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Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): The Foreign Secretary spoke about lessons learned, but 15 years or more ago a very expensive course—the higher command and staff course—was set up at the Joint Forces Staff college. It studied campaign planning, and many of the senior officers and civil servants who tried to make decisions about the invasion of Iraq had been on it. I know that they looked carefully at a module covering the Marshall plan, and at what would happen after the fighting finished. Why was their advice ignored, and should we not inquire into the matter?

David Miliband: I shall be happy to look into that, and to ask my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces to address the point about the module. However, the hon. Gentleman and I agree that there are significant lessons to be learned, both in-theatre and about decision making. What divides us is when there should be an official inquiry—and the motion calls for a Privy Council inquiry—into the Iraq war. Should we hold one now, or when our troops have finished their work? I put it to the hon. Gentleman that it is more sensible to hold it when our troops have finished their work.

Mr. Keith Simpson: The Foreign Secretary has gone into some detail about the internal inquiries conducted by the Ministry of Defence. There is no dispute about them, but will he explain why the Foreign Office has not undertaken any inquiry? I refer the right hon. Gentleman to the written answer that I received from the Minister for the Middle East on 19 November 2007.

David Miliband: The wisdom of all Foreign Office officials is of course used to inform the development of policy. Those officials include existing ambassadors who have moved out of Iraq, as well as those who have retired. The policy of the Foreign Office is not the same as it was in 2002 or 2003, but the failure to establish an official inquiry is not a consequence of that.

I want to say more about the fourth and final argument for an inquiry, which is that memories will fade and that e-mails will be deleted. Frankly, that is the weakest part of the case for an inquiry. Since 2003, there have been four separate inquiries into different aspects of the decision to invade Iraq and associated events, and they are not going to go away. In the same period, there have been 60 parliamentary debates on the matter. As the depth of interest in the fifth anniversary of military action shows, events and decisions related to Iraq are still being analysed and debated in minute detail. I do not see any risk that interest will fade before the time is right for an inquiry.

Mr. Davey: I am afraid that the Foreign Secretary has just holed himself below the waterline. He has told the House there have been four inquiries, and that used to be the Government’s argument for not holding an official inquiry. Will he tell the House how the
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Government were able to hold the four inquiries about which they now boast without harming operations in Iraq?

David Miliband: The argument against the Government was that those inquiries were narrow and limited. I shall go through them: they include the inquiry into the death of Dr. David Kelly—the so-called Hutton inquiry—and the Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry for which the hon. Members who compiled it claimed to have received insufficient help. Both were specific and narrow, but the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks made it clear that the inquiry proposed in the motion would have no limit on what it would be able to look at. A Privy Council inquiry of the sort that is being proposed is of a different order from those that have been conducted so far. The inquiries that have been conducted so far, including the Butler inquiry on the use of intelligence, were discrete and narrow in their terms of reference and in what they were investigating.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Before my right hon. Friend moves on from the point about memories fading, many in this House remember well the events leading up to actions five years ago, and we remember well the Conservative party’s view on the issues. Is he not being patient in his speech, given that we know why we are debating the subject today? The debate is a cynical move by the Conservative party to reposition itself on Iraq for narrow, party political advantage.

David Miliband: I am glad to have my hon. Friend’s support, and I think that there is rather a lot of agreement, certainly among those on the Liberal Benches, with what he says about the official Opposition’s motivation on the issue.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): The Opposition’s position on the four inquiries may indeed have been that the terms of reference were so limited that a wider inquiry was needed, but does the Foreign Secretary not recall that the Government’s position, repeated time and again by Members on the Government Benches, was that it was precisely because the inquiries’ terms of reference were so wide-ranging and comprehensive that no further inquiry was needed?

David Miliband: There is absolutely no comparison between the Privy Council inquiry advocated by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, which would cover every aspect of not just Government policy but, as we learned today, Opposition policy, and the Butler inquiry on the use of intelligence or the Hutton inquiry on the death of Dr. David Kelly. Those were of a different order from the Privy Council inquiry, with no limits, that is being proposed today.

Lynne Jones: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

David Miliband: In a moment; let me make some progress. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, majored on this point, but it is not credible to argue on the basis of the risk of interest fading, of records being lost, or of e-mails going missing. That cannot conceivably be the basis for arguing for an inquiry now,
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rather than when our troops have come home. That seems to me to be the fourth and final weakness of the case that he makes.

Lynne Jones: My right hon. Friend mentions the Butler committee’s inquiry, but how can the House have confidence in that inquiry, or indeed that of the Intelligence and Security Committee, when one member of both committees—a former Member of the House, Ann Taylor—was involved in the preparation of the dossier? We know that from an e-mail to Jonathan Powell, among others, that begins:

There then follow various points. A Member of the House was involved in drawing up the dossier, was then appointed a member of the Butler committee, and was Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee; how can we have confidence in those procedures?

David Miliband: I have never heard the credibility or the good sense of the Butler inquiry called into question. I think that all of us who have read that study believe that it did a very serious job, without fear or favour. It interrogated all the relevant people, it looked into all the issues, and it had full access to papers. It came up with a clear set of recommendations that no one would say were comfortable for the Prime Minister and the Government of the time.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): What the Butler saw was as little as possible.

David Miliband: My hon. Friend says, from a sedentary position, something about what the Butler saw; I think that the Butler saw pretty much everything in this case. I am surprised to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones) cast doubt on the credibility of the Butler inquiry.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind rose—

David Miliband: Is it about the Butler inquiry?

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: The Foreign Secretary said earlier that it was not the morale of troops in Basra that was of concern to him, but the fact that senior Ministers and diplomats would be distracted from the priorities of dealing with the ongoing situation in Iraq. He knows perfectly well that not a single senior Minister, ambassador or senior civil servant who was responsible for Iraq five years ago currently has responsibilities for Iraq, so how can that possibly be an argument in favour of his position?

David Miliband: First of all, for the record, I would never say that the morale of troops was not of concern. My argument was that I would not advance the case against an inquiry on the basis of the morale of the troops. Secondly, in respect of the work that would be required across the armed forces, which I mentioned, and the diplomatic service, it is not only the senior Ministers to whom the right hon. and learned Gentleman referred but the whole machine that will have to service the inquiry and ensure, in a diligent way, that the issues are addressed. That is the issue at hand.
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That is the argument for holding an inquiry when we could hold one, when all our troops have come home.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con) rose—

David Miliband: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, because he has not yet had a chance to speak, but then I want to conclude.

Richard Ottaway: The Foreign Secretary has spoken about the wide-ranging nature of the Butler inquiry and the inquiry by the Intelligence and Security Committee. He knows that the previous Prime Minister admitted at the Dispatch Box that he did not know that weapons of mass destruction, which he was going to destroy, were in fact defensive weapons. We went to war without the Prime Minister knowing exactly what the threat was. How could that possibly happen? The Prime Minister did not know—he was not briefed—yet those questions were not posed by either the Butler inquiry or the ISC inquiry.

David Miliband: We have had 60 debates, many of which have focused on that and other relevant issues. However, that does not seem to be relevant to the issue that we are debating.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD) rose—

Mr. Keetch rose—

David Miliband: On due grounds, I shall give way to the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell). I hope that the hon. Member for Hereford understands.

Sir Menzies Campbell: I have listened carefully to the Foreign Secretary’s speech. Does he understand that the impression that he is giving is less a concern about the effectiveness of British operations in Basra and much more a determination to try to protect the Government from embarrassment in relation to the decision to go to war?

David Miliband: With all due respect, I believe that the right hon. and learned Gentleman thought of that line before the debate began.

Given the events in Basra, it is important that I update the House on our understanding of the clashes that have taken place. In the hour between oral questions and the debate, I have spoken to our acting consul general in Basra and to our ambassador in Baghdad, and I should update the House on that, because it is relevant to this issue. Over the past two days, the Iraqi Government have launched a new phase in their efforts to assert full authority over Basra. On Monday, Prime Minister Maliki broadcast a message to the people of Basra, emphasising that the Iraqi state was responsible for security.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con) rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I may have anticipated the point of order the hon. Gentleman was about to raise. The Foreign Secretary should be careful on this matter. If he seeks to insert in his speech a statement
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about a situation that would ordinarily be subject to questioning, that ought to be done in a specific way. It is not normally accepted procedure to combine a statement of information to the House with a speech in an Opposition day debate.

David Miliband: I am certainly not going to argue with the Deputy Speaker, or trespass on the conventions of the House. I think it is relevant, however, to our debate that the centrepiece of the Government’s—

Mr. Blunt: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I suggest to the Foreign Secretary that he make that statement on the completion of our debate tonight, when he will have more information to present to the House?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I think that the hon. Gentleman knows that that is not a matter on which the Chair can pronounce. I have suggested that the Foreign Secretary follow the normal way of proceeding in cases of this kind. It is up to the Government to decide how they deal with that.

David Miliband: Let me conclude, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by addressing the finely balanced position that continues to exist in Iraq, and which the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks himself argued in 2006 militated against an inquiry.

In the past year, there have been significant improvements in the security situation in Baghdad, as the right hon. Gentleman said. That is a reflection of various factors, not least the growing capability of the Iraqi security forces and the rejection by many Iraqis, particularly Sunnis of western Iraq, of al-Qaeda. However, it is also clear that to sustain that progress, Iraqis themselves need to use the opportunities provided by improved security to take forward the political reconciliation process. It is important, too, to use the breathing space provided by improved security to progress broader reconciliation at the local level, which is directly relevant to the position of our troops and the training of the Iraqi security forces in southern Iraq.

In Basra, real progress had been made by General Mohan, head of Basra operations command, and by General Jalil, Basra police director, in developing ISF capability since their appointment last summer. On the economic front, the Prime Minister’s announcement on 8 October of a Basra development commission has been taken forward, and meanwhile, hundreds of corrupt or militia-affiliated police officers have been dismissed by General Jalil. The sovereign decisions of the Government of Iraq in respect of the Iraqi security forces and their work with our troops in southern Iraq reflect the progress that has been achieved since provincial Iraqi control in Basra.

We have commitments to the Iraqi people, rooted in UN resolutions. We are continuing to devote substantial diplomatic, development and military resources to honouring those commitments, against a background of promising but still fragile progress. In that context, all the efforts—

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Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

David Miliband: No. All the efforts of our most senior people, from soldiers to diplomats, need to be focused on creating the best possible future for Iraq, not on concentrating on the past. That is what the Government will be doing. I believe that is what the House should be doing as well. Let us have an inquiry, but when our troops are safe. I urge support for the Government amendment.

5.45 pm

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): I begin by associating my right hon. and hon. Friends with the initial comments of the Foreign Secretary about the bravery and dedication of British servicemen and women. Whatever our differences on the war or the inquiry, at least we can all agree on our joint pride in our armed forces.

Apart from those comments, however, I am afraid that the Foreign Secretary’s speech was totally unconvincing. Although I enjoyed his exploitation of the inconsistencies of the Conservative position, his argument on the substance was pitifully weak. The case for an inquiry into the Iraq war is overwhelming, and the case for it to be held now is at least as strong. One would have thought that an inquiry ought to be automatic when a decision of the magnitude of going to war goes so catastrophically wrong. To put such an inquiry off, even five years afterwards, is nothing short of a scandal. So just as the Liberal Democrats have proposed an inquiry and supported all past calls in the House for an inquiry, we will do so again tonight.

Yet in supporting the Conservative motion, we feel that it is only right to remind the public that the Conservative party still refuses to admit that it made a gross error of judgment on Iraq. If the Conservative party were to admit that tonight, my hunch is that their motion would be more likely to succeed. In past such debates, more than 40 Labour MPs who had voted against the war voted against an inquiry, partly because the Tory position looked so opportunistic. A long overdue expression of regret from those on the Conservative Benches could serve a useful parliamentary purpose and defeat the Government tonight. Judging from the speech of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), it seems that they are still believers in the war.

I can therefore appeal only to Labour MPs—those who were brave enough five years ago to vote with us against the Iraq war. Yes, the Conservatives may be playing politics with the issue. Yes, I can understand that those Labour Members do not want to be seen to play games with the Tories. But surely the logic of their opposition to the war means that the only rational place for them to be tonight is in the Lobby with the other 15 Labour MPs who previously voted for an inquiry.

We need an inquiry because those who took that decision, including the Conservatives, need to be held to account. We also need it because, as the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks said, we need to be sure that the lessons are learned for Afghanistan and all future conflicts, and for the work of the intelligence services.

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