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Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): As someone who voted against the Iraq war on every single occasion, I think that it ill becomes someone to come to the Dispatch Box and argue about an inquiry at this stage. It would be unreal for you to expect people like me to come into the Lobby with you. Could I pose a question back to you? If the right hon. Gentleman is looking at a position where you want an inquiry at this moment in time—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am trying to assist the hon. Gentleman in the use of the correct parliamentary language. He must not involve me by saying “you”. I think that he meant the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Hague: The best answer that I could give to the hon. Gentleman would be to develop the case of what an inquiry would look at now, and the argument for holding it now. I shall proceed to do that—

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab) Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Lynne Jones rose—

Mr. Hague: In fairness, I shall give way to the hon. Lady, who has been trying to intervene, and I shall then proceed a little way.

Lynne Jones: I thank the right hon. Gentleman. While I am in favour of an inquiry, and I do not accept the Government’s arguments that the time is not right, I am concerned about its nature. If we vote for the right hon. Gentleman’s motion, how can we be sure that it will provide a full inquiry that will take evidence in public, preferably on oath, in which we can have every confidence? We have not had confidence in previous inquiries, with good reason.

Mr. Hague: The case we have set out in the motion is for a Privy Council inquiry, modelled on the inquiry that took place after the Falklands war. As I said in response to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), the practical result of the motion being carried would be that the Government would be required by Parliament to set up an inquiry, which would be a matter for further debate. My preferred model is that of a Privy Council inquiry. I want to set out the reasons for that in a moment.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op) rose—

Rob Marris rose—

Mr. Hague: Let me proceed a little way. I will give way to hon. Members in due course, but we have to remember that others will wish to speak.

The case in principle for an inquiry should, therefore, be agreed across the political spectrum. It was agreed after the last debate. For those of us who supported the invasion of March 2003, recent signs of hope in Iraq are welcome indeed. The security situation has improved, the Iraqi economy is growing, stumbling but genuine steps towards political reconciliation have taken place and optimism among the people of the country has risen. But we all have to recognise that the path to this renewal of hope has lain through a painful
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trauma, including the deaths of 175 members of our armed forces. While the 23 days of the initial military campaign to overthrow Saddam were astonishingly successful, the constant theme of those who have written about their involvement in subsequent events is that things went seriously wrong in the preparation for, and execution of, the occupation of the country.

Sir Hilary Synnott, who was in charge of southern Iraq under the coalition provisional authority, puts very well in his book the need to draw practical lessons from the events. That is part of the case for an inquiry beginning now. He says that, of course, the highest-level political decisions in the run-up to the war need to be examined, but that many practical issues also need to be considered. I shall quote him at some length. He mentions:

He continues:

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Hague: I shall give way to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) and then I will read further from Sir Hilary Synnott’s book.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that any inquiry needs to embark on the much more fundamental question of whether it is right for any nation to go to war in the absence of an express United Nations resolution, save when there is an urgent, genuine and immediate threat to its security or that of its immediate allies?

Mr. Hague: Of course, it would be open to an inquiry to examine the arguments about legality. I suspect that a difference of view would remain at the end, but it would be open to the inquiry to consider that.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that some of us felt that, whatever preparation had been made in advance of the invasion, the war would inevitably lead to the sort of mess that exists now—in other words, those who voted against the war at the outset felt that it was impossible to avoid the quagmire that we now face?

Mr. Hague: Of course, there are people who hold that view. There are disagreements in the House and in every party about that. The hon. Gentleman may recall that the person who said:

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was his noble Friend Lord Ashdown. There is bound to be disagreement to some extent in any party about that.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend share my opinion that it is clear that a majority in the House of Commons currently believes that there should be an inquiry now, but that the practical problem is that we will not get one in the lifetime of this Parliament until sufficient Labour Back Benchers are persuaded to support the proposal? Could he perhaps invite members of the Labour party who have already expressed such an opinion to table a motion, stipulating what sort of inquiry they would like, and contemplate our party or the Liberal Democrats giving time for debate so that we could mobilise a parliamentary majority to do what the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) suggested? Thus Parliament could reassert its right to call an inquiry when it wants.

Mr. Hague: That is, characteristically of my right hon. and learned Friend, a hugely constructive proposal. Indeed, hon. Members who differ with the terms that we propose but agree that there is a need for an inquiry may wish to do exactly as he suggests.

Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North) (Lab) rose—

Mike Gapes rose—

Rob Marris rose—

Mr. Hague: I will give way to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), who has been so persistent, and then I shall return to Sir Hilary Synnott’s book.

Rob Marris: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his graciousness. If the inquiry that he seeks through the motion took place and was completed before UK troops were withdrawn from Iraq, would he envisage a second inquiry?

Mr. Hague: That would depend on later events, but I do not think so. Given the stage that we have now reached of fulfilling an overwatch role and what is meant to become a training and mentoring role, pressure or a campaign for a second inquiry is highly unlikely.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Hague: Having spent the weekend reading Sir Hilary Synnott’s book, I am determined to impart my knowledge of it to the House. He makes an important point when he states:

In his opinion,

and so on. He continues:

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That, as I see it, is why a full-scale inquiry is of practical relevance, and why it might be of assistance to the future operations of this or any other Government and to our armed forces in the field elsewhere. To close our minds to learning from or to delay learning from the issues that Sir Hilary Synnott—the man in charge of governing southern Iraq on our behalf—has been talking about would be a dereliction of our duty, as well as that of the Government.

Mike Gapes: Can we get back to the terms of the right hon. Gentleman’s motion? It refers to

but when, in his opinion, did that period begin? Does it include what happened when the Thatcher Government were arming Saddam and implicitly supporting the repression of the Kurds, or does it simply start when the Labour Government were elected?

Mr. Hague: I do not think that that period starts with an election. Rather, it is for the members of the inquiry to decide; or, indeed, it is for the Government to bring forward terms of reference for an inquiry that set that out. That question is hardly an insurmountable obstacle to the setting up of a Privy Council or any other inquiry.

Mr. Henderson rose—

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP) rose—

Mr. Hague: I am trying to involve all parts of the House, so I give way to the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil).

Mr. MacNeil: I am grateful. To develop the argument that the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) made, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, this being the third attempt to have an inquiry into Iraq, if we do not have one this time, owing to the practical problem of Labour Back Benchers, the message sent out to the public will be that to have such an inquiry, they must not vote Labour, but for somebody who will ensure that one is held?

Mr. Hague: We have not quite reached that point yet, but we might, if we continue like this, nearer to a general election.

Mr. Henderson: Unlike the right hon. Gentleman, I voted against the war in Iraq. I accept that lessons can be learned from any inquiry that can help the House better to understand how things might be conducted in the future. However, does he not share my worries about holding an inquiry at this stage, in that if it indicted the Government on the reasons for their entry into the war and how it was conducted, it would leave our troops currently in Iraq in a very vulnerable position, both militarily and politically?

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Mr. Hague: No, I do not agree with that. I want to set out the case for commencing an inquiry, now or very shortly, and deal with that very point.

As it enters its sixth year, the conflict in Iraq will soon have lasted as long as the second world war. The formative decisions—about the occupation of Iraq, the disbandment of the army, de-Ba’athification and the overall manner in which the military occupation was conducted—were made either in the immediate aftermath of the invasion five years ago, or in some cases well before it. Decisions and analyses relating to the origins of the war and its planning were therefore made up to six or seven years ago.

Any inquiry would presumably take many months to hear and assemble evidence; so even if the Foreign Secretary were to announce an inquiry at the Dispatch Box today, it would entail key participants of those early decisions trying to give a crystal clear recollection, by the time they gave evidence, of events of perhaps seven or eight years earlier. An inquiry announced next year or the year after would require those recollections to stretch back anything up to a decade, with accompanying documents, e-mails and files intact. With the best will in the world, that is going to be difficult for those involved. A continuing delay of months or years—for all we know, the Prime Minister may well mean years—is not merely the postponement of an inquiry, but the diminishing of its value. Its task at a later date would be more difficult, and the accurate and detailed picture of important moments and key meetings would necessarily be more difficult to assemble.

The passage of time is also bringing into public view a series of welcome but inevitably partial assessments of the initial stages of the conflict, in the form of memoirs, lectures, diaries and responses to freedom of information requests. The Government succeeded in blocking the publication of the account of the experiences of Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain’s senior diplomat at the UN and in Iraq, which was reported to include the observation that the opportunities for the post-conflict period were

Other accounts are well known, including the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) attacking the highly personalised form of decision making by the Government, the diaries of Alastair Campbell and Lance Price from inside Downing street, the criticisms of the Government by Sir Christopher Meyer and General Sir Mike Jackson, and the memoirs of Sir Hilary Synnott, from which I have already read a considerable extract.

All of these accounts have come out, and in recent weeks it has been ordered that Cabinet minutes must be published, and an early draft of the so-called dossier on weapons of mass destruction has been forced out of the Government. With such a plethora of bits and pieces of information, and so many personal accounts, coming to light, would it not be better for the Government and for all who wish to learn from these events if what happened were considered properly, completely and in the round, with conclusions based on all the necessary information rather than on the parts that individuals have chosen or managed to publish?

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The former Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, was able to say on BBC television nine days ago:

What harm could it do to this country for the points that he was making to be properly analysed and understood? Such views are a welcome contribution to our understanding of events, but they are no substitute for an inquiry with real power and purpose.

Frank Cook (Stockton, North) (Lab): The right hon. Gentleman asks what harm it could do to this country. I can tell him quite plainly that it would not only debilitate our armed services— [ Interruption. ] I would appreciate it if the House would listen to what I have to say. It would not only debilitate our armed services but give great comfort and encouragement to al-Qaeda elements in the country, which would give them inducement to carry on their bloody trade even more vigorously than they have done to date. That is the harm that could be done.

Mr. Hague: I fundamentally disagree with the hon. Gentleman about that. I do not think that we should shy away from the proper functioning of democracy on the ground that it might encourage our opponents. An inquiry of this kind is part of the proper functioning of democracy.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): An odd argument has been made by the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) about an inquiry undermining our troops and our security efforts. If that were the case, why was there an inquiry into Bloody Sunday while British troops were still serving in Northern Ireland? That inquiry was supported by Labour and Conservative Members.

Mr. Hague: I agree with the general point that the hon. Gentleman is making. Of course, the same argument could have been made about the Dardanelles commission in the first world war, or, if we go back even further, about the inquiry that this House argued for, and voted for, on the Crimean war. The same argument can be made in all such circumstances as far back in history as we wish to go.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend accept that, when James Baker and the other wise men carried out their inquiry on behalf of the American Government, no one suggested that it would harm American troops? Given that there was acceptance on that, surely it is logical that the inquiry that we are proposing would not harm our own troops.

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