Previous Section Index Home Page

His clear intent was that the committee should reach conclusions on the facts and make statements about what happened, but not criticise Ministers, officials or anyone else involved. I welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary set out today, at the Dispatch Box, that that is no longer the Government’s position. The Government know that they could not sustain such an intolerable position. A lot of reference has been made to the Franks committee, but that was not so constrained, because it was for the committee to decide whether to criticise the Government. It concluded that it should not, but that was its decision, not one that had been imposed on it. It is highly desirable that such a situation should apply now. I cannot recall the number of occasions on which Tony Blair said, “I accept full responsibility for the war”, which implied a major concession, but then went on to defend everything that he had done. Let us see whether he was entitled to do that. If the committee takes the view that he was not, it would be improper to prevent it from expressing that judgment.

The Government have moved on a number of important issues, but each time they have done so grudgingly and unconvincingly, while giving explanations that do not hold water. As several hon. Members have said, the process has been carried out not through statements to the House, but through the entirely artificial device of letters between the Prime Minister and the chairman of the committee.

I am conscious that many hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall conclude by reminding the House of a statement made by Edmund Burke in 1780:

The Government, by both their timing and manner, show that they have a lot to learn from the wise remarks of Mr. Burke.

2.46 pm

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): When we heard last week’s announcement that there would be an inquiry, I had two concerns: first, about the intention that it would be held in private, on which many hon. Members have commented; and, secondly, about its scope. I welcome the Government amendment, which goes a considerable way towards answering the first of my concerns, because it makes it clear that a substantial part of the inquiry will be held in public. I hope that the “relevant parliamentary committees” that there is a commitment to consult will include the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Defence Committee, both of which carried out inquiries in the previous Parliament and made relevant observations that could be taken into consideration.

24 Jun 2009 : Column 839

I am still worried about the focus and scope of the inquiry, however, and I wish to discuss the eight years that the inquiry is supposed to cover. Why does the period start from 2001? Why will no account be taken of the reason why there was a problem with Saddam’s Iraq? The inquiry will have to look at that context, so it is wrong that there is an arbitrary date of 2001. I questioned the Prime Minister about that when he gave his statement. He said that it would be for the inquiry to go back, if it wished to. I make a strong plea that it does so.

I make my plea in the context of important remarks made by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who said:

On the same occasion, the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) said:

Those remarks were made not in 2003, but in 1998, in support of the bombing of Iraq by British forces in December that year, without a United Nations Security Council resolution specifically to authorise it. That action was defended in this House by the late Robin Cook, then Foreign Secretary. That has to be taken into account as part of the context.

We cannot have an inquiry that focuses simply on events from 2001 until 2008 or 2009, and that does not take account of the fact that we were operating a no-fly zone over Iraq and imposed sanctions against Iraq for 12 years. It was alleged that 500,000 children died as a result of those sanctions. The context was a policy of containment. There has to be an assessment of why, when action was taken in 2003, there was support for it in some quarters but opposition in others, including opposition from people who had been quite happy to support the bombing of Iraq without a Security Council resolution in 1998, yet who, in 2003, suddenly found that to be a resigning matter. We need that context because we need to be honest.

I hope that when the committee calls its witnesses, it will call Iraqi Kurds who suffered as a result of chemical weapons being used against them in Halabja. I hope that it will call the democratic Iraqi opposition, and the people—millions of them—who were forced to go into exile by Saddam’s regime.

It is not sufficient simply to look at events in the context of the period from 2001 until now. We need to look at the issue in the round and understand why, despite all the difficulties referred to—the tens or hundreds of thousands of people who lost their lives, and the members of the coalition forces who suffered and died as a result of action following the liberation of Iraq from Saddam—today we have a democratic Iraq where the Iraqi people can determine their own future. I hope that the inquiry will consider the issue in the round, and not narrowly focus on certain issues relating to 2002 and 2003.

24 Jun 2009 : Column 840
2.52 pm

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con): First, I draw attention to my declarations of interest and apologise to the Government and Opposition Front Benchers for not being able to be here for the opening speeches. I am grateful for your tolerance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in allowing me to speak in the debate. I was at a meeting with a charitable foundation that could not be changed. My apologies to the House for that.

May I say at the outset that I fully support, and have always supported, the idea of a full, public inquiry? My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), who is not in the Chamber right now, pointed out that on two occasions in 2003, we tabled motions calling for, and we voted for, a full inquiry based on the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921. A tribunal held under that Act is not allowed to refuse the public, including the press,

and solely in its opinion,

to do so, for various reasons. My right hon. and learned Friend made that clear at the time. We also had on the Order Paper, in July of that year, a motion calling for just such an open inquiry, so although there is now debate between the Government and my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench about whether the terms were those of the Franks inquiry, we called for a full, public inquiry. I hope that that is established once and for all, and that we get away from this rather silly game-playing about what one group called for and another group did not.

I speak today as a continuing supporter of what we have done in Iraq. I find that position perhaps a little more lonely these days than it was originally, but it is always best to be honest with oneself and one’s colleagues. I remain of the opinion—this does not affect my reasons for why there should be an inquiry—that ultimately, when we look back, we will recognise that what happens now in the middle east will have been dramatically affected for the better by what we did at the time. Of course, that is not to say that everything is therefore forgiven; that is the point of the inquiry.

The British public have, for various reasons, come to lower their belief in and respect for politics. They feel to this day that they were never quite given the truth about what we were doing and why we were in Iraq. The question is not whether we should have gone to war, but how the British public came to understand the reasons why we were in Iraq, and so could give their consent or not. That is the importance of the inquiry. It is time—we should have done it earlier—to clear the way on that, to get at least some closure for all of us, and to start rebuilding politics. We are suffering from the need to do so, as a result of other issues that have been around us in the past few weeks.

As my right hon. and hon. Friends have mentioned time and again, and as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) said categorically, the Prime Minister in his announcement last week made some very clear statements of limitations to the inquiry. That is the problem. Since then, in the past seven days, we
24 Jun 2009 : Column 841
have seen those statements unwind in front of our eyes. That is an important factor, because the issue is not just about the inquiry. We have a crisis in this Chamber. We have so given away the idea that we Back Benchers, rather than the Front Benchers, should control what is done that we have handed everything over to the Executive, whatever party is in power. I think that we are beyond the point where we can play party politics.

The fact is that we should have sat down and considered the matter properly, and we should have come to the conclusion that in this day and age, it is not feasible, as the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) said, for us to hide anything away from the public. If we have learned anything at all in the past three to four weeks, we have learned that, now, anything other than openness simply will not wash. The days of deference and respect, and the belief that politicians behind closed doors will always come to the right decision, will no longer wash with the British people. The only way for us to clear the air is to have the inquiry fully in public. The default mechanism of the inquiry should be, “Everything in public, unless,” and the “unless” needs to be reasoned.

I am concerned that we are leaving it to somebody who is not elected to make a decision about what the inquiry will do, which is fundamentally wrong. Have we in this House so lost a sense of ourselves that we do not want to put an elected Member of Parliament on a committee of inquiry into a war that we voted for in this Chamber, and for which all of us, myself included, have to answer? Why do we not have a politician, or two politicians, on the inquiry? Why are we so ashamed that we give way to a baroness? Whatever her credentials—my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea mentioned them—she is not elected. We are elected. We are the ones who have to be accountable to our electorate. Why are we not on the committee? We have nothing to be ashamed of. We should be on the committee because it would give it a cutting edge. I hope that the Government will think again about that. It would be an opportunity to rebuild respect in Parliament if somebody from this place went on that committee and made a statement about the passion that Parliament feels on the issue. That is very important.

Beyond that, I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend and other learned Members who have said that the composition of the committee is simply not good enough. Three issues need to be looked at by the committee. The first is the reasons for the war. The hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, wants to take the inquiry much further back in time, and there is an argument for that, but I have to say that the number of people whom he wanted to be called might mean that it went on for another 15 years, and I do not think that we want to go down that road. That is a little caveat. The political reasons for the war are critical and need to be looked at. That is why we need politicians on the committee.

The second issue that needs to be considered is the military, its equipment, and whether there were sufficient resources for the task. Without a member of the military, or even someone who was recently in the military, it will be impossible to reach a proper conclusion. Witnesses are not good enough; we need some interpretation on that committee. That is why a military person or ex-military person should be on it.

24 Jun 2009 : Column 842

The last issue is the aftermath and reconstruction. On that issue, we should perhaps draw on people from the Department for International Development and others who were involved. I remember that when I was Leader of the Opposition, we had a debate or two about the plans for the aftermath. The composition of the committee is not good enough. We need to reinforce it from the House and from the military.

My second point is about the oath. We need to take back the power to set up an inquiry that has the power to take evidence under oath. I would be happy to give such evidence—everybody should be. The public now believe that unless something is said under oath, it is not necessarily to be trusted. We must do everything we can to make sure that the inquiry’s findings are demonstrably evidence that can be trusted, otherwise there will be more cries that it has not worked.

Before closing, I make the point to my colleagues that in all this, we should default to openness. Without that, we will not have credibility. The issue is as much us and our weakness in this place as it is the inquiry. It demonstrates to us more than ever before that we need to draw back powers to the Chamber, the House and the Back Benches so that once again we stand as the elected representatives of the British people, so that their anger, fear, vexation and concerns can be represented in the Chamber. The terms of an inquiry should not be dictated by an Executive who may have political motives for deciding that it should or should not take place in certain circumstances. I hope the Government will rethink the matter.

Ultimately, we must allow the British people to decide whether the war in Iraq was worth while, whether it should have been undertaken, and whether that was done for the correct reasons. If they can reach a good conclusion on that, respect for politicians will rise and we will have reached a point where we can close the issue and move on. Like justice, politics cannot just be done. It must be seen to be done.

3.1 pm

Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway) (Lab): Many art forms thrive as a result of warfare, but none more, as a result of the Iraq war, than the art of sophistry. The ancient art of the sophist took apparently wise and irrefutable statements which, when they are carefully examined in the context in which they are made, turn out to be utterly without reason.

There was no better example of that than the words that fell from the Prime Minister’s mouth when he announced the setting up of the committee. He said that the committee was to be set up in order that we should learn the mistakes and benefit from learning the mistakes that were made, and that they should not be made again—apparently wise in itself and, in the context of what the Committee must consider and decide, utterly without meaning.

The central issue for the committee must be whether the House and, through it, the British people were misled and deceived into support for an illegal war. That is the central issue. There are other tangential and peripheral issues that need to be considered. I also would like to know about the aftermath. I would very much like to know about the role of Halliburton and other companies in the so-called reconstruction of Iraq. I would like to know many of the things that have
24 Jun 2009 : Column 843
perplexed the House as to what has happened since the war, but the central issue for those who were here and voted or did not vote for the war and took that awesome responsibility is whether the House at the time was deliberately misled into an illegal war.

In that essential question two things stand out above all and must be discerned. The first centres on the so-called Downing street memorandum in July 2002, many months before the war began. It is a clear minute, and it shows that our man—Q—who was at the time in Washington, Richard Dearlove, reported to the then Prime Minister in these terms:

That was the clearest possible statement, which was echoed in the House almost exactly word for word, although he did not know of the minute, by Robin Cook at the time that he made his resignation speech—that what was happening was that the facts were being fixed around policy.

That is the first thing that requires the Prime Minister of the day to go before the committee on oath and without immunity in order to be cross-examined about that, because he came to the House almost immediately afterwards and not a word of that reached the ears of those who were listening to him and were deciding on the issue of war. It is not the only internal memorandum, but it needs to be answered.

The second matter is the legal advice that was given to Cabinet, to the House and to the House of Lords. On 7 March, the Attorney-General produced an opinion that has now, like drawing teeth, been made public. That opinion was hedged with doubt throughout on whether the war was legal. Any lawyer reading it would read both between and on the lines that the Attorney-General had the gravest possible reservations about the legality of war without a United Nations resolution. Seven days later a completely different opinion was given to Cabinet and subsequently was given in the House of Lords.

If the first opinion had been made public at the time, it is highly unlikely, in my view—we have one distinguished member of that Cabinet in the Chamber, and she will be able to tell us herself—that that Cabinet universally would have voted for war in those circumstances. That is the second matter that requires investigation.

Neither of these matters requires phalanxes of lawyers. Neither affects national security in their investigation. Both are absolutely central. They can be dealt with without months of preparation, on oath and in public. There is no lesson to be learned here. The lesson of whether or not to mislead the House is a lesson very quickly learned, and the answer is simple: do not mislead the House when dealing with the intelligence and the background to war. That is what we need to decide—not the lessons for tomorrow, but the facts of the past.

Next Section Index Home Page