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4.35 pm

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): I do not propose to speak for half an hour, and I begin by apologising for not being a lawyer in a debate that has so far effectively been dominated by lawyers.

It is in the interests of all right hon. and hon. Members to ensure and insist that decisions made by the House comply with international law. It is to that context that I shall confine my comments. I do not want a re-run of the arguments about whether or not the war should have been fought. I accept the Prime Minister's view that, at one level, that is a matter of judgment. I have never questioned the sincerity of the Prime Minister—I just think his judgment was awful. The House has a responsibility to express judgments, and we will be judged by the public when they cast their votes. That is the nature of politics. Part of that process presupposes that judgments are made within a framework of legality.

The official position of the Conservative party cannot be rewritten as part of a post-hoc rationalisation. Before the war, I toured television stations either preceding or following the shadow Foreign Secretary. It was clear that the issue of legality did not for one moment pass through his mind. At some stages, his gung-ho approach left me feeling that if the Conservatives had evidence of Saddam passing wind, that would have been enough to declare war. The Conservatives just wanted to be in there, so for them to suggest at this point that they had a continuing concern about compliance with international law is not to be truthful. That is not necessarily the claim made by all Conservative Members but it would certainly be a gross distortion of official Conservative Front-Bench policy at the time.

Convention or not, one of the most important principles of open, democratic accountability in respect of an issue as profoundly important as going to war is

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that legal advice should be presented to the House. Right hon. and hon. Members have spoken about lawyer-client confidentiality, but it was the House that endorsed support for the war. As such, it was Parliament that should have been deemed to be the client and it is Parliament that should have the right to know the contents of the legal advice.

My reservations about the wording of the motion do not relate to whether the advice should be disclosed. Rather, the motion presents an inadequate proposition by posing three important questions that it then ducks. It cannot be sufficient merely to ask for the advice of the Attorney-General. We must ask for the background advice given to the Attorney-General by his deputy, Elizabeth Wilmshurst. We need to know also which other counsels' opinion was sought. As a House, we ought to address what we would do with advice presented to us today.

As to the opinion of other counsels, having had a limited amount of local government experience, I take a sanguine view of the advice that one gets from lawyers. Lawyers will give the best advice that money can buy—and the best opposite advice that money can buy. Whether one believes that or not, councillors in local government would usually look at the legal advice and ask whether it would get past the district auditor, knowing that someone else would judge them on that advice—

David Winnick: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Alan Simpson: No, because we have had so many interventions, and it is inappropriate for an hon. Member who has been absent for much of the last couple of hours to intervene at this stage.

The point is that someone else will judge the legality of one's actions. What the legal profession provided was legal advice and opinion, not necessarily an affirmation of legality. Ultimately, that is what the House will have to face up to.

Some hon. Members have mentioned human rights and argued that it was right to tackle the wretched record of Saddam Hussein, but I must remind them that that was not the basis of the case made to justify going to war. As others have pointed out, regime change would have been illegal under international law. The case made to justify the war was mounted on the basis of Saddam's possession of weapons of mass destruction, the threat to international security and the breach of UN resolutions.

In respect of UN resolutions, we should remind ourselves of what was said by Hans Blix—not only head of the weapons inspectorate, but himself an international lawyer. In an interview with The Independent at the weekend, he said:

He went on to say that ownership of the resolutions rested with the entire 15-member Security Council, and not with individual international states. That is the proper basis and we should reflect on it. It is a fact that the rest of the UN Security Council believed that there was no automaticity to a war on the basis of resolution 1441. As Sir Jeremy Greenstock made clear, a second resolution would have been required to justify war.

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What Hans Blix is telling us is that the possession of the right to determine was the prerogative of the UN Security Council. That is my main concern.

As a Parliament we must move beyond simple demands about what information and advice should be made available towards recognition that countries cannot act as judge and jury in their own cause. Those who argue that the outcome justifies the war are treading a flawed and dangerous path. It cannot be right for any country to be able to start a war simply because it wants to, and then declare the war lawful because it chooses to. That is making up international law as one goes along. If we presume that right for ourselves, the same right applies to every other country—whether it be a rogue state or "axis of evil" country or not. All those states would have exactly the same rights. The willingness of this Parliament to hold itself to account to international law, as judged by other international bodies, is the central issue at stake.

This weekend the Prime Minister made a speech about the war on terrorism. He made an important point when he said:

The Prime Minister was asking for new flexibilities. I suspect that, if that were put to the Security Council, other member states would talk about different constraints on the freedom of individual states. Throughout his speech, the Prime Minister may have wanted flexibilities, but he wanted them within a framework of legality. That is the central issue that we must address.

If the Government genuinely believe that there was a legal case for war, we should take the initiative ourselves and refer the case either to the International Criminal Court or to the UN Security Council.

There needs to be a judgment that is not made by us. The people who perpetrate a war cannot be the ones who determine whether it was legal.

That was brought home to me by the comments of Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, the Chief of the Defence Staff at the time. Other hon. Members have made reference to his demand, six days before the war started and with troops lined up on the borders of Iraq, for an unequivocal assurance that the war was legal. The significance of that demand is that he should have made it at all. No members of the defence staff or the armed forces would ever want to be accused of being unwilling to fight a legal war, or to put their lives on the line to defend the country against a real and present threat to our security.

However, Sir Michael was merely voicing the concerns of the defence establishment, which reflected the view of the British public that the war was not legal. The Chief of the Defence Staff feared that British soldiers would find themselves hauled up before the ICC and charged with committing war crimes because the war was not deemed to be legal.

The House must find the courage to do more than demand that the Attorney-General's advice be published. We must go further, and deal with the central question that the British public want us to address. The answer to that question cannot be determined through the claims and self-justifications of those who made the

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decisions. Only in the court of international opinion, or in the international institutions established to define the legalities of war, will the question be answered that people still ask us every day on their doorsteps. Was the war legal? At the moment, the answer in the public mind is no.

4.47 pm

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): I am not a lawyer, and that makes me unusual in this debate. However, my remarks centre on the fact that non-lawyers can also contribute to the discussion of these matters, as can people from the countries represented on these Benches.

My constituents are puzzled by the Government's strange reticence on this matter. Earlier, the Foreign Secretary likened the situation to the relationship between lawyer and client. He said that confidentiality must be respected, or the relationship would be worthless in the future. Similarly, he claimed that the Attorney-General's advice must remain confidential.

However, the relationship in question is not like the one that exists between a client and a lawyer. It is the relationship between a Government and a people. The advice given to the Government was the basis on which we went to war. That is not a pettifogging issue, as the right hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) claimed. He is not here at present, but it is not as if we are talking about double parking, shoplifting or the larceny of bicycle inner tubes. We are talking about war—the most extreme action a Government or state can take. The tragedies of 20,000 people, at least, attest to the seriousness of the matter. War is serious; it is not pettifogging.

If we are to resolve the matter collectively, and if the Government are to achieve the closure that Ministers and their friends so long for, the people of our countries must be satisfied. They must be given the full information so that they can decide the matter for themselves. I thought that Labour Members believed in the maxim, "Trust the people," but clearly they do not in this instance. I hope that the Government can trust the people in the future and that they publish the advice.

I was against the war and remain against it. I am clear about that, but this matter does not concern the war itself. The question here is whether people should be told the basis for going to war. If the advice is published, it will not be hon. Members who are satisfied but the people, in which case my constituents will be satisfied or otherwise by the Government's actions. The question is not for my hon. Friends or me; it is for the people, because the Government are answerable to the people of the United Kingdom—the people of Scotland, the people of Wales and the people of my Caernarfon constituency.

If the Government persist with their course of action and refuse to come clean and allow the matter to be resolved, the people will find them shifty and evasive, and—perhaps wrongly—they will be found guilty by default. If they have nothing to fear, nothing to hide and no guilt, let them publish the advice and be justified.

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