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The Prime Minister then failed to turn up to a debate on Iraq exactly six days later. Today, he has missed it by one minute.

Mr. Hague: Actually, he has missed a number of debates on Iraq by one minute, because it is his habit to leave the House as soon as any such debates begin. That is an unfortunate aspect of the Prime Minister’s treatment of these matters.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Is one of my right hon. Friend’s arguments for having a Privy Council inquiry the fact that much of the material is very sensitive and intelligence based, investigating why we went to war and how we handled the intelligence? What would be my right hon. Friend’s advice to such an inquiry on the publication of its findings, given the sensitivity of the intelligence work?

Mr. Hague: That is one of the arguments for having a Privy Council inquiry. It would have to make its own judgment, as would any inquiry at any stage, about how much of the information could be published. All the conclusions would certainly have to be published.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): Last October, the right hon. Gentleman said that the inquiry should take place by the end of this parliamentary Session—by October this year. This morning, he said that it should take place before the end of this calendar year; but this afternoon he is not putting a date on it at all. Why is he running away from it so quickly?

Mr. Hague: I am putting a date on it. I have not been able to do so yet because I have taken so many interventions. If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to proceed, he will not be disappointed, as I am coming to that very issue.

I was explaining to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) the advantages of this approach. A formal public inquiry would be likely to be a much lengthier process. A Committee of this House, which I believe was proposed by the nationalist parties, would find it harder to benefit from external expertise. A Privy Council inquiry on the model of the Franks commission therefore rapidly recommends itself for this particular subject and it must be highly likely to be what will happen in the end. The Government should be able to accept that today. If the Leader of the House and the Defence Secretary were not referring to this kind of committee of Privy Councillors when they referred to there being an inquiry in the future, the Foreign Secretary needs to tell the House today what sort of inquiry they were they talking about.

Given, however, that the Government’s response does not look as if it is going to be as constructive or even as consistent as that, the amendment that the Government have tabled to our motion today merits examination. It argues

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and it declines


at the moment.

The weaknesses of those arguments are readily apparent. First, the argument that the existence of inquiries presents a diversion from vital tasks and that four of them have taken place already cannot both be true at the same time—unless the Government believe that the hearings of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee or the processes of the Butler report seriously hampered the work going on in Iraq. Secondly, these arguments do not prevent the Government from accepting the case for a suitably powerful inquiry in principle. Thirdly, the idea that the ground has been covered even remotely adequately by what they call the

is nothing short of ludicrous.

One of those inquiries was the Hutton inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr. David Kelly; another was the Butler report, which focused only on intelligence on weapons of mass destruction; one of the others was the Foreign Affairs Committee report, published four years ago, on the decision to go to war in Iraq. Afterwards, the Committee published its views on the co-operation that it had received from the Government. In March 2004, it reported:

However, it went on to state:

It continued:

That is the true story of the Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry, yet it is held up by the Government in their amendment as an example of an independent inquiry. It is unacceptable for the Government to refuse to co-operate fully with the inquiries that take place, and then to cite their work as an illustration of why further inquiries are unnecessary.

The fact is that each of the inquiries that has taken place so far has provided a snapshot of one particular aspect of events in Iraq, but that their findings were sometimes arrived at without the full co-operation of the Government and are in general now out of date. There has been no investigation so far into the overall conduct of the war, the planning for the aftermath, or the implementation of such plans as may have existed for the rebuilding of the Iraqi state and society after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

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The argument that not even a proposal for an inquiry can be made because to do so would “divert attention” from the work going on in Iraq is merely the age-old argument of Ministers on the defensive. It amounts to saying that they are too busy to learn any lessons from what happened before, and it is an utterly bogus argument. Even if it were true, they would still be able to accept the principle of an inquiry, as called for in the motion before the House, but it is not true that our troops would be demoralised or that our enemies would take heart if we took the trouble to find out what has gone wrong. In a democratic society, the examination of successes and failures is a sign of strength, not of weakness. I have some experience of listening to soldiers serving in Iraq or who have recently returned from there, and they do an heroic job. They of all people are particularly anxious that the political decisions made in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion receive searching examination.

I would say to my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), who intervened on me earlier, that in circumstances of war, indeed even of total war, our predecessors in this House have conducted the most vigorous debates about wartime debacles, whether in Norway in 1940 or in the Dardanelles in 1915. Indeed, in the latter case, they set up a major commission of inquiry while the first world war continued. They were even encouraged to do so by the Minister principally responsible, a certain Winston Churchill, who clearly had a stronger sense of the need for accountability and learning lessons than we sometimes see today.

Mr. Quentin Davies: The historical precedents that my right hon. Friend has just cited reinforce my position, rather than his. There was indeed an inquiry in 1915 into the Dardanelles, but only after the last British troops and sailors had left Suva bay. In 1940, we did indeed have a memorable debate in the House on Norway, but only after the last British troops and sailors had left Narvik. I am suggesting that we should hold an inquiry into Iraq only after our last troops have left the country.

Mr. Hague: I am suggesting that when a war has been going on for this length of time, it is entirely valid to conduct such an inquiry. If it was good enough for Winston Churchill, it should be good enough for my hon. Friend.

It remains our view on these Benches that such an inquiry should begin at an early date. For one thing, some of the events to be examined took place as long ago as 2002, and we will soon find that memories will have faded, letters will have been shredded and e-mails will have become untraceable.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Hague: Let me carry on for a little while. I will come back to the hon. Gentleman later.

Secondly, we have to be absolutely clear about some of the errors that have been made so that they are not repeated, for instance in Afghanistan. Thirdly, everyone—supporters of the war as well as its opponents—must
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now recognise that the events of the last four years have damaged public trust and confidence in the political handling of such matters more than any events in our lifetime. A major inquiry and the debates that will necessarily flow from its findings are an essential precursor to rebuilding trust and confidence in the capacity of this or any Government to deal with situations in the middle east. Such rebuilding of public trust is a vital task, and should not be long delayed.

In debates in the House of Lords, there has been a good deal of consensus, very much in line with what I propose. Former Foreign Secretaries such as my noble Friend Lord Hurd of Westwell and the noble Lord Owen have put the case for an inquiry to consider the workings of the machinery of government. Lord Owen said:

There is no doubt in my mind that the co-ordination of Government Departments in the aftermath of the invasion is a legitimate subject for examination. Last December, at the court martial of soldiers from the Queens Lancashire Regiment, the Army officer who led British forces in Basra following the invasion, Brigadier Moore, said that in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion his 4,000 men were,

He said:

We should, of course, recognise the successes in Iraq over the past few years: Saddam Hussein has been removed, democratic elections have been held, and parts of the country are relatively stable. Overall, however, Iraq today is not the Iraq that we hoped for in the aftermath of the fall of Saddam. I have mentioned the need to look into the major decisions, generally made in Washington, but undoubtedly with some kind of British input, either for or against—the de-Ba’athification and disbandment of the army. Those were of huge importance, and much needs to be learned from them about how to influence decisions when conducting operations alongside a superpower.

Then there were the immense problems in delivering improvements to the infrastructure of Iraq. The United States has conducted a wide range of searching inquiries, and notably has not been afraid to do so in spite of its massive engagement in fighting in Iraq. The American Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction has produced 60 audit reports and given testimony to Congress on at least 18 occasions, but there is no equivalent examination of the more than £350 million of British taxpayers’ money disbursed by the Department for International Development since 2003. The inquiry begun by the International Development Committee in 2004 was discontinued after the last election, yet the need to learn lessons from the difficulties faced is urgent and serious.

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For all those reasons, none of us in the House should turn our face against a major inquiry into what has happened. This Government and future Governments need to learn the lessons, and the country needs to be assured that they will have done so. No adequate reason remains for the Government to refuse to establish such an inquiry to begin its work in the near future, but there is even less reason for them to disagree with the motion before the House today calling for such an inquiry in principle. Their response could be a constructive one, as on war powers, accepting that principle and opening the way for cross-party discussion to bring it about. Instead, if the Government’s amendment is anything to go by, the Foreign Secretary looks set to maintain the Government’s refusal to make any proposal for an inquiry. That position is inconsistent with the many comments already made by Ministers, incompatible with learning vital lessons as fully and as rapidly as possible, and inadequate to the scale of the immensely difficult issues that we now face.

4.54 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett): I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

The motion before the House today calls for a new inquiry

It also proposes that the House decide now that such an inquiry should be conducted in the same way as the Franks inquiry into the Falklands war. Those with particularly long memories will recall that only about six months ago we had a debate here on a very similar motion. They may also recall that during that debate I made plain the Government’s view that there would come a time when these issues would be explored in the round so that we could learn whatever lessons could be learnt from them. However, I also made clear our view that while our troops remained actively engaged and facing real danger in Iraq, it would be wrong to launch such an inquiry. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) that there is no precedent.

Since then both Houses of Parliament have enjoyed substantive debates on Iraq, including debates in the House on 12 December and 24 January. On 11 January my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and I gave evidence to a lengthy joint session of the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committees, and on 21 February the Prime Minister delivered a detailed statement to the House on the Government’s policy on Iraq.

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Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): The Foreign Secretary says that she is unhappy with the idea of an inquiry while British troops remain in Iraq. She will be aware that it is widely assumed that even if the vast majority of British troops are withdrawn over the next 12 months, it is highly likely that a significant number will remain to carry out training functions or for other purposes, possibly for several years. Is she implying that no inquiry could be considered by the Government until the last British soldier had left Iraq?

Margaret Beckett: I am not implying anything. I am simply saying very clearly and straightforwardly, as I did when this matter was last raised, that I do not think that now, when our troops are very much engaged, is the time to make the decision that has been proposed to the House.

Since we debated the issue here in October, the Government’s position on an inquiry has been restated a number of times by, for instance, my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Defence and the Leader of the House, and indeed by the Prime Minister. Nothing has happened since last October to change our position. More than 5,000 British troops do remain in Iraq, where they continue to be engaged in extremely difficult and dangerous work in trying to build a better future for the Iraqi people. Only last week, Iraqi Foreign Minister Zebari paid tribute to them and stressed the importance of what they were doing for his country. I too pay tribute to their courage and professionalism.

I know that the House will join me in offering condolences to the family of Corporal Rodney Wilson, who was killed in Basra last week. He was the 150th soldier to lose his life in Iraq since 2003. I also pay tribute to two other servicemen, Lance-Corporal Paul Sandford and Guardsman Neil Downes, both of whom lost their lives in Helmand province in Afghanistan last week. I know that I take the whole House with me in sending our condolences to their families.

Against that background, it should be no surprise to anyone that the Government’s position has not changed. We continue to believe that agreeing to set such an inquiry in motion at this moment would be not only premature but, much worse, self-indulgent. By contrast, the Opposition’s approach to the issue seems at best confused and at worst opportunistic. Sadly, that is not new. In October, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) said:

—that is, on that date in October—

He then promptly voted for a motion that implied that such an inquiry should be launched immediately. To be fair, he said that an inquiry should instead commence in

He did not point out that, at the time, that was two weeks away. The motion that the right hon. Gentleman has tabled today makes no reference at all to the timing of such an inquiry, but does attempt—although he made only a passing reference to this—to commit the House to a very specific proposal for its forum.

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