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15 Jun 2009 : Column 28

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): I should like to add my expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Lieutenant Paul Mervis and Private Robert McLaren, who tragically lost their lives in Afghanistan in this last week. Of course I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to our brave servicemen and women, who have served our country so courageously in Iraq over the past six years. In particular, I pay tribute to the 179 who have lost their lives. They and their families are in our thoughts today.

I passionately believe that we were wrong to invade Iraq, but I am second to none in my admiration for the bravery and dedication of our servicemen and women. Everyone knows that the invasion of Iraq was the biggest foreign policy mistake that this country has made in generations—the single most controversial decision taken by Government since Suez—so I am staggered that the Prime Minister is seeking to compound that error, which was fatal for so many of Britain’s sons and daughters, by covering up the path that led to it.

The Liberal Democrats have called for an inquiry into the build-up and conduct of the Iraq war for many years. I suppose we can be grateful that, finally, the Prime Minister has acceded to that demand. However, as is so often the case, he has taken a step in the right direction but missed the fundamental point. A secret inquiry, conducted by a clutch of grandees hand-picked by the Prime Minister, is not what Britain needs. Does the Prime Minister not understand that the purpose of an inquiry is not just to produce a set of conclusions but to allow the people of Britain to come to terms with a mistake made in their name?

I met the families of soldiers who lost their lives in Iraq and just an hour ago they asked me to speak in their name and to tell the Prime Minister that nothing short of a fully public inquiry, held in the open, will satisfy them. Will he at least listen to what those grieving families need?

The Prime Minister says that the inquiry has to be held in private to protect national security, but it looks to me suspiciously as though he wants to protect his reputation and that of his predecessor instead. Why else would he want the inquiry to report after the general election, when we could have at least interim reports before then? It is perfectly possible to have a limited number of sensitive sessions in camera while retaining the fundamental principle that the vast bulk of the inquiry—not just a few public sessions, as recommended by the Conservative leader—should be open to all.

I am grateful that the Prime Minister has listened to my representations and has extended the inquiry to cover the full origins of the war and given it full access to the documents and files that it will need. However, I am disappointed that he made such a feeble attempt to secure consensus on the panel that will conduct the inquiry. The experience of successfully established inquiries, such as the one now being held in the Netherlands, shows that consensus can be secured only if the Government conduct painstaking consultation over a prolonged period of time. Why did the Prime Minister not even attempt that sort of constructive discussion with other parties?

The Government must not be allowed to close the book on this war as they opened it—in secrecy. Last week, the Prime Minister stood at the Dispatch Box and spoke eloquently about the need for more public accountability and transparency. This was his first test.
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He has failed. He has chosen secrecy instead. For six years, we have watched our brave servicemen and women putting their lives on the line for a war that we did not support and could not understand. To rebuild public trust, the inquiry must be held in public. Will the Prime Minister, even now, reconsider? Will he make this inquiry a healing process for the nation, or will he turn his back on the legitimate demands of the British people once again?

The Prime Minister: Every Member has the greatest respect for every family that is grieving as a result of what has happened in Iraq. Nothing that anybody says today takes away from our concern about the needs of those families and our respect for them. I want to answer the right hon. Gentleman’s specific points about the inquiry, however.

The inquiry is to learn the lessons of what has happened. The inquiry will cover the run-up to the war, the conflict itself and reconstruction after the conflict. I can think of no remit that could be broader than that—to cover the events leading up to the conflict, and the reconstruction after it. The inquiry will cover eight years of our history, and will be a very detailed piece of work that has to be done.

The inquiry will be able to call any witness, and for any evidence. The report will be published and debated in this House. That is exactly how the Franks inquiry went about its work. To be fair to the right hon. Gentleman, he disagrees with using Franks as a model, although the main Opposition party has always wanted that. However, we must take into account national security considerations, and what is known about the capability of our armed forces and security services, and the missions they are undertaking at the moment. We also have to take into account what serving officers will want to say to the inquiry. I think that the right hon. Gentleman will come to recognise that all those things involve a degree of confidentiality that would not suit a public inquiry, where all witnesses give evidence in public. The lesson of public inquiries is that they take many, many years, because everybody who comes before one wants to be represented by a lawyer. We know that from other public inquiries that are taking place at the moment, one of which has already taken eight years and is no nearer to completion now than it was a year ago.

I also ask the right hon. Gentleman to bear it in mind that the matter will come back to the House. It is up to the inquiry to decide how long it will take to do its work. I think that the best way for it to report to the House is with a comprehensive piece of work, rather than through piecemeal reports. In the end, the members of the inquiry team will decide how long it will take them to do the work, but I think the right hon. Gentleman will agree that it will take some time to cover eight years of history in the most detailed way. All witnesses and all evidence can come before the inquiry. I hope that he will agree, on reflection, that those who have been selected and asked to take part in the inquiry are people of high reputation who can do a very good job of work for this country.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): As one who supported the Iraq war, I did so on human rights grounds. I saw no secret material and had no private briefing, but I had a 30-year involvement with the Iraqi opposition. I personally
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would want assurances from the inquiry as to why, prior to the war, this country failed to indict leading members of the Iraqi regime when we had the legal evidence to enable us to do so.

The Prime Minister: I am grateful for the work that my right hon. Friend has done in Iraq, especially with the Kurdish population. She is regarded very highly by all those whom I meet when I go to Iraq, in particular for the way she has protected the interests of the Kurdish population in that country, who were facing very difficult times under Saddam Hussein. She is party to binding that group together with the rest of the country to make for a stronger future.

Obviously, the inquiry will look at the events from 2001 onwards. However, if it feels that it is necessary to look behind that and before that, it will of course do so.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con): As someone who supported the war, I unashamedly continue to believe that history will record that what was done at that time will turn out to be a cause for good, and that a stable and democratic Iraq will be a force for good in the region. On that basis, I hope that the Prime Minister will consider some slight adjustments to this welcome inquiry. The first is that it could have a slightly wider membership and include some ex-military members. To give it a little more cutting edge, it could also include some senior politicians. I recommend that only because I think that a committee without that edge would be a little less credible.

Further, because I believe that there is ultimately nothing to hide, the reality is that some hearings must be held in public. I urge the Prime Minister to think again about that.

The Prime Minister: First, all the military personnel at a senior level who are either retired or serving officers will be in a position to give evidence to the inquiry. I think it important that they are given the chance to do so, and that they can speak frankly. That means that the sessions will be better held in private than in public. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that the military voice will be listened to as we try to learn the lessons of the war.

As far as serving politicians are concerned, it is probable that, over this eight-year period, there is no one in this House who has not commented in detail about the Iraqi situation. I think that it is better to look for people outside this House who can take an objective view of the circumstances and who are also seen as politically impartial. I hope that, on reflection, the right hon. Gentleman will understand that the difference between the membership of the Franks inquiry and the membership of this inquiry is because of these reasons.

As far as public sessions are concerned, the Opposition called for a Franks-style inquiry; they knew perfectly well, when they did so, that Franks was held in private. The essence of Franks was that it was held in private. If people on the Opposition Benches want to change their mind, it is their right to do so, but what they say is completely inconsistent with what they have said previously.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): I, too, welcome the removal of the brutal, fascist regime of Saddam, and I think that Iraq is a much better country today
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than it could ever have been while the regime continued. However, it is important that the inquiry also look at the origins of the conflict, which did not start in 2001. We were bombing Iraq in 1998. Saddam was gassing the Kurds in 1988. There is a context and a history. I hope that the inquiry will look at the context and the history, and not just start events at 9/11.

The Prime Minister: I do agree that there was a whole series of events leading up to what happened when the conflict broke out in 2003. No doubt the inquiry will be free to take some of those events into consideration, but it must focus itself on a period, which is the immediate run-up to the conflict, the conflict itself and the reconstruction afterwards. I have also to remind the House that we have had four separate inquiries already into some of the events surrounding Iraq: we have had the Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry, the Intelligence and Security Committee inquiry, the Butler inquiry and the Hutton inquiry. It is not as if many of the issues have not been addressed; they have been addressed, but it is important to look at the matter in the round. What we want to do—I think that sometimes we forget this—is learn the lessons, so that they can be applied for the future.

Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood) (Ind Lab): We all welcome the demise of the Saddam Hussein regime, but the important question is: could it have been done differently? Could Saddam Hussein have been indicted, and could a lot of Iraqis have not lost their lives? We all agree that we mourn the loss of our soldiers, their injuries and the number of soldiers who are mentally ill, but should we not regret the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and the displacement of millions?

Also, when the Prime Minister rings Prime Minister Netanyahu, could he point out to him that it is not just the expansion of the settlements that is not good enough? The settlements are illegal, and there will be no two-state solution unless the settlements are closed down. That is something that no one is talking about, but we will not get peace without a willingness to move on the settlements.

Lastly, I agree with those who say that the membership of the inquiry is rather feeble. We need senior politicians who understand political decision making, and senior military people who can understand the decisions that were made. The inquiry is welcome, but surely it should be allowed to have hearings in private or in public as it sees fit, rather than having them kept completely secret.

The Prime Minister: First, I do regret the loss of lives of all those who suffered, and the loss of life among any community and any nation. We regret the loss of Iraqi lives, but we cannot deny that the responsibility for what has happened in Iraq lay at the hands of Saddam Hussein. Both the right hon. Lady and I, who served in the Government, knew exactly what Saddam Hussein was trying to do and how he had broken every single United Nations resolution that he said that he would uphold. As far as Israel is concerned, I agree with her that the settlements must be stopped. I agree that this is the advice that we should give to the new Israeli Government: that in addition to embracing a two-state solution that will give security to Israel, as well as the
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possibility of a viable state to the Palestinians, an announcement about stopping the growth of settlements, and indeed halting settlements, is important to move the peace process forward.

As far as the inquiry is concerned, I just beg to disagree. I feel that the people who have been selected for the inquiry have very respected positions in the public life of this country. I think that when people look at what they have achieved, they will see that they have a great deal to offer. I just repeat this: are there Members of this House who, in the last eight years, have said absolutely nothing, or not been involved in any vote, on Iraq? It is far better to have a non-partisan and impartial group looking at the issues.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): I welcome the inquiry, and may I say to the Prime Minister that I am surprised that the leaders of the two main Opposition parties are insisting that their political placemen be put on the inquiry? Now is the time, when Parliament is not held in high esteem, to have an independent inquiry. Anyone who has heard Sir Roderick Lyne comment on British foreign policy will know that at times, he is no friend to this Government.

Will the Prime Minister extend the inquiry to take evidence from people in Iraq? People suffered under Saddam’s dictatorship and were freed from it, and then had to accept an onslaught from jihadi Islamist extremists, Iranians, al-Qaeda and Syria, which our troops helped to resist. Those groups are responsible for the death of people in Iraq, and we should not let the lie go out that their evil is in any way attributable to the decisions of this Government and the other democratic Governments of the world.

The Prime Minister: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, and for the interest that he has taken in these issues over many, many years. Sometimes we in the House should have the humility to accept that there are people outside the House who can contribute, perhaps more than we can, to an objective and impartial review of what has happened in Iraq, both in the run-up to the conflict and in the reconstruction that has taken place there afterwards. When people reflect on the list of names before them, I think they will take the view that this is not only a very responsible group of people, but a group of people who can conduct the review with great efficiency and great care. I agree that the review must have the power to listen to all voices that may have something to say them, but that will be a matter for the review itself.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): As a declared sceptic as early as November 1992 of the existence of the weapons of mass destruction, and as a subsequent opponent of the invasion of Iraq, may I put it to the Prime Minister that the disastrous effect of the war has been to make Iran the dominant power in the whole of the middle east? What the British people well understand is that after the capture of Baghdad, the political management of the occupation was extremely incompetent, as is recognised now in both America and Europe. What the British people want is an explanation, well before the general election 11 months from now, of how it came about that Mr. Blair was able to persuade Parliament to vote in favour of the war on facts which he knew would not stand up to proper examination.

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The Prime Minister: I disagree with the hon. Gentleman, but surely the point of an inquiry is to look at all those issues, and that is exactly what will happen. It will look also at whether there were failures in the reconstruction, as well as before that, and it will report on these issues. What happened after the fall of Baghdad will be as much a subject of the report as what happened before. So I hope he will agree that all these issues—that seven-year period—will be looked at by the inquiry, and looked at very fully indeed.

Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway) (Lab): In the history of the conflict, two political matters cry out for explanation more than any other. The first is why the House was never informed of the contents of the Downing street minute that revealed knowledge six months before the conflict that the Bush Administration had decided on the inevitability of war, whatever concessions were made. The second matter that requires explanation is why the Attorney-General’s opinion on the legality of the war was never shown to the Cabinet before the decision to go to war was made. Neither of those matters—neither of them—affects state security. Neither of them requires phalanxes of lawyers. Why cannot they be ventilated and canvassed in public, and without delay?

The Prime Minister: My hon. and learned Friend has deeply held views on the issues that he has just raised. No doubt he, also, will be able to give vent to those views in the course of the inquiry. Perhaps he may wish to offer evidence to the inquiry.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): May I say to the Prime Minister that I profoundly regret the nature of the inquiry that he has announced? It is a disappointing response to what is, by common consent, regarded as a catastrophic foreign policy decision. On the form of inquiry that he proposes, can he tell us whether it will have the power not to ask for witnesses, but to compel witnesses to attend and to put them on oath so that their evidence may be verified against that background? Let me ask him, finally, how he thinks the kind of inquiry that he proposes will satisfy the millions of Britons who marched against the war, when the inquiry will meet in private even when the national interest will not require it?

The Prime Minister: I sometimes think the Liberal party forgets, first, that the inquiry is independent of Government. Secondly, its remit covers eight years—the build-up to war and the reconstruction afterwards. With reference to witnesses, I cannot think of the inquiry being satisfied if people whom they want to interview refuse to be interviewed, and I expect that everybody who is asked to give evidence will give evidence. I believe that is exactly what will happen. For the Liberal party or anybody in the House to jump to the conclusion that the inquiry is in some way not independent is completely wrong. It is an independent inquiry, independent of Government, able to take all papers and able to interview any witnesses. I know that the Liberal party wanted it to be held in public, but I think they know also what happens when there are public inquiries. That means lawyers, lawyers and lawyers, whereas people can feel free to give evidence and give it frankly about what we want to hear—that is, the lessons that we can learn from the war.

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