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Yet here we are a year later, and the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary are still playing for time. However, we need to be careful and look at what they said, and in that regard the intervention from the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) had the Foreign Secretary on the ropes. The Government’s position is that there will be an inquiry when the combat troops have returned, but there is no precision about when it would be set up at that point. Indeed, Hansard shows that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary said that the case for an inquiry would be “considered” when the troops had returned. There is no specific timetable: the Government are still wriggling about their position, and that is simply not acceptable.

The case for setting up an inquiry immediately, with no more time wasted, is, in our view, watertight. It has been so for a long time, yet the Government’s continued resistance invites the question, “If not now, then when?”

The logic of the Government’s position, which was again drawn out by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, is that the inquiry should be announced now and begin on or around 31 July, when the troops are supposed to be coming home. My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) pressed the Foreign Secretary on the timing of the inquiry during the Queen’s Speech debate on foreign affairs. He asked whether it would have to wait until every last man was out of Iraq, and the right hon. Gentleman’s response was absolutely clear. Indeed, he was as precise as any member of the Government has ever been about the matter when, on 10 December last year, he said:

To be fair to him, the Foreign Secretary repeated that today.

As the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks set out, even the lame excuses of last year can have no force now. On the face of it, if we are to have faith in anything that the Government say, they must announce the inquiry before the summer recess, at the very latest. If they do not, it could—and it certainly should—have serious implications.

Already, the Secretary of State for Justice, the former Foreign Secretary, has vetoed a decision by the Information Tribunal and blocked the publication of the minutes of the key Cabinet meetings. He has been judge and jury in his own trial, and that makes it look as though the Government were guilty of covering something up. However, if the Government fail even to set up the inquiry that they have promised, then the charge that the Prime Minister and others have something more sinister to hide will become very toxic.

Let us assume for a moment that even No. 10 now knows that further prevarication is impossible. When the Government eventually get around to setting up the inquiry, questions will arise about its nature. The Conservatives today proposed the Privy Council approach, along the lines of the Franks inquiry, and that has some attractions, with the greatest being that such an inquiry would be able to receive top secret material and ensure access to all papers and persons.

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Yet that approach has one big disadvantage—that it would meet, as I understand it, in private all the time. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) has argued, one of the purposes of an inquiry is to restore the public’s trust and confidence. That demands an inquiry in the open.

So what should the Government do? Well believe that a Privy Council approach is better than a judicial inquiry in this case. The key questions and the key judgments that will have to be made are essentially political, not legal—and, above all, we do not want a repeat of Hutton. I can see no reason why a Privy Council inquiry could not hold many of its meetings in public, as long as clear rules were established from the start for when it goes into session in camera.

There is huge experience now in the courts and other tribunals about managing the balance between public and private hearings. Not least with the new procedures for dealing with terrorist cases, there is up-to-date and recent experience in a variety of procedures about how to strike the balance in different ways. So when the Government eventually announce the inquiry, we will want to know how it proposes to strike that balance. We believe that the inquiry must lean as much as possible towards total openness and transparency.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for letting me intervene; I would have to go to the Foreign Affairs Committee to deal with similar matters. What troubles me is that, whatever the nature of the inquiry, the oath must be administered to those who give evidence. Not only would that make it clear to witnesses that they must tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but it would afford them some protection from Departments and agencies that might lean on them to be less than frank. The process will remain seriously flawed until people are compelled to tell the whole truth, with the possibility of committing perjury if they do not.

Mr. Davey: The hon. Gentleman makes a very strong point, and I hope that Ministers will impose that requirement when the inquiry is eventually announced. When that happens, of course, we will want to hear about the inquiry’s remit. Although there would be no point in an inquiry that did not have a wide remit to investigate all aspects of the matter—from the decision to go to war to the pre-planning for post-conflict, as well as the invasion itself and its aftermath—it is surely a matter of debate as to exactly what the focus of an inquiry should be.

The inquiry could, for example, be focused on military tactics, decisions, equipment and so on. Although we believe it is essential that we find more and better ways of protecting our troops in conflicts, and of caring and supporting them and their families both during and after those conflicts, we emphatically do not think that this inquiry should be about the military.

Our armed forces were fantastic. They should have the support of all sides of this House, and it should be made crystal clear that an inquiry will not focus, to any large extent, on the role of the military. Yes, we need evidence from those who have served, especially the commanders, but the primary objective must be to probe the political rather than the military decision making. For it is British politics that will be under the
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spotlight. That light will focus on the former Prime Minister, of course, but also on his key advisers and members of the Cabinet and the civil service. Parliament will also be examined, including the role of Opposition parties and individual MPs.

Whether one agreed with the Iraq war back in 2003—or whether, with the benefit of hindsight, one agrees with it now, or thinks that today’s world is safer as a result— no one can doubt its historic significance, heavy costs and implications for the future. What went right with the political process over Iraq, and what went wrong, could not be more significant. It is to those questions that the inquiry must be directed.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): The hon. Gentleman is coming to a very important point in his speech. Does he agree that one of the crucial aspects of any inquiry is that the entire nation, and our magnificent serving soldiers, need to know that the rationale behind any future conflict is defensible, justifiable and durable for the future?

Mr. Davey: I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman.

Let me be clear, however. I am not suggesting that the inquiry’s remit should be over-prescribed—tempting though that might be, and even more so if Liberal Democrats were alone able to write it. However, its remit must be flexible enough to try to get the truth behind the many unanswered questions and serious allegations. They include, for instance, the question of how and why the Attorney-General’s legal advice changed, and how and why the expert intelligence was abused and politicised in No. 10.

For the sake of brevity, let me give just one example of the questions the inquiry must be able to tackle. This question goes to the heart of the legal and political case made for war, and it is one that could have massive implications in the future. I am referring to the issue of how close Iraq was to manufacturing nuclear weapons.

Much attention has focused on the notorious 45-minute claim, yet there has been much less publicity over what seems to me to be the critical question of the validity—and, indeed, the veracity—of the claims made by Tony Blair, in the dossier and in Parliament, that Saddam Hussein was between one and two years away from producing a nuclear weapon.

Understanding how that assessment was made could be critical for future policy, given the huge and pressing problem of Iran’s nuclear capabilities. People often talk about the parallels with Afghanistan, and the lessons that can be learned for that conflict, but the parallels and lessons in respect of Iran are at least as important. So if there is one question that I think it essential for the inquiry to consider, it is this nuclear question.

It is also essential that the inquiry look at that question for the reason that it was fundamental to the case made by Tony Blair for going to war. The evidence, as far as we have it today, is extremely damaging for him. If one pieces together the various drafts of the dossier as we now have them, and reads them in the light of the memos and emails that have been obtained—mainly through the assiduous freedom of information requests made by the superb investigative journalist, Chris Ames—it becomes clear that there was a concerted and politically driven effort to alter the assessments made by Britain’s intelligence experts.

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The Butler inquiry revealed some of that information; it showed that the Joint Intelligence Committee’s last major assessment of nuclear capability was that

There was a rider that the

yet no serious evidence—even in the dodgy dossier—was advanced for that. Instead, in just three days, the “at least five years” time scale was more than halved, with no evidence.

Butler questions that, but makes no attempt to explain it. There is no attempt to apportion responsibility despite the centrality of the issue. An inquiry must provide an explanation. Was it, as some of the recently published memos suggest, because the Americans had changed their assessment? Between the publication of the two key dossier drafts, in a speech made on 12 September, George Bush claimed that Iraq would have nuclear weapons within a year. Was it the request made by a senior Cabinet official, Desmond Bowen, in an e-mail to John Scarlett of 11 September to reduce or remove any caveats or hedged judgments? Whatever the answer, we need to know how such deceptions can be prevented in the future, and the inquiry’s remit must be wide enough to enable that to happen.

Mr. Baron: The hon. Gentleman rightly pinpoints one example, but he will accept that there have been many others since the Hutton inquiry, born of FOI requests that raised further questions about how intelligence was misrepresented. Does he not believe that that leads us to the view, as revealed in a leaked Cabinet Office memo of 21 July 2002, that the Prime Minister and President Bush had already decided to go to war, but that one of the conditions was that public opinion in the UK had to be prepared during the lead-up? That was the importance of the dodgy dossier.

Mr. Davey: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I could list a series of other allegations, slightly less well evidenced than the nuclear one, that Parliament and the British public were misled.

Mr. Hancock: Does my hon. Friend believe it is important for the inquiry to consider the fact that the then Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Boyce, would have resigned had legal justification for the war not been presented to him? That would have put the Government in a very embarrassing position. One of the reasons the legal opinion was changed was to satisfy the head of the armed forces and give him a firm assurance that there was legality for the operation.

Mr. Davey: My hon. Friend is exactly right. By giving the example of the nuclear question, I wanted the Foreign Secretary to ensure that when the inquiry is announced in due course it will not be restricted in any way when dealing with all those key questions.

Time is running out for the Government. I am sure Ministers and ex-Ministers are thinking about what will happen—the legacy question—if and when Labour loses. The Prime Minister had the chance to clear the decks immediately he came to office. He could have broken with Tony Blair’s Iraq war legacy and started to rebuild public trust with an inquiry into the war. In the process,
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he would have built a stronger legacy of his own, but he failed; he ducked that chance and increasingly it seems that the legacy of Iraq is one that he will share with Tony Blair.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has placed a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches, which applies from now.

2.3 pm

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): I very much enjoyed the speech made by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who is just leaving the Chamber. As I always do, I am now in a devilish way detaining him.

The only note I thought was missing from the right hon. Gentleman’s speech was humility. If we take ourselves back to those days in 2002 and 2003, I am afraid that the people in this place who were the great cheerleaders for war were not interested in exploring the kind of questions being asked from the Labour Benches about the legality of the war, and whether there were in fact weapons of mass destruction or whether a false prospectus was at work. None of those questions was at all interesting to the Opposition— [ Interruption. ]to the official Opposition, who simply wanted to go further, faster.

The courage was shown on the Labour Benches— [ Interruption. ]—and the Liberal Democrat Benches, where Members interrogated the arguments, and huge numbers of Members on the Labour Benches found they could not go with the Government. If there is to be an inquiry, the one inquiry the official Opposition could set up immediately would be why they failed during that critical period—the one time when they needed to be effective. As we now know, they had it within their power to prevent British engagement in the Iraq war. The Conservative party should immediately put in place an inquiry as to why the official Opposition failed during that period.

Mr. Holloway: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Wright: These are only preliminary remarks but I am happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Holloway: I was a television correspondent during the war in 2003, and most of us in the media and the vast majority of the British public also swallowed the lie.

Dr. Wright: I suspect most of us are quite anxious not to relive all those arguments in our few minutes’ speeches. I was simply making the point that the arguments were intense at the time on the Labour Benches and on the Liberal Democrat Benches and not at all on the Conservative Benches, with a very few—

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): And on this side.

Dr. Wright: With a very few honourable exceptions. It is worth inserting those observations into the call for an inquiry now.

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I want only to say something about Parliament’s role in the whole business, because that matters hugely. Just last week, two people gave evidence to the Public Administration Committee. One was Brian Jones, who was the leading defence intelligence expert at the Ministry of Defence. He said in terms that he thought Parliament had completely failed to ask the questions about Iraq that needed to be asked. He was followed by Mr. Carne Ross, a Foreign Office diplomat with experience in Iraq and in dealing with Iraq issues at the United Nations on our behalf who resigned from the Foreign Office over Iraq. He said in terms that he thought Parliament had been simply pathetic in its failure to get to the bottom of what happened.

The question is whether we are content for that to be the case or whether we are not content and want to do something about it. The Committee, which I have the privilege of chairing, has explored the issue in enormous detail in recent years. In 2005, we carried out an inquiry into inquiries called “Government by Inquiry”, which covered the sort of issues that are being raised today about the kind of inquiry one might have and about the benefits or demerits of certain types of inquiry—public or private, led by judges or led by other people. Those are proper arguments and I think the House would find our report helpful in thinking its way through some of the issues.

The Committee found that Parliament had given up the ability it routinely had in the 19th century, but has lost in more recent times, to commission inquiries. That has been a retreat on the part of the House. We proposed a device, which we called a parliamentary commission of inquiry, to insert Parliament back in the picture. In the Inquiries Act 2005, we formally gave away any residual rights we had when the role that Parliament used to have under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921 was removed. At least then there could be parliamentary resolutions to set up inquiries, but that power has gone. That is a huge retreat on the part of Parliament.

We now have a situation that the public find inexplicable. As we now know, there is a huge majority in this place who think there should be an inquiry on Iraq—the biggest issue in foreign policy since the second world war—where something important seems to have gone wrong. A huge majority in the House think an inquiry needs to be set in motion, yet it seems that it is not within our power to commission such an inquiry.

This allegedly sovereign Parliament cannot do anything other than keep requesting of the Government that they—the Executive—set up an inquiry. That cannot be satisfactory. The House has to find a way, a time, and a device, on a cross-party basis, that enables us to get such an inquiry, on behalf of Parliament, the people that we represent and, possibly crucially, our armed forces. I suspect that the people who most want an inquiry are those who have been associated with military activity and their families. We have to find a device that enables such an inquiry to take place. If we do not find such a device, but simply sit around requesting that one day an inquiry be commissioned, we as a Parliament are not doing our job.

I say to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, whom I like and respect enormously, as he knows, this is the very last time when he can make the arguments that he made today. Unless he comes to the House before the
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summer recess and says that an inquiry is to be commissioned, Parliament is entitled to insist, before the summer, that that is done.

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