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24 Jun 2009 : Column 832
2.20 pm

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): I am grateful to be called, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall be brief, as many of the points I wished to raise have already been made, as is the nature of such debates.

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). I listened to him with great care, but he was wrong on one point, when he said that he had not heard that we had been calling for some time for a judicial inquiry. In fact, the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) moved a motion on 4 June 2003, calling for such an inquiry, and I supported him on it. I moved a motion on 16 July 2003 and again on 23 October 2003, each of which called for a judicial inquiry where the proper rules of evidence could be applied. It was on that latter occasion when the then Foreign Secretary said, “No, we cannot have one; it will take too long, and it will go over the election so the people will not be able to make a judgment”. We also had a running motion on the Order Paper on every sitting day between July and October. We made our position quite clear—we wanted an open and comprehensive inquiry.

If I may say so from the outset, I am a great respecter and admirer of Sir John Chilcot, who was permanent secretary in the Northern Ireland Office when I served there. I think he has tremendous ability, but we must not ask him to do the impossible. In some ways, by leaving the remit as vague and open as it is now, we are in danger of doing so.

I want to see an inquiry that, after six years and despite those earlier calls, will finally bring closure to the issue of Iraq. We started to call for an inquiry so early not just because of the fog of war, but because of the fog of the nature of the evidence, which meant that there were disputes, disagreements and controversies about the actual truth. Although I and my party—or most of it—voted for the war, I felt that it was essential for the British people to understand what had happened. One way or the other—whether I was right or those who argued against me were right—the British people had a right to know. That is why it is so important that, on this occasion, we get this inquiry right. If we end up with another inquiry that leaves disagreements, doubts, confusion and upset, we will not have served the British people as I believe that we should.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Flight-Lieutenant Stead was killed in the Iraq war when his Hercules did not have the proper suppressant foam. His parents, who live in my constituency, wrote to me to say:

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that for the people whose family members were killed, it is very important to hold this inquiry in public?

Mr. Ancram: I absolutely agree, except obviously for particular matters where national security might be at stake. On that issue, and with respect to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates), I
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hope that it is not left to the witnesses to decide what counts as a matter of national security, but that the committee itself makes that decision. I hope that the committee will apportion blame and I am delighted that the Foreign Secretary has agreed that it should be allowed to do so.

Above all, however, I hope that the inquiry will be able to take evidence that will answer the key questions. There are so many that I cannot rehearse them all, but what was the extent and nature of the intelligence and the advice given to Ministers on which judgments were made before and the during the war? Was the equipment given to our troops during the war—this applies to the question asked of me by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies)—sufficient for purpose? Were we doing what we needed to do for our troops or not? Was there ever a reconstruction plan for after the war—one of the great disputed questions? In America, it is said that there was no plan; it was junked. When I asked the then Foreign Secretary about that before the war, he said that there was a reconstruction plan. If there was such a plan, why were we never told about it after the war? If there was no reconstruction plan, why were we assured before the war that there was such a plan?

That is why the matter of evidence on oath is so important. We have already had a number of inquiries, but they have not settled those disputes, questions and uncertainties. None of those inquiries was conducted under oath. Even the Hutton inquiry, which had all the appearance of being a legal inquiry, did not have the power to take evidence under oath. The reason for taking evidence under oath is that if we are to satisfy people that they are hearing the truth, they must know that they are hearing, in terms of the oath, not just the truth, but the whole truth and nothing but the truth. If they do not hear it and if it can be shown that they have not heard it, there is a legal sanction that can be taken against the person who has misled the committee.

If we are not to go down the road of a judicial inquiry, I say to the Foreign Secretary that we need to look very closely at the powers this House needs to give the inquiry that is set up. In my view, we need a short piece of legislation to allow this inquiry to summon witnesses and to apply the oath to them on the understanding that if anyone misleads the inquiry, the full sanctions of the law of perjury can be applied. We must make sure that on this occasion, the inquiry brings this matter to closure. If it does not, we will have missed an enormous opportunity and after so many people have waited for so long for this inquiry, I think they will feel incredibly betrayed.

2.26 pm

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary rightly referred to the fatalities of the war, including the hundreds and thousands of Iraqis who have died. We are now debating the British intervention in the war. I shall not rehearse the figures on British deaths, but we need to take into account all the American deaths, too—3,455 of the American armed forces. That figure rises to 4,318 if we include civilians, and to a total of fatalities among the coalition as a whole of 4,632. We know the scale of the military losses and the enormity of the loss of life in Iraq.

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I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) that although I recognise the scale of the civil war in Iraq between the Sunni and Shi’a and that issues of terrorism are relevant, the suggestion that those who still believe that it was right to oppose the war are in any way less opposed to terrorism than others is not at all helpful. My hon. Friend should understand that.

Mr. Winnick: If I gave the impression that there are hon. Members who do not condemn terrorism, I am sorry and I apologise, but time and time again, those who opposed the war mention the hundreds of thousands who undoubtedly died, but do not give sufficient emphasis to the fact that those are due to terrorist action, certainly not to the killings carried out by the occupation forces.

Dr. Strang: We also have to remember that it is not just a matter of the deaths, as so many people have been injured and maimed as well.

Clare Short: Many of those who cautioned against the war said that there was a grave danger of the outbreak of chaotic violence. I think that passing off responsibility for bringing that about—and all the deaths that flowed from it—by saying that it is all due to terrorism is not good enough.

Dr. Strang: Yes, I think that there is a consensus there.

The Government amendment makes explicit reference to the families, where it says

That is fine. Families, and the organisations that represent them, are hugely important. Let us not have any doubt about the scale of the opposition to this intervention among the military. There is no question about that. People working at the Ministry of Defence demonstrated outside this place during our debates at the time. There was huge opposition in all the military services to the decision to send our troops to Iraq. I hope that in the inquiry we do justice to the families and their organisations, including Military Families Against the War.

I have listened to the Opposition Members who have spoken with interest. The Opposition propose that the remit of the inquiry be broadened so that it goes back to 2001, and we welcome that, but I hope that there is not the slightest suggestion that the intervention in Iraq had some logistical follow-on from 9/11. The al-Qaeda presence was virtually non-existent. I say that as someone who had the privilege of serving on the Intelligence and Security Committee when the previous Prime Minister, Tony Blair, asked it to look into that issue, so I will not make too much of it. We know what happened: the US and the whole of the west looked strong after 9/11. It is a hard thing to say, but there was a sort of glow and invading Iraq destroyed all that. It was a huge boost to al-Qaeda and other forces.

That is enough of the substance; I shall return to some of the points raised by the party leaders, who will obviously be important in the inquiry process. We certainly support the involvement of the military assessors. Obviously, all the services are heavily involved and it is important that they are consulted. We should pay tribute to the
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military; all the services fought for their country and anyone who dies for their country—no matter how they die—should be treated with respect and as a hero.

The committee membership is a bit small, however. There are a couple of historians. I have no problems about the inclusion of two historians—I was a scientist, but I recognise how important history is in determining where we are politically. We could even put another historian on the inquiry.

The shadow Foreign Secretary mentioned that the official Opposition had managed to gain an addition to the membership after their dialogue with the Government, and that a woman would be added to the list. Obviously, I support in principle the addition of a woman—a member of the other place. I have no doubt that Baroness Prashar will be a diligent member of the committee, but who does she represent? She is the parliamentarian. Were the official Opposition consulted about the parliamentarian on the inquiry? Was there a deal only in terms of the sex of the person who would represent the British Parliament? Baroness Prashar will certainly not represent the House of Commons, so that issue is of interest. What is the position of parliamentarians in relation to the inquiry?

Mr. Jenkin: Excluded.

Dr. Strang: I asked the question in the context not just of our being Members of the House of Commons but of our role when people go before the inquiry. There have been quite a few losses in Scotland—in Edinburgh and elsewhere—and as the Government rightly acknowledge, families will go to the inquiry. Can they take their Member of Parliament with them? Those are important issues.

The question is not now about private or public. The concession has been agreed; the committee will meet in public and in private. It must always be accepted that in an inquiry of this nature not all the evidence and intelligence material will be put in the public domain. It is only sensible to recognise that. All the briefing and material provided in the run-up to the decision to commit British forces to the invasion was secret. Some more of that material may be made available, but no one can seriously expect that it will all come out.

I do not know Sir John Chilcot, but I am sure he will be an excellent chairman. In fact, like most people, I do not really know any of the members of the inquiry, although we have read about them. The committee seems rather small, although we note the advances that have been made since the initial announcement and they are obviously welcome.

The scope of the inquiry is probably fair. The Foreign Secretary made it clear that the scope has opened up across the board; the committee can pretty well look at what it wants over the whole time scale, which is important—before the invasion is particularly important. I do not want to rehearse everything, but there were a number of key votes in the House of Commons, including two big votes in 2003, in February and March.

There are many important questions. Yes, this is about learning lessons. We all want to learn lessons, but we do not want a rerun of the debates and arguments.
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That will not help anyone. I am sure that there are people who are still as absolutely committed in their support for the invasion and the occupation, just as there are those equally committed the other way. The process is not about political point scoring. We need a report about which we can say, “Yes, they really went into this thoroughly and made it as available as possible to Parliament and the British people. They made a judgment on the lessons for Parliament, which supported the Government who committed us to go to Iraq.”

The inquiry is not about getting Tony Blair to give evidence in public, although presumably that will happen. It is taken as read that Ministers will give evidence, and some of it may be in public and some in private. The issues are important. We have to be clear in our minds that we are setting up an inquiry that really will take things forward constructively.

2.37 pm

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) put his finger on it when he said that 30 years after Franks it was inconceivable that anyone should have thought that such an inquiry could be held in private. He knew that, I knew that and the whole House knew that, so it prompts the question why the Prime Minister was of a different mind. Given that he had months to determine the announcement he would make, why did he ever conceive that the inquiry would be acceptable if it was heard in private?

Who did the Prime Minister consult beforehand? We know it was not the armed forces—they have made that clear. We know they wanted to give their evidence in public. I do not say this in a partisan way, because ultimately the Prime Minister is a rational person, but one has to conclude that there was only one rational explanation for his hoping to get away with it, and the House must forgive me for saying it: we will be having a general election within the next 11 months. If it was possible for the evidence to be heard in private, the media would have no way of maintaining interest over that period. There would be interest only when the inquiry eventually reported, with the election having gone one way or the other. Now that the inquiry is to be in public, there will be constant opportunities, as witnesses come forward, to report anything of newsworthy interest. As there is no other rational explanation, I can only assume that that is what the Prime Minister had in mind.

In the Prime Minister’s statement, he told us that there were national security reasons, but of course we all know that any genuine national security considerations can be heard in private in any event, and will be, under any scenario. We were told that the armed forces would not wish to give their evidence in public, yet a series of generals, air marshals and admirals made it clear that that was not remotely their view.

The Prime Minister then came up with a splendid remark: public inquiries mean “lawyers, lawyers and lawyers”. I have to declare that I do not have an interest. Although I have a legal background, I have not practised as a lawyer since 1978, and if I needed a lawyer, I would not instruct me. However, the question of lawyers depends not on whether an inquiry is public or private, but on whether evidence will be given on oath, because that is
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the only basis on which anyone would wish to be accompanied by a lawyer. When I gave evidence to the Scott inquiry on so-called arms to Iraq, I did not find it necessary to be represented by a lawyer. The idea that lawyers are necessary if there is a public inquiry is not remotely correct.

As we have heard, the Prime Minister then had to go into reverse, and we have not seen such a retreat since Napoleon’s from Moscow—we should remember that that eventually led to his Waterloo. Even in retreat, however, the Prime Minister was very foolish. He started by allowing his spokesman to say that the issue was not theological. He then said that the matter was for the chairman of the committee to decide, but that was not the case. The fundamental question of whether an inquiry should be public or private is for the Government to recommend to the House so that a decision may be reached accordingly, with the chairman of the committee no doubt accepting that view.

We then saw the somewhat sad statement in a letter to Sir John Chilcot, when the Prime Minister was beginning to move ground, that it would perhaps be appropriate for the bereaved to give their evidence in public, if they wished. Perhaps they will but, as we all know, whether the bereaved give their evidence in public is the least important issue. The crucial consideration is whether those who sent the relatives of the bereaved to fight in the war give their evidence in public.

Lynne Jones: If Sir John Chilcot had been uneasy about the Prime Minister’s decision that the inquiry should be conducted in private, it must have been possible for him to refuse to chair it, especially as we now hear that he has changed his mind.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: I am not entirely convinced that Sir John Chilcot has changed his mind. I have no doubt that, as the chair of the inquiry, he had to accept what the democratically elected Government of the day decided.

I turn to the question of composition. I agreed with what the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) said. I have nothing against Baroness Prashar and I am sure that she is an impressive lady in her field. However, no one with military experience will sit on the committee, although the whole purpose of the inquiry is to examine a war and the provision made for fighting it successfully. Baroness Prashar’s biographical details—chairman of the Judicial Appointments Commission, chairman of the Parole Board for England and Wales and director of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations—are no doubt those of an impressive person, but they are not remotely comparable to those of a former Chief of the General Staff or First Sea Lord, or a person with military skills.

All the Government have been able to say, even when they began their retreat, is that assessors will be available to assist the committee. However, we have not heard why, in the Government’s view, it is inappropriate for someone with senior, serious military experience to sit on a committee that is examining what happened in the run-up to a war, during that war and in its aftermath. It is disgraceful that the Government have not only failed in that respect, but have not even provided an explanation to the House. Although the Minister for the Armed Forces might not have the authority to do so, I ask him
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to ensure that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary examine the matter again, because if the inquiry is to carry credibility with the armed forces, which is as important as its credibility with any other sector of the community, it is crucial that they are represented on the committee.

My final point relates to the question of blame. The Prime Minister’s original statement was quite clear:

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