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It is open under our proposal for a committee of inquiry to search as far back in history as the hon. Gentleman proposed, or even further, if Privy Counsellors on that committee so decided.

The thrust of the debate has been about the timing of a proposed inquiry. The Foreign Secretary, to his credit, laid at least one argument to rest when he said that the morale of the armed forces was not an issue, and would not be harmed if an inquiry were to take place now. The argument was rather that holding an inquiry now would interfere with what he described as important operations under way in Iraq. In effect, he was saying that the effectiveness of the military could be harmed if we were to press ahead with the inquiry now rather than delaying it.

The Foreign Secretary told us about significant actions taking place in Basra today, but those actions do not involve British troops, except possibly in a supporting or specialist role. In a written answer given to my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the Secretary of State for Defence said:

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He went on to say that

Minister after Minister, from the Ministry of Defence and from the Foreign Office, has hailed the changes that have taken place in the last six to nine months as evidence that responsibility for security and the lead role in Iraq is being progressively handed over to the Iraqis, with British forces taking a much more limited role. However, at the same time, Ministers appear to argue that that role—which includes training, securing supply routes and policing the Iran-Iraq border, as the Foreign Secretary described—is still such that an inquiry should not take place until those duties have been completed, and, logically, until the last serviceman or woman has been withdrawn from Iraq.

Mr. MacNeil: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if we consider the contributions that have been made to the debate, and if we took a poll of those who contributed or intervened, we would—by a majority of probably four to one—have an inquiry starting tomorrow?

Mr. Lidington: I agree completely. The weakness of the Government’s case can be analysed in this way. First, the case that an inquiry would harm the ability of our forces to carry out those duties has so far rested almost entirely on assertion by Ministers, rather than on evidence. The Foreign Secretary was asked by the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) whether any military commanders, past or present, had lobbied against an inquiry being held now or had counselled delay. The Foreign Secretary replied straightforwardly that none had made any such objection. Indeed, senior former commanders—such as Lord Inge, Lord Guthrie and Sir Mike Jackson—have supported calls for an inquiry.

The suggestion—which, in fairness, only the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford made—that we would somehow face the prospect of rank and file servicemen and women being hauled back from Basra airbase to London to be quizzed by the great and good in a Privy Council inquiry, is nothing short of bizarre. It is a feeble argument on which we do not need to linger.

The Government then resort to saying that it is not only the soldiers about whom they are concerned. The fear is, the Foreign Secretary said, that senior Ministers and diplomats will be distracted from concentrating on their duties on Iraq. The Foreign Secretary echoed words previously spoken by the Prime Minister, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) pointed out. He asked who these people are who are so consumed now by duties relating specifically to Iraq that they cannot give evidence about events that took place, for the most part, between 2002 and 2004. Many, probably most, of those who were in senior positions in those years will now have moved on. In fact, we can measure their career progress by consulting the publishing schedules for memoirs and the television schedules for interviews.

The idea that senior Ministers or officials will ever reach that miraculous day where their diaries are clear and they can fill in the empty hours by preparing
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evidence to submit to the inquiry is fanciful in the extreme. And yet the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have said that fear of distracting such people is a key part of their case for refusing to have an inquiry now. Well, look at what has happened in the United States. It has suffered far greater casualties, and continues to commit a far larger number of troops to Iraq than we do. It has had five separate inquiries, and senior military, diplomatic and political leaders have given up their time and energy to respond to those inquiries. It is to the credit of democracy in the US that both the Bush Administration and both sides in Congress recognise the importance of holding themselves accountable to the American people for the decisions that they have taken, and of arguing their case openly on the basis of evidence.

Then the Government say that we cannot have an inquiry because of the state of Iraqi politics, and that we have to wait until Iraq is a stable country. The mixture of disbelief and ridicule with which my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) greeted that element of the Government’s argument did it perfect justice. Does anybody seriously believe that decisions by Iraqi leaders about petroleum revenue sharing or forming a stable coalition Government, or the outcome of Iraqi provincial and local elections, will be influenced one jot by whether or when we hold a Privy Council inquiry in London about how the decision to go to war came to be taken? The idea that Iraq’s leaders are sitting inside the green zone scanning Hansard online, or waiting for minutes of a Privy Council inquiry to appear, is just ludicrous.

The Foreign Secretary shot down the hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) when he tried to ramp up that argument in an intervention. The words slipped out of the Foreign Secretary’s mouth—and were true—that the Iraqi Government have more important things on their mind.

The hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook), argued that an inquiry would give encouragement to al-Qaeda and other terrorists. Terrorists need no excuse for their campaigns of slaughter. If they did not have Iraq, they would have something else. I do not believe for a moment that they would be swayed one way or the other by the existence of an inquiry. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned 7/7 and the risk that an inquiry could feed extremism in our own country. He is now returning to his place, and I say to him that on the basis of my constituency experience, it is the absence of an inquiry and the impression of secrecy that allows conspiracy theories to run rife and plays into the hands of the extremists whom both he and I wish to see defeated.

Many Members have spoken about the importance of an inquiry to learning lessons for the future. My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) asked why we could not learn from Iraq and apply in Afghanistan the lessons about the failure of the coalition in Iraq to recruit, train and supervise an effective police force. A number of my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) in an intervention and my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), talked about the lack of connection between the military moving in and securing territory, and the relief and reconstruction effort moving in so that ordinary Iraqis or Afghans can see greater security
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and a benefit to the quality of their everyday lives from the intervention of western forces.

Those lessons need to be learned, but there is a further important reason why we should have an inquiry without delay. The hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch), in a passionate speech, spoke about how future Governments might one day wish to seek agreement from Parliament to take this country to war again. We cannot predict now the circumstances of such decisions, but I fear that one result of the decisions on Iraq has been seriously to harm public confidence in this country about the capacity of the British Government to take such decisions correctly and explain their reasoning honestly to Parliament and the people.

I want to believe that the Government of my country, whichever party happens to be in government at any one time, measure the advice given to them by their professionals in the diplomatic service, the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces. I want to be confident that the Prime Minister and the full Cabinet have access to all the information, including the dissenting opinions, available in Whitehall and from outside advisers. I also want to be confident that the Government will be straight with Parliament and the public about the decisions that they recommend on the nation’s behalf.

The debate has shown that the Government are bereft of any plausible reason to resist an inquiry. It is in our national and democratic interest to press ahead with one, and I hope that hon. Members of all parties will feel able to support the motion this evening.

9.45 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): We have had a good and passionate debate. It has covered well trodden ground, and I contend that the arguments for an inquiry have contained little that is new.

Five years on from the decision to invade Iraq, our armed forces are still there. They are helping the Iraqis to rebuild their country on a foundation of democratic institutions, after decades of the most appalling tyranny. We are involved in helping with Iraq’s economy and infrastructure, and with basic services such as health and education. We are also helping with security—the essential prerequisite to progress in those other areas.

Better security is the reason why Iraqi security forces are deployed right now in Basra city on an Iraqi military operation to improve Iraqi security. The operation has been initiated at a time of the Iraqis’ choosing, although we continue to provide the specialist support that they may need. It is really encouraging that the Iraqi security forces are both leading and conducting the operation, as it shows that the transition of responsibility for security is working, with Iraqis implementing Iraqi solutions to Iraqi problems. The operation also shows that the Iraqis increasingly have the will, capacity and leadership to take on the irreconcilable militia elements in the south.

Basra remains of vital economic importance to Iraq. Historically, it was the country’s commercial centre and a major gateway for trade, with 80 per cent. of the
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country’s oil coming out through that city. Today’s events there only underline the need to focus on the requirements of the operational theatre.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said that an inquiry into the Iraq war will be necessary. There are always lessons to learn, and it is clear that there will be important practical lessons about post-war planning. We must examine them if we are to maintain confidence about matters as important as any future military interventions.

The question that divides us is when an inquiry should take place. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) sees no difficulty with holding one now. He said that there was no need to wait until our involvement was concluded, and he does not accept that an inquiry would be a distraction from the job at hand. He believes that an inquiry can be held now—with witnesses summoned, deployed equipment scrutinised, and intelligence and policy examined—but that none of that will have a detrimental effect on the ongoing operation.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary set out the four points on which the right time to hold an inquiry hinges. He also demonstrated that there is no precedent for conducting an inquiry while troops are still deployed. The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) came as close as anyone did to punching a hole in my right hon. Friend’s defences when he said that there was indeed a precedent—namely, the inquiry that was held while the Mesopotamia operation of 1916 was ongoing. I have a great deal of respect for his historical knowledge, but let me tell him that we surrendered in Mesopotamia on 29 April 1916, that the commission was set up on 17 August 1916, and that we re-engaged— [Interruption.] Hold on! We re-engaged in December 1916. Let me tell him also that when the inquiry was set up, it said of its terms of reference:

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman, who came closer to winning his argument than anybody else, simply appears to be wrong on that point.

Mr. Keith Simpson: I am grateful to the Minister, a member of the parliamentary breakfast club. I thank him very much, because he has just proved my point. The campaign in Mesopotamia went on from late 1914 all the way through until 1918. The report looked into the disasters that took place in Mesopotamia, sadly, before the end of 1916, so that lessons could be drawn and learned for the future campaign. Game, set and match; thank you, Minister.

Mr. Ainsworth: And the commission said, in terms, that it felt it would be wrong for it to look into “current operations”. The commission was looking into operations antecedent to its establishment.

Sir Peter Tapsell rose—

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman was probably there, but I will not give way to him. [Hon. Members: “Give way.”] Let me make some progress. [Interruption.]

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Mr. Speaker: Order. We must have order. Will the right hon. Gentleman give way to the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell)?

Mr. Ainsworth: No. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle knows how generous I am to him, but the Minister will not give way.

Sir Peter Tapsell rose—

Mr. Ainsworth: No, I am not giving way. I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in a short while, so that he can extensively quote himself again.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk demonstrated that there was no precedent for conducting an inquiry while our troops were still deployed. The principle must surely be that while our men and women in uniform remain in theatre, we must prioritise their operations—or are we too impatient to put their work first? I know what I intend to put first.

Our priority in Iraq is to see a fully functioning democratic state—a state that is stable, that serves the interests of all the people of Iraq, that has a healthy economy, and that provides effective services. Those essential parts of Iraq’s future will develop only in a secure environment. That is why British armed forces are now focused on training and mentoring the Iraqi security forces. Those facts are not disputed; it is only the events and decisions that caused them that are disputed. Yes, we will need to look back at those events and decisions, but not now.

Mr. Leigh rose—

Sammy Wilson rose—

Mr. Ainsworth: I will give way soon. About 4,000 members of the British armed forces are currently based in southern Iraq, and while it is true that there has been progress in the last year, much still needs to be done in that theatre.

Mr. MacNeil rose—

Sammy Wilson rose—

Mr. Ainsworth: I will give way to hon. Gentlemen in a minute.

The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, with all his usual eloquence, tried to suggest that the basis of his proposal was a bipartisan, fact-finding desire. The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) was the first to expose the real reasons, as he stripped away the notion, carefully presented by the right hon. Gentleman, that it is about some non-partisan fact-finding proposal. He revealed that it is about political exposure and attack, and that that desire overrides all consideration of the fact that our 4,000 people are still involved and in harm’s way while they conduct their task.

The hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) said that we do not need an inquiry, because we know all there is to know about what went
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wrong. All we need to do, he suggested, is expose the then Prime Minister, to use his terms, “as the scoundrel that he is”. That is what it is about, and I am happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman. I see that he does not wish to intervene.

The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) said that we need to get on with this to expose the Labour party before the next election.

Mr. Howard: What I said was that that was the only reason why the Government were not prepared to hold an inquiry now. They do not want an inquiry to report before the general election.

Mr. Ainsworth: The right hon. and learned Gentleman gave his reasons for wanting an inquiry, and they were pretty clear.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) supported the case for an inquiry. He said that he does not want to learn lessons so that mistakes are not repeated. He said that he wanted to look at those responsible, and he wanted to ensure that they were brought to book. The hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) wanted to examine whether the war was a legal war—all of that while our forces are still involved in Iraq.

Mr. Marshall-Andrews: I did indeed say that I wanted an inquiry to reveal who was responsible for what has happened in Iraq, and the disasters that have followed. If, as part of that, the inquiry reveals the previous Prime Minister to be a scoundrel in what he said in the House, what is wrong with that?

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman said what he said. He said that he did not want an inquiry to learn the lessons so that mistakes would not be repeated. He wanted to expose those who were responsible and ensure that they were brought to book.

We have responsibilities to the Iraqi Government and to the Iraqi people—to the brave Iraqis who have fought alongside us to establish security and progress. We have responsibilities to our allies but, most of all, we have responsibilities to our own people. Although I have heard protestations that an inquiry called now will do no harm, I have heard nothing that persuades me that it will assist our people to do their job in any way. We are committed to remaining in Iraq for as long as is needed and wanted by the democratic Government of Iraq. We have obligations under the terms of the UN mandate, renewed at the end of last year. Those who have responsibility to deliver improvements in security in Iraq want us to stay, and value our support and assistance. We do those things only through the dedication, bravery and hard work of those who carry out our policies in Iraq. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is not going to be conducting an inquiry into its involvement in Iraq; neither are the militias in the south. Those who are setting up rocket rails to bomb our troops in the COB—the contingency operating base—will not be conducting an inquiry in Iraq; and neither should we be doing so at this time.

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