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31 Oct 2006 : Column 183

Mr. Hague: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but the Foreign Secretary has been unable confirm that there would be an inquiry at all. That remains one of the differences in the House today. I presume that the hon. Gentleman believes that an inquiry should take place at the point that he identified. Perhaps he should have intervened on the Foreign Secretary, rather than on me, to make that point.

Our second difference with the motion is that we do not believe that such an inquiry should be established now. As the Foreign Secretary said, important operations are under way in Iraq. Major political decisions in Iraq and efforts to contain the insurgency appear to be in the balance. The Baker commission is expected to report in the next few months. Any inquiry should be able to examine what happens in the coming months as well as the events of recent years. To begin an inquiry now would therefore be premature—to that extent, I agree with the Foreign Secretary—but there is no legitimate reason why the Government cannot say today that an inquiry will be established at some point in the next Session. That means any time in the next 12 months.

The Defence Secretary has spoken about being

and the Minister for the Middle East has said:

Ministry of Defence sources told The Daily Telegraph last week that more than half the British troops would be withdrawn by next February. It would be inconsistent to make those assertions while maintaining that in the course of the next year no committee of inquiry could even begin its work, which would presumably take a further six to nine months to report in 2008.

Kitty Ussher (Burnley) (Lab): Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that if his amendment is carried, the Iraqi authorities will interpret it as a message of support from Britain? If not, does he agree with his leader, who said last summer that a failure—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind the hon. Lady that the right hon. Gentleman’s amendment has not been selected for debate.

Mr. Hague: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. The fact that our amendment has not been selected for debate does make it unlikely that it will be carried. Whatever the Iraqi authorities are worried about, that will not be one of the factors that concern them.

Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Frank Field: rose—

Mr. Hague: I will give way to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field).

Mr. Field: Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that it is clear from the debate that the House of Commons will demand an inquiry of the kind that he is requesting when troops are safely back home? The
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real question that we must decide today is whether the inquiry should take place then, or whether we should fix a timetable although our troops may still be engaged.

Mr. Hague: I do think that there is a great demand for the inquiry, although it is a pity that Ministers are not participating in that demand, which is felt in so many other parts of the House. I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman can rely on its being forced on them at the time.

Of course it is an alternative to say that rather than the inquiry taking place in the next Session of Parliament, it should take place after the conflict has ended—although Ministers have not even gone so far as to say that this afternoon. The difficulty with that idea is that the end of the conflict was pronounced three years ago, and it did not come to an end. It is sometimes very hard to define when the conflict has ended. I feel, for the reasons that I have given, that specifying the next Session of Parliament, over the next year, is a wholly reasonable request.

Jane Kennedy rose—

Mr. Hague: I will give way a few more times later, but I must make some progress first.

The argument put to the press by the Prime Minister’s spokesman in the last 24 hours that if the Government were to open the door to an inquiry with such a time scale it would damage the morale or performance of our troops who are in Iraq at the moment does not bear serious scrutiny. Many of our troops—currently facing a very difficult situation in Basra, with the British consulate under mortar attack in the last few days, and doing an heroic job in very difficult circumstances—will want to know that politicians of all parties have studied the Iraq war in great detail, so that decisions can be made in the future from which they and their colleagues will benefit.

Furthermore, it was the Chief of the General Staff himself who said two weeks ago:

That is precisely what an inquiry in the future would be able to do. He also said—and this is a stronger criticism than anything that has been said from the Opposition Front Bench—

General Dannatt may have been stretching his relationship with the Government, but no one has suggested that he was undermining the morale of the troops by making those points, and that accusation should not be made against other people who make those points.

I will now give way to the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy).

Jane Kennedy: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman—although I am sad to see him allying himself and his party to the shabby political opportunism of the nationalists.

In considering what he would say tonight, did the right hon. Gentleman take into account the words of the Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq when he visited
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Parliament last week and was able to brief Members? He made clear—he pleaded with us—that the absolute, overriding priority for this Parliament was to concentrate on building Iraq for the future. Did the right hon. Gentleman take the opportunity to be briefed by the Deputy Prime Minister? If he did, what was he advised?

Mr. Hague: We do not disagree with that at all. Of course it is a great priority. But it would be a mistake to think that we can build properly for the future without any regard to the lessons of the past, and it would be a great mistake to argue that we cannot do better in the future—in future conflicts, or in Iraq, or in Afghanistan—without holding inquiries of this kind.

The right hon. Lady asked whether I had met the Deputy Prime Minister. I have not, but my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), the shadow Defence Secretary, has been to Iraq and met many of the people there. There is no shortage of contacts between the Opposition and politicians in Iraq. We listen to them, just as Labour politicians rightly listen to them.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Hague: I really must make some progress, but I will give way to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg).

Mr. Hogg: Will my right hon. Friend also remind the House that President Bush himself commissioned former Secretary of State Baker to examine the present situation in Iraq and come forward with policy options? No one anywhere, even on the Labour Front Bench, has suggested that that was inappropriate.

Mr. Hague: My right hon. and learned Friend makes a valid point. Similarly, the former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Inge, has said:

Is he, a field marshal, to be accused of damaging our troops by raising any questions in public?

I do not believe that it is possible to argue, in a House of Commons which 80 years ago instituted an inquiry into the Dardanelles campaign while the first world war was still raging, that to raise even a suggestion of an inquiry in the future is somehow to undermine the British Army. The British Army is both tougher and more thoughtful than that. Its operations should not be used as an excuse to avoid examining any of our political processes and judgments.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Hague: Let me see. I shall give way to the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), for the sake of diversity.

Jeremy Corbyn: Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the military families campaign—many of whose members have lost loved ones in Iraq in the past three years—has sent a letter to many hon. Members before today’s debate supporting the call for an inquiry,
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because they want to know the truth about what happened to their loved ones, and whether they died for a legal or an illegal war?

Mr. Hague: Those people will be particularly concerned about our deliberations today, but it is also in the interests of the whole nation—and the conduct of policy by this or any other Government in the future—to learn the lessons at the appropriate time.

Let us be clear that the demand for an inquiry is not set against a background in which everything has failed. Saddam Hussein has been removed from power and is rightly on trial before his people. Three sets of free and fair votes, including two parliamentary elections, have been held in Iraq, and the hard work to build up the Iraqi security forces, many of whom now operate with great dedication and bravery, has shown substantial success. But it would be utterly naive for those of us who supported the invasion of Iraq not to acknowledge that other things have gone wrong or fallen below expectations, and that unless the British people can see that those matters have been examined minutely, properly, and thoroughly with a view to informing the future decisions of all of us, the strength and unity of this country in facing future international crises will be undermined.

According to the US Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, who has issued 41 reports and audits without being accused of undermining the troops, the assumptions made pre-war about the oil and gas sector in Iraq—that its revenues would pay for reconstruction, that foreign investment would quickly flow in, and so on—have all proved to be incorrect. It will be vital to study in the future why, in his opinion,

It will be vital to study why nearly $9 billion of revenue dispersed by the coalition provisional authority could not be accounted for. As this country has committed some £500 million to reconstruction, is it not essential to examine its effect?

No one can really deny that the question of why only one third of projected reconstruction has been achieved to date, and what impact that has had on respect for coalition forces and the political progress of Iraq, must be thoroughly assessed in the future. We must be able to come to a view about whether more could have been done to control or seal Iraq’s borders, whether more could have been done to win the hearts and minds of the population, and whether, if the coalition forces had been able to impose their authority by preventing looting in the days immediately following their arrival in Iraq, subsequent developments might have been different. We do not know the answers, but we need to know.

The Chancellor has said that

If that is the lesson, we all need to learn more about it. The Foreign Secretary has herself said, in a commendably frank answer to the question whether future historians might see the Iraq war as a foreign policy disaster:

It cannot be argued that it is fine for the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Foreign Secretary to
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say all those things, which question what has happened in Iraq, but that for any Opposition Member to suggest an inquiry is some traitorous act that lets down the country or our troops. It will not be sufficient for the assessment of the historians that the Foreign Secretary mentioned, or for her and her colleagues in Government, or for any who hope to serve in a future Government, to base their assessments on hearsay, impressions or half truths. The case for a searching inquiry, at the right time, is so strong that the Government should have no problem in acceding to it and I am astonished that they are not able to do so.

Tom Levitt: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. Although I disagree with many of his conclusions, I congratulate him on putting forward a more coherent case than did the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price). He has argued especially strongly against holding an immediate inquiry, and I agree about that. Does he therefore accept that it would be logical for him and his party to join us in the No Lobby if the House votes on the motion later tonight?

Mr. Hague: No. Given the practical confines of House of Commons procedures, it is logical for an Opposition to try to produce the effects that they want. The Government have failed to give any assurance about holding an inquiry, in the next Session of Parliament or at any time. I certainly recommend that my hon. Friends vote for the motion, as the practical effect of ensuring that it is carried, or nearly carried, is that the Government would have to think about coming forward with their own proposals for an inquiry, of the right kind and at the right time. That is the right way for Opposition Members to vote.

There are members of various parties who have given strong support to the Government but who are adamantly of the same opinion. In the interests of time, I shall refer only to the former Foreign Secretary Lord Owen— [ Interruption. ] Labour Members should not tut-tut, as he was a Labour Foreign Secretary. At the end of June, he said:

He went on to say that

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that we have been fighting in Iraq for the cause of democracy and liberty, and that there is no finer sign that that is what we believe in than the fact we can hold a democratic debate in the House and set up a proper democratic inquiry? What is the point of democracy if we cannot challenge how the Executive have handled a very contentious war?

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Mr. Hague: My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point. As I have said, our predecessors in this House debated the Dardanelles. They also debated the Morris report in 1918, to the great embarrassment of Lloyd George, and the 1940 Norway campaign. They were not scared that debating such matters might have given heart to the Germans, in either the first or the second world war. We will not be worthy of being their successors unless we are unafraid to debate things in this House as well.

I am less hard on the Government than Lord Owen or the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr. We on the Opposition Front Bench do not call for this inquiry to be established immediately. We would be happy for the Government to give thought as to when it should begin its work, but we also believe— given that operations have been going on for more than three years and are expected to diminish considerably in future months, and that we live in a country where we are meant to enjoy the great democratic strength of discussing our successes and failures—that to postpone the establishment of such an inquiry beyond the end of another Session of Parliament would be beyond the limits of what is reasonable.

All we want the Government to say is that, in recognition of the force of the arguments for an inquiry in due course, the relevant Committee, based on the Franks model, will be established within the next year. We would consider such a response to be a proper one. If the Government gave it, we would abstain from voting on the motion tonight. However, if they are unwilling to say that, even though there are two significant points of differences between many of us and the proposers of the motion, we believe that the House of Commons should send Ministers a message that they must come up with their own proposals. In the absence of those proposals today, all who believe in the proper scrutiny of the Executive should cast their votes accordingly.

Several hon. Members rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has imposed an eight-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.

5.24 pm

Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside) (Lab): What a tangled web we weave—[ Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order.

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