Lessons still to be learned from the Chilcot Inquiry Contents


1.The decision taken by the House of Commons on 18 March 2003 to support the invasion of Iraq has left an indelible scar on British politics and on decision-making, which still haunts a great many people to this day. That decision remains as controversial in the minds of many as it was at the time, not least because it became apparent after the invasion that the occupation of Iraq by coalition forces was to become a protracted and bloody affair, costing the lives of 179 UK service men and women as well as those from Allies.1 The consequences of that decision remain profound for the domestic politics of the UK, and the US, and for our relations with other countries, as well as for the stability of the region. The continuing loss of life of Iraqis underlines the failure of the post-conflict strategy.

2.Many Members of Parliament who voted in support of the invasion have since denounced their decision, as it was based on the false assertion that the then President of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, was in possession of weapons of mass destruction. Many have said that if they had known then what is known now, they would have voted differently. The Government of the day has been widely accused of failing to be open and frank with both Parliament and the public at the time. The Iraq Inquiry (the Chilcot Inquiry) was set up in order to provide some closure to the controversy, but for many, it has failed to do so.

3.The aftermath of ten years of military operations in Iraq has also had a profound effect on UK foreign and security policy. There is little appetite today for foreign military interventions and this was reflected in the reluctance with which Parliament supported intervention in Libya2, where the substantial majority in the final vote masked the unease with which Members supported the motion, and in the subsequent refusal by the House of Commons to support possible military action in Syria in 2013.3 Sir John Chilcot himself has said that the way the then Government made the case for the Iraq war has served to damage politics and undermine trust in Government4 - the impact of which is still evident in British politics today.

4.Most reporting and discussion of the Report of the Iraq Inquiry (Chilcot)5 has been preoccupied with the substance of the decision to go to war and its legality, and with what happened in the aftermath of the invasion. The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC)’s inquiry has been altogether more limited, focussing on i) lessons to be learned from the shortcomings of the Iraq Inquiry process, and ii) lessons for the machinery of government.

5.During the course of our inquiry, on 30 November 2016, there was an SNP Opposition Day debate on the ‘Chilcot Inquiry and Parliamentary Accountability’. The debate called specifically upon PACAC “further to its current investigation into the lessons to be learned from the Chilcot Inquiry for the machinery of government, to conduct a further specific examination of this contrast in public and private policy and of the presentation of intelligence, and then to report to the House on what further action it considers necessary and appropriate to help prevent any repetition of this disastrous series of events”.6 The motion was defeated by a margin of 439 to 70.7

6.During the debate, both those for and against the motion emphasised their hope that this Committee would put forward practical recommendations which draw on the lessons learned from the Iraq Inquiry in order to ensure that the failings that have been brought to light by the Inquiry Report are never repeated.8 We recognise the concern across the House that practical lessons are learned from the Chilcot Inquiry and, as was always our intention, this report includes recommendations that will help to safeguard against such failings in the future.

7.We have not, however, sought to re-open all the issues explored by Chilcot, nor do we explore whether Parliament was deliberately misled by the then Prime Minister, Rt Hon Tony Blair. The Chilcot report does not seek to adjudicate on this point either, though in oral evidence, Sir John Chilcot himself made it clear that:

I absolve him [Tony Blair] from a personal and demonstrable decision to deceive Parliament or the public—to state falsehoods, knowing them to be false. That I think he should be absolved from. However, he also exercised his very considerable powers of advocacy and persuasion, rather than laying the real issues, and the information to back the analysis of them, fairly and squarely in front of Parliament or the public. It was an exercise in advocacy, not an exercise in sharing a crucial judgment—as has been said already this afternoon, one of the most important, if not the most important, since 1945.9

8.We do not pass over this matter at all lightly, and we have received representations that we should conduct such an inquiry. The Chair of the Committee took informal advice from the Clerk of the House and others about how such an inquiry would have to be conducted. We have concluded that in order for such an inquiry to be fair and objective, a Select Committee would have to establish new procedures, in order to try the facts of the case in accordance with accepted principles of natural justice. We do not feel that Chilcot or any of the other prior inquiries provides a sufficient basis for PACAC to conduct such an inquiry. Moreover, the House voted down the SNP motion on 30 November 2016 which called upon PACAC to look into this matter further. However, we think Parliament should be prepared to establish such an inquiry into the matter if any new and relevant material or facts emerge.

9.The Iraq war began on the night of the 19–20 March 2003 with the US-led invasion, ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’. In a television address on 20 March, the then Prime Minister, Rt Hon Tony Blair, announced the UK military’s involvement in the invasion and its objective: “Tonight, British servicemen and women are engaged from air, land and sea. Their mission: to remove Saddam Hussein from power, and disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction”.10 The main UK military mission in Iraq was completed in April 2009.11

10.On 15 June 2009 the then Prime Minister, Rt Hon Gordon Brown announced that an independent Privy Counsellor committee of inquiry would be set up to consider:

the period from summer 2001, before military operations began in March 2003, and our subsequent involvement in Iraq right up to the end of July this year.12

The announcement followed mounting pressure for an inquiry into the Iraq war, with calls for an inquiry dating back to 2003.13 Members of Parliament had cited a number of issues that required investigation including, whether intelligence had been misrepresented in advance of the war, what legal advice the then Government had been given, and the failures in post-conflict planning.14

11.At the launch of the Iraq Inquiry on 30 July 2009, Sir John Chilcot outlined the Inquiry’s terms of reference as follows:

Our terms of reference are very broad, but the essential points, as set out by the Prime Minister and agreed by the House of Commons, are that this is an Inquiry by a committee of Privy Counsellors.  It will consider the period from the summer of 2001 to the end of July 2009, embracing the run-up to the conflict in Iraq, including the way decisions were made and actions taken, to establish, as accurately as possible, what happened and to identify the lessons that can be learned.  Those lessons will help ensure that, if we face similar situations in future, the government of the day is best equipped to respond to those situations in the most effective manner in the best interests of the country.15

12.The report of the Iraq Inquiry was published on 6 July 2016, over seven years after Mr Brown’s announcement. The length of time taken by the Inquiry to conclude its investigations and publish its findings had been a matter of extensive criticism.16

13.Following publication, PACAC held a single evidence session with the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, to examine how the Government intends to absorb and implement the lessons learned from the inquiry. The Liaison Committee held an oral evidence session with Sir John Chilcot on 2 November, in which the Chair of PACAC participated.17

14.The Iraq Inquiry Report is a substantial, comprehensive document. Many of the lessons drawn out in the report fall within the remit of other Select Committees and are not for PACAC to pursue. As previously noted, we restricted the focus of our follow-up to: i) lessons to be learned from the shortcomings of the Iraq Inquiry process; and ii) lessons to be learned in relation to the operation of the machinery of government.18

15.In Chapter 1, we have sought to establish why the Iraq Inquiry took such a long time, in a way that was unanticipated by both the Government and the Inquiry Committee. We draw on the work of our predecessor Committee, the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC), which scrutinised the role and effectiveness of public inquiries, to inform our analysis and evaluation of the Iraq inquiry. In particular, we have revisited PASC’s report ‘The Iraq Inquiry’, which recommended that consideration be given to splitting the inquiry into two stages.19 We also consider the conclusions of PASC’s substantial work on public inquiries to inform our thinking around how Parliament could have been more meaningfully involved in the process of establishing the Iraq Inquiry. PASC published two reports, ‘Government by Inquiry’ in 2005,20 and ‘Parliamentary Commissions of Inquiry’ in 2008,21 both of which argued for greater parliamentary involvement in inquiries into the conduct of government, through the mechanism of a Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry. Following the announcement of the Iraq Inquiry by the then Government in 2009, PASC, in its report, ‘The Iraq Inquiry’, expressed its dismay that Parliament had not been more formally involved in setting up the Inquiry and made recommendations for how this could be rectified. In this report, we set out what role Parliament should play in setting up future public inquiries initiated by the Government.22

16.It appears that mistakes were also made when the Saville Inquiry23 was established, and similar mistakes were again repeated with the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.24 The complexity of subject matter being addressed by these inquiries underpins the need to have better procedures in place for establishing and setting up inquiries in the future.

17.In Chapter 2, we consider the implications for the machinery of government, and highlight what the Iraq Inquiry reveals about the weaknesses in the Government’s decision-making procedures. We focus on the question of whether the machinery of government changes implemented since the Iraq war have fully addressed the Inquiry’s criticisms. We also consider the implications of Chilcot’s findings around the handling of legal advice and the presentation of intelligence to Parliament, for the role of both Ministers and Parliamentarians respectively in providing challenge to No. 10. Finally, we reflect on the Government’s apparent failure to coordinate across Departments, in both the planning and implementation of post-conflict strategy for Iraq, and consider what changes are necessary to ensure that such failures are not repeated.

18.We are grateful to Sir Jeremy Heywood for providing oral evidence to PACAC’s inquiry.

1 BBC News, July 2016, ‘UK military deaths in Iraq’.

2 Commons Hansard, 21 March 2011, Vol. 525 col. 700.

3 Commons Hansard, 29 August 2013, Vol. 566 col. 1425.

4 Liaison Committee, November 2016, Oral evidence: Follow up to the Chilcot Report, HC 689, Q34; The Iraq Inquiry, July 2016, The Report of the Iraq Inquiry, Executive Summary, HC 264, p.131 para, 838.

5 The Iraq Inquiry, July 2016, The Report of the Iraq Inquiry, HC 264– HC 265IX.

6 Commons Hansard 30 November 2016, Vol. 617 col. 1527.

7 Commons Hansard 30 November 2016, Vol. 617 col. 1582 – 1584.

8 Commons Hansard 30 November 2016. See for example, Mr Kenneth Clarke, Vol 617. Col. 1530;
Mr Alex Salmond, Vol 617. col 1536; Mr Fabian Hamilton, Vol. 617 col. 1543; Sir Roger Gale Vol. 617 col. 1545.

9 Liaison Committee, November 2016, Oral evidence: Follow up to the Chilcot Report, HC 689, Q114.

10 Tony Blair’s Address, 20 March 2003, BBC Radio 4 Today.

11 The Iraq Inquiry, July 2016, The Report of the Iraq Inquiry, Executive Summary, HC 264, p.145.

12 Commons Hansard 15 June 2009, Vol. 494. col 23.

13 House of Commons Library Briefing Paper, June 2015, ‘Iraq: calls for an inquiry and historical precedents, SN02713.

14 Ibid.

15 The Iraq Inquiry website, July 2009, Statement by Sir John Chilcot, Chairman of the Iraq Inquiry.

17 Liaison Committee, November 2016, Oral evidence: Follow up to the Chilcot Report, HC 689.

18 In this report, machinery of government is understood as the different parts of government, such as No. 10, the Cabinet Office and Government Departments, and the way in which they interact and function together.

19 Ninth Report from the Public Administration Select Committee, Session 2008–09, The Iraq Inquiry’, HC 721.

20 First Report from the Public Administration Select Committee, Session 2004–05, Government by Inquiry, HC 51–I.

21 Ninth Report from the Public Administration Select Committee, Session 2007–08, ‘Parliamentary Commissions of Inquiry, HC 473.

22 Ninth Report from the Public Administration Select Committee, Session 2008–09, The Iraq Inquiry’, HC 721.

23 The Bloody Sunday Inquiry, June 2010, Report of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, HC 29–30.

24 Twelfth Report from the Home Affairs Committee, Session 2014–15, Appointment of the Chair of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, HC 710.

15 March 2017