Previous Section Index Home Page

David Miliband: I am always wary of the attempt to put Iraq and Afghanistan in the same paragraph, as I believe they are fundamentally different theatres. However, there are important lessons from the Iraq experience. As I will say in a moment, the MOD has carried out
25 Mar 2009 : Column 327
significant internal reviews, as well as having the benefit of external reviews, as has the Foreign Office, and those are fed in week by week. The hon. Gentleman may well have important points about the way in which strategy and tactics are being put into practice. We should certainly be learning the lessons, but that does not require us to wait for the full-scale official inquiry that we are debating today.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): Yesterday, I met a delegation of Iraqi Members of Parliament, representing all the diverse communities in that country, and they wanted a message sent to the British people to say, “Thank you for what you’ve done to get rid of Saddam Hussein and please keep supporting us in our transition to democracy.”

Will the Foreign Secretary ensure that the inquiry, when it happens, is not narrowly focused, but looks at the totality of the UK relationship with Iraq before, during and since the conflict, and includes the complicity of the Conservative Government of Baroness Thatcher with Saddam’s regime during the Iran-Iraq war?

David Miliband: I hear what my hon. Friend says about the need for the inquiry to look beyond the immediate context of the war, and especially at the conduct of the peace-building.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): I sincerely thank the Foreign Secretary for recognising in his speech and in the Government amendment the professionalism and bravery of our troops, which the Opposition failed to do in their motion. Will he confirm that any inquiry will not reveal the identity of any individual member of the troops so that nobody is put at risk?

David Miliband: One advantage of a Franks-style inquiry, as recommended by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, is that it would operate in private and could preserve the confidentiality that is important for all our troops.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): The Foreign Secretary has conceded that an inquiry will take place. Will he assure the House that all the papers prepared for the Cabinet before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 will be revealed to that inquiry so they may be properly studied, unlike the decision that was taken to challenge the Information Commissioner’s decision that they should be released to the public?

David Miliband: There will certainly be full co-operation with the inquiry, including in respect of the important papers that my hon. Friend mentions.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): The Foreign Secretary mentioned the operations of the British forces in Iraq. Can he say how many personnel, based in Iraq, London or elsewhere, would be involved in any inquiry? What would be the problem with replacing those people so that they were free to engage in an inquiry now?

David Miliband: I have not mapped that out, but it would be a substantial number. In the Foreign Office, it would involve people who are working in our Iraq unit at present who are resolutely focused on this delicate passage of time. As British troops withdraw, we have to make it clear to the people of Basra that we are not
25 Mar 2009 : Column 328
abandoning Iraq, but are continuing to remain engaged with it. I am happy to confirm that substantial effort will be dedicated to an inquiry. It would be important for the Government to co-operate fully with it across Departments.

I do not accept that development and planning have been compromised by the absence of an inquiry. There have already been four inquiries into aspects of the war in Iraq, although they were not official inquiries with access to all the papers. In 2003, both the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Intelligence and Security Committee, and then a year later the Butler inquiry, examined the decision to invade Iraq, focusing on the accuracy and adequacy of the intelligence, and of course the Hutton inquiry looked into the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr. David Kelly.

Our military, diplomatic and development strategies have consistently been adjusted and updated in the light of events and those inquiries, and in the light of reviews that we have undertaken inside the Government. Some of them have been made public, but others, for obvious reasons, have not. For instance, the Ministry of Defence carries out regular reviews of operations from the strategic to the tactical level. Its reviews have made recommendations on matters ranging from the military kit to counter-insurgency strategy or the relationship of security to economic and political change. DFID’s approach in Basra has evolved significantly over time, from the initial priority of focusing on the dilapidated infrastructure—work that has benefited more than 1 million Iraqis—to a focus on developing Iraqi economic capacity.

Of course our experiences in both Afghanistan and Iraq have had a significant impact on the workings of the Foreign Office, with greater emphasis on cross-departmental planning and working, including through the tri-departmental stabilisation unit. More resource is being devoted to post-conflict planning and delivery as well as the development of a much smarter approach to risk management. The accumulation of internal lessons learned over the past six years, as well as internal reviews conducted, is all material that an inquiry could draw on.

I was interested to hear the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks say last year that he favoured an inquiry along the lines of the Franks inquiry, which he referred to as “the model inquiry”. The Franks inquiry was set up after the end of the Falklands conflict. The fact that it was conducted in private meant that it had access to all the relevant papers. In that respect, it was significantly different from the US Baker-Hamilton report. Franks was not a judicial inquiry so it did not require its witnesses to have lawyers. There were no leaks or interim findings to distract from the final conclusions and recommendations.

Of course, it is important to remember that Franks looked only at the run-up to the Falklands war in the wake of Lord Carrington’s resignation. Most discussion of the case for an inquiry into Iraq has not favoured limiting an inquiry to the lead up to the war, but is instead more interested in the conduct of the war and its aftermath. The Government have never demurred from that view.

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): Can the Foreign Secretary give an assurance to the House that when an inquiry is eventually held, it will not be confined
25 Mar 2009 : Column 329
just to the conduct of the war and events afterwards, but will focus—as part of its terms of reference—on that very important period of the run-up to the war and what was told to this House and the nation, which was clearly less than the whole truth about the nature of the so-called threat and our potential response to it?

David Miliband: I have been very careful not to start placing limits on what an inquiry could look at. The purpose of the inquiry will be to learn lessons. I do not see any point in repeating what other inquiries have done, but it should be a comprehensive look at the planning and conduct of the war, as well as the peace-building afterwards.

Several hon. Members rose

David Miliband: In deference to the seniority of the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) I shall give way, but it will have to be the last intervention.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): Does the Foreign Secretary understand that the main interest of the country will be in the run-up to the war, because it is widely believed that in the summer of 2002 the then Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, and President Bush entered into a conspiracy to invade Iraq and spent the succeeding months until March 2003 manipulating public opinion, falsifying the intelligence information and deceiving the leaders of the Conservative party? That is one of the most shameful episodes in British history, if it is proved to be true—as a proper inquiry would prove.

David Miliband: I do not accept that caricature of the period before 2003. Nor do I accept that the vast bulk of interest is in the run-up to the war. For those with conspiracy theories, that may be their interest, but those of us concerned with British operations in the future are interested in the lessons of the war itself and the peace-building effort afterwards. It is important to emphasise the post-war aspects as well as the wartime conduct.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): Can the Foreign Secretary explain why our major ally, the US, continues to examine and review the lead up to the war and the lessons to be learned, and to do so in public? It is not a bogus argument; it is a fact. Many Americans are amazed that we do not do the same.

David Miliband: That is a bogus argument. As I have just said, the Baker-Hamilton inquiry did not have access to the sort of secret papers that everyone in this House believes that an official inquiry should have access to. Although it is correct that America is a country that conducts numerous internal reviews—as we do, too—America has not had the sort of official inquiry that the hon. Gentleman’s party is asking for.

Iraq was a source of great division in this House—within parties and between them—as well as in the country. Those divisions will not be erased; nor, above all, will the loss suffered by the bereaved families of our troops lost in action; nor, indeed, will the loss of Iraqi lives. We can never pay tribute to them often enough.

25 Mar 2009 : Column 330

The future of Iraq should engage us all, whatever position we took on the war, because peace and security in Iraq is not only vital to regional stability but critical to the UK’s interests on human rights, counter-terrorism and energy security. Once our armed contribution has concluded and our combat troops have returned home, we should invest the time and effort to learn thoroughly any further lessons. For now, all the efforts of our professional and experienced staff—from our soldiers to our diplomats and aid workers—need to be focused on creating the best possible transition from a predominantly military relationship to a predominantly economic, diplomatic and cultural relationship with Iraq. That is what the Government will be doing and I believe that it is what the House should be doing, too.

1.41 pm

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) forensically showed how the Government’s position on an inquiry has evolved over time. I hope to add to his analysis by showing that each of their arguments along the way was bogus. I have decided that that is the right approach, given the speech that we have just heard from the Foreign Secretary, who was still unable to make any strong argument for delaying the inquiry.

Indeed, in last year’s debate on the subject the Foreign Secretary set out all the arguments for an early inquiry and then proceeded to try to demolish them, in much the same way as Tony Blair set out the arguments against going to war with Iraq and tried to demolish them in that famous debate. Both attempts were flawed, although it is interesting to note that Tony Blair and the Foreign Secretary used different debating tactics.

In seeking to undermine our case against the Iraq war, Tony Blair adopted the Aunt Sally approach. He never dealt with the precise arguments against the war, but instead tackled inexact interpretations and caricatures of those arguments, whether they were on the legal position, the option of letting UN weapons inspectors continue or warnings that war would simply create a worse problem. He got away with it, of course, primarily because the vast majority of Conservatives were taken in by the dodgy dossier and the dodgy arguments.

To be fair to the Foreign Secretary, he did not take that Aunt Sally approach last year. If one re-reads his speech in Hansard, one sees that he took the arguments head on. The problem was that he utterly failed to make his case. He got away with it that time because Labour MPs who had previously bravely voted against the war could not bear to support a motion tabled by an unrepentant Conservative party. I feel increasingly sorry for the Foreign Secretary as he has to defend the impossible legacy of his right hon. Friends, yet such sentiments cannot get in the way of our scrutiny of his position.

Let us remind ourselves just how spectacularly bad the Foreign Secretary was in the debate on this subject last year. He said that there were four arguments for an early inquiry: precedent; the alleged limited activities of our troops, which meant that an inquiry would not get in the way; the need to learn lessons; and the fact that memories will fade.

On precedent, there was an interesting history debate, spanning the Dardanelles in 1915, the Norway campaign in the second world war and the Falklands. We have heard those arguments again today. However, it was the
25 Mar 2009 : Column 331
Conservative hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) who took out the Foreign Secretary’s middle stump with his reference to the inquiry set up into the ill-fated Anglo-Indian campaign of 1916 in Mesopotamia, which we of course know as Iraq. I can now see why the hon. Gentleman is in charge of summer holiday reading lists for Conservative MPs; he certainly sent the Foreign Secretary packing.

The Foreign Secretary then tried to demolish the second argument for an inquiry, which was that our troops’ role in Iraq has for some time been rather limited, so an inquiry could not possibly prejudice their position. The Foreign Secretary thought he was on stronger ground—after all, the current Prime Minister’s main argument is that nothing should divert us from restoring stability in Iraq. To make his case, the Foreign Secretary listed the training, monitoring and mentoring role of our troops and their work in their overwatch role, as he has done today.

Under fire, the Foreign Secretary simply ran away. He failed totally to answer any of the counter-arguments—put from both sides of the House—to his specious arguments. The hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) asked which British army commanders had advised that an inquiry would undermine our troops. The answer was, “None”. The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) noted that very few of the forces stationed in Basra would be needed for the inquiry, given that few, if any, of them would have been involved in the political decision making or indeed the invasion and its immediate aftermath. That killer point was totally ignored then and has been totally ignored today.

When I asked the daft wee laddie question about exactly how our troops’ operations would be hindered by an inquiry, the Foreign Secretary failed to enter the cut and thrust of the debate. Even today, when I pressed him on the same point, he was unable to be in any way precise about the impact of an inquiry on operations in practice.

Mr. Heath: I am very glad that my hon. Friend is laying out the specious nature of the argument that nothing must distract the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence from their essential tasks in Iraq. Does he believe, as I do, that the fact that when our troops come home from Iraq they will almost certainly be redeployed to a conflict in Afghanistan makes that argument particularly absurd? If we are not focused on Afghanistan, what on earth do we have these Departments for?

Mr. Davey: My hon. Friend has strengthened my argument. The argument that an inquiry would somehow get in the way of the operations of our troops, the Ministry of Defence or DFID would apply equally to the fact that we have operations ongoing in Afghanistan. Indeed, those operations are far more serious than those under way in Iraq. My hon. Friend makes a powerful point and the Government have no answer to it.

Mr. MacNeil: The hon. Gentleman may be aware that five years ago, another of the United States’ very junior parties carried out an independent inquiry, in February 2004, into the pre-Iraq intelligence and the threat of weapons of mass destruction. That inquiry
25 Mar 2009 : Column 332
felt that that evidence may have been “overstated”. It also felt that the conservative Government in Australia were “more measured” than their alliance partners, who had not always accurately portrayed the intelligence that they had received. Which of the alliance partners does the hon. Gentleman think the Australian Government may have been thinking about?

Mr. Davey: I think the whole House knows the answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question.

Let me return to the Foreign Secretary and his rather inadequate performance last year. Having failed to deal with the argument that an early inquiry would get in the way of our troops’ operations, he then said we did not need an inquiry to learn any lessons because, somehow, miraculously—in a way that everyone else had clearly missed—the lessons had already been learned. According to the Foreign Secretary, there had been two studies by the Ministry of Defence of the operations in Iraq. There had been internal reviews. The Foreign Secretary said with a straight face that the civil service and armed forces continually adjusted and updated their strategies in the light of experience. I am not joking. That argument was served up to us a year ago by the Foreign Secretary. He was effectively saying that although the Government supported an inquiry at some stage in the future, that inquiry would not be about learning lessons because they had already been learned. That was an astonishing argument to make and showed how weak the Government’s position is.

Mr. Holloway: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that our troops would probably greatly appreciate an inquiry that might at last address the deep structural problems in the so-called comprehensive approach?

Mr. Davey: I think they would. I am not so sure whether that would fit in with this particular inquiry, as I shall discuss later. We need to be careful about the remit of the Iraq inquiry. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point and the Liberal Democrats are very much in favour of a strategic defence review that might deal with some of the points to which he alluded.

The Foreign Secretary tried to deal with the fourth argument for an early inquiry, which was that memories might fade and records be lost. We heard that argument once again today from the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks. Last year, the Foreign Secretary started well, pointing out that much had already been produced for the previous four inquiries. He conceded that these inquiries had been narrow and limited, but the implication was that they had helped to conserve the information and gather it together so that it would be ready for the full inquiry. I would almost give him half a point for that exchange. Since then, we have had revelations through freedom of information requests of documents that it would seem Hutton definitely could not have seen—and that Butler either did not see, or failed to focus on.

As the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks reminded us, it is indisputable that, with the passage of time, memories fade and people die. So the Foreign Secretary did not even win his strongest position. In other words, in opposing the case for an early inquiry last year—12 months ago—the Foreign Secretary failed.

Next Section Index Home Page