, and I am confident that we will have, as ever, the constructive relationship that the House would expect.

May I start by also extending my commiserations to all those who have been affected—families, friends, British personnel and civilians? We deal with enormously sensitive and tragic historic matters here, and while we will talk about some of the detail of disclosure matters and decisions that were taken, we should never lose sight of the fact that, at the beginning and end of the story, are people whose lives have been irrecoverably changed, and in some cases ended. I know that the House will join me in recognising that.

Neale Hanvey secured this debate to discuss the declassification of documents arising from UK military action in Iraq in 1998, and indeed the action itself. He has opened a number of matters before us regarding the merits of that action. Of course, I have to start by saying at the outset that these are historic matters that have been subject to exhaustive and detailed examination in other places, as he will know and to which I refer him. These were matters for many Administrations ago, and not ones that this Government can comment on in the merits. Today, I would like to deal with some of the issues around the disclosure of the documents, which are things that I, as Solicitor General, can comment on. I hope to be able to offer some constructive comments there, and then invite the hon. Gentleman to assist me in some other areas.

I would like to deal with some of the process of the declassification of historic records and to discuss the convention relating to Law Officer advice, which is relatively understood but departed from in some circumstances, such as the ones that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. I will also mention some of the changes that have been made post Chilcot. Of course, Chilcot’s terms of reference did not include the area that the hon. Gentleman specifically refers to today; none the less, coming afterwards there were some changes in the way that Parliament and Government approach those matters, and I will address some of them today.

In relation to UK military action in Iraq in 1998, certain documents, including advice from Law Officers, have been declassified and released to the National Archives. I understand that the hon. Member has shared a link with the Department, which covered some documents that he wanted to discuss today. My understanding is that those particular documents have in fact now been declassified and are now open for public review—I think that is the case and I am grateful to him for confirming it. The catalogue goes through an updated process, and I think that is the position with those documents now.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to comment on why some specific documents were not available. I apologise that I am not able to give him the answer to that right now, but if he were to write to me and draw my attention to the specific documents he referred to, I will be able to give him an answer and either point him to where they are or give him an explanation of why I cannot. Of course, it is for the Cabinet Office, rather than the Attorney General’s Office, to take a view on whether documents should be disclosed, and whether in full or with redactions for any reason. I make that request and offer at the outset; I hope to be able to give him some assistance.

I will make some comments on the framework for disclosure, which may be of assistance. The Public Records Act 1958 placed Government Departments under an obligation to identify public records with historic value and to make arrangements for their permanent preservation. It imposed a duty to open these records after the passage of 50 years. That 50-year rule was reduced to 30 years by the Public Records Act 1967 and further reduced to 20 years by the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. Departments may retain records, subject to the approval of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and the Freedom of Information Act 2000 placed a duty on Departments to justify whether records transferred to the National Archives should remain closed to the public. However, the general rule is that material that is 20 years old becomes public records.

There have been a number of bespoke bodies responsible for the physical housing of this material, but since 2008 it has been the National Archives. As I have mentioned, there is a framework based on the exemptions for disclosure. That is contained in the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and determines whether material transferred to the National Archives should be open to the public.

There are several exemptions that are not time-limited. Those include: national security; defence; international relations, or information provided in confidence by other states or international organisations or courts; the economy; criminal investigations; parliamentary privilege; health and safety; and environmental information. A number of those exemptions will require the Department that owns the information to carry out a balancing exercise as to whether it is in the public interest to disclose that material. That requires consultation across Whitehall and other bodies, and the outcome of that test is subject to the approval of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who is advised by the Advisory Council on National Records and Archives.

There is a separate scheme—the security and intelligence instrument—which is approved by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and which governs information relating to the security and intelligence agencies. That information is retained in the relevant Departments, and information retained by way of the instrument has to be re-reviewed every 10 years. Regardless of how retentions or disclosures are made, anyone is able to challenge such disclosures or retentions by submitting a freedom of information request to the National Archives for closed material or to the originating Department for retained material. I hope that has been helpful to the House with regard to the procedure for the disclosure of such records and gives an overview of the position.

The second point that I would like to spend a minute or two on is the Law Officers’ convention; I know that the House will be familiar with it, but it is worth rehearsing in a little bit of detail. Some of the aspects that the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath has been speaking about do indeed refer to legal advice that was given at the time, or even to the advice of the Law Officers. In this case, some of that material, as he knows, is available in the National Archives.

As a general rule, there are clear and well-understood reasons for not disclosing legal advice, and there are specific considerations around advice that is given to the Government by Law Officers. They may not be relevant to the context or background of this debate—which is about a historic matter and in any event that advice has been published—but, simply for completeness, it is usual practice that advice given by Law Officers and the advice that has been sought, or indeed the fact that advice has been sought, is not disclosed. That is the Law Officers’ convention and that is reflected in the ministerial code. The fact that Law Officers have or have not advised must not be disclosed outside Government without their authority.

It is only in narrow circumstances that that convention has been waived, and that has been with the consent of the Law Officers. As the hon. Gentleman knows, perhaps the clearest example was the legal basis for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I know that the House will understand that the very clear reason for the convention is that, as with any client-lawyer relationship, it is to enable the Government to seek legal advice in private without fear of adverse inferences being drawn from the content of the advice or indeed from the fact that advice has been sought in the first place. It means that the Government are not discouraged from seeking advice in certain cases, or pressured to seek advice in inappropriate cases, and it protects that relationship, as with any client-lawyer relationship.

The third point that I will spend a few moments talking about, before I leave some time for the hon. Gentleman to respond, is on Chilcot. There have been a number of changes after Chilcot, which of course was a major inquiry after the 2003 invasion. Operation Desert Fox is outside the scope of the Chilcot terms of reference, but the report does cover the use of military force by the UK and US in Iraq in 1998, including documentary evidence and witness testimony, so some matters can be dealt with in there. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not go into the details that were discovered in terms of the merits, but there have been a number of changes since. There is a Chilcot checklist to support decision making, the National Security Council was established to help with the decision-making process, and Law Officers have to be consulted in good time. There are a number of ways in which the situation has changed since the time he talked about.

Richard Foord asked me about the Cabinet manual. A convention has developed that before troops are committed, the Commons is given the opportunity to debate the matter, which the Government have acknowledged in the past. Although the general convention remains as it is, there has been some amendment of points since then.

I apologise for running over slightly, Mr Dowd. I want to leave the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath some time to respond, but I hope I have dealt with the questions he wanted me to; he can of course come back to me if not.

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Labour, Bootle

The hon. Gentleman has 30 seconds if he wishes.

Photo of Neale Hanvey Neale Hanvey Alba, Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath 5:55, 13 December 2023

Thank you, Mr Dowd, for your assiduous chairmanship. I thank all Members for their contributions. They have been very reflective and quite helpful. I want to pick up on a few points that were made. First, I thank Jim Shannon for his sincerity and passion, and his comments on the bravery of service personnel—

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Labour, Bootle

Order.

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).