Previous Section Index Home Page

24 Jun 2009 : Column 803

Mr. Hague: That will be the subject of some of my speech and perhaps some of the Foreign Secretary’s. The issue is not so much that the Government have altered Sir John Chilcot’s powers; it is that they have now placed on him the burden of coming up with the proceedings and rules for the inquiry—including how much of it is to be heard in public. If I continue with my speech for a little, there will be an answer to the hon. Gentleman’s point.

The Government’s basic defence of their inquiry proposals is that many of us asked for a Franks-style inquiry and that that is what they consider they have produced. In fact, it is necessary to have only the most cursory acquaintance with the Franks inquiry to know that several of its attributes, which were important in making its processes and findings acceptable to Parliament and the public, were completely missing from the Government’s proposals and how they went about them. Meanwhile, the one attribute of the Franks inquiry that almost everyone outside the Government regarded as no longer appropriate—its having been conducted behind closed doors—was the very one that the Government chose to continue with. I shall come to the point about openness or secrecy in a moment.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that another concern is that only recently the Government proposed that inquests could be held privately, without being open to the public gaze? Those proposals were later changed, but suspicions were raised about what the Government were up to.

Mr. Hague: My hon. Friend makes a related point, although not one immediately relevant to the motion. It was a good point, but I will carry on explaining the comparison with the Franks inquiry. It is possible for the House to understand how and why the Government went wrong on the issue only if it is aware of how the Government went about the consultation in advance of last Monday’s announcement, and how that contrasts with the consultation that followed the Falklands war and preceded the Franks inquiry.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hague: Not at the moment, because a lot of Members will wish to speak.

The Franks inquiry was characterised by wide and lengthy consultation by the Government of the time with the Opposition parties. That led to broad agreement on the nature, scope and composition of the inquiry in advance of its announcement. In fact, in the debate on the Franks inquiry, Denis Healey, the then shadow Foreign Secretary, went out of his way to praise Baroness Thatcher, the then Prime Minister—something that we would all admit he has hardly ever done in his life. During that debate on 8 July 1982, Denis Healey said:

He credited that attitude with producing the widespread support that the final proposals received.

24 Jun 2009 : Column 804

In contrast, on this occasion, the Prime Minister initiated only limited consultation with Opposition parties—and then ignored most of the points that we made. Ministers therefore have no excuse for thinking that what they announced had the agreement of the Opposition. Asked last Tuesday on the BBC “Today” programme whether the Opposition had agreed that the membership of the committee of inquiry was right, the Foreign Secretary replied:

That was the transcript, but he did say yes. I hope that he will acknowledge today that in claiming that the Opposition had agreed the membership of the inquiry, he was not making an accurate statement.

Let me be clear about this. On the Friday afternoon, the Conservative party was given the inquiry proposals to be made on the Monday. That gave no time for any face-to-face meetings between Opposition leaders and Ministers, or even among ourselves. Nevertheless, we made several criticisms of the inquiry proposals. Only one of them was taken fully on board by the Government. They had intended that the inquiry should be able to look back no further than late 2002, but they accepted our suggestion that the date should be put back to 2001, bringing in the period following the 9/11 attacks.

However, we also argued, as I believe did others, that the inquiry sessions should be much more open, and indeed open whenever possible—the exact formulation that the Prime Minister chose to ignore but has belatedly been constrained to accept. We also called for an interim report from the inquiry in early 2010, given the unnecessary delay in its establishment and the Government’s transparent intention to delay the publication of findings until after the last possible date for a general election—a manoeuvre that itself reduces public confidence in the inquiry process. An interim or earlier report would help to remedy that. That point, too, was ignored by the Government.

Paul Flynn: Although I believe that the openness of the inquiry has already been acceded to, the important point is the one that the Public Administration Committee has raised. That is the suggestion of having a two-tier inquiry, one to deal with the general issue for a long period and one to concentrate, in a short report produced in perhaps a matter of six months, on Britain’s involvement. The key issue is the torment of the families of the fallen—did their loved ones die in vain? Was Britain deceived in going into the war? That can be reported on very rapidly.

Mr. Hague: We all hope that all those things will be encompassed in one inquiry, and I am sure that it is better to examine them in the round.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): I was one of those many Labour Members who urged last week that the inquiry should be as public as possible. That is right and proper.

I believe that I spoke after the right hon. Gentleman in the debate just before we went into war. He was speaking from the Back Benches. I stand by my vote at that time, on the basis that the chief weapons inspector had not said that he was satisfied that all the weapons of mass destruction had been destroyed. On that basis, I voted for war. Does he stand by his vote?

24 Jun 2009 : Column 805

Mr. Hague: I do stand by my vote and my speech on that occasion. No doubt when the inquiry reports, we will all have time to reflect on who was right and who was wrong. That is one of the reasons for having an inquiry.

I was running through the points that the Opposition made over the weekend of consultation before the announcement. We said that the membership of the inquiry, while encompassing people whom we had no call to criticise, seemed to us too narrow. We said in particular that some experience of ministerial office was desirable. The following Monday, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition also made the point that military experience was desirable.

We further pointed out that the inquiry, as proposed by the Government, would consist of four nominees, none of whom was a woman. The Government went a small way to meeting part of the objection by adding Baroness Prashar to the inquiry membership. I hope that the Foreign Secretary will acknowledge that his statement on the “Today” programme that the five people were approached before the Cabinet Secretary went to talk to the Opposition parties was inaccurate. The fifth, Baroness Prashar, was added only when it was pointed out to Ministers that they had proposed an inquiry too narrow in its membership.

In many ways, I am sorry to make these points to the Foreign Secretary, because he is normally perfectly good at consultation with the Opposition. Clearly he was misinformed and not properly briefed on what was happening by a Downing street that does not share his willingness to consult on and agree matters with the Opposition. Let us hope that that emboldens him when he comes to his next opportunity to depose the Prime Minister, which normally recurs about every 12 weeks.

The upshot was that the consultation with the Opposition was inadequate and unnecessarily short. Nor did the Prime Minister even bother to consult the armed forces about how an inquiry into this country’s largest military endeavour since world war two should be conducted. The Chief of the General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt, stated last week that he was not privy to the discussions about how the inquiry would be conducted.

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the changes that he suggests should take place because the public have lost confidence in the House for another reason, and that it is absolutely vital to regain their confidence? Unless the changes that he has outlined are taken on board, the public will not believe that the outcome of the inquiry is fair and just.

Mr. Hague: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the mess and chaos that I am describing, which accompanied the launch of the inquiry, underlines the need to take on board the points that Members throughout the House have been making, to give the inquiry proper public credibility and support.

At the same time as everything I have described was happening, ample consideration was given to the concerns of the former Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, who reportedly feared that an open inquiry would become a show trial. Time was found also to consult Mr. Alastair Campbell; he has confirmed that he was consulted on the specific point of whether the inquiry should be public or private. Their advice was taken, at least initially.

24 Jun 2009 : Column 806

The proposals that the Government came up with were not the result of proper consultation. Nor have they had it in mind to subject them to democratic accountability and consultation after the announcement, for they have provided no opportunity to debate the inquiry’s terms of reference in the House, as happened in Government time after the announcement of the Franks inquiry—another point that we put to the Government that was ignored, and another omission that the motion seeks to address.

The Foreign Secretary may wish to explain to the House what detailed terms of reference the committee of inquiry will be given, when it will be given them and whether the Government will respond to the widespread demand for those terms of reference to be approved on a substantive motion in this House. If they are not to be approved in this House, just who are they going to be approved by? Is it not unfair to Sir John Chilcot to expect him to clarify all the procedures and rules of the inquiry, leaving him open to subsequent criticism, rather than the Government being clear about what they want and winning the approval of the House?

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): On that very point, the Government amendment asks the chairman of the inquiry, Chilcot, to consult party leaders on

Surely everyone who gives evidence to the inquiry must give it under oath?

Mr. Hague: Sir John Chilcot has been placed in a difficult position by the ill-prepared announcement that was made last week. Clearly the Government had not anticipated the issue of taking evidence under oath, and they are now trying to put it right by asking Sir John to come up with some formulation that encompasses that. It would be useful to know whether the Foreign Secretary thinks that a solution has been arrived at, and I hope that he will address that point.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the most outstanding continuing defect in the Government’s proposals was shown in the Prime Minister’s statement last week that the inquiry that he has established, unlike the Franks inquiry, will not be able to apportion blame even if it believes it appropriate?

My right hon. Friend said in his speech on 25 March that if the inquiry had not completed its proceedings by the time a Conservative Government came into office, they would feel free to alter its terms of reference. Can he tell the House that if the Prime Minister and the Government continue to refuse to allow the committee to apportion blame at the end of the inquiry if it so wishes, and the inquiry has not been completed when a Conservative Government come into office, they will give it such powers?

Mr. Hague: Yes, we certainly reserve the right to do that if the Government change and a committee of inquiry is proceeding in a way that we believe to be inadequate and without adequate terms of reference.

My right hon. and learned Friend makes an important point, and I hope that the Foreign Secretary will explain whether the inquiry’s terms of reference will include the Prime Minister’s injunction to it last week that it should
24 Jun 2009 : Column 807
not set out to apportion blame. Although we absolutely agree that learning lessons for the future is the primary purpose of the inquiry, a positive prohibition on its apportioning blame seems to us an unnatural and unnecessary restriction on any normal discussion of what happened in the past. The attempt to prevent the inquiry from apportioning any blame is again in sharp contrast to the Franks inquiry, and it is further evidence that Ministers have not set out to set up a Franks-style inquiry at all.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Hague: I think that I had better make a bit of progress.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hague: I will end up having to give way to both Members; I give way to the right hon. and learned Gentleman.

Sir Menzies Campbell: I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, if I am still allowed to call him that. Before he leaves the question of evidence on oath, does he understand that Sir John does not have the power to put witnesses on oath? He might have that power if this were an inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005, or if the House conferred it upon him. That is all the more reason for the procedures to be within the ownership of the House of Commons, not that of the Prime Minister.

Mr. Hague: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right. That is why the terms of reference should be brought to the House. Then it would be open to any of us to move amendments to them, in order to clarify the many points such as the one that he has just made. Out of a sense of equality, I now give way to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris).

Rob Marris: The right hon. Gentleman is generous as ever. Can he give an indication of what he thinks the inquiry’s terms of reference ought to be?

Mr. Hague: Yes. I have described what the terms of reference should be several times in debates over the past three years. However, now that we have reached the point of the inquiry being set up, those terms of reference need to set out more of the procedures and rules, so that Sir John Chilcot is not placed in the unfortunate position of having to determine them all by himself.

The Franks inquiry was entirely different from what the Government have proposed. As Humphrey Atkins, one of the Ministers who resigned over the Falklands war, explained in the debate on the Franks inquiry:

If Ministers really want a Franks-style inquiry, let them be absolutely clear that the members of the committee will have the same freedom to give their views. A debate on the terms of reference—something to which many hon. Members have referred—is one of the actions for
24 Jun 2009 : Column 808
which our motion calls. However, it also calls for the committee of inquiry to have a “wider and more diverse” membership, which the Government have so far failed to bring about or, indeed, tried to bring about.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Hague: I might give way to the right hon. Gentleman later, but I know that a lot of Members wish to speak.

The committee’s members are distinguished historians, commentators and public servants. We have no objection to any of them as individuals, but the composition overall still leaves a lot to be desired. Not a single member has high-level military or governmental experience. There are no former chiefs of staff and no one with experience of being in a Cabinet. Those are considerable omissions, given that much of the inquiry’s scope will either be military in nature or concern the decision-making processes at the highest level of Government.

Whatever the case against having such members, however, it cannot possibly be the one advanced by the Prime Minister in the House last week, which was wholly specious, and easily demonstrably so. His justification was that, rather than have people with political or military experience,

In making that remark, he revealed either that he was trying to brush off the objections in this House with an argument that he knew to be bogus, or that he knew astonishingly little about the people whom he had just appointed to the inquiry.

Of the four members of the inquiry who were originally proposed by the Government, Lawrence Freedman has written that

and has referred at other times to the

Martin Gilbert, a great historian, wrote in 2004 that George W. Bush and Tony Blair

Sir Roderic Lyne has not only commented on the war but was involved in the efforts to secure a second UN Security Council resolution, recalling that

Next Section Index Home Page