Lessons still to be learned from the Chilcot Inquiry Contents

1The Iraq Inquiry: shortcomings in the inquiry process

Understanding delays and cost

19.When announcing the Inquiry in June 2009, the then Prime Minister, Rt Hon Gordon Brown, outlined its expected timeframe: “Given the complexity of the issues it will address, I am advised that it will take a year”.25 The Inquiry finished conducting hearings in 2011 and the report was eventually published on 6 July 2016, more than seven years after the Inquiry was originally announced. The total expenditure of the Iraq Inquiry since 2009 is estimated to be £13,126,900.26

20.It is apparent that neither the Government, nor the Inquiry Committee, anticipated that the Inquiry would take so long to conclude. Sir John Chilcot said in a letter, dated 26 January 2015, to the then Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC), Sir Richard Ottoway, that “my colleagues and I have served as members of this Inquiry longer than any of us expected would be necessary”.27 In the same month, Sir Jeremy Heywood told our predecessor Committee, the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC):

like everybody else I am very frustrated and you are right to raise the question [about lessons learned from the delays]. To be honest, when the inquiry finally does publish, we will need to talk to John Chilcot and his team and the secretariat to see what insights they have got on that question, but nobody expected it to go on this long… It has gone a lot longer than anybody conceived of, and we do need to learn the lessons from that.28

21.The length of time taken by the Inquiry to conclude its investigations and publish its findings has drawn significant criticism.29 Some suggested that the delays revealed efforts within the establishment to defer proper scrutiny.30 We have sought to understand why the Inquiry took such a long time to complete its work and in doing so, have considered a number of possible reasons: the scope of the terms of reference; agreeing the release of sensitive documents; the Maxwellisation process as well as resource and capacity.

Scope of the terms of reference

22.In his evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) in September 2016, Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, presented the time taken to complete the inquiry as an “almost inevitable” consequence of the scope of the terms of reference.31 He explained:

I think with those terms of reference, and that is the crux in a sense, if you wanted a thorough piece of work that was going to stand the test of time and be incontrovertible in its [comprehensiveness], and the issues that it looked at, I think it was going to take something like that length of time.32

When giving evidence to the FAC in 2015, Sir John Chilcot also pointed to the scope of the inquiry as a key factor that had influenced the timetable.33

23.The “strongest lesson” that Sir Jeremy Heywood drew from the inquiry process was that when establishing future inquiries “there should be a much clearer setting of expectations …”34 He explained that whilst it would have been desirable for the Inquiry to be published more quickly he was “struggling to think of something that would have allowed that to happen”.35 He indicated that he would consider this question again following further conversation with Sir John Chilcot, and completion of a Whitehall-wide lessons learned exercise, but was doubtful that he would be able to draw further practical lessons for how to speed up future inquiries.36

24.In July 2009, three days after the Government announced that there would be an inquiry into the Iraq war, PASC published its report, ‘The Iraq Inquiry’, which recommended that “consideration be given to splitting the inquiry into two stages: the first stage to concentrate on the British decision to go to war; and the second stage to consider the broader lessons from the conflict and its aftermath”.37 In PASC’s view, this could have clarified the terms of reference and reduced the length of time before initial lessons about the decision to go to war could be published. This model was not adopted by the Inquiry Committee. When we asked Sir Jeremy Heywood for his view on this recommendation, he responded that it was “difficult to think of something other than having a narrower set of terms of reference, which would have led to a shorter inquiry” but that he could consider again whether dividing the terms of reference would have been helpful.38 There has so far been no further official response to this recommendation.

Agreeing the release of sensitive documents

25.When announcing the inquiry in June 2009, Mr. Brown, committed the Government to providing the Inquiry Committee with “access to all government papers”.39 The Inquiry Committee subsequently requested access to over 150,000 government documents.40 Some of the documents drawn on by the Inquiry were sensitive and classified. The Inquiry agreed with the Government in June 2009 a protocol to govern the handling of sensitive information.41 Before publishing any information provided by the Government, the Inquiry was required by this protocol to agree with the Government whether the information could be released into the public domain, and in what form. The range of documents under discussion included, but was not limited to, notes of Cabinet and Cabinet Committee meetings, notes from Prime Minister Tony Blair to President George W. Bush and records of their conversations. We note that discussions between the Inquiry Committee and Sir Jeremy Heywood on the release of material from communications between Mr Blair and President Bush attracted particular attention in the press.42 Sir John Chilcot indicated to the Foreign Affairs Committee that it took approximately 13 months, from August 2013 to September 2014, to reach an agreement with Sir Jeremy on what aspects of those communications would be disclosed.43 Sir John pointed specifically to such discussions when outlining the factors that had influenced the Inquiry timeline:

But in addition to the challenges of scope and scale I have described, the inquiry has, of course, had some well-documented and quite difficult exchanges about the release of Government documents… My colleagues and I have consistently said that the minutes of Cabinet and communications between Mr Blair and President Bush were essential to establish an account of what happened—an account that people can trust. We have therefore spent time and effort ensuring that we can publish the material we need from those documents.44

26.Sir John was careful to emphasise that he did not think the Government was being deliberately obstructive in the time it had taken to declassify documents, but he did express some frustration at the impact that these lengthy processes had on the progress of the inquiry: “I don’t think I could accuse Government Departments of unreasonableness, but substantial amounts of time were taken up at critical points”.45

27.Sir Jeremy Heywood attributed no significance to declassification when giving us evidence on why the inquiry had taken so long. Instead, he focused only on the inquiry scope and the breadth of the terms of reference. He told us that following conversations with Sir John Chilcot, he understood that “they [the Inquiry] were perfectly capable of carrying on the work they were doing while final decisions were achieved on those various other points”.46

The ‘Maxwellisation’ process

28.‘Maxwellisation’ is the term used to describe the process by which those criticised in inquiry reports are notified in advance of publication and given the opportunity to respond to those criticisms. The process is named after publisher Robert Maxwell, who was criticised in a 1969 inquiry report by the Department of Trade and Industry, and subsequently brought legal action against the Department. The judge noted that the inquiry should have given Mr Maxwell the opportunity to respond to criticism before publication.47 In the introduction to the Iraq Inquiry report, the authors outline how they carried out the Maxwellisation process:

In July 2013, the Inquiry told a number of individuals that they would be given an opportunity to make representations on points of potential criticism… Relevant extracts from the Inquiry’s draft report were sent to those individuals on a confidential basis from October 2014, following completion of the process of declassifying material from the minutes of Cabinet meetings and from communications between Mr Blair and President Bush. A small number of individuals received further material in early 2016.48

29.The Iraq Inquiry has not indicated that any of the individuals involved in the process were obstructive, and the report recognises “the constructive manner in which all who were engaged in the Maxwellisation process responded”.49 In his evidence to the Liaison Committee, Sir John Chilcot emphasised that the Maxwellisation process had not obstructed the work of the inquiry. Rather, through conducting the process, the Inquiry Committee had been alerted to relevant documents that they had not previously seen.50

Resource and capacity

30.In evidence to the Liaison Committee on 2 November 2016, Sir John suggested that the Inquiry may have been able to process material more quickly, although to a limited extent, had they started out with a larger number of staff. He also commented that, in Government, requests from the Inquiry Committee for archive material “imposed an extreme strain on different Departments”, particularly those in the process of digitising archive material.51

31.The Iraq Inquiry took far longer to conclude its work and to publish its findings than was intended. This is a matter for regret, especially for the men and women who were killed or injured in the conflict, and for their families. The protracted process has also undermined the very public confidence the Inquiry was established to strengthen, as well as undermining confidence in the Inquiry itself. For some, the delays have left the impression that the Chilcot Inquiry was a device to delay proper scrutiny and to obscure who should be held accountable. Others have suggested the sheer scope of the Inquiry’s terms of reference made its length inevitable. We agree that, in future, there must be a much clearer setting of expectations at the outset of an inquiry, but PACAC has concluded that further lessons can and must be learned about how to prevent such unacceptable delays in future inquiries. The Cabinet Secretary indicated that the Government would consider further the question of how the Iraq Inquiry could have been carried out more quickly. We urge that this assessment is concluded as a matter of urgency and its findings reported to Parliament, so that both Government and Parliament can take the necessary steps to ensure that future Inquiries, particularly those with comparable scope and scale to the Iraq Inquiry, do not experience such unacceptable delays.

The Involvement of Parliament

32.PACAC’s predecessor committee, PASC, took a strong interest in the role and effectiveness of public inquiries, calling in particular for a greater role for Parliament in establishing and conducting inquiries. PASC’s 2005 report, ‘Government by Inquiry’, makes a number of recommendations for how inquiries established by Ministers should be conducted.52 In the report, PASC also “expresses its concern at the long-term diminution in Parliament’s role in the process of public inquiries”,53 and argues that “in those inquiries where public concern is centred on the conduct, actions or inactions of government and ministers, Parliament should be directly involved”.54 The 2005 report proposes that “future inquiries into the conduct and actions of government should exercise their authority through the legitimacy of Parliament in the form of a Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry composed of parliamentarians and others, rather than by the exercise of the prerogative power of the Executive”.55 In its ninth report of session 2007–8, ‘Parliamentary Commissions of Inquiry’, PASC concluded that Parliament should be able to initiate and conduct its own inquiries into “matters of the highest significance and greatest public concern”, such as the Iraq war.56

33.Following the announcement of the Iraq Inquiry in 2009, PASC published its report, ‘The Iraq Inquiry’, in which it criticised the Government for taking a “top-down” approach when establishing the Inquiry.57 PASC’s report expressed the need for Parliament to have “a formal role in establishing the inquiry” and urged the Government “to allow, at minimum, a debate and free vote in the House of Commons on its proposal for an inquiry”.58

34.Following the publication of this PASC report, the House of Commons discussed the Government’s proposal for an inquiry, but only in an Opposition Day debate on 24 June 2009. As part of the debate, the then Shadow Foreign Secretary, the Rt Hon William Hague, admonished the Government for having given Parliament “no opportunity to debate the inquiry’s terms of reference in the House” as the then Government had done when it established the Franks Inquiry into the Falklands war in 1982.59 However, the Government amendment carried and the House resolved:

That this House welcomes the announcement by the Government of a wide ranging and independent inquiry to establish the lessons to be learnt from the United Kingdom’s engagement in Iraq, which will consider the run-up to the conflict, the military action and reconstruction.60

35.At the launch of the inquiry on 30 July 2009, Sir John Chilcot outlined the terms of reference that he would use in conducting the inquiry. The introduction to the Inquiry Report outlines how Sir John consulted Parliament on these terms of reference:

Before the formal launch of the Iraq Inquiry, Sir John Chilcot met leaders of the main opposition parties and chairs of relevant House of Commons select committees (Defence, Foreign Affairs and Public Administration) as well as the Intelligence and Security Committee. Those discussions helped to shape the Inquiry’s thinking on its remit and approach.61

36.As a non-statutory, Privy Council inquiry, there was no requirement on the Government to involve Parliament in the process of setting up the inquiry. Even when an inquiry is set up under the Inquiries Act 2005, the Government has a responsibility only to inform Parliament that they are establishing an inquiry or amending an inquiry’s terms of reference. We note that in 2014, the Prime Minister, Rt Hon Theresa May, who was then Home Secretary, invited the Home Affairs Committee to conduct a pre-appointment hearing with the proposed Chair of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, Justice Lowell Goddard.62 There is, however, no obligation for the Government to consult Parliament.63 We remain concerned about the lack of mechanisms for meaningful Parliamentary oversight over the establishment of both statutory and non-statutory inquiries.

37.In line with previous recommendations by the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC), our predecessor Committee, we conclude that Parliament should have been much more actively involved in establishing and setting up the Iraq Inquiry. There was only informal consultation with opposition parties and Select Committee Chairs by Sir John Chilcot, and an Opposition Day debate on the Floor of the House of Commons. In future, there should be a full debate and a vote on an amendable motion, setting out the precise terms of reference, an estimated time-frame and a proposed budget for the inquiry. Before such a debate, Parliament should establish an ad-hoc Select Committee to take evidence on the proposed remit and to present formal conclusions and recommendations to the House. The Select Committee should also recommend whether the inquiry should be a Privy Council or statutory inquiry, and it should conduct a pre-appointment hearing with the proposed inquiry Chair. Only then should the remit and the Chair of the inquiry be put before Parliament for final approval, along with a timetable and a budget for the inquiry, so that Parliament can act on the considered recommendations of the Select Committee.

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

26 The Iraq Inquiry website, Inquiry Costs.

28 Public Administration Select Committee, January 2015, Oral evidence: Whitehall: capacity to address future challenges, HC 669, Q352.

31 Q2.

32 Q10.

33 Foreign Affairs Committee, February 2015, Oral evidence: Progress of the Iraq Inquiry, HC 1027, Q1.

34 Q3.

35 Q4.

36 Q10.

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

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

40 Foreign Affairs Committee, February 2015, Oral evidence: Progress of the Iraq Inquiry, HC 1027, Q75.

41 The Iraq Inquiry Website, Protocols.

43 Foreign Affairs Committee, February 2015, Oral evidence: Progress of the Iraq Inquiry, HC 1027, Q20.

44 Ibid, Q1.

45 Ibid, Q60.

46 Q16.

47 House of Commons Library Briefing Paper, July 2016, Chilcot Inquiry, SN06215.

48 The Iraq Inquiry, The Report of the Iraq Inquiry, Vol 1, Introduction, HC 265–I, p.19, para 114–115

49 Ibid, para 116.

50 Liaison Committee, November 2016, Oral evidence: Follow up to the Chilcot Report, HC 689, Q79.

51 Liaison Committee, November 2016, Oral evidence: Follow up to the Chilcot Report, HC 689, Q91.

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

53 Ibid, p.3.

54 Ibid, p.70.

55 Ibid, p.76.

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

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

58 Ibid.

59 Commons Hansard, 24 June 2009, Vol. 494, col. 806.

60 Commons Hansard, 24 June 2009, Vol. 494, col. 910.

61 The Iraq Inquiry, The Report of the Iraq Inquiry, Vol 1, Introduction, HC 265–I, p.2, para 5.

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

63 Inquiries Act 2005, Clause 6.

15 March 2017