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25 Mar 2008 : Column 65

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): Has not the hon. Gentleman given his game away by asking for hon. Members to be made to give account of themselves? Surely this is wider than a party political debate. Of course, I should be interested to know what happened with the Government, with my own party and with his party in the discussions, but this is a matter for the country. It is not for the Liberal Democrats to try to use it as their little toy.

Mr. Davey: That is rather rich, coming from the Conservative Benches. I agree with the hon. Gentleman on one thing—the debate goes wider than party politics. That is what we have argued for many years.

The Government position used to be to oppose an inquiry completely, claiming that four inquiries had already been held. When I intervened on the Foreign Secretary tonight, we heard a volte face from the previous Government position. His argument tonight destroyed the argument that they made in the past, which we always thought was threadbare. At least tonight the right hon. Gentleman had the decency to admit the fiction.

Early this week, it seemed refreshing when we appeared to get a promise from the Prime Minister, repeated in the Government’s amendment tonight, that the Government were no longer against an inquiry in principle. Indeed, the Foreign Secretary said that again today. It seems that the only issue in this debate is the timing of that inquiry. Are the Government correct in saying that an early inquiry would be wrong and that we must wait while, as the Government amendment puts it,

Absolutely not. The Government have got themselves into a ludicrous and untenable position. In this debate, the Foreign Secretary has never explained why the ongoing operations in Iraq are an obstacle to the inquiry. He mentioned that a few diplomats, soldiers and commanders might be needed for the inquiry. However, as I shall endeavour to show, most of the people who will need to go before the inquiry will have moved on and will not be involved in Iraq today.

Mr. Keetch: If my hon. Friend speaks to senior members of Congress who were involved in the Baker review, they will tell him that Congress was able to carry out a thoughtful and full-ranging review of the US commitment in Iraq with no negative effect whatever on troops on the ground or the diplomatic service. If the Foreign Secretary is suggesting that they were put at risk by the review, he is, frankly, wrong.

Mr. Davey: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He will know that there have been many American investigations into a whole range of issues in Iraq—not least, many of the audit reports. There have been more than 60 audit reports on different aspects of the reconstruction. How have they got in the way of the major work going on in Iraq?

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): The Foreign Secretary tried to make the point that many potential participants in the inquiry may be too busy to take part in it. Is it not the case that the key
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witness—the most important person from whom we wish to hear—has plenty of time on his hands at the moment? In a few months’ time, however, he may be too busy as president of the European Council.

Mr. Davey: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but he anticipates my speech; I shall deal with his point in a second.

The main remaining public justification for UK troops staying in Iraq is that they are there to train the Iraqi security forces—an important task that our armed forces have been doing for some time with distinction. However, does the task of training prevent an inquiry? I think not. [Interruption.] From a sedentary position, the Minister for the Armed Forces is saying that the troops are doing far more. However, the Iraq Commission, co-chaired by my noble Friend Lord Ashdown, made it absolutely clear that the training function was the key and critical issue during the overwatch stage. If the Minister wants to deny that, let him get to the Dispatch Box.

Furthermore, even when questioned about the action in Basra today, the British military are clear that it does not involve our forces. Action is being taken by the Iraqi armed forces and the Iraqi police, who have been trained in the past by the British security forces but who have no help from British forces today. That is the point; we are now handing over.

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): How do you know?

Mr. Davey: I know because that is what the military are telling the journalists in Iraq. The Minister ought to know that himself.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): British forces are there to train the Iraqi forces, but also, if necessary, to back them up. We do not yet know what is happening in Basra.

Mr. Davey: One can only go on what the military spokesmen are saying.

Even if the limited military operations mentioned by the Foreign Secretary are ongoing, I still do not see how they would be an obstacle to an inquiry. He went on to talk about the attention and focus of our armed forces and diplomats. However, if that is the argument, our engagement in any military operation anywhere in the world—Afghanistan or elsewhere—would hinder an inquiry. The argument is palpably absurd.

I was grateful for the history lesson given by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson); it really holed the Foreign Secretary beneath the waterline, and he failed to answer the hon. Gentleman’s point. He was also wrong in his refutation of the precedent of the Dardanelles commission of 1916-17, cited by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). That was sitting during the first world war. The actions in Gallipoli may have finished, but let us face it, our armed forces were hugely involved in northern France. The idea that because the action had happened in Gallipoli, those involved were freed up so that the inquiry could take place is absurd.

Mr. Hendrick rose—

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Mr. Davey: I give way to the hon. Gentleman. I hope that he can come up with a better argument than that of his Front Benchers.

Mr. Hendrick: To compare a war that was taking place in 1917 with one that has taken place this century—in the age of the internet and of people flying around on easyJet, when propaganda can fly around the world in a split second—is to look at the whole issue totally out of context.

Mr. Davey: If I had understood the logic behind the hon. Gentleman’s argument, I would answer his intervention. However, I am afraid that the House has already shown that that point is not worth addressing.

If the House is to vote against the Government’s amendment and for the motion, it will have to try to understand more the nature of the inquiry. Who would be called? What would be the inquiry’s focus? The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks rightly said that it would focus on the run-up to the war, the invasion itself and the immediate aftermath far more than on actions going on in Basra and the southern provinces on the Iran-Iraq border in 2008.

Let us think about who would come to the inquiry—one Tony Blair comes to mind. I suggest that he is not that busy at the moment; I do not believe that he is involved with our troops in the Iraqi operations in Basra. He may be attending a few board meetings. One or two days a week, I believe, he helps to create peace in Israel-Palestine, although he has a bit of work to do on that. Nevertheless, he ought to come to the inquiry. He ought to be called now, not in a few years’ time. He is the central witness and he is available. Many of the main actors in the civil service, the armed forces or the Government have moved on from the responsibilities that they held in 2003. Even if they are still in place, they are not working in the theatre of operations, but are here in London or somewhere else in the UK. On the issue of those very few witnesses in Iraq whom the inquiry would wish to call, I cannot believe that a temporary leave of absence would bring training work or any other operations to a dramatic standstill that would somehow undermine our efforts. The argument is ludicrous.

The case for delaying the inquiry is weak, but the case for an early inquiry could not be stronger. It has been five years.

Angus Robertson: Longer than the first world war.

Mr. Davey: The hon. Gentleman anticipates me; it is longer than the first world war, and almost as long as the second world war, since the invasion. The Foreign Secretary dismissed the notion that memories could fade and recall could be hazy. He may be right; Tony Blair’s memory of what he has said to the House or his colleagues is often hazy, but it will not improve with the passage of time. Unless they have been recorded accurately, which I doubt, recollections of who said what to whom will be far less precise.

The Foreign Secretary dismissed the point about e-mails. The Government do not have a good record on archiving and management of electronic records, so I hope that he understands why the Opposition are unconvinced by that argument. I ask him, and whoever
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will sum up in his absence tonight, what is happening in respect of preserving the electronic and written evidence. In anticipation of the inquiry that they now support, have the Government set up people to make sure that all the evidence is available to it? I hope that there will be an answer to that. Continuing this farcical delay does the Government no credit at all.

Adam Price: The hon. Gentleman is, of course, right that if we are to restore public confidence in the democratic process, it is essential that we initiate an inquiry as a Parliament this side of a general election. If we are unsuccessful on this third occasion—three tries for a Welshman; the shadow Foreign Secretary is an honorary Welshman, at least—will the Liberal Democrats consider supporting the proposal made by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) that they use some of their parliamentary time for this purpose? Alternatively, they could use the amendment that they are allowed to put to the Queen’s Speech motion. If an inquiry is not proposed by the Government, would the Liberal Democrats support a Back-Bench initiative from the Labour side so that we as a Parliament, on a cross-party basis, can get the inquiry that the public demand?

Mr. Davey: I certainly think that all the Opposition parties in this House should work together on that and work with those Labour Back Benchers who are prepared to be open-minded about the issue, as many of them were. Five years ago, more than 100 of them bravely went against very hard whipping from their Front Benchers to support our arguments against the war, so I am sure that that could be brought about by people of good faith.

Given the scale of the disaster in Iraq, it is perhaps understandable that the Government are reluctant to open their files. There was a chance during the change of Prime Minister to seize the moment, draw a line and have the inquiry, but I am afraid that once again the new Prime Minister ducked that opportunity—as in so many things, he is blowing his chances.

We owe an inquiry to the people who have died—the 175 British servicemen and women and the 4,000 American troops, and the countless Iraqi civilians. Whether that figure is the latest UN estimate of 0.25 million or the higher figures of The Lancet and other surveys, those deaths demand an inquiry, as do the injured, the tortured, the refugees, the internally displaced, the kidnapped, the people whose lives have been ruined—the millions of people affected by the decision to go to war. When we begin to count the cost of the war in the lives lost and in the damage to security, stability and the rule of international law, it is, frankly, frightening. That is before we get to the cost to the taxpayer, the cost to our friends and allies in the region—countries such as Turkey, Israel and Jordan—and the cost of making less friendly countries in the region much stronger, such as Iran and Syria, which have been strengthened by the failures in Iraq. Then we should think of the cost to the United Nations and its credibility. How can anyone say that there is no need for an urgent inquiry?

Mr. MacNeil: Is not the fact that the UK is spending £4.5 million a day enough reason alone for an inquiry?

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Mr. Davey: It is low down on the list, given all the deaths that have occurred, but it is one of the many reasons for the inquiry.

Liberal Democrat Members will vote for the motion, but I cannot let the debate go by without a slight comment on the Conservatives’ position. They are right to push again for an inquiry, as the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks did well, but even he must understand that his position is much weakened by his refusal to admit that the Conservatives were wrong to back the war in the first place. Of course, the Conservatives are desperate that people should not be reminded of their complicity. Their call for an inquiry has long been part of their tactics in seeking to distance themselves from responsibility for this catastrophe. Yet they cannot escape their past, for they are guilty on three counts for aiding and abetting the war.

First, the Conservative party leadership argued the case for military action, at times with far more enthusiasm than Tony Blair. On 1 September 2002, the then Conservative party leader said that

If that was not a call to war, I do not know what was. Then he added:

In other words: “Suspend your rational faculties and go with your prejudices.”

The second count on which the Conservatives are guilty is that of failing to ask the pertinent questions. So convinced were they that the war was legal that they left it to the Liberal Democrats to push for the true legal opinion.

Mr. MacNeil: Not just the Liberal Democrats.

Mr. Davey: And indeed to others in this House, on the nationalist Benches and on the Labour Back Benches.

Mr. Hendrick rose—

Mr. Davey: I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Hon. Members: No!

Mr. Hendrick: Were not the deliberations of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) all about distancing himself from the Government’s decision to go to war, and are not the hon. Gentleman’s remarks all about distancing his party from the Conservatives?

Mr. Davey: I am afraid that I made a mistake in allowing the hon. Gentleman to intervene. I will listen to my hon. Friends more in future.

So convinced were the Conservatives that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction that they attacked our view that the UN weapons inspectors should be given more time. So convinced were they that the war was right that they failed to join the Liberal Democrats in demanding to know what the exit strategy was and for how long UK troops would be committed. Failing
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to ask those searching questions before a decision to go to war is a failure to perform the constitutional duty of an Opposition party.

The third charge against the Conservatives is that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks and 144 of their Conservative colleagues voted for the war. It is just possible that some of them regret their decision and believe that it was a mistake, although the official Conservative Front-Bench position is still that the war was right. I find it astonishing that even five years after the war, with all the evidence that it was so wrong, the Conservatives will not give their regrets. Of course, some of them may try running the line that they were misled by Tony Blair, and that with the truth now available and the benefit of hindsight, and now that we know that there were no weapons of mass destruction, they can somehow escape the blame for voting for the war. However, that was not the argument of the Conservative leader and his Front Benchers at the time. In October 2002, he said at his party’s conference:

The truth is that the Conservatives at no stage relied on the Government’s dossier of September 2002 to make their case for war. That is why we believe that when the inquiry comes it must be a comprehensive one that will be free to question all Members of this House from whatever party.

I hope that the House will vote for an inquiry tonight, but if the Government really do try to put it off, they must know that their day of reckoning will come.

6.6 pm

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): I think that I have been quite consistent during the time that I have spoken about Iraq in this Chamber. I argued for one thing—for the removal of a regime that persecuted its own people and was responsible for 5,000 deaths in Halabja, for the deaths of tens of thousands of Kurds throughout Kurdistan, and for the deaths of tens of thousands of Shi’a in the south. It was for humanitarian reasons that I always argued for the removal of the regime, and I did so in 2003 when I spoke in favour of the war. I did that because I had failed—and I would suggest that we had all failed—in looking at the alternatives to war in the removal of the Saddam Hussein regime. There were alternatives. There was an alternative that I spoke about here for at least seven years; in fact, I continually bored myself by talking about it so often. I was very pleased that 201 people in this Chamber—my colleagues in all parts of the House—voted at that time to indict the regime and to remove it by international law. That would have been possible.

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