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25 Mar 2008 : Column 77

Mr. Howard: No, I do not accept that reasoning at all. My right hon. and hon. Friends have cited the precedents. It is inconceivable that the results of any such inquiry could have that effect on the limited role that our troops are currently carrying out in Basra. The argument does not begin to make sense. We know what the troops are doing and what they are there for. It is inconceivable that the results of any such inquiry could in any way damage their position. Also, that argument was not the reason put forward by the Prime Minister—it may be the hon. Gentleman’s reason, but it is not the Prime Minister’s.

So what is the reason? Why are the Government proving to be so obstinate? What is the real reason for their procrastination? I suppose that some people may be tempted to put it down to the Prime Minister’s natural tendency towards procrastination—we know that he finds it difficult to make decisions about all sorts of things. However, I believe that a more specific reason is at play in this case. I believe that there is only one conclusion that we can draw from the Government’s behaviour: that they do not want an inquiry that will report before the next general election. The Government do not want any inquiry’s findings to be available to the electorate when they come to give their verdict on the Government. The Government do not want those findings to be taken into account when that verdict is delivered. In short, they are running away from the principle that should be central to our parliamentary democracy: the principle of accountability.

Earlier this afternoon, the Justice Secretary introduced a White Paper from the Dispatch Box. Practically the first sentence that he spoke was, “Accountability is fundamental to the health of our democracy.” The Government’s attitude to the motion before the House in this debate gives the lie to what the Justice Secretary said just that short time ago.

Let me finish by giving the Foreign Secretary a word or two of advice in his absence—I hope that it will be transmitted to him. This issue will not go away. This will not be the last time that it is debated in the House, and if the Government stick to their line, this will not be the last time that the Justice Secretary is so painfully embarrassed in the studios of the “Today” programme as he was this morning, or the last time that the Foreign Secretary is so humiliated at the Dispatch Box as he was this afternoon. I urge the Foreign Secretary to use all his persuasive powers to get the Prime Minister to see how ludicrous the Government’s current position is. The Government have changed their position once; they can change it again. The sooner they do so, the better.

6.38 pm

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): Since 2003 there have been four inquiries into the events leading up to the war in Iraq, as has been stated. There has been the Butler inquiry, the Hutton inquiry, the Intelligence and Security Committee inquiry and the Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry, which was agreed in June 2003.

However, there is a need for ongoing investigation and inquiry, and for lessons to be learned. I gave evidence to Channel 4’s Iraq Commission inquiry a few months ago. That was a valuable exercise and the report of the commission, which is chaired by Lord
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Ashdown, was a valuable piece of work. However, that is not what today’s debate is about. In today’s motion, hon. Members are pressing for

to conduct an inquiry. We might ask whether one can find such a thing as a genuinely independent Privy Councillor, but that is a debate for another time.

Reference has been made to the US Baker-Hamilton inquiry. That inquiry was composed not only of current members of the US House of Representatives and the Senate. It was a body that brought in academic experts and former diplomats, as well as Lee Hamilton and James Baker as its bipartisan chairs.

My first criticism of the motion before us relates to my belief that we need to widen the focus of any such inquiry, when the time comes. We also need to take account of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) referred to as the long history of events in Iraq that led to the decisions made in this House in March 2003. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who is not in his place at the moment, said that an inquiry should concentrate on 2002, 2003 and 2004. I would ask why, and I would do so for two reasons. Reference was made earlier to the Scott inquiry. That inquiry did not deal with the terrible crimes of Saddam against the Kurdish people in Halabja. Instead, it took a narrow focus on the supergun, Matrix Churchill and the way in which public immunity certificates were used in a legal process to stop the truth coming out under the previous Conservative Government. The late Robin Cook did a fantastic job of demolishing the Conservative party and its role in that debate, after the Scott report was published. Any inquiry that takes account of the recent past would also have to take account of the previous history.

Reference was also made to the arms sales policies of the 1980s, when some of the Conservative Members who are here today were members of the Government who were selling arms to Saddam. We can look back to 1980, when Margaret Thatcher and the right hon. and learned Members for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) and for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) were all part of that British Conservative Government. They made the decision to support the Ba’athist fascist regime in Iraq, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, as well as supporting Osama bin Laden and other disreputable people whom we now regard as beyond the pale. At that time, however, for reasons of state, certain decisions were made. We need to look at the whole context.

If there is to be an inquiry, let it not be partisan. Let us have an inquiry into the UK’s relations with Iraq over the past 30 years. Let us really dig up the stones and look at the way in which those on the Conservative Benches who are now taking a holier-than-thou position on these matters were conspiring to support that Ba’athist regime while my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley, my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and I were campaigning against the arming of Saddam. Let us not forget that as we discuss what kind of inquiry we should have.

Mr. MacNeil: I am listening intently to the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, which stretch over many decades. I take it that, like me, he is very impatient for an inquiry into the war in Iraq, and that he will vote for such an inquiry tonight.

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Mike Gapes: If the motion before us today proposed an inquiry into all aspects of UK relations with Iraq over the past 30 years, I would indeed support it, speak to it and vote for it. However, that is not the focus of the narrow motion that we are debating today. I will therefore not support it.

Mr. Gordon Prentice: My friend is becoming very animated. Did he know that the Public Administration Committee will be taking evidence next week on the possibility of initiating a parliamentary inquiry into the circumstances leading to the war in Iraq? Given that such an inquiry would not be partisan—the Opposition motion is, by nature, partisan—would he support an inquiry couched in those terms?

Mike Gapes: I am always in favour of Select Committees of this House initiating inquiries. I was a member of the Defence Committee, which carried out an inquiry into the lessons of Iraq. It was published in 2004 and, incidentally, was very critical of the then Secretary of State for International Development for failing to get her officials to prepare for the aftermath of the conflict. If I remember correctly, she criticised us rather robustly in a debate on that report in the House. I believe that all Select Committees should take the initiative in holding the Executive to account, both for what they are doing now and for what they have done in the past. That is the appropriate route to take if we are to strengthen the power of the Committees of this House against the Executive. That is what we should be doing.

Mr. Keetch rose—

Mike Gapes: I will give way to my friend over there, my colleague on the Foreign Affairs Committee, even though he is also from the Liberal Democrats.

Mr. Keetch: I am grateful to my Chairman for giving way. Thanks to the procedures that we have in this House, we can now be texted by our constituents. One of mine is watching this debate in Basra, on the BBC Parliament channel, and he simply wants to know why he is there. I accept what the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) have said, but surely the real question for today’s debate is: why did we deploy troops in 2003? Will the Chairman of the Select Committee support this motion calling for an inquiry? The recent past that he is describing has nothing to do with the argument that the rest of us in this Chamber are engaged in.

Mike Gapes: I am afraid that I will not support the Conservative motion tonight. Nor, unfortunately, will I be able to vote against the Liberal Democrat motion, as far as I am aware. I believe that simply to call for an apology from the Conservatives or from the Labour party needs to be balanced—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Perhaps I can advise the hon. Gentleman that the only amendment under discussion tonight is the one tabled by the Government.

Mike Gapes: I shall take your advice, Madam Deputy Speaker.

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I would simply say that there needs to be a recognition that some of us, whichever side we took in this debate, are glad that Saddam is no longer in power. That would not have been possible without the intervention that took place in 2003. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley made the point very strongly that some people tried to find other ways to get rid of the Ba’athist regime in Iraq. They tried to do so in 1991, when the Shi’as in the south rose up and were massacred. They rose up with the encouragement of the first President Bush, and ended up being slaughtered, and the Kurds were driven into the mountains. I pay tribute to the role that John Major played at the time, when the previous Conservative Government brought in the no-fly zone to protect the Kurds.

Some people, having taken the position of saying that those crimes were terrible, did not follow the logic of saying that we had to get rid of the regime that had made them possible. I always took the view, as I do today, that regime change in Iraq was the right way to go. That was what I argued in the debate at the time, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley. However, that was not the position taken by the Government or by those on the Opposition Front Bench. It was also not a position taken by many others at that time, who took a narrower focus.

However, many of us had fought and campaigned against the Ba’athist regime for many years. I had friends who were students in this country, and who had come here as refugees from Saddam in the 1970s and 1980s. They told me about the terrible crimes that his regime had carried out. Some of those people went back to Iraq, and some are now in the Iraqi Parliament or in the Iraqi Government. They would not be alive today if this country had not welcomed them as refugees and supported them later on.

Angus Robertson: I am grateful to the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee for giving way. I think that the record will show that, a moment ago, he said that he was in favour of regime change in Iraq. Will he therefore explain how it is possible to be the Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and to be in favour of something that is actually illegal in international law?

Mike Gapes: The problem with the crude, simplistic view of the world is that it does not take account of facts. The fact is that over 12 years Saddam’s regime was, as already stated, in breach of 17 successive Security Council resolutions. There was and there remains a very strong argument—unfortunately, it was not tested—for intervention to remove that regime— [Interruption.]

Angus Robertson rose—

Mr. Blunt rose—

Mike Gapes: I will give way in a moment. Presumably, the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) will tell me that he was against what happened in Kosovo in 1999.

Angus Robertson: Yes.

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Mike Gapes: Was that a yes?

Angus Robertson: It was a yes.

Mike Gapes: It seems so. That is interesting.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Will Members note that the usual rules of debate apply in the Chamber?

Mike Gapes: The Scottish National party is at least being consistent —[Interruption.] Consistently wrong, but consistent. There needs to be a serious debate about humanitarian intervention and when it is right to exercise a responsibility to protect as called for under the UN system by the Canadian commission and as debated at the millennium summit. We need to look at the issues surrounding Iraq in that context.

Mr. Blunt rose—

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP) rose—

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con) rose—

Mike Gapes: I give way to the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt).

Mr. Blunt: I am grateful. The hon. Gentleman has just paid a generous and proper tribute to Iraqi politicians who literally take their lives in their hands by participating in the politics of that country. He is a senior Member of this House, the Chairman of a Select Committee, and he also served on the Defence Committee when I did. That Defence Committee reported:

Is it not sad that, in advancing his arguments this evening, the hon. Gentleman is not prepared to stand up for the rights of Parliament against the Executive? Is that not a very sad example to show to the Iraqi politicians he mentioned?

Mike Gapes: I will not take that from the hon. Gentleman. I am afraid that I will take no lectures from him. We could discuss what happened in the Defence Committee in 2003 and 2004, but that would be outside the terms of our debate. What I would say to the hon. Gentleman and others is that when we have an inquiry, it is crucial that it is conducted on the right basis. It must be constituted on the basis of wide support—not just in the House or among “independent privy councillors”, but also among academics, journalists, former diplomats, perhaps even people in the BBC if that is possible—having heard the “Today” programme yesterday and today, I sometimes wonder whether another agenda is at work, as certain issues about Iraq are not mentioned. There is a constant litany of one view, which unfortunately does not inform the wider debate.

On the way forward, we need an inquiry to look into other aspects before, during and after 2003. One such aspect is the scandalous abuse of the oil-for-food programme, in which at least one Member of this
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House—the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Galloway)—has been implicated. There are also scandals relating to the role of consultants and contractors and the money—mostly US money, not UK money—that has not got through to the Iraqi people in the reconstruction period. I do not know what the real costs of the conflict have been.

Angus Robertson: That is important now!

Mike Gapes: That is important now and it is particularly important in the US, because mainly US money is involved. British money spent in Basra in 2003-04 through the quick-fix quick-impact projects was a small amount well spent, whereas the US spent huge amounts very badly and inefficiently. I think that issue could be looked into further in connection with the question of how to prepare the ground for reconstruction after a conflict.

Sammy Wilson: Give way!

Mike Gapes: No, I am in my final minute. I have been generous in giving way several times.

The issues emerging from an inquiry will not be only for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We need to look at the role of the Department for International Development, as well as that of the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice; we need to look into the training of policemen and the other people we need to help build up judicial systems; we need to look into ways of giving advice on humanitarian law. All that is very hard to accomplish when we are trying to recreate a country almost from scratch. An inquiry will be needed at the appropriate time, but it will need to be established on a much wider basis than is provided for in the motion.

6.56 pm

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): I voted against the invasion of Iraq. As we have all heard, we have already had four inquiries and one might ask why we need a fifth. There are just two arguments in favour of that—one is on account of the scale of the disaster that has flowed from the invasion; the other is the need to know how it came about that we invaded Iraq in the first place.

I thought that the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), who was such a distinguished foreign affairs spokesman for the Liberal party, put his finger absolutely on the real reason why the Government do not want an inquiry. Actually, we all know what has gone wrong. Anyone who has followed what happened knows perfectly well what went wrong in the Iraq war. We do not need another inquiry on that score, although the people in charge are, of course, reproducing the same mistakes in Afghanistan. The fact that they are doing so shows that no inquiry is going to educate them on these matters. No, the real reason is that Labour Members are frightened that the activities of the then Prime Minister in the run-up to the war will be exposed in detail.

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