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4.51 pm

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this debate. Contrary to suggestions by my

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hon. Friends that the issue is pettifogging and that ordinary people are not interested in it, I have received many letters about it and am glad to speak on behalf of my constituents.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) asked, whose cause would be served by publishing the legal advice. I have a simple answer: the cause of democracy will be served by publishing the legal advice. We have heard that Ministers' arguments that there is no precedent for publishing the Attorney-General's advice is wholly specious. In his comprehensive speech, the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) set out all the precedents going back to the 19th century. Before he informed us about the historical precedents, we already knew that the Government had partially revealed the advice by presenting a summary. I am not a lawyer, but I cannot see the difference between publishing a summary of the advice and publishing the whole advice.

The other argument that we have heard from Ministers—I hope that we will not hear it again this afternoon—is that the Government are somehow comparable to a lawyer's private client, but that is tendentious. The Government are not the clients; if anything, we are the clients, and therefore we are entitled to see advice that was sought in our names.

Some of my hon. Friends have asked why there is concern about the legal advice. One reason why there is concern is that it is widely acknowledged that the greatest expertise about the law in relation to war and foreign policy rests not with the Attorney-General, who is a distinguished commercial lawyer but not an expert on these matters, but the Foreign Office. Is it pure coincidence that the deputy legal adviser to the Foreign Office resigned on the eve of the war? Could it be that there were uncertainties within the Foreign Office that were not reflected in the published summary of the Attorney-General's advice?

Mrs. Mahon: At the United Nations, almost every person who was asked their opinion, including the Secretary-General Kofi Annan, did not give their blessing to the legality of the war. They are the experts on going to war.

Ms Abbott: I am grateful to my hon. Friend.

On the eve of war, the deputy legal adviser at the Foreign Office, Elizabeth Wilmshurst, resigned, which was not sufficiently remarked on at the time. Days before the war, the Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Michael Boyce, insisted on a simple statement on the legality of the war. That gives the lie to my hon. Friends who claim that the legality of the war was transparent all along. If the Chief of the Defence Staff demanded a definitive statement on the legality of the war, it means that there was uncertainty among those who were best placed to know—our armed forces. People ask why we are obsessed with this pettifogging issue and why are we always looking backwards, but I believe that the British public value our armed forces and do not want to feel that we sent them to fight an illegal war. That is not a trivial matter. Indeed, it goes to the heart of the framework of international law.

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One of the reasons for the uncertainty, the bloodshed and the attacks on our forces in the region is a widespread belief internationally that the war was not legal. Certainly, military action was not taken on the basis of a genuine international consensus. It was undertaken unilaterally by the US and Britain. Whether my hon. Friends like it or not, the issue still concerns the British public. The legality of the war has a bearing on the legitimacy of the actions of our troops in the future.

The issue will not go away. There is a shadow hanging over the Government and all the bluster and threats against certain of my hon. Friends—such as intimations that we will be put in front of a special tribunals and asked whether we are, or have ever been, socialists—will not make it go away. The shadow from the war with Iraq is a widespread perception—not only among Opposition Members and Back Benchers—that we sent our troops into an illegal war. If the Government are confident of the legal basis for the war, they have nothing to fear from completing the process that they have started and publishing, in full, the Attorney-General's advice.

4.57 pm

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): It is a great pleasure to sum up the debate, which was opened by my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd).

Over the weekend, The Guardian asked for my memories of the Iraq debate held almost a year ago; I am sure that the Foreign Secretary and many others who participated in it will also be asked, if they have not been already, about their memories. I took the precaution of re-reading the debate, and it is instructive to see the development in the positions of several people.

I was pleased to note that I started my contribution by saying what I still believe to be the case—that the fundamental issue at stake was not Saddam Hussein, Iraq, oil or international terrorism, but the development of a new world order. In particular, it was the development of a doctrine of pre-emption by the dominant—indeed, the only—superpower in the world, and how the world community would adjust to that new reality. Having read the speech that the Prime Minister made in Sedgefield on Friday, I am even more concerned, because in it he sailed close to the wind about such a doctrine. As has been said at least once in this debate, the problem with a doctrine of pre-emption is that it would not be used only by the most powerful country in the world. By definition, without a framework of international law by which countries must abide, it is a doctrine that can be used by any country that is more powerful than another country from which it perceives a threat. I still think that the framework of law is the most important issue in the war in Iraq. The issue is still with us and it is clear that the Prime Minister is now struggling with it, although it might have been better to have had that intellectual struggle before the conflict, instead of afterwards.

I make my second point because, remarkably, I hear from a number of ultra-loyal forces on the Government Benches that somehow the question of weapons of mass destruction was not the dominant theme in the Prime Minister's presentation to us on 18 March. In fact, he presented us with a clear and present danger, saying:

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The Prime Minister presented us with a world in which there was a clear, imminent threat, one that required an immediate response. It could not even wait a few weeks for Hans Blix and the rest of the inspectors to complete their work and furnish us with the facts. Those facts, which were then unknown, are now probably known to the extent that no such weapons of mass destruction have been found.

I want to do three things in summing up the debate, beginning with a look at the framework of law. I will not follow my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, who quoted extensively from many legal authorities and said that people who were for or against legality all argued that the Attorney-General's advice should be published. I thought that that was an extremely powerful point, even if the Foreign Secretary did not take it fully on board. I want to quote key people who were involved in terms of the international framework of law: Hans Blix and the Secretary-General of the United Nations, who were not involved in our domestic political debate, but who were at the very centre of what can be defined as the world order, or at least what should be defined as the world order.

Secondly, I want to look at the development of Government thinking, because one of the reasons why the Attorney-General's advice should be published is that it is clear to me that the Government's thinking on the matter went through a serious evolutionary change as the realisation dawned that a second resolution would not be possible. I should like to see whether the Attorney-General's legal opinion reflected that change as the sequence of events unfolded, which is why I should like to see all his advice published.

Thirdly, I want to repeat the fundamental point that the party to this argument, the client, was not the Government. The client was Parliament and the people of this country, who are absolutely entitled to see the legal basis on which they were committed to conflict.

With regard to the question of quoting people, the Foreign Secretary follows the Prime Minister in almost demeaning his profession. Lawyers are people who disagree. It is said that there are as many legal opinions as there are lawyers. I am an economist, and the same sort of thing is said about economists. There is an argument unfolding that this is a matter about which reasonable people can agree or disagree: that there is no absolute certainty, no absolute fact, no moral code to abide by, but a series of arguments. On Friday the Prime Minister said it again:

the question of law—

I stop the quotation there. Lawyers would be less than human if their legal judgments were not informed by their general views. Every human being has that tendency. But is it not also possible that many lawyers, and many other human beings, informed their view of the war by their opinion of its legality, not vice-versa?

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The question of legality is fundamental. In all the conflicts that I have been asked to vote upon, on some of which I agreed with the Government, as with the then Government on the first Iraq conflict and with the present Government on a number of humanitarian interventions more recently, I have taken as my fundamental code United Nations approval and sanction for conflict. Although they have never arisen to date, there might be circumstances in which the United Nations sanctioned an action and I still would not feel it to be right, because, as the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) pointed out, the legality of a war is dependent on whether the action is proportionate, whether it is effective and whether all other avenues have been tried. However, the guidance of the United Nations is not a bad place to start from when deciding whether a conflict is legal and justified.

I shall quote from three opinions. The first is from a former Solicitor-General, Lord Archer—not the Tory but the Labour one—who served in that position for five years during the 1970s:

If the advice of the present Attorney-General had been not that war was legal, but that it was not justified and not legal, what would have been the Government's response? Would it have been to change their course of action or their Attorney-General? I want to get to the heart of the relationship between the Government and their Law Officers.

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