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24 Jun 2009 : Column 820

David Miliband: I was going to conclude my speech, but I will give way to the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), because he has been trying to intervene for some time.

Patrick Mercer: I am most grateful to the Foreign Secretary.

The Chief of the General Staff has made clear in the newspapers this morning that there were not enough troops to dedicate to Iraq, and that, even if there had been, the political will would not have been there. Will the Foreign Secretary guarantee that the balance of our fighting power, how and when it is deployed, and the mistakes that were made will be properly examined by the committee?

David Miliband: The whole experience will be examined, from 2001 to 2009. Precisely because nothing is ruled out and everything is ruled in, the committee will be able to do that.

Paul Flynn rose—

Mr. Gordon Prentice rose—

David Miliband: I am going to bring my remarks to a conclusion. I have been speaking for 25 minutes, and many right hon. and hon. Members—

Mr. Prentice rose—

David Miliband: As I said to the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) at the beginning that I would give way to him later, I think that it would be unfair of me not to do so now.

Mr. Prentice: I thank my friend. I listened carefully to what he said earlier, but I am still not clear about whether the majority of the sessions will be held in public or in private. In a briefing paper circulated to Labour Members today, his office said:

Surely it should have said: “The committee will sit in public with scope for private events”.

David Miliband: I do not think that my hon. Friend has any difficulty in understanding the phrase “as much as possible”, and neither do I. “As much as possible” means that as much as possible will be in public. There will be the sifting of evidence that I have described, but when it comes to the hearings and evidence sessions, as Sir John Chilcot made clear in his letter to the Prime Minister earlier this week, as much as possible will be held in public. I am not going to put a percentage on it, but Sir John’s intention is plain. He has made it clear that national security issues will prevent some sessions from being held in public—that obviously relates to intelligence matters.

Paul Flynn: Will the Foreign Secretary clarify the answer that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), who asked whether there would be another discussion on these matters and a vote? Is the only way of supporting the point made by my hon. Friend to vote against the Government
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amendment? The Foreign Secretary’s answer was that we would have a vote today. Would he interpret a vote in favour of the amendment as a decision by the House that it is against a further vote and a further discussion on the final proposals?

David Miliband: No. I would interpret it as indicating that my hon. Friend supports the Government amendment, which says that Sir John Chilcot has set out the appropriate way in which to conduct the inquiry. My hon. Friend has been in the House longer than I have, and I certainly would not seek to prevent him from articulating his views further at any stage in the future, but I would interpret his support for the amendment as an indication that he believes, as I do, that for all the comings and goings of the past 10 days, the Chilcot approach now meets all reasonable aspirations for a comprehensive, independent, thorough inquiry into the Iraq conflict and its aftermath.

Mr. Jenkin: Will the Foreign Secretary give way?

David Miliband: I give way to the hon. Gentleman, although I do not know why I am doing so.

Mr. Jenkin: May I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that, notwithstanding all the expertise that he has mentioned, he has not mentioned any expertise within Whitehall in relation to the considerable dislocation between Departments, which contributed to the lack of a plan at the time?

The Foreign Secretary has not properly answered the point raised by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), or the point about evidence being given on oath. I appreciate that he has made a lot of concessions in terms of the original proposal, but is not the present proposal for an inquiry really just a mess, and should he not withdraw it, and instead consult properly with the Opposition parties and move forward with a proper consensus?

David Miliband: I honestly think that the hon. Gentleman must have been talking too much to his colleagues during the course of the debate so far, or at least not have been listening. I think that we have clearly answered the questions that have been put. I am reliably informed that one does not need a statutory power to administer an oath, and I am happy to give further guidance on that later.

The truth is that for two years the Government and Opposition have been agreed on the need for a Privy Council inquiry into Iraq.

Harry Cohen: Will the Foreign Secretary give way?

David Miliband: No.

Harry Cohen: On a point of clarification?

David Miliband: In that case, I shall give way.

Harry Cohen: I just want to ask this question: will the inquiry be able to call witnesses who are not of UK origin, such as, perhaps, Hans Blix or Kofi Annan?

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David Miliband: I am very happy to give an unabashed and unwavering affirmative answer to my hon. Friend on that issue, and I am sure the inquiry would take evidence from him as well, if he would like to give it.

I was saying that the truth is that—

Lynne Jones: Will the Foreign Secretary give way?

David Miliband: No, I am sorry but I will not give way. My hon. Friend can speak later in the debate and— [Interruption.] Well, she is not a member of the Defence Committee, which was the reason I gave way previously. Nevertheless, I shall give way once again.

Lynne Jones: All I would like to know is whether, when the Prime Minister consulted Sir John Chilcot about the inquiry, Sir John agreed that it should meet in private.

David Miliband: My understanding is that Sir John Chilcot had no objection to the announcement the Prime Minister made on Monday 15 June. He was very content with that and with the proposal that was made. In the light of the Prime Minister’s subsequent letter of 17 June, Sir John Chilcot considered the best way of conducting the inquiry.

As I was saying, the truth is that for two years the Government and Opposition have been agreed on the need for a Privy Council inquiry into Iraq, and we now have one. We have been agreed that it should be broad ranging and independent and draw on non-political expertise. That is the model that we have proposed. We also now have a widely respected chairman setting out the foundation of his approach and the balance between public and private hearings, with as much as possible in public. The result is an inquiry that can fulfil the mandate given to it of learning lessons that strengthen our diplomacy, our military and our democracy.

The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks cannot credibly claim any fundamental disagreement with the Government about the nature, terms, scope or organisation of the inquiry, and the longer he talked about how much he welcomed the changes we have made since last Monday, the harder it became to understand why he was still making his own proposal for an inquiry. Sham outrage, and never mind bandwagonism, are good reasons to vote down the Opposition motion. An even better reason is that the Government amendment offers the country an inquiry that meets the needs of the country, and I commend it to the House.

1.43 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I should start by offering the apologies of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) for not being present. I think that he has written to both the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) and the Foreign Secretary to explain why, for family reasons, he has not been able to open the debate for the Liberal Democrats.

I welcome the debate; it is both timely and valuable. I also accept right from the start that it is fair criticism of me and my colleagues to say that we approach this issue with a particular mindset. We opposed the war in Iraq and none of us have changed our minds on that. I and my party have never faltered in expressing our enormous respect for the courage and professionalism of the
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armed forces who are deployed in Iraq, and it is precisely because we are concerned about that deployment and the equipping of those armed forces that we think this inquiry is so important. I and my party have repeatedly and regularly argued for an open, independent and thorough inquiry. What we want is not a closed, Franks-style inquiry, nor an inquiry designed to protect the former Prime Minister—or, indeed, anybody else—but one that is capable of arriving at the facts and displaying them openly. Every time we have argued for that—which has been over many years now—we have been met with a degree of prevarication from the Government; there has always been one reason after another why the time was not right to have this inquiry. Possibly the most disingenuous was that, in the very latter stages of British troop involvement in Iraq, it would somehow cause a massive diversion of military attention if we were to hold an inquiry in this country into the causes and conduct of the conflict in Iraq. It was argued that that would distract the military authorities from their role in Iraq. However, at the same time, we were massively increasing our involvement in Afghanistan. That, apparently, was not any sort of distraction at all.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): Is the hon. Gentleman not struck by the fact that in the United States there have been a number of inquiries into the war, how it came about and the processes behind it, and that some of them have been conducted in public while excluding the necessarily secret areas? Is that not in stark contrast to the reluctance of the British Government, who seek privacy in trying to resolve such fundamental issues?

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman is right. In both America and other European countries, there have not apparently been the obstacles that the British Government believe were in place to an open and independent inquiry. Also, historically, a number of examples of inquiries were held while hostilities were still taking place and they were faced with no apparent obstacle to their progress.

We finally reached the end of this stonewalling period, however, and the Prime Minister came to the House on 16 June to announce the terms of the inquiry. I think it is fair to say that Members in all parts of the House were less than impressed with what they heard from him, because he seemed at pains to stress—almost over any other consideration—how little of the inquiry would be held in public.

Clare Short: None.

Mr. Heath: Yes, if it had been possible to hold none of it in public, I think that would have been exactly the position the Prime Minister would have adopted. That is why I found it a bit rich to hear the Foreign Secretary’s contribution today. He suggested that the Prime Minister, after having told the House that the inquiry would be held in private, immediately on returning to his office wrote to Sir John Chilcot to say, “Well, of course I want you to make this as open as possible, and not the other way round.” Had we had proper consultation on the way in which this inquiry would be conducted in advance of the Prime Minister’s statement, that would have
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made him look a little less foolish, and it would also have been for the good of the House. He has clearly had his mind changed for him—that is more accurate than “changed his mind”, I think. Had we had the early consultation that I think most people in his position would have undertaken, we would not have been in that position, but it is clear that the consultation was vestigial and inadequate.

What we had is what we always have from this Prime Minister: he develops an idea, he writes it down on a sheet of paper in big black felt-tip, and he then announces it and demands consensus support from all Members on both sides of the House—and, in this instance, an independent chairman of a public inquiry. When he does not get that support and he has to backtrack on the position he has taken, he does not do so openly; he does not make an announcement—

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): He does not do so here.

Mr. Heath: Yes, as my hon. Friend says, he does not do that here. He just allows it to be known that the Government have changed their position. Well that is not good enough, and in this instance it puts Sir John Chilcot in the almost impossible situation of having to undertake an exercise in post facto consultation and then to derive different terms of reference for the inquiry from those that were set out by the Prime Minister.

One of the difficulties that the Prime Minister has had is what he said, categorically, in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg):

That bold assertion lasted barely 24 hours before senior members of the military said what nonsense it was. I am pleased that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks quoted Air Marshal Sir John Walker, the former head of defence intelligence, because his comment was powerful and chilling in its clarity. He said:

Those are 179 good reasons, and one might add that there are several hundred thousand other good reasons in the state of Iraq.

Mr. Baron: I suggest that this episode not only reveals the mindset of the Prime Minister, but illustrates yet again the hallmark of this Government, which has been secrecy about the lead-up to the war. Even when I asked the Foreign Secretary to ensure that the vast majority of the inquiry would be held in public, I did not get a definite answer that it would be. It was an answer in which he tried to hedge his bets when it came to the exact extent to which the inquiry would be held in public. That hallmark secrecy is what the public find so distressing about this Government’s approach.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman is right. When in doubt, a blanket will be drawn over proceedings. We heard the quote from the briefing note, cited by the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice). Indeed, the Government amendment is not far removed from that briefing note.
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The difference is that last week the Prime Minister wanted us to believe that the inquiry would be in private. Now it suits the Government to have us believe that the inquiry will be mostly in public, but I have my doubts—and I have legitimate reasons to have doubts.

John Barrett: Does my hon. Friend agree that another group of people would like to see the inquiry held in public? When the 100th soldier died in Iraq, his parents, who are constituents of mine, contacted me because they were concerned about what had happened. They too deserve a full, open and public inquiry.

Mr. Heath: Of course they do, and I am glad that my hon. Friend makes that point. Sadly, there are grieving families up and down this country who deserve to know the circumstances in which this conflict was undertaken and in which their loved ones died. Many more service personnel were wounded, and they have not yet been mentioned.

I want to know—and it would be nice to hear from the Foreign Secretary—the precise criteria for closed sessions of the inquiry. What is the definition of the “public events”, mentioned by the hon. Member for Pendle, and the private sessions? Clearly, certain classified information will need private sessions, but many of us suspect that they will be the norm for much wider categories of information. What criteria will be used to determine whether a session should be in public or private? Will those criteria be published and how will they be assessed? We need to know the answers.

Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire) (Con): I hope, but I obviously cannot predict, that the inquiry will work in the same way as Committees of the House. I had the honour of chairing the Defence Committee when we were holding some very sensitive inquiries into the Trident programme. It was more or less up to the witness to say, “That is a question I cannot answer in public, but I will answer in private.” We would go into private session when we had finished with the public part. So the public will get an idea of the sort of questions that witnesses are not prepared to answer in public, provided they are led down that path. That should be reassuring to some degree.

Mr. Heath: I am not sure that I am entirely reassured by that. Yes, of course, it is reasonable for a witness to suggest that material that they may wish to share is confidential, but a decision then has to be taken—as it would be in a court, in certain circumstances—on whether that view is justified. I hope that the committee will be sufficiently robust to take the view that that which does not have to be heard in private will not be heard in private.

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