Previous SectionIndexHome Page

5.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Bill Rammell): This debate has been useful in reviewing many important issues surrounding the conflict with Iraq, but I am honestly not sure that it has been about the legality of going to war and whether it was right or wrong to do so. Hon. Members rehearsed arguments made in the Chamber before about whether we were right in principle to go to war, which is a separate issue.

Let me deal with the issues that were raised. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) referred to the non-disclosure of the Attorney-General's advice. He said that it was impossible to be dogmatic, and that there might be circumstances in which everything is to be gained from disclosure. That is an arguable case, but it is not justified in the circumstances. If he looks at the precedents, such advice from an

9 Mar 2004 : Column 1452

Attorney-General has never been disclosed in circumstances of military conflict—not once has that happened, and he should reflect on that. He went on to level accusations at the Government, asking whether we can support the rule of law in Iraq when we ignore it here. I would argue emphatically that we are not ignoring the rule of law, and I would maintain equally emphatically that we would not have gone to war unless it was lawful under international law to do so.

Mr. Salmond: Reflecting on the Minister's first argument, a number of precedents for the full disclosure of the Attorney-General's advice have been raised in the debate, including, for example, the case of the Spanish fishing boats. Does the Minister maintain that it was more important to reveal advice on such an issue than to do so on the most fundamental issue of all?

Mr. Rammell: I wish that I had not given way to the hon. Gentleman. I was making the point that when Members cite selective examples of precedent, they must be able to sustain their argument, and I do not believe that they have done so this afternoon.

The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy said that we went to war solely on the basis of intelligence in the possession of the UK Government. That is emphatically not the case. We went to war because resolution 1441, which was passed unanimously, gave Iraq a last chance verifiably to disarm, which it manifestly did not take. Hans Blix's report consists of 173 pages of unanswered questions, which also led us to our conclusion. The hon. Gentleman threw in for good measure the 45-minute claim. Nothing in our debate has frustrated me more than the focus after the event on that claim, which in retrospect has grown in importance compared with its relevance in the run-up to conflict. The record shows that the 45-minute claim was raised only twice in the 40,000 parliamentary questions tabled between the publication of the dossier and the decision to go to war on 18 March 2003. Not once was it raised in oral questions, and not once was it raised in the debate on 18 March. It is all very well to make such claims in retrospect, but we need to look at what happened in fact in the run-up to the war.

The hon. Gentleman lamented the fact that he was not in a position to make a judgment without seeing the Attorney-General's advice. I contend that he does not need to do so—the Attorney-General's statement to Parliament makes the legal position clear—unless he is saying that the Attorney-General said one thing to Parliament in his published response and another privately to the Government. Unless that is his contention, I do not understand the case that he is making.

Mr. Llwyd: I have already gone out of my way to say that I am not impugning the credibility of the Attorney-General or the veracity of what he said. I repeat: the facts on which he based his conclusion are the key to the whole debate.

Mr. Rammell: With respect, I think that the hon. Gentleman did impugn the integrity of the Attorney-General—[Interruption.] Let me finish the point. He said clearly that he was not impugning the Attorney-General's integrity, but he went on to argue that the

9 Mar 2004 : Column 1453

Attorney-General had been gagged yet had remained in office, which is fundamentally to question his integrity. I hope that in the cold light of day the hon. Gentleman will reflect on his comments and withdraw them.

We then heard a contribution from the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who said that although advice from the Attorney-General should ordinarily remain confidential, he disagreed with that in these particular circumstances. I find it difficult to reconcile his comments with those made by his right hon and learned Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary in a debate in the House on 22 October, when he said, explicitly referring to the Attorney-General's advice:

The House needs to know what, in the view of the Opposition, has changed between then and now.

Mr. Grieve: First, there is no incompatibility between what my right hon. and learned Friend said and what I said. Secondly, the major change that has taken place since then is that information has come to light that has led to public disquiet about what information the Government had on weapons of mass destruction and how they used it. That is why the Government set up the Butler inquiry.

Mr. Rammell: I wholly refute what the hon. Gentleman says. If the public disquiet to which he refers exists now, it existed then. That is why the shadow Foreign Secretary called for an independent judicial inquiry. There is a significant difference between what the hon. Gentleman said today and what his right hon. and learned Friend said as recently as October last year. That demonstrates yet again that nobody knows more about opportunism than Conservative Front Benchers.

I listened carefully to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Llew Smith), who is no longer in the Chamber. He said that the House needs to know whether Ministers deliberately distorted evidence to justify the case for war, and implied that we could well have done. I shall choose my words carefully, because I have the greatest respect for hon. Members who, in opposing the decision to go to war, reached a conclusion that differed from mine. However, they do not have a monopoly on conviction or sincerity in this regard. I respect their right to put forward their views, but I wish that they would respect the right of Government Front Benchers similarly to argue from the position of conviction and sincerity.

As for the allegation that we distorted and fabricated evidence and misled the House, that has been refuted on three separate occasions. The cross-party Intelligence and Security Committee, the cross-party Foreign Affairs Committee and the Hutton inquiry all concluded in terms that we did not distort—to use the jargon, "sex up"—the dossier and that we took reasonable decisions based on the evidence before us. I wish that hon. Members who disagree with our decision to go to war would at least concede that point to us.

9 Mar 2004 : Column 1454

My hon. Friend raised the issue of Jeremy Greenstock's comments and the argument that the first Security Council resolution had no "automaticity" in terms of deciding to go to war. That is a key argument that needs to be addressed. I stress that Security Council resolution 1441 did not revive the 678 authorisation immediately on its adoption. In that very significant sense, there was no "automaticity". The resolution rightly afforded Iraq a final opportunity to comply and provided for any failure by Iraq to be "considered" by the Security Council. However—this is the key point—that paragraph in the resolution does not mean that no further action could be taken without a new resolution by the Security Council. Had that explicitly been the intention, it would have provided that the Security Council would decide what needed to be done to restore international peace and security, not, as the resolution actually stated, to consider the matter. The choice of words was explicit and deliberate. A proposal that there should be a requirement for a decision by the Security Council—a position that was initially maintained by several of its members—was not adopted. Instead, rightly in my view, the Security Council opted for the formula that it must consider the matter before any action was taken. That is fundamentally what happened.

The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) knows from many of the issues with which we have been involved that I have the greatest respect for him. This afternoon, however, he questioned the legal basis for going to war. Yet on 24 September 2002, in the run-up to war, he made it clear that he believed that there was a legal basis. He said:

He was right then and I wish that he had followed the thrust of his argument. His words in September 2002 do not sit easily with his comments today.

Sir Menzies Campbell: Does the Minister concede that I consistently said that military action must be seen as a last resort when all other diplomatic and political alternatives have been exhausted, and that the source of international law is to be found not only in the United Nations and its charter or resolutions but in customary international law?

Next Section

IndexHome Page