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25 Mar 2009 : Column 315

There is the further consideration that in an extended conflict—as the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) said, the Iraq war has gone on for longer than either of the world wars of the 20th century—waiting for the end of all hostilities before learning from any mistakes is a grievous error. Our predecessors in the House launched an inquiry into the Dardanelles campaign while the first world war was raging, and indeed into events in Mesopotamia in 1916 while military operations continued there. Nevertheless, that was an argument until, in the course of last year, our troops were no longer actively engaged on a daily or large-scale basis.

At that point, the Government’s defence against starting an inquiry changed again and was redefined on 10 December last year by the current Foreign Secretary, who said that

So, the mantra that an inquiry could not begin while our troops remained actively engaged has turned out not to represent the real reason the Government would not set up an inquiry in recent years; it was simply one of a number of excuses, and its ceasing to be relevant has led them to abandon it in favour of another, much weaker excuse.

Even now, it seems that the Government have to be dragged slowly to the course of action that they know is right and inevitable. The Foreign Secretary said, also on 10 December:

but given their record of steady retreats from one excuse to another, it would not now be surprising if they tried to hide behind that.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): Is not my right hon. Friend’s point reinforced by the wording that the Government have chosen for their amendment, which talks not about the return of our troops, but says that it would be inappropriate to have an inquiry

As it is the Government’s intention to help the people in government in Iraq over the next few years, does that not imply that the Government have, yet again, changed their criteria and are grasping anything they can to prevent having any inquiry at all?

Mr. Hague: As usual, my right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely on the nail. I have pointed out how the Government have retreated from one argument to another. It may be the next stage of the retreat to argue that an inquiry cannot begin even when the troops are safely home, but I think that the Government know that they are in the last stages of their retreat—perhaps it is the last stage—on this matter.

The Government have started to indicate that some kind of inquiry may be established later this year, but rather fittingly for a Prime Minister who said that he would end the culture of spin and treat Parliament with greater seriousness than his predecessor, the suggestion that they will hold an inquiry has been made not to Parliament, but to the News of the World on Sunday.

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It was reported on Sunday:

this is the end of the culture of spin—

[Interruption.] I used to write an excellent column in the News of the World, but the Prime Minister of the nation is meant to announce things to Parliament, not in a column in the News of the World.

The News of the World continued:

This “review”—notice it will be a review rather than an inquiry—will, said the paper,

This is a small classic in trying to use spin to wrong-foot the intentions of Members of Parliament, suggesting that the matter is all in hand while already seeking to water down what an inquiry would look at, and indeed whether it would be an inquiry at all.

If Ministers think that they will get away with a “review”, which looks at the decisions made before the war and the performance of the Army, they have another think coming. When somebody as senior as Sir Hilary Synnott, the diplomat who was put in charge of governing southern Iraq, says in his book— [Interruption.] I did refer to that book last year. Sir Hilary Synnott was so pleased that I did so, I thought that I would please him by referring to it again, because this part of the argument remains the same:

When someone like that presents such an argument, it is clearly vital for a real inquiry to be able to look at the functioning of Government across the board, and to do so in the period after the invasion of Iraq as well as before it.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Hague: I shall sweep across the Chamber, starting with my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin).

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend. Is not the point that he is making particularly relevant to the conduct of Government policy in Afghanistan? It is being conducted by a Cabinet Committee that meets once a fortnight, rather than the whole Government being engaged in the effort.

Mr. Hague: What I am saying may be relevant to that. We do not know what an inquiry will say. However, I think that there are grounds for concern about the way in which Government have made important decisions about national security in recent years. Certainly, it appears from recent deliberations about Afghanistan that several different reviews are in progress in Whitehall
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at one time—some within different Departments, some between officials of Departments, and some between Ministers, including the Foreign Secretary—rather than the issue being looked at as a coherent whole. That may well be one of the lessons to be learned for the future.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating 7th Armoured Brigade, who did a fantastic job in moving into Basra during the invasion and creating a relative peace? What happened then was that they looked over their shoulders expecting some form of stabilisation and reconstruction plan, and there was none to be seen. Is not the reason we require an inquiry the fact that other Departments, especially the Department for International Development, were not there in strength to support the good work that our military had done?

Mr. Hague: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is a reason for an inquiry. It appears from what has been said and written about the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq that the Department for International Development was indeed not ready to follow up what other Government agencies, and the Army, had achieved, and that it had been decided at the highest ministerial level that it would not co-operate in the planning for the aftermath.

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): The right hon. Gentleman said that the News of the World had mentioned the possibility of an inquiry. Does he recollect some of the news headlines at the time, which set the mood of the nation in the run-up to the war? The Sun carried the headline “Brits 45 mins from doom”, while another newspaper carried the headline “Ready to Attack: 45 Minutes from a Chemical War”. What is in a newspaper can set the mood of the nation. The mood has changed, however, and I think that therefore people need the inquiry.

Mr. Hague: Of course the mood has changed. The circumstances have moved on in six years. But I think that people who opposed the war in Iraq, of whom I imagine the hon. Gentleman was one, and people who supported it—all those people—want to make sure that we have learnt from whatever mistakes are made. That is why there is such common ground on this issue.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): I am enjoying my right hon. Friend’s speech very much. Does he agree that the contribution made by north Yorkshire has been exceptional? Will he argue that we should broaden what the motion says about the aftermath to include those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and the way in which they are being dealt with in the north of England, where there is no treatment available?

Mr. Hague: Of course that should be looked at as well. Because we both represent constituents in north Yorkshire, my hon. Friend and I are extremely conscious of the role of our armed forces and the circumstances in which they work. Perhaps that should be examined even more urgently than, and separately from, the conduct of the war in Iraq.

Mr. MacNeil rose—

Mr. Hague: I shall give way one more time, and then proceed with my speech.

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Mr. MacNeil: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way again.

Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett), I imagine that if the headlines had said the exact opposite of what the Government wanted them to say, the Government would have got up and countered them.

When the right hon. Gentleman quoted from a book to which he had also referred in a debate last year, the mirth on the Government Benches betrayed the Government’s attitude. They hope that the passage of time will lessen the need for and the consequences of an inquiry. The reality is, however, that the inquiry is needed not just for the past and not just for the present, but as much for the future, to prevent such errors from happening again and, importantly, to prevent other countries from acting in the same way.

Mr. Speaker: Order. An intervention should not be a speech.

Mr. Hague: I think that we got the point, Mr. Speaker. Yes, of course that supports the case for an inquiry—and yes, there was a bit of mirth on the Government Benches, but many of the arguments for an inquiry do remain the same. One of the points I am making is that it is the Government’s arguments that have changed. They have become steadily thinner over time, and now they are very thin indeed.

An inquiry should be at Privy Council level, and should be able to study how relations with our key ally were managed; the use of intelligence; the functioning of the machinery of Government; why poor decisions were made in some cases, and dissenting opinions were overlooked; why expectations of what would happen in Iraq turned out to be wrong; why the insurgency was not anticipated; and why—in the words of Jonathan Powell, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff at the time—

It should also study our success or otherwise at nation-building. It should examine the way in which the Department for International Development, the Foreign Office and the armed forces work alongside each other. That point has already been made by many of my hon. Friends.

It begins to look as if Ministers have it in mind to set up an inquiry that would perhaps be more limited than most Members of the House and the vast majority of people in the country would wish. Moreover—importantly—it looks as if they want to set it up at such a time that its proceedings could reasonably be concluded only after the latest date for the next general election, after they can be held accountable for the results. There is no other explanation for their behaviour, since there is no reason on earth why an inquiry of the necessary wide-ranging kind cannot be established now.

I have put before the House in previous years arguments that grow stronger with the passage of time. I have argued that memories will be weaker, and relevant documents more likely to have been dispersed, with each year that goes by, particularly as some of the events and decisions to be inquired into took place as long ago as 2002. The Foreign Secretary has tried to deride that argument in the past, but the idea that the
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recollection of Ministers and officials remains perfect, however many years go by, is not credible. It suggests that they have powers of retention and memory that would have to be superhuman.

Even when an inquiry is announced, it will doubtless take some weeks or months to assemble its members, to recruit its staff, to prepare its programme of work, to identify where it must seek relevant material, to create a timetable for evidence-taking, and so on. If Ministers really wanted an inquiry once our troops were no longer actively engaged, they would have announced one already, but even if we accept that they want to have one when the troops are safely home, the fact remains that there would be nothing to stop them nominating the inquiry, giving it its powers, and starting it on its preparatory work now, so that the taking of its evidence could begin this summer.

Last time we debated this subject, the Foreign Secretary said:

It may have escaped the Foreign Secretary’s attention, but at no time have all the troops come home from the Falklands. There is still a detachment of troops there now. When Baroness Thatcher first announced the inquiry to the House on 8 July 1982, there were far more British troops deployed in the Falkands than there are in Iraq today, along with many warships.

The Prime Minister has already announced—on 18 December—that a “fundamental change of mission” will take place by 31 May at the latest, and that by 31 July only 400 British troops will be left in Iraq, the majority of them dedicated to naval training. In any case, our legal authority to be in Iraq expires at the end of July. The timetable for withdrawal has therefore already been set. The UN mandate by which we were in Iraq in recent years has, of course, already expired. Our troops are no longer engaged in combat activity. The statement by the Iraqi defence spokesman on 31 December made it clear that the agreement superseding the UN mandate stipulated

The head of the Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, said at Christmas:

When we take all those facts together, we can see that no substantial argument remains against the immediate announcement and rapid establishment of the inquiry that the nation demands. If it is necessary to have an inquiry, as Ministers have accepted, there is no longer any reason linked to the safety of our troops to delay one, and every reason of scrutiny, accountability and learning for the future to begin one as soon as we can. The only remaining explanation for the non-appearance of an inquiry is either ministerial self-interest in delaying its onset and therefore its outcome, or a reluctance to get around to it at all.

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC) rose—

Mr. Hague: I will give way for the last time.

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Adam Price: The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the need for an inquiry now. Does he agree that it is important that the accountability of that inquiry runs to Parliament and not to the Executive, given that Parliament was, in my view, given misleading information in the past? I remember the former Prime Minister saying, “If only you could see some of the things that come across my desk, you would vote for the war.” If only we had seen them, because then more hon. Members would have voted against.

Mr. Hague: I think that it is important for it to be a Privy Council inquiry because the results would be laid before Parliament. The hon. Gentleman and I have had a small difference on this matter in the past, in that he originally proposed a reinforced and special Committee of this House. That would suffer the disadvantages that its membership would comprise only Members of this House, and that it would probably have to have a governing party majority, so it would not be the independent inquiry that I am advocating, able to draw on the expertise of people from outside Parliament. I do not think this needs to be an inquiry conducted in Parliament, but its results need to be laid before Parliament.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend give way on that point?

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con) rose—

Mr. Hague: I had not intended to give way again as I am trying to get on with my speech, but I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh).

Mr. Leigh: Does my right hon. Friend share my sadness at the fact that we need a full Falklands-type inquiry because our Select Committees are so weak? Under the Osmotherly rules, we cannot insist on particular officials appearing before a Committee and we cannot look at advice given to Ministers. Our Select Committees are therefore not strong enough, unlike congressional committees.

Mr. Hague: I agree, and my hon. Friend has expressed that point very well.

Mr. Baron: Does my right hon. Friend also agree that we need an inquiry because since even the Hutton inquiry a wealth of material and information has come out by way of freedom of information requests and other means, which clearly show that the intelligence reports were misrepresented and mispresented by the Government at the time? For example, we have only recently discovered that there was a body called the coalition information centre, a propaganda unit within the Foreign Office; it has since disbanded, but that body played a key role in the drafting of the dossier.

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