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Mr. Hague: My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. There have been far more searching investigations and discussions in the US Congress—and, indeed, in the Iraq study group, as far as we can see—about the nature of the United States’ involvement in Iraq than anything that we have seen in this country. Indeed, there are far more regular reports to Congress—General Petraeus is about to testify to Congress again—than anything that we see here. This is a separate point that the Government
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should attend to. There should be regular quarterly reports about progress in any theatre of war.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I am listening very carefully, but it seems as if the right hon. Gentleman and his party were not in the House when we debated going to war in Iraq. I voted for that war and I still believe that it was the right decision at that time. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that in any ensuing inquiry, the Opposition’s role in this country’s democracy should be taken into consideration, particularly when, according to what we are hearing, the Conservative party somehow stumbled into voting for the war?

Mr. Hague: I think that that question has already been raised, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I may have to cut down on interventions in the next few minutes. The hon. Gentleman is simply raising the same point as was put forward by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey. If those carrying out the inquiry—in whatever form it takes—want to see the paperwork relating to the deliberations of the Opposition parties, those parties should be entirely amenable to that happening. We should approach it in that spirit. What is being proposed here is not a trial or an impeachment, but an effort to learn for the future. It is a vital national process and it is an important issue for this country, irrespective of whether we voted for or against the war in Iraq.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton) (Con) rose—

Mr. Hague: Let me continue for a few moments.

A further aspect of the passage of time to which I referred is the fact that the need to learn from what has happened is serious and urgent. None of us can know at what stage in the future a British Government might feel compelled to say to Parliament and public that military action of some kind is necessary against a potential adversary. We just cannot know, but what we do know is that unless the country has been shown that all possible lessons have been learned, the credibility of any Government in that situation would be in severe doubt. And for good reason, since it would be entirely possible that lessons had not been learned because no searching examination of the past had taken place. We cannot proceed blithely into the future without understanding what has happened in the past.

When asked about an inquiry towards the end of last year, the Foreign Secretary said:

Of course the future success of Iraq in the political, economic and security fields is the most important issue of all in these matters, but whoever heard of making a success of the future without understanding the errors of the past? Do we not all avidly read the memoirs and diaries that I mentioned for clues as to the correct policy in the future? Are we not engaged in a conflict of major proportions in Afghanistan where, for all we know, important lessons about Government
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machinery, military planning and the occupation of an unfamiliar country might actually be useful sooner rather than later?

Mr. Ian Taylor: I happen to have opposed the war on the grounds that insufficient thought had been given at the time to what might happen if we won militarily. My right hon. Friend might be relieved to know, however, that I agree with him entirely on the purpose of having an inquiry now, not least because we are in danger of losing the peace in Afghanistan where our troops are in conflict. I declare that I have a son who has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan and that one of the biggest problems facing our armed forces today is the lack of transposition of the knowledge that we gained in Iraq to the circumstances of trying to secure the peace in Afghanistan— [Interruption.]

Mr. Hague: My hon. Friend makes a personal and a political point in support of my case, for which I am grateful. I heard a sedentary intervention on the Government side a few moments ago to the effect that Afghanistan and Iraq are completely different cases; however, not only has my hon. Friend pointed out some parallels, but a similar argument was made by Sir Hilary Synnott, who was the man in charge of southern Iraq.

It is disturbing that, although there is a rhetorical consensus about the need for an inquiry at some point, the Government’s body language still shows an unwillingness to inform the future by studying the past. When my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) asked the Foreign Office last November how many studies into the consequences of the Iraq war it had started or completed and what lessons had been learned by the Department, the reply came back:

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hague: Not at the moment.

Similarly, in response to the same question, the Department for International Development responded:

Whatever lessons the Government thought they had learned—on the basis of not having conducted any studies so far—were presumably passed on in their evidence to the Iraq study group, which my hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) mentioned. That inquiry was commissioned by the United States Government and Congress, but the evidence, although given to the American commission, has never been disclosed to the British Parliament. Nevertheless, despite the passage of years, the publication of incomplete accounts and the threats of an uncertain future, Ministers maintain their position that an inquiry cannot yet be commenced.

Mr. Hendrick rose—

Mr. Hague: I will not give way for the moment.

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I expect the Foreign Secretary will advance that argument again, but I see from the Government’s amendment that they have at least dropped the argument that they advanced last summer that an inquiry was not necessary at an early date because four separate inquiries had already been held. Given that one of them was the investigation into the death of Dr. David Kelly and another was the report by the Foreign Affairs Committee, which complained vociferously about the lack of Government co-operation with the Committee’s proceedings, that was never a very convincing argument.

The Government’s remaining argument is that, in the words of the Prime Minister’s letter to the Fabian Society, it is

That is the Government’s crucial argument, as expressed by the Prime Minister himself, so it merits some examination. First, let us be clear that the idea that Iraqi politicians will be unable to proceed with measures of reconciliation, that the Iraqi economy will suffer, or that the stability of the country will be endangered because we are conducting an inquiry in Whitehall is ludicrous.

Mr. Hendrick: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hague: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman before the end of my speech.

Of course it is true that there are still senior officials in the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development who are closely concerned with Iraqi affairs, but being busy cannot possibly provide an argument for indefinitely postponing something that has become so essential. Presumably, when they are no longer dealing with Iraq there will be no shortage of other things for them to do. If we are to wait until those Departments have arrived at a benign and settled time when their senior officials can be troubled with the distraction of an inquiry, such a thing will never take place at all.

If it is true that, as the Prime Minister also said in his letter,

is it not of paramount importance for that effort to be based on a better understanding of past events? The commission that inquired into the Dardanelles campaign was set up in 1916 and reported in 1917, on the recommendation of Asquith, the Prime Minister of the time, who could no doubt have argued that the whole effort of the Government and the armed forces was devoted to winning the first world war. Of course their effort was devoted to winning the first world war, but our predecessors at that time reached the view that they might be better at winning the war, and any other war, if they understood as soon as possible where things had gone wrong.

“Ah,” the Government have said in the past, “this may all be true, but we still have members of our armed forces in Iraq, and we would be letting them down or undermining their morale if an inquiry were commenced while they were there.” The implications of that argument are, of course, disturbing, as for all we know some
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British force may be employed in Iraq for a considerable time to come, and it would follow from the Government’s argument that no inquiry is remotely on the horizon.

It should also be pointed out that that has, in any case, always been a weak argument. The largest Army garrison in Britain—in Catterick—is in my constituency, and I am glad to say that it is often visited by the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook). I often speak to soldiers and senior officers who have returned from Iraq, and the notion that their morale would be in any way undermined by our commencing an inquiry into the origins and conduct of the Iraq war is one that most of them would consider truly laughable. The morale of those wonderful people is made of far sturdier stuff than that. It depends on their training, their colleagues, their leadership and their equipment. Far from their being undermined by an inquiry, there are few who would not welcome it, for they above all others want to know that all of us politicians have learned from mistakes for which some of their colleagues paid with their lives.

Furthermore, the Government cannot claim simultaneously that the role of our armed forces in Iraq has been much reduced and circumscribed, and that the military situation is so critical that no inquiry can be commenced. On 16 December, the Foreign Secretary said,

In October, the Prime Minister told the House,

—that is now—

Is a process of training and mentoring, or even of overwatch, in 2008 going to be disrupted or damaged by the holding of an inquiry that would surely concentrate on the events of 2002, 2003 and 2004?

Mr. Hendrick: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. I take on board his point that this issue is about the past as well as the future. Does he regret supporting the Government’s decision to go to war in Iraq?

Mr. Hague: We have also discussed that many times. I do not regret my decision, but other Members who voted the same way as I did will regret their decision; some of them have spoken out about that. However, I believe that all of us, regardless of whether we voted for or against that decision, should be able to join together in being willing to learn from what has happened, because none of us thinks that everything went according to plan. That should be the united basis on which this House approaches an inquiry, as it was in the first world war example I have referred to, and which provides a lesson for us to draw on.

Simon Hughes: There is another strong reason in the national interest why there should be an inquiry now. Given that there will be a new President in the White House as of January and given that one of the perceptions of our decision to join with the Americans is that we were their poodle, it is important that our Government and the people of Britain understand the
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implications of that decision so that in future we get a foreign policy that is more balanced and that does not look so subservient.

Mr. Hague: In advancing that argument, the hon. Gentleman might start to fracture the possible coalition in all parts of the House in support of an inquiry. I shall not therefore go down that road with him, but let me at least say that that is clearly an argument that can be put in favour of an inquiry.

Since the current Prime Minister took office, the Government have announced at least 50 separate reviews of different areas of policy, all presumably designed better to inform future policy making. They cover a vast range of subjects, from casinos to 24-hour drinking to the promotion of tourism and to sunbeds. [Interruption.] The Foreign Secretary may not be aware of it, but the Government are having a review of sunbeds. Many of these reviews are in the military area, such as the review of support for the armed forces, the armed personnel review and the review of the role of the military. It defies credibility that there should be time and resources to review a vast range of subjects, including many in the field of defence, but that any review or inquiry into probably the most important events of the decade is too much of a distraction from the matters in hand.

Finally, among the Government’s arguments against an inquiry last year was that it would give the impression of division or weakness to the enemy; the hon. Member for Stockton, North has made that point. However, since when, in any mature democracy, have considered debate, searching inquiry and the establishment of truth been a sign of weakness—even in more dramatic moments in our history? Did our predecessors shy away from debating Norway in 1940 in case Hitler was emboldened?

The truth is that the case for commencing an inquiry of the type, or of a similar type, to the one we are calling for today has become overwhelming. That has been well illustrated by the work of the Fabian Society and the debates in the House of Lords where former Foreign Secretaries of all political persuasions have put the case for an inquiry to begin.

If Ministers continue to argue against that, they will be increasingly isolated voices, holding out against a preponderance of national opinion, which embraces every other party and many members of their own. They may be unwilling to embark on something which would, of course, add to the duties of some of them, but they should not shirk this task because it seems unpleasant, and they should remember that if this inquiry is not established by this Administration, it most surely will be by the next one. They may be unwilling to act at the behest of the Conservative party, or of the Liberal Democrats, or even of the Fabian Society, but if so, they should go away from this debate and come back in a short time with their own considered proposals. Not to do so would be an error of policy, as well as of politics; and not to do so would be to frustrate the wishes not of any one party in this House, but of the British people as a whole.

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5.9 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): I beg to move, To leave out from ‘House’ to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

The amendment stands in the name of the Prime Minister, and that of myself and my colleagues. I must notify the House that a long-standing official engagement means that I shall not be present for the wind-ups.

I start on two points on which I believe there is agreement across the House. First, whether we voted for the Iraq war or against it, we all recognise that the continued bravery, dedication and professionalism of our armed forces and our civilian staff operating in Iraq is second to none. All of us have constituents whose sons and daughters, husbands and wives have served, or are serving, in Iraq. Some of us have constituents whose loved ones have died there. None of us—on any side of the debate—has anything but admiration for and pride in the selfless way in which those people have gone about their task, and nothing that I say today will impugn the motives or motivations of speakers or hon. Members, however they vote.

Secondly, there is agreement across the House that an inquiry into the Iraq war will be necessary. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) set out the reasons for that well, and I do not need to rehearse them. He was also generous enough to say that the Government have been consistent on this issue since October 2006. The dispute between us concerns not substance, but timing. The Opposition have said that the time for such an inquiry is now—on the GMTV programme this morning he said, “Now is the right time”. Given today’s reports from Basra, most people would see that as a bizarre choice of priority. We say, as the Prime Minister has said, that

Mr. Burns: The British Government’s view is that now is not the right time, but why have the Americans been prepared to carry out their own inquiries in previous years since the beginning of the war? Why has the time been right for the Americans when they have held inquiries but now is not the right time for the British?

David Miliband: That relates to the burden of my speech; it is contained in our amendment, which refers to the “important operations” that our troops are doing in theatre. I want to go through each of the arguments carefully. They relate to precedent and the learning of lessons, both of which I shall address, and the condition of our troops on the ground.

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