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24 Jun 2009 : Column 880

Why am I so upset by the Government trying to spin the yarn that, somehow, evidence can be given under what I think they say is the equivalent of an oath? That cannot be done and the Government know it. If I am wrong, let the Minister tell me where I am wrong when he replies to the debate. The fact is that the oath not only makes people tell the truth, but protects those who are being leaned on by superiors and other agencies. History would have been different if evidence had been given under oath to the Foreign Affairs Committee and, I believe, to the Hutton inquiry.

I regret to say this, Madam Deputy Speaker, but the problem is the Prime Minister. The fact is that he does not understand that he does not understand. He came along last week to announce the inquiry and he handed it down like tablets of stone. What he basically said is, “We are the Government, so we decide.” That simply will not do. Things have moved on since last week. We were told that it was going to be a Franks-style inquiry—quite wrongly, I think, for reasons I have explained—but it has now mutated into something completely different. The Prime Minister and, downwards from him, his advisers, were panicking, so he wrote to Chilcot and asked him to see what he could do about having some sessions in public, using what is said in their phrase to be some “equivalent to the oath”. There is no equivalent to the oath; there would be more value in the wolf cub’s promise than what they are proposing. That is the fact of the matter. There is no such equivalent to the oath and the Prime Minister knows it. [Interruption.] If the Minister thinks I am wrong, I repeat my call for him to explain when he replies from the Dispatch Box what this equivalent is that will have the force of law and criminal sanctions if it were ever to be abrogated.

As I have said, the Prime Minister does not understand that he does not understand. The real test of all the stuff he has been saying about rejuvenating Parliament—he almost puts the blame on the rest of us for bringing Parliament into disrepute—is whether he is prepared to acknowledge that this Parliament has the right to decide the nature of the inquiry into why and how it was misled on the Iraq war. I am buttressed in my arguments by many of the people the Prime Minister relied on to say what a good idea a Franks-type inquiry would be. One after the other over the past seven days, those civil servants and members of the judiciary, for example, have said that that idea is nonsense. A few nights ago, I cheered when General Mike Jackson said on “Newsnight” that evidence to the inquiry must be given under oath. It showed that the Government cannot hide the fact that some military people who have seen the conflict and seen the evidence knew what was going on. They say this must be an independent inquiry and that evidence must be given under oath. Why does the Minister not understand that? Why does his boss the Prime Minister not understand that?

It is time the Minister went behind the Chair and phoned the Prime Minister to tell him to accept the motion. If the Prime Minister does not do so, he may win the vote—I am not certain—but he will certainly lose the debate. The arguments for an independent inquiry will go on and on and on until one is conceded.

5.40 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con): I have listened awestruck and impressed to the contributions made to the House today. I was not a Member of the
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House until 2005, and it is humbling to listen to the sincerity, passion and candour of those who lived through the experience of having to vote in the House on so weighty and solemn a matter as sending our country to war. I have not had that responsibility, so it is with some trepidation but, I hope, a degree of humility that I offer my remarks about the motion on the inquiry that faces the House.

I intended to confine my remarks to the structure, nature, procedure and terms of reference of the inquiry, and not to venture into the substantive aspects of the question relating to the merits of the war in Iraq, but inevitably the two are connected. Nobody can deny that the events and circumstances of the Iraq war were of the greatest magnitude in the history of our nation—far greater, I submit, than the events and circumstances of the Falklands war.

One of the reasons I suggest the Iraq war is of greater magnitude is that it presents itself as a much greater and more complex series of questions and problems for the House and for history. It presents in that way because it raises much more fundamental questions, including questions of constitutional breakdown, as many Members have already said. How we came to the war includes the role of the Attorney-General and an analysis of how the Attorney-General interacts with the Government of the day. It includes complex questions of law, such as what was known to those who were advising the Government on the status of the war in international law. It raises questions of the House and its prerogatives, and of the accountability of the Government to the House. How can the House prevent itself from being—as some would say—deceived by evidence that has been exaggerated or distorted, when it cannot see the underlying documents?

The Franks inquiry certainly never had to contend with the question of constitutional breakdown, because the Falklands war presented itself in a fairly simple light. There were questions about the defects in intelligence and, some might say, about a defect in the Government’s conduct of policy running up to the war and the invasion by the Argentines, but what was never questioned—at least not by an overwhelming majority of the nation—was the justification for going to war in the Falkland Islands in the first place. There was never a question of the constitutional processes by which that war had been undertaken.

I recall as a young man listening to the wonderful debate in 1982 in which Michael Foot gave a great speech pledging his support and that of the Opposition for the vindication of those little islands and their population against the bullying of a larger nation that had taken international law into its own hands and made a mockery of it by invasion. The war we are dealing with in the inquiry raises much more fundamental questions and will have a much stronger effect on history than the war fought in 1982.

It is precisely because of the multiplicity of aspects that the methods the Government have chosen to set up the inquiry are so fundamentally lacking. Let me explain. There are no terms of reference. Those we have seen, and which one can espy in the Prime Minister’s statement, are non-existent. They have not been debated by the House. They have not been subject to the to and fro—the forensic testing and struggle—across the Floor of the House to ascertain and define precisely the instructions
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that the inquiry must follow. That is wrong and does not do justice to the complexity and gravity of the circumstances of the Iraq war because many of us might disagree about what central questions should be the focus of Sir John Chilcot’s terms of reference. We cannot leave it to a bunch of civil servants, however distinguished they might be, to decide the fundamental questions to address.

The hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) defined the central question as he saw it: how the House came to be deceived by a series of exaggerations and distortions. However, others might see the inquiry’s central question as military unpreparedness and the Government sending our troops into war ill-equipped—and in many cases unequipped—for the kinds of warfare with which they had to contend. They are not the only considerations—others might see the aftermath of the war as the central question—but this House ought to decide the central questions for the inquiry and define the terms of reference. It is only through the democratic process of debate in the House about the terms of reference that the public can have any confidence that they have been established transparently and objectively.

The motion in the name of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition says that the Government should

No other proposition can conceivably do justice to the gravity of the circumstances and the solemnity of the occasion with which we are confronted. I urge hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber to note the importance, as others have eloquently said, of the House taking back the right to say to the Executive, “This is our prerogative.”

I want to say something about the procedure. Historians are generally not especially experienced at interrogating live actors—I hope that that statement is pretty uncontroversial. I have no doubt that the two historians on the panel are especially good at interpreting historical documents and evidence, but I would be surprised if they had much experience of winkling out the truth from a reluctant and sometimes even self-deceived witness. There is one forensic tool—I would say this, and I declare an interest—that is guaranteed to winkle out the truth from a Minister or anybody else: cross-examination. Cross-examination by a skilled and experienced cross-examiner is an indefeasible tool in the hands of an inquiry. It is absurd—it is fantasy—to propose that creating the conditions of secrecy will somehow lead to a cosy, fireside chat in which the likes of Alastair Campbell will be induced to confide their secret heart to the listening committee. It is only with the forensic tool of cross-examination that we can hope to get to the bottom of many of the complex and thorny issues with which the committee will be challenged.

If the Government are to have cross-examination and to get to the bottom of this, there has got to be an oath. It is no use suggesting, as the Foreign Secretary appeared to do at one point, that an oath can somehow be administered informally. If an oath is to mean anything, it must have legal consequences, and the legal consequences of telling a lie on oath are prosecution for perjury. If an oath is to be administered, it must be done in circumstances that leave no room for any doubt that telling a lie will be visited with all the penalties of the law, namely a prosecution for perjury. That is why I agree with the hon. Member
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for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) that the only way is to have an oath. The only way is to have cross-examination. The only way is to have the inquiry in public when compelling interests of national security do not require otherwise. I say again that the only way is to have an inquiry that does justice to the gravity of the war, and to have a committee that includes men or women with experience, weight and wisdom in the relevant areas of this complicated issue.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I advise hon. Members that the winding-up speeches will begin at 6.30 pm. Five Members are hoping to catch my eye; I hope to be able to include everyone. Will Members please do the sums necessary?

5.50 pm

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I shall be extremely brief, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have not intervened in the debate, and did not stand up to speak, because although I had put my name down to do so, I had to attend a funeral earlier and so missed the introductory speeches. I did not want to intervene on others who had put their names down in advance.

My point follows on from that made by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay). There is an hour and 10 minutes of this debate left, and to be frank to the Government, whatever the outcome of the vote tonight, the inquiry is now in disarray. If it cannot command the cross-party support of the House, it will not command the support of the people outside.

Many arguments have been set out—on the lack of terms of reference, on the lack of consultation with, and involvement of, the House on that, on the composition, on the remit, and on oaths. The oath is absolutely critical. As my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) has said, the equivalent to the oath will elicit the equivalent to the truth. The whole point of the exercise is to try to get to the truth. As my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock says, I wonder whether, in view of the new practices that we are trying to introduce in Parliament, tonight could be the one occasion when a Minister contacts No. 10 and says, “The game’s up. What we need to do now is try to find consensus in the House on this important issue.”

This started with a tragedy. I voted against the war after one of the most heart-rending debates that we have had. It was heart-rending because at every Prime Minister’s Question Time since then, a Prime Minister has announced the names of the fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan; I think that the Iraq war led to the climate that enabled the Government to go into Afghanistan. Now, we are going from tragedy to absolute farce.

I was at the parliamentary Labour party meeting only two Mondays ago. I do not often attend these days, but I did on that occasion. The Prime Minister discussed change and learning the lessons from the European elections. It was an excellent speech, in which he said that there would be change, we would learn lessons and we would listen. When he announced, the following day, that there would be an inquiry on Iraq, I was absolutely heartened. I thought, “We’ve learned a lesson; we’re now going to address one of the central issues that stained the history of this Government.” I thought that
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we would look for consensus across parties, establish terms of reference, and have complete openness and transparency, because that is what we are supposed to be all about these days. Within 24 hours, we realised that it was—someone said spin, but I think that it was absolute incompetence, to put it charitably.

Andrew Mackinlay: He doesn’t understand.

John McDonnell: It is as my hon. Friend says. I do not think that the Prime Minister and others around him have understood the importance of the issue, in terms of clearing the decks for this Government or any future Government. If we cannot address the central question of whether the House and the country were misled by individuals, so that we can expose what went on, learn the lessons and move forward, we will not have cleaned the record of this Government, or be able, as a Government, to make such consequential decisions about life and death in future.

That is why I urge the Government tonight to hang up the guns at the door of the saloon. Let us get out of the trenches tonight and start talking about what the real needs of the country are. The real need is for honesty. To be frank, I follow what was said by the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Galloway). We need an inquiry that brings forward the truth, no matter what the consequences. Many of my constituents feel that there has been a war crime; they feel that there was an act of criminality involved. If there are consequences that lead to our own Nuremburg or to The Hague or whatever, let us at least explain to our people that we recognise that possibility, and we are willing to examine the issue, no matter what the consequences.

The subject that we are debating is, as other speakers have said, fundamental to the standing of Parliament. If we are to restore credibility, this is one of the key issues that we must address.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Further to the poignant arguments that my hon. Friend is making and that the House should consider, does he accept that some of us know John Chilcot, and we know that if he is put in charge of deciding whether something is public or private, depending on national security, he has an elastic concept of national security? He stretches it to cover many things, and in the past has stretched it to cover up many things.

John McDonnell: In today’s debate we have gone beyond the examination of the individuals appointed to conduct the inquiry. So many doubts have been expressed across the House about the individuals who have been selected that the Prime Minister should convene a meeting of the leaders of the various parties to see whether we can gain consensus about the composition. Yes, I agree with hon. Members who have argued that the terms of reference should be determined not by the party leaders, but by the House.

I hope that on such a fundamental point of principle, this could be the one occasion when we can throw aside all past practices and stop the Whips rushing round for fear of the defeat of the Government, leaning on individual Back Benchers and trying to drag them through the Lobby. On the principle of good governance, I hope we can put party politics to one side and seek a consensual
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position across the House. As others have said, it is so important for people who have lost loved ones that we arrive at the truth and at a process in which they have confidence.

After today’s debate, after what has happened in the media over the past week, and after the variations that have come forward from the Prime Minister almost daily about what the inquiry is about and how it will operate, all confidence has been lost. To restore that, we need to start again. I repeat the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock. This is the last hour that we have to restore the credibility of the House and give some credibility to the process of examination of the issue of Iraq. I appeal to Ministers to withdraw the Government’s proposals. Whether by accepting the Opposition motion or not, the Government should say tonight that they will start again, involving all parties in an open and properly transparent process of arriving at a new inquiry that will have the confidence of the House and the country.

5.58 pm

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): I agree with the burden of the arguments made by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and the arguments that have come from all quarters of the House.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox) made a compelling case as to why he should be counsel to the inquiry. I know that his bag is full and his commitments are heavy, but he enunciated a principle that is at the heart of parliamentary democracy. This is a House of debate and of a Government making reasoned arguments and, by and large, trying to win an argument. We have seen chaos over recent weeks.

My own dilemma has been reflected by others. I also voted for the war. That was against the advice of many friends in the defence industry, those who have some connections with intelligence, those who write for the newspapers, and colleagues in the House and elsewhere. Yet I disregarded their advice, because I was confronted with a Prime Minister who assured me that the war was necessary to the national interest. Why should I suspend my own judgment? I am normally the most critical of individuals. Why was I showing deference to a proposition put forward by a Prime Minister?

I am old enough to remember Eden. When I was a boy in the combined cadet force at my school, we marched when Suez happened, to show our patriotic fervour. Within months, Eden was discredited and, unfortunately, health meant that he left for the country for a longish period. In Eden, we had a Prime Minister who lied to this House, according to Edward Heath, who in a broadcast said, “He knew he had made a lie on the Floor of the House over the events surrounding Suez.” Mr. Heath was asked, “What did you do?” He replied, “Well, I got on with it, didn’t I?” That is what has happened to this House: too many of us get on with it. That is our duty: to support the Government with whom we were elected or the party that, as a consequence of our election, becomes the Government.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon is in my mind, but was it not Denning who said, “However mighty the citizen, the law is mightier still”? That is what is behind the construction
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of the proposition before us—constructed not by this House, incidentally, but by the Executive on the advice of Whitehall, presumably. The Government’s proposition is designed to ensure that no one can be found culpable and suffer the consequences of—how shall we put it?—misadvising whatever committee comes into existence.

Perjury is an awful threat, and the consequences of perjury are dramatic. A Cabinet Minister from this House perjured himself and went to prison. That is the jeopardy if anyone should mislead a properly founded inquiry with an oath sworn on it and the prospect of retribution if candour is not employed before its inquisitors. That concept is terribly important.

We can see how the central question of the oath is dealt with on the Order Paper, and others have adequately referred to it. The Government’s proposition is almost derisory. Its proposers, including the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, want

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