I beg to move,
That this House calls on the Government to conclude the National Security checking of the Iraq Inquiry report as soon as possible in order to allow publication of that report as soon as possible after 18 April 2016, and no later than two weeks after that date, in line with the undertaking on time taken for such checking by the Prime Minister in his letter to Sir John Chilcot of 29 October 2015.
As an aside, Mr Speaker, I never cease to be impressed by your short-term memory.
The second Iraq war was started to liberate the Iraqi people. Instead, it shattered their country. It was intended to stabilise the middle east. Instead, it destabilised the middle east. It was intended to remove a threat of weapons of mass destruction that did not exist. Instead, it exacerbated and massively increased a threat of terrorism that does exist. It was supposedly fought in defence of our values, but it has led to the erosion of civil liberties at home and the use of torture abroad. Because we were misled on the matter, Parliament voted for the war by 412 to 149. So there were very good reasons for setting up the inquiry in the first place.
The war led to the deaths of 4,800 allied soldiers, 179 of them British. The lowest estimate of Iraqi civilian casualties was 134,000, but plausible estimates put the number up to four times higher. The war immediately created 3.4 million refugees, and half of them fled the country. It cost the British taxpayer £9.6 billion, and it cost the American taxpayer $1,100 billion. It has done untold damage to the reputation of the west throughout the middle east and, indeed, among Muslim populations at home and abroad. Initiated to protect the west from terrorism, it has, in fact, destroyed the integrity of the Iraqi state and triggered a persistent civil war that has created the conditions for perhaps the worst terrorist threat yet to the west: ISIL or ISIS. The war has done huge harm to the self-confidence and unity of the west, in effect neutering our foreign policy. The war was, with hindsight, the greatest foreign policy failure of this generation, and I say that as someone who was misled into voting for it.
It has been more than six and a half years since Gordon Brown launched the Iraq inquiry and more than five years since it heard its last evidence. It has been more than a year since this House, in a similar debate, called for the Government to publish the Iraq inquiry report as soon as possible, and yet that report has still not been published. It is no surprise that one of the most pre-eminent politicians of our era, the highly respected and very civilised ex-Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, branded the delays a scandal. He is right. They are a disgrace.
In 2009, the then Leader of the Opposition, who is now Prime Minister, was scornful about the suggestion that the report would not be published before the 2010 election. In 2009, Sir John Chilcot told families that he would complete the inquiry in a year if he could, but that it would definitely not take more than two years. In fact, the evidence taking did not conclude until 2 February 2011. Nevertheless, at that time—more than five years ago—Sir John Chilcot said:
“It is going to take some months to deliver the report itself.”
It has been 62 months and counting.
Then the inquiry started the classification process. Under the inquiry protocols, there are nine different categories of reason for turning down the classification—for preventing Sir John not from seeing the information, but from publishing it. What the inquiry can publish is determined by a series of protocols that have criteria so broad that a veto on application can be applied virtually at Whitehall’s discretion.
Compare that with the Scott inquiry into the Iraqi super-gun affair. It also covered issues of incredible sensitivity in terms of national security, international relations, intelligence agency involvement, judicial propriety and ministerial decision making—the whole gamut. Sir Richard Scott was allowed to decide himself what he would release into the public domain, unfettered by Whitehall, so that whole tranche of time—that couple of years—would have been unnecessary. By contrast, Sir John Chilcot, a former permanent secretary at the Northern Ireland Office who chaired an incredibly sensitive inquiry into intercept—some Members of the House may remember that—and who is considered a responsible keeper of the Government’s secrets, is tied up in protocols subject to the whim of Whitehall.
There have been long negotiations between the inquiry and Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, and his predecessors over the disclosure of some material, most notably correspondence between ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair and George W. Bush. There is no point whatsoever in the inquiry if it cannot publish the documents that show how the decision to go to war was arrived at. That is, after all, the point of half the inquiry. Chilcot wrote in a letter to the Cabinet Secretary:
“The question when and how the prime minister made commitments to the US about the UK’s involvement in military action in Iraq and subsequent decisions on the UK’s continuing involvement, is central to its considerations”.
The negotiations between Chilcot and Jeremy Heywood concluded only in May 2014, when it was announced that an agreement had been reached. The process was clearly frustrating for Sir John. He queried why it was that
“individuals may disclose privileged information (without sanction) whilst a committee of privy counsellors established by a former prime minister to review the issues, cannot”.
He was of course referring to Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell’s respective diaries, which quoted such information, again without Whitehall veto.
Then came the excruciatingly long process of Maxwellisation. This is meant to be a process of notifying any people criticised in the report so they can correct factual errors and be ready to respond to those criticisms when they become public. It is not intended to allow protected negotiation between the commission and teams of expensive lawyers—incidentally, those expensive lawyers are paid for by the taxpayer—who negotiate ad nauseam, at any cost, to protect their client’s reputation, even over and above the national interest. That is what is happening.
We know that finally, after all that, the Iraq inquiry is now due to submit its report to the Government next week. The next stage will be security clearance before publication. The Prime Minister stated last October that he fully expected security clearance to take less than two weeks, the time taken by the equally enormous Saville inquiry. Let us remember that the Saville inquiry took decades to come to its conclusion, but it was cleared in two weeks. I cannot believe that clearance will take any longer than that, given, as we already know, that every single piece of this report has already been negotiated with Whitehall, presumably on the basis of security considerations.
Given that, and the Prime Minister’s declaration that he is as exasperated as anyone by the delays to publication, the public ought to expect the report to be published in the first week of May. That should be the reasonable conclusion, but that is not the case. There are now reports that the publication of the report will be postponed until after the EU referendum at the end of June. This is frankly outrageous. It is for this reason that I, together with right hon. and hon. Members from all parties in this House, have called for this debate. We demand that the Government publish the report as soon as security clearance is complete, and certainly no more than two weeks after its receipt.
While this inquiry has lumbered on, there have been at least three significant foreign policy decisions that could have been dramatically different had we had the benefit of the Iraq inquiry’s findings. The decision to intervene in Libya was intended to prevent a massacre, but since then, partly because we changed the aim to regime change, the country has descended into civil war and miserable, fractured chaos. On the question of regime change, when the Prime Minister first asked this House to support military action against the Assad regime in Syria in 2013, the House turned him down. Had the House not blocked military intervention, we could have ended up as military supporters of our now sworn enemies, IS. In Iraq, the UK is of course involved in the ongoing civil war that has raged since the invasion in 2003.
There are lessons to learn from the Iraq war about our foreign policy, our political decisions to go to war and our military operations. The longer we leave it, the less useful these lessons will be, and the more likely it is that we will make the same mistakes. When decisions such as those that were made in Libya, Syria and Iraq are made without knowledge of the facts, mistakes are made and sometimes people die as a result. Therefore, it is not hyperbole to say that the delay to the Iraq inquiry could cost lives because bad decisions may be made. I would go further and say that it probably has cost lives because bad decisions were made. Indeed, many of the revelations in the report will come too late to be useful in relation to decisions that have already been taken. This is the irrecoverable harm that has been caused by the delays—the unconscionable delays—in this inquiry.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the Iraq war was the most appalling miscalculation and the most idiotic way of conducting foreign policy in living memory. As he is looking to the future, does he accept that the fracture within Islam that the war exacerbated and the Pandora’s box that was then opened of violence and extremism within Islam, both in the middle east and internationally, are sadly the gift of the Iraq war that will keep on giving, and that there may be decades’ worth of interventions from extreme Islamic elements across the globe?
I do not think it is a question of “may be”; I think there will be the continued disruption of international affairs and the continued threat of terrorism. Europol’s assessment that there are 5,000 jihadists in Europe implies an arrival rate of 1,000 a year, and the rate is going up, not down. It is clear that the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.
That brings us to a significant point. When the individual Prime Ministers involved in each of the decisions I mentioned made their decision, I am sure that in their own mind they were doing the right thing—they were trying to save lives, to save a civilisation or to intervene to prevent further terrorism. The trouble is that every single one of them made simplistic decisions, without detailed understanding. The complexity of the issues they were reaching into was beyond their knowledge. It is correcting, enhancing and improving that knowledge that the inquiry report is all about.
I am no pacifist, but I find myself horrified at the thoughtless, aggressive and unnecessary interventions by the west in areas that it does not understand. I did not like the Gaddafi regime; I did not like the Saddam Hussein regime; I do not particularly like the Bashar Assad regime, but ripping them out has led to something even worse. The hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) is therefore absolutely right in his analysis, which demonstrates why this report and its speed of preparation are so important.
My right hon. Friend is making an immensely compelling point. Does he agree that when the report is published, which, I like him, hope will be as soon as possible, although the tendency in the British media will be to use it as a trial of the former Prime Minister—Blair guilty or innocent—the great gain of the report will be in showing how the whole mechanism of government worked in the run-up to the decision to go to war? A Prime Minister is not Dr Strangelove; this is about how the whole machine in Whitehall works.
My right hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not follow him down his comparison between Dr Strangelove and past Prime Ministers, but he is right in one respect: the most important element of this is what we learn from our mistakes. However, there are also issues of accountability and closure, which I will return to in a moment.
I am reluctant to interrupt, because I am very much enjoying the powerful case that the right hon. Gentleman is making, but I invite him to ignore the representations of his colleague, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), because this war is bound up with one key individual: Tony Blair. For ever and a day, he will be associated with this particular war. It was personalised around the personality of that Prime Minister. As far as I am concerned, he could have a tattoo across his forehead reading “Iraq”, such is his legacy. This will be a comment and a statement about his day. I was in this House when we voted to go to war, as was the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), and I had to listen to the nonsense and drivel that was that former Prime Minister’s case for war. Please let us make sure that where blame is to be apportioned, it is apportioned rightly.
I will come back to this issue in the latter part of my speech. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and I have a very dear common friend who thinks that Mr Blair should be at The Hague, so there is a range of opinion on this, but to come to that conclusion today would be to pre-empt the report. I do not intend to do that, but I do intend to turn to the issue of accountability in a minute.
Just to get the balance correct, if we go back to the time of the vote, a majority of the non-payroll vote in the Labour party—122 Members, and I was proud to be one of the organisers—actually rebelled against their own Government. Had the Conservative party supported us we would not have gone to war. Those are historical matters, but it is important to place on the record that the biggest ever parliamentary rebellion within a governing party was by the Labour party on the issue of taking us to war. Many of us at the time realised that it would be a disaster, but none of us realised what an appalling disaster it would be—one that would carry on for decades and influence us domestically as well as in the middle east.
The hon. Gentleman has made his point well, but one of the issues that the report will face up to, one hopes, is the veracity of what was told to the House that day. That will be one of the key issues, which is why the argument between Sir John Chilcot and Whitehall is very important. Reading between the lines of his letters, that argument was very much about what decisions were taken before the House made its decision and after—what was told to the House, whether it was accurate, whether it was based on impartial briefings and whether, indeed, the politics of the issue coloured the views of important components of the state. I am not going to attempt to answer those questions today, but I would be incredibly disappointed if the commission’s report did not actually answer them in plain English. That is why I would not be drawn by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield, who is a very great friend of mine. The report has to answer those questions; what the tabloid and other press do with the report the day after publication is not for me.
I will press on, briefly, with the lessons to learn not just about the war but about how we should conduct these inquiries. The Government now intend to review the Maxwellisation process, in which those who have been criticised in a report are given the chance to respond. That is to be welcomed, as Maxwellisation has been responsible for half the delays here. It is clear that strict time controls are needed for future inquiries. It cannot be right that those who are to be criticised can delay publication for their own interests, so I hope that strict time controls will arise as a result.
There is no reason for further delay. It has been suggested that the delay between the report being security cleared and its publication is because it needs to be proof-read and typeset. That would be unacceptable if true. The report is already in electronic format. It has already been repeatedly checked for accuracy, and will be checked again by the security services. It will have been read by more people than some newspapers. The fact is that the report has been pored over by many people for five years. We are in the 21st century, not the era of hot lead typesetting. Someone said to me this morning that I might have summarised the rather long motion rather more crisply by saying, “This House instructs Sir John Chilcot simply to press ‘send’.”
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman agrees that the public at large, and bereaved families in particular, deserve answers, so redactions must be kept to an absolute minimum. Those families should not have to endure any further suggestions of a cover-up.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right, but, to be honest with her, I will be astonished if there are any redactions in the report. I remember that once, when I was Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, a report was given to me about the overrun of MI5 and MI6 on their buildings. It had four chapters: the introduction, the chapter on MI6, the chapter on MI5 and the conclusion. The chapters on MI5 and MI6 were virtually identical, except that all the redactions were different. We rang up MI5 and said, “MI6 has agreed to all these,” then we rang up MI6 and said, “MI5 has agreed to all these,” and then we removed nearly all the redactions. They were political—they were redactions to preserve the interests of the bureaucracy involved, not the national interest. The simple truth is that the facts in the report have already been cleared. That is what two years of the argument was about. If there is a single redaction, I and others will be looking at it very closely and asking why it was not redacted years ago instead of now. The hon. Lady is absolutely right about the rights of the families in this affair.
There is no doubt that the whole country is fed up with waiting for the final report, but none more so than the families of those 179 British soldiers who died fighting for their country in Iraq. The families have suffered for years as this inquiry has dragged on and on, and it would be disgraceful to make them wait for months longer, just because the Government are worried about what effect—if any—the report will have on the referendum. I cannot imagine what impact that might be, given that there is no party political advantage in this to either side.
The Conservatives and Labour both supported the war. As the hon. Member for Nottingham North said, half the Labour party stood back or voted against it, and there is no advantage either way. The inquiry was started by Labour and supported by the Prime Minister. It is therefore inconceivable that the Government should seek to wait until after the June referendum to publish the report, and I hope that when the Minister replies to the debate, he will make it clear that that will not happen—I am sure he will address that point directly.
Let us put this issue in context. If the report waits until June, it will be seven years since the inquiry started, and some parents of the dead soldiers will have been waiting 10 or 12 years for an answer. To give the House a simple comparison, the Israeli Government appointed the Winograd commission in 2006 to investigate the war with Lebanon. It produced its interim report not in seven years but in seven months, and it was highly critical of the existing Government that had set it up. The final report was produced after 17 months. Any argument for delay on grounds of political sensitivity or national security would be far more pressing in Israel, where that is a matter of daily life and death to all its citizens. Because of that, it is also a matter of very high and extremely important politics. If Israel can produce a report in seven and 17 months, we should be able to do it in a lot less than seven years.
Some people will, of course, be held to account in this report; otherwise it will properly be dismissed as a whitewash. That is to be expected and must be right. However, this is principally about learning from mistakes that we made as a nation, and ensuring that we do not make the same mistakes again. It is also about remembering those who have suffered great loss, and giving them some measure of solace in the truth and some degree of closure. This is about doing the honourable thing by those who have made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of their nation, and to delay any further for no good reason would be an insult to those brave soldiers who died in the Iraq war, and a cruel insult to their families who have waited more than six years for a proper answer.
I agree with every word from the right hon. Gentleman, and I warmly congratulate him on obtaining this debate. This issue disturbs all of us who were in the House at that time more than any other decision taken this generation. Members who were in that debate and who, in their view now and with hindsight, voted the wrong way, deeply regret that, and regard their parliamentary careers as failures because they allowed themselves to be bribed, bullied and bamboozled into believing a fiction that came from the Front Bench. That was not just the Prime Minister; this was the whole establishment, and three parliamentary Select Committees—the Foreign Affairs, Defence, and Intelligence and Security Committees —and the military supported the idea. The Conservative party was more gung-ho than the Labour party, and we must look at this issue because the repercussions of that decision continue today.
The suffering continues, and the mother of the 200th soldier to die in Afghanistan, Hazel Hunt, has set up a foundation and runs a successful charity. It deals with the suffering of the thousands of soldiers who have been maimed in mind or body as a result of that terrible mistake.
We also need to get the Iraq inquiry over with so we can have another inquiry. Another terrible mistake was made in 2006. The decision to go into Helmand province was made in the belief that not a shot would be fired. At that time, we had been in Afghanistan for five years and only six of our soldiers had died in that conflict. As a result of the terrible error of invading Helmand in 2006, 450 of our soldiers died.
The important point is this—and this is not being wise after the event. In March 2003, I sent a letter to Tony Blair saying that going into Iraq in support of Bush’s war would mean that we would drive a wedge between the Christian western world and the Muslim world. There would be a sense of antagonism and injustice from the Muslims in my local mosque to the Muslims in the far corners of the world. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden is right. ISIS is the daughter of our decision to go to Iraq. We must look at that with great seriousness.
At the time, the Public Administration Committee made a number of strong recommendations. Some were followed, but the main one was that the inquiry should not be held in secret. The Committee made another recommendation that the inquiry should have a large parliamentary element to it. In fact, it recommended that there should be two inquiries: one into the reason for going to war and one into the repercussions. Never in our wildest nightmares did anyone believe that the loved ones of those who had fallen would have to suffer a period of seven years of not knowing whether their loved ones were sent to a battle that was based on the vanity of politicians and not on the real interests of our country. The agony goes on.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that with modern printing and publishing techniques it is possible to write a book, email it to the printers and get it back two or three days later. The process is virtually instantaneous. The old system of setting up things in type was immensely laborious and time-consuming. There is no excuse for delaying this any further—not for a single day. The loved ones deserve closure. They have waited far too long. It is only in the political interests of those responsible—the guilty ones—that it continues.
Does my hon. Friend accept that publication is necessary to purge our own party of the fault line that occurred around the time of the Iraq war and which continues to this day? It also besmirches the reputation of an otherwise very fine Prime Minister, who, until we admit the mistake of going to Iraq and opening this Pandora’s box, will forever be known as the person who took us to war on the coat-tails of George W. Bush against so many of his colleagues in the House at the time. The mistake needs to be corrected. That would be good for all of us on the Labour Benches, if nowhere else.
As someone brought up with a religious background, I realise fully the advantage and beneficial nature of confession.
It is absolutely crucial that we understand the mindset that drove us into war. That mindset is one we have heard recently in other debates in relation to going into Libya or Syria. The myth that infects English MPs—rather than Scottish, Welsh or Irish MPs—is the idea that the UK, our country, must punch above its weight militarily. That always means spending beyond our interests and dying beyond our responsibilities.
I am delighted to take part in this debate. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) and others on securing this extremely important debate. I agree with my right hon. Friend. When the former Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary, Lord Hurd, described the delay in the publication of the report as a scandal, he was absolutely right. Many of us in this House were absolutely horrified by the way in which Sir John Chilcot buried his head in the sand amidst the criticism that was, I think last year or in 2014, all around. My right hon. Friend set out the timetable according to which we were assured action would be taken and the report published, but we have been strung along, and as has been said, it is the bereaved who are paying the price for delay.
The Conservative party, as the official Opposition in 2007, called for a public inquiry into the reasons for the Iraq war and the conduct thereof. We initiated that debate on 11 June 2007, and I happened to wind up for the Opposition as a shadow Defence Minister. The Labour party opposed it. The then Foreign Secretary described an inquiry as “self-indulgent” retrospection and our debate as “opportunistic”. Of course, that changed, because Gordon Brown, in 2009, eventually ordered the Chilcot inquiry, but by then six years had passed.
We were not alone in supporting an inquiry; some in the Labour party also supported it. I cannot remember but I am sure the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) did. The late Michael Meacher certainly did. We gave three reasons why we felt an inquiry was needed. First, there was a lack of any discussion, in the run-up to the conflict, about post-conflict reconstruction. I remember going to Washington at the time. The debate there, in the run-up to the conflict, was all about post-conflict reconstruction. The fact that it was not delivered is another matter, but we were not even having that debate here. We had a debate on 30 January 2003, initiated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman), then shadow Secretary of State for International Development, during which the Government were simply not willing to discuss the aftermath of any conflict.
I do not think we learn anything. Look at the situation in the middle east: Libya—a mess; Egypt—to some extent a dictatorship. We have learned nothing from these interventions, and all because we never planned any post-war reconstruction.
Indeed. I could not possibly disagree. That is entirely right.
Secondly, we felt the inquiry was necessary
“to consider how we should adjust our whole military posture to the new type of military operations we face, including at the tactical level: whether our soldiers, sailors and airmen are getting the right training package for that type of warfare; whether…we have the right equipment for the task; whether we have the correct balance of forces, and what needs to be done so that we do not become disproportionately reliant on urgent operational requirements—a kind of panic-buying formula—to make up the shortfall in equipment.”—[Official Report, 11 June 2007; Vol. 461, c. 583.]
Thirdly and finally, there had already been several Select Committee inquiries, and there was a real need for a comprehensive inquiry by an independent committee established by the Government. We suggested there was real urgency. In introducing today’s debate, my right hon. Friend mentioned the effect of the time lag. At the time, I said:
“The reason for the relative urgency is that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks”—
now Lord Hague—
“said, while the events are fresh in people’s minds and the e-mails have not been destroyed, we need to learn whatever lessons we can from the background to operations in Iraq so far, and to apply them to Afghanistan before it is too late.”—[Official Report, 11 June 2007; Vol. 461, c. 585.]
So there was an imperative, and a great disservice has been done to everybody, in that the inquiry was not established in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq war but indeed was six years late. As I said, the bereaved are owed an explanation.
My hon. Friend has been a Defence Minister and shadow Defence Minister. What is his opinion of the argument put at the time that, whenever our forces are in the field, we cannot have an inquiry, which seems madness to me? We had a successful inquiry into Norway, for example.
I agree with my right hon. Friend. He mentioned Norway, and indeed there is plenty of precedent. I think that that was an excuse for not holding an inquiry, and I think that it was a mistake.
It is not just the bereaved who are owed an explanation, however. Those of us who were in the House at the time are owed one as well. All of us bore a responsibility for the decisions that we made on whether to vote for the war or not, and those of us who were on the Front Bench bore a special responsibility. However, we had no more information than what we read in the newspapers.
When I voted for the war, I did so for three reasons. First, I had had a meeting in New York with Hans Blix, the United Nations chief weapons inspector, who had said that he had no doubt that Saddam Hussein intended to develop weapons of mass destruction, and that if he could develop them he would use them, but he—Hans Blix—could not, at that point, find them. He said that just a month before the war started, and I thought that it was pretty compelling.
My second reason was, of course, the “45 minutes” claim. I remember this vividly, because it was all over the front page of the Evening Standard. We were told that Saddam Hussein could launch what I think were described as “battlefield biological and chemical weapons” at 45 minutes’ notice, and reach the sovereign British base of Cyprus. I thought, “I have a responsibility. I am a shadow defence Minister.” I could hear Mr John Humphreys, on the “Today” programme, saying, “Well, you knew all about this, Mr Howarth, so why did you not take action at the time?” I felt that that claim had to be taken seriously.
Thirdly, I thought that, as a key ally of the United States, we had a very close relationship with that country, and we had to have a good reason for not supporting our US friends. I realise that that view will not be shared universally in the House.
Can the hon. Gentleman, from his very knowledgeable position on this matter, clarify something that has been a great puzzle? While a case might have been made for saying that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, was there any plausible case for saying in what scenario he would ever use them against the west without guaranteeing his own suicide?
That is a good question, but it is a question in retrospect. At the time, not only did the chief weapons inspector tell me, to my face—and tell the other members of the Defence Committee who met him in New York—that he thought that Saddam Hussein was intent on developing weapons of mass destruction, but I was then told by the Government—the British Government, my Government—that there was a possibility that he would be able to launch those lethal weapons at 45 minutes’ notice.
That brings me to my next point, which is, of course, that all this involved Dr David Kelly, and all the tragedy surrounding that poor chap, and the dodgy dossier. I believe that one of the things for which Mr Blair and the rest of the Government will have to account to the nation is what I consider to be the usurpation of the Joint Intelligence Committee by the Prime Minister’s spin doctor, Alastair Campbell. He was the man who was putting pressure on the Committee, led by Sir John Scarlett, to release enough information to produce—to coin a phrase—a “sexed-up” dossier to make the case as convincingly as possible, to us in the House and to the British people, that there was a real threat which we could not ignore and on which we had to take action.
I think that one of the lessons we have to learn now is that the Joint Intelligence Committee must be led by a man or woman with experience in security matters, and must not be subject to political pressure. Its professional view must be respected, and its authority must not be usurped.
I thank my very good friend for allowing me to intervene. I agree with every word that he has said so far, but one question has confused and really worried me, and I do not think we have had an answer to it yet. If there were no weapons of mass destruction—I am referring particularly to chemical weapons—what was it that killed the Kurds and the marsh Arabs? We have never found those. Where the heck did they go?
My hon. and gallant Friend has raised a very good question. I do not think that it will be the subject of my contribution to the debate, but I hope that he will be able to develop it if he is able to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I have set out the position of the Conservative Opposition at the time. We believed that it was imperative and urgent for an inquiry to be held. I have explained why I supported the war, and have described some of the shenanigans that went on in an attempt to persuade the British people that there was a justification for it. I think that the delay in the report’s publication has been wholly unacceptable, and I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden. Five years ago, Sir John said that it would take him a few months to prepare the final report; for five years those families have been having to wait, and have been held in limbo.
I agree that the Maxwellisation arrangement must be revisited. We cannot allow an open-ended opportunity for people who have been criticised in a draft report to respond to that criticism. There must be a time limit. As one who was deeply critical of the Saville report, which took 12 years and cost £200 million, I think that the country needs to start looking very carefully at how it conducts inquiries such as this.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am afraid not. A great many other Members wish to speak.
Let us compare what has gone on in the last seven years with what went on after the Falklands campaign. Three weeks after the end of that war, the Prime Minister announced an inquiry, and the inquiry team took six months to deliberate and report. There were international ramifications, because the United States was initially tempted to take the side of its South American neighbour. I know that certain sensitivities will apply in this case in connection with the relationship between Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George W. Bush, but there were similar sensitivities in the case of the Falklands campaign. That inquiry cost £81,000, which at today’s prices is about £280,000.
This morning I was advised by a friend that the Chilcot report is likely to run to 2.5 million words and 12 volumes. Whether the interests of better understanding will be served by a report of that length I know not, but what I do know is that we in this House are right to demand that the report be published as quickly as possible.
It is an honour to speak in the debate, but I take no pleasure in doing so. I do not think that we should be having this debate, because the Chilcot report should have been published by now.
Time has been a huge issue since the genesis of the report. We should particularly bear in mind that Sir John Chilcot promised that the report would be delivered by 18 April, or the week commencing 18 April, and I understand that he will honour his word. Also, the Prime Minister promised to have it security-cleared within a fortnight, which would be by the week beginning 2 May. The promise that I seek from the Minister is that the Government will keep their word, and that a fortnight after Sir John Chilcot has delivered his report, we shall see it published.
As many have said, and as was said at the press conference, publishing a report is not a difficult matter these days. It is no longer a matter of “cold lead”. It is, as we heard from the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), a matter of pressing “send” and the thing is published. People have waited far too long for this report, and further delays are only adding to the pain of the families who are looking for closure. Delays also add to the ever-increasing time during which we have failed to learn the lessons of Iraq, which we should have learned several years ago.
There are further timelines relating to the Chilcot report. On 29 January last year, there was a debate—also hosted by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden—on a motion calling for the report to be published by 12 February 2015. There was uproar in the House during Prime Minister’s questions and at other times when it was suggested that the report could be delayed beyond the general election of May 2015. We are now in April 2016, and again there is uncertainty about the report.
This report was kicked off in 2009, but there was another timeline before that of impatience for the report. I remind the House of a cross-party debate held here on 31 October 2006, when I was quite a new MP, having been here for about a year and a half. It was led by Adam Price, the then hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr. It is instructive to go back and look at the words that Adam used at the beginning of his speech. He said:
“It is about accountability. It is about the monumental catastrophe of the Iraq war, which is the worst foreign policy disaster certainly since Suez, and possibly since Munich. It is about the morass in which, regrettably, we still find ourselves. It is also about a breakdown in our system of government—a fault line in our constitution that only we, as Parliament, can fix. Fix it we must, if there are not to be further mistakes and other Iraqs under other Prime Ministers, in which case we shall only have ourselves to blame.”—[Official Report, 31 October 2006; Vol. 451, c.163.]
Those words still ring true today.
There was another debate, to which Tony Blair refused to come, despite saying a few weeks earlier to a Conservative Member that he would come at “any time” to a debate on Iraq. Part of the defence for that was that soldiers were in the theatre of operation, but that was admirably dealt with by Douglas Hogg, then a Conservative MP and now Lord Hogg. He said during world war two, the debate on the Norway debacle was led by his father, and that took place when troops were in action. The key moment of the Norway debate—I am not certain about the name of the inquiry—led to the removal of Chamberlain and the installation of Churchill, which may have been instrumental in changing the course of world war two, because this Chamber had shown that it was not afraid.
The House needs to address this idea that we cannot debate or investigate anything when troops are in the field. When I have spoken to our troops in the field, they have said that they want our democracy to work properly. They want to feel that they are fighting for an honourable cause. In future, we should dismiss this idea that we are undermining our troops; we are standing up for something that will ensure that their lives are not wasted in the future.
The right hon. Gentleman is quite right. People, and especially troops, want to feel that this place is not on auto-pilot. They want to know that it is living, functioning, thinking and reacting to lessons. As was said, to commit troops to a morass and refuse to learn lessons is an absolute abdication of the House’s responsibility.
To pick up on the point made by my right hon. Friend, if I may call him that, the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), once we have committed troops to action, should not the default position of the House be that there will be an inquiry, either in the midst of the action or once it is concluded? These are very serious matters; people die and there are very serious foreign policy issues involved. Should that not be the case, rather than the Government saying, “Oh, we might take a decision to have an inquiry if we think it is really necessary”? This House—the legislature—should have a default position that there is automatically an inquiry when we have committed people to war.
The hon. Gentleman is very right. We expect the military to do its job when we commit it to war. I use the word “we”, but I was not an MP at the time and, like most of the rest of the citizens of the UK and Scotland, I did not support the action in Iraq. When we ask the military as a collective to do a job, we should be prepared to do our job and deliver change if necessary. We should not run away or be scared of such decisions. We must remember that there was a Butler inquiry in 2004, which the Evening Standard branded as a whitewash on its front page. When the Government thought that they could get inquiries of a certain type, they were quite willing to have them.
The hon. Gentleman and other Members have made very important points. Is it not hugely important that we remove this false parliamentary rubric of having no inquiry while troops are in the field? Otherwise, Governments will have a perverse incentive to keep troops in the field in a possibly disintegrating and changing conflict situation, and will be suspected of doing so, in order to avoid an inquiry?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. He probably knows that I am a great admirer of his thoughts and ideas. He makes a very good point about this perverse incentive that a Government can have to keep a war going to avoid an inquiry. Hopefully, that is not a reality, but given the machinations of politics, we can never know. There may be a desire to get over another couple of weeks or another month, or to kick the can down the road that little bit further. The can was certainly kicked down the road a decade ago. A pivotal thing changed between 2006 and 2009—the Prime Minister of the day changed, from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown. People can draw their own conclusions from that, but I do think that was significant. I will wait for the inquiry to see just how significant it was.
As hon. Members have said, we cannot have this Parliament running away from the reality of what it committed other people to doing. Ultimately, the Iraq war cost 179 UK lives. As the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) said, that does not take into account those who were wounded in body or mind, or the knock-on effects on families, loved ones, and those dealing with people wounded in body or mind. The war has taken quite a toll on people in the UK, and it has cost the lives of 4,800 allied soldiers. Sadly, those figures, terrible as they are, are dwarfed by those for civilian casualties in Iraq. The lowest estimate is 134,000, but the number is possibly four times higher than that. The war also created 3.5 million refugees. For goodness’ sake, there are lessons that we must learn about what we got ourselves involved in, and what we might do again if we do not have the courage to face up to what was done.
The hon. Gentleman is very generous to give way again. He talks about the figures when peace was declared; what a disastrous and unprepared peace that was. Will he take into account that there have probably been at least as many casualties again since then, because of the opening up of the rift between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims, which allowed opportunities for an internecine warfare that is spreading into international guerrilla warfare? If he includes those numbers, will he not find an absolutely enormous death toll, running into the millions, and to who knows how many in the future?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; I agree with all he said. To that, I add the other fallout from the Iraq war, which, we must remember, was demonstrated against by more than a million people on the streets of the UK. If a million people were demonstrating, we can be sure that many, many more—several factors more—were in support of them. I add to that the creation of Daesh or ISIL in the camps of Iraq. There was a myth at the time that America went into Iraq because al-Qaeda was there; that was part of the myth-making in America around regime change. The reality was that al-Qaeda was not there until the Americans went in, and then the Americans created something far worse in those camps. The responsibility for what was done there—the loss of lives, the costs and the terror created—hangs very darkly over the Iraq war. That is something from which we must learn. We must ensure that we get this report published fairly soon, because time is of the essence. Time is the big factor here. Kicking the can down the road even further is not acceptable.
On 29 October 2015, the Prime Minister seemed to be very unequivocal on clearance taking two weeks, which is the point of this debate today. He said:
“In relation to National Security checking, the Government will aim to complete the process as quickly as possible. As you know, National Security checking for the Savile Inquiry took two weeks to complete. It would certainly be our plan and expectation to take no longer than this, and we will look to complete the process more quickly.”
We need to do that for the families who are expecting closure. This inquiry should have started many years earlier.
In the debate of 31 October 2006, to which I referred, there was already frustration that it had taken so long to get the matter in front of this House of Commons. We used an Opposition day debate, but in those times, Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru Opposition day debates were few and far between. Thankfully, it is not like that today. This was before the creation of the Backbench Business Committee, which we should thank today.
Has my hon. Friend considered the reputational damage done to the United Kingdom by the series of earlier delays? If it is the EU referendum that is causing the current delay, does he agree that the reputational damage to the UK is in danger of becoming ridiculous?
I am grateful for that intervention. As was said earlier, the UK risks becoming an international laughing-stock because of this infinite, eternal delay with this report. My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and the delay is annoying many people. It is certainly not to the satisfaction of the families, many of whom would concur with what he said about the EU referendum. Roger Bacon, whose son Matthew Bacon was killed in Basra in 2005, said:
“To allow the referendum to get in the way of it seems to me to be completely wrong and smacks of political manoeuvrings that should not be taking place really.”
Interestingly, the former member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and former Labour Member representing Thurrock, Andrew Mackinlay, called for the publication of Chilcot not to get lost in the case of the European referendum. He said:
“It would suit the security and intelligence services and some people in high places for it to be ‘lost’ in the flurry…of final days of the referendum campaign”,
so let us have it soon at the beginning of May. That is when this report should be out, on the Government’s word. We are looking for the Government to keep their promise and for John Chilcot to keep his. The families certainly deserve that.
Some of us know John Chilcot and have worked with him, because of our backgrounds and roles. When he was appointed to carry out this inquiry, I was accused of being uncharitable in saying that although he had many attributes, I did not think he would be found in the “Yellow Pages” under I for independent or C for challenging. Perhaps he will prove otherwise. He conducted the review after the Castlereagh raid, and what he did then was what my party and I predicted he would do—come up with an outcome that would entirely suit the security services and be more about their interests. That shows that this man is well attuned and sensitive to the interests, demands and requirements of the security services. The idea that he has written a report that will need serious national security checking is somewhat preposterous.
Those are interesting words from the hon. Gentleman. That brings us back to the Prime Minister’s statement that the national security checking for the Savile inquiry took two weeks, and that the expectation was for the Chilcot inquiry to take no longer than that. I expect—and it is the expectation of this Chamber—that the report will be published in the week commencing 2 May. We cannot have anything other than that.
The failure to publish this report has, I think, left us uninformed about other engagements that took place subsequently to Iraq. The UK’s military action since Iraq has, it can be argued, been a chaotic mess. That certainly seems to have been the case in Libya, where we led a bombing campaign costing 13 times more than the amount spent on the rebuilding of Iraq. Had Chilcot been published, we might have had some hard lessons set out in black and white to guide any Government planning any military adventures or interventions in the future to plan for the peace afterwards, not to leave a vacuum and not to leave an opportunity for terrorists to move in and destabilise a state. We were selling ourselves short and other countries particularly short when the launch of the report was delayed, and we are doing so now through the interminable delay to its publication.
Let me conclude with the words of a woman I greatly admire—Rose Gentle from Glasgow, the mother of the Royal Highland Fusilier Gordon Gentle, who was killed 12 years ago in Basra at the age of 19. She said that she was “disappointed” by the latest news from the inquiry, and added:
“We thought it should be out a lot sooner than this. I thought it would be out by the end of the year, because they have everything there. It’s another let-down. It’s another few months to wait and suffer again.”
That was said on 29 October 2015, nine years after the initial debate on Iraq in this place. Bereaved parents such as Rose Gentle should not wait a day beyond the first week of May 2016 for the publication of the Chilcot report.
I completely agree with my right hon.—and gallant—Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) that it is unconscionable to continue to delay the publication of this report. National security checking of the Iraq inquiry is holding up publication of a report that is critical to our national security. Only by understanding how we got involved in this gigantic geo-strategic error of an invasion can we learn the profound lessons for our political class, the military and the diplomatic establishment. Indeed, the question is ultimately about the whole mechanism of government. The sub-text for too many of us in politics and the media is who might be damaged by the contents of the report. We play to the gallery, and love to play the man and not the wrecking ball that shattered security assumptions and the balance of power in the middle east.
Is not the real question the substance of the report and the answers it might give to how we managed to get embroiled in Iraq, perhaps providing pointers to the sister conflict in Afghanistan, our well-intentioned but disastrous intervention in Libya and our clueless response to the rise of so-called Islamic State? Six hundred and thirty-four British troops and at least 150,000 civilian lives were lost in them, and as a consequence we face a far greater strategic threat from theo-fascism than we faced at 9/11.
When the report is published we might hope that, through Sir John’s access and witnesses, we can start the necessary self-examination of how we got ourselves into these wars. I believe that our ongoing failure is caused by a lack effective political and military leadership.
From what I have seen on the ground since I became an MP in 2005—in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and last week in Syria with my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden—I believe that the full panoply of the Government machine has become dysfunctional in four overlapping parts. First, we have suffered from having a narrowly focused class of professional politicians who understand politics, not leadership, and who have almost no understanding of the complexities or realities on the ground. Secondly, we have ambitious civil servants who know that careers advance by staying close to what the rest of the group think. Thirdly, we have military officers with a civil service mindset who have also learned that the right answer is “we can do it” rather than “we can’t do it without…”. Finally, we have experts who are ignored or marginalised.
No experts were present at President Bush’s Prairie Chapel ranch when Prime Minister Blair agreed to support a US-led invasion of Iraq. Of course, Prime Minister Blair was determined to uphold the US-UK alliance, but he does not seem to have made even the slightest attempt to stop his friend President Bush from driving us drunk into Iraq. Back home, we needed to find reasons to go into Iraq, and we created the infamous dossier in a sort of late-night essay crisis. So late into the night did they work in Downing Street that they managed to read the bit from the top-secret, single-source report about missiles but failed to read the “analyst’s comment” section of the CX. They failed to see the comment that there was no way in which the missiles referred to could still be in the hands of Saddam Hussein.
Most of the public, as well as many people in Parliament, were in good faith convinced by the Prime Minister. Later, we convinced ourselves that we were in Afghanistan to “fight them over there” so that we did not have to “fight them over here”. Several years ago, after I had given a presentation to an immensely senior person in a previous Government, he asked me, “Adam, are you really saying that the Taliban are not a threat to the UK?” That revealed a fundamental misunderstanding of the difference between the Taliban and al-Qaeda; it almost beggared belief. That difference between a local xenophobic tribal traditional movement and a death cult was not, and is still not, understood.
We cannot be too unfair on the politicians, however, because they are sometimes not very well served by their civil servants. Throughout these wars there has been a tendency to push what I call a “good news only” culture—what General Petraeus described as “putting lipstick on pigs”. We have all heard the mantras, have we not? “We are where we are. We’re making progress. Yes, there are some challenges, but overall we really are moving forward.”
A Secretary of State for Defence was in a briefing at Basra air station that a friend of mine attended. Apparently, the Minister banged the table and said words to the effect of “Why have you not been telling me the truth? I had no idea things were quite so bad.” The Minister denies this.
Another friend was astonished accidentally to find himself in a briefing in Basra at which all those assembled were told what they should and should not tell Prime Minister Gordon Brown. At a briefing in Helmand, the Defence Committee—on which I then sat—was told, as usual, how brilliantly things were going, but when I was on a private trip to Kabul a few weeks later the official in question bounded up to me in a bar and said, “Adam, I’m really sorry about that briefing I gave you the other day in Helmand. The trouble is, we just don’t get promoted for telling the truth.”
I am very much enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s authoritative speech. Will he confirm what he has just said, because it is a matter of some importance? I was expelled from the House for saying the same thing some years ago. Will he confirm that the story that those young people going to Afghanistan were actually stopping terrorism on the streets of Britain was an untruth; that those people were deluded into going there in the belief that they were defending their families here; and that the only reason the Taliban were killing our soldiers in Afghanistan was that we were there and that as soon as we came out they lost interest? Does he think that there was a continuing deception of our soldiers, many of whom lost their lives?
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman in the sense that the original invasion of Afghanistan was highly effective and that the Afghan people essentially removed al-Qaeda and the Taliban, but unfortunately it was the disastrous NATO deployment to Afghanistan that whipped up the insurgency. I shall come on to that point in a minute if I may.
As I was saying, people do not get promoted for telling the truth. I sent my first draft of this speech to a friend who is a well-known and courageous BBC foreign correspondent. He emailed me, saying, “Reminds me of being attacked for negative coverage that I put out in Iraq and Afghanistan by officials who later admitted, either privately or in memoirs, that things were actually worse than I was saying in my news reports.”
With some hugely honourable exceptions, the same is true of senior military officers. After a recce of Helmand in 2004, a military officer reported back to his boss, a general at Permanent Joint Headquarters. The general asked him, “So, what’s the insurgency like in Helmand?” The officer replied, “Well, there isn’t one, but I can give you one if you want one.” At the time, the mission statement at PJHQ actually stated that the military were to give “politically aware” advice. The top brass volunteered the UK for Helmand and, as in Iraq, assured Ministers that it was doable with the original force numbers.
We experienced exactly the same with the lack of equipment. Military people in Afghanistan constantly reminded us that we had enough helicopters to do the job. A few weeks before Colonel Rupert Thorneloe and Trooper Joshua Hammond were killed by an improvised explosive device, Rupert wrote that he and his men were making “unnecessary...road moves” because of the lack of helicopters. He went on to say:
“This increases the IED threat and our exposure to it.”
A senior British general briefed the Defence Committee at ISAF headquarters in Kabul, and basically tore my head off for being a naysayer. When I was back in Kabul a few weeks later, again on a private trip, I went to see him at the end of the day. As I rather nervously walked into his office, I said, “Well, general, are we still winning?” He said, “If we damn well are, I’ll be dead by the time we do.” I was hearing one thing in public and another in private.
As a soldier, I was in Iraq before the war in 1991, and in 2003 I found myself back on the ground. As I have said before, I will never forget driving into Mosul after the regime dissolved and the city collapsing into anarchy before our eyes. It was the first time as a journalist that I had kept a sub-machine gun close to me. There were bodies on the streets. There was chaos, and a really nasty, threatening environment. American jets were coming down low, fast and noisily to intimidate people. I went to a police station to find out where the American troops were in the city. Saddam Hussein lookalikes were standing around, and the police brigadier general told us where the Americans were. Just before we left he said, “When you find the Americans, can you please get them to come up here and give us our instructions?” I hope you will agree that it was pretty astounding that, as their regime was falling, they were taking instructions from the Americans. I found the American colonel, and when I had done my business with him I said, “By the way, the Iraqi police brigadier general up the hill wants his instructions.” The American colonel said, “You can tell him to go **** himself.” It was quite extraordinary.
We ignored other experts who could have helped us. Of all the people who knew anything about Iraq, who suggested it was a good idea to dismantle Ba’athists like those police officers from the various structures of government? Would any expert have thought that that was a good idea, if asked? I do not know of anyone, apart from General Tim Cross, who thought about our responsibility to the people of Basra after the invasion.
In Afghanistan, too, the experts were consistently ignored. I was there in 1984—for part of my gap year before I went to university—when the mujahedeen were fighting the Russians. No one listened to our officials who had run the training programme for the Afghan resistance. No one listened to the senior ex-mujahedeen commanders living in north London or in the suburbs of Kabul. No one heard the concerns being expressed by the expert contractors to our foreign intelligence services, who knew many of the Taliban leadership personally. No one spoke to the agronomists who had been working for decades in the Pashtun belt.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the criticisms he is rightly laying at the door of several different establishments should properly be laid at the top of those establishments? Just before the Iraq war, a regimental colleague of ours serving in the planning section of the Ministry of Defence said to me, “David, I have never known a war in which the British officer class has been less happy”—so somebody was asking questions and not getting any answers.
Absolutely. If my right hon. Friend will forgive me, I will give the House one more anecdote on this subject. I had a barbecue in my garden in Gravesend for the officers of a regiment that was about to go to Afghanistan. I asked the officer who would be responsible for engaging with the local community in Helmand province how he would do that. He came up with a pretty unconvincing answer. About 15 minutes later the colonel, the commanding officer who was about to lead his troops on a six-month tour, took me aside and said, “Adam, I’ll tell you the best way to influence the people living in Helmand positively towards us: it’s not to get on the plane in the first place.”
No one listened to the experts. The Pakistanis, for example, know a little bit about Afghanistan and the Taliban, and the Russians certainly do—but of course, as ever, we knew it all. I remember sitting in Kabul with the general who had looked after Helmand province for a couple of years after the Russians had left. I said to him, “ISAF must be consulting you the whole time.” He looked down at his four mobile phones and said, “No one has rung me yet. I am still waiting for them to ring.”
I thank my hon.—and gallant—Friend for allowing me to intervene. History teaches us lessons. To maintain the safety and security of civilians, the allies who liberated south-east Asia rather distastefully used the Japanese army. We should have understood that lesson when the war in Iraq was apparently over.
I thank my hon. Friend for that interesting intervention.
To continue my theme of the inexperienced political class ignoring the experts, Britain’s one ambassador who actually understood what was going on and expressed it to politicians now works for HSBC. On Syria, we have not taken advice from officials who have been deployed forward with the Syrian opposition, as was. They argue that ISIS is fundamentally a political and counter-terrorist problem, much less a military problem, and a function of broken politics in the countries concerned and in the wider region. We have again thrown ourselves behind an American-led, largely military strategy that, until recently, threatened to turn the whole of Syria into hell.
Iraq went wrong, and the NATO deployment to Afghanistan cannot be counted as a success, and neither can Libya or Syria. The sanctions being imposed on ordinary people in Syria today cannot be considered a success.
I am grateful to my hon.—and gallant—Friend for giving way. I agree with much of what he says, and I particularly endorse his comments about military commanders. They do themselves, their country and this House no service by not telling us the truth. They need to speak truth unto power.
I gently suggest to my hon. Friend that we went into Libya because Benghazi was about to be subjected to genocide. Had we not done so, we would have been criticised for allowing thousands of innocent people to be destroyed. We were on the horns of a dilemma. The Prime Minister was in a difficult position, and I do not blame him for his decision. We would be in just as bad a position now had Benghazi fallen.
I drove down with my friend Leo to the frontline at Ajdabiya. The armoured vehicles that had been hit on the edge of Benghazi were still warm. I completely agree that if the vehicles had got into town it would have been enormously serious, but to proceed with regime change, when some of our officials did not accept that there were tribal issues in Libya, was a big mistake, for which the people of Libya are paying the price.
Our overall approach since 9/11 has left our country facing much greater dangers. Neither Saddam nor the Taliban threw so much as a petrol bomb at the west, yet the images of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria on the websites of global jihad will have terrible consequences for our people.
After the chemical outrages in Damascus, Parliament was asked to vote to bomb the Assad regime. Three years later, we were again asked to vote to bomb, but this time it was to bomb the forces opposing Assad. I wonder how many of us here voted to bomb both the Syria Government and their opponents. It is little wonder, especially after Iraq and Afghanistan, that the public do not have much confidence when Ministers tell them that they deserve their backing in such endeavours.
When the Chilcot report eventually is published, we will need to scour its content in the hope that it might lead us to take more seriously the security of our people and move us away from the dreadful career politics that have infected us. Chilcot may point to dysfunction rather bigger than just Iraq and rather closer to this Chamber. We must learn from our mistakes, and we owe that to our people and to those in countries where we have contributed to unimaginable insecurity.
I thank the Members who managed to secure this important debate. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. and gallant Member for Gravesham (Mr Holloway). If he had had the opportunity to give evidence to the Chilcot inquiry, I am sure that the final read might have been much more interesting than the one that we are anticipating.
There is a completely understandable sense of anger and frustration, some of which we have seen in the Chamber today and in the wider public over recent years, at the Chilcot report not yet being published. My constituents share that anger and frustration and find the situation totally unacceptable—six years on and still no report. I want to focus on the entirely predictable “keep calm and carry on” British attitude. I am sure that the Government see that as a virtue, but to heap unacceptable delay on unacceptable delay is not the way forward. Informing us that the final report may be heavily redacted only adds insult to injury, particularly for the families who lost loved ones in Iraq. It is a dreadful situation to endure.
The conclusion of the Chilcot inquiry should be a chance for the Government to draw a line under the Iraq adventure—perhaps I should say “misadventure”. It is an opportunity to understand where it went wrong, why we fell down this particular rabbit hole and why the UK’s strategy in the middle east was so feckless that the Blair-Brown Government felt that they had no choice but to follow the United States down that rabbit hole. Instead, we have this situation. Chilcot has become something of a “corpse in a cupboard” as the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) so memorably put it in the House this time last year. We must face up to Chilcot and learn the lessons that it may offer. We need to get on with understanding what the UK wants and what our strategic aims are. Otherwise, we will be condemned to continue living with that corpse in the cupboard and, worse still, an ineffective foreign policy.
It is that reality that led the great journal Foreign Affairs to write that Britain
“is at risk of slipping into irrelevance…its foreign policy is widely derided for both its passivity and short-term outlook”
and has led American commentators to talk about the UK resigning as a global power. Last month, when we were discussing the Syrian ceasefire, the Foreign Secretary was asked whether he had contacted his counterpart in Russia to find out more about the ceasefire’s implications. He replied that no contact had been made. We criticise Russia for being isolationist, but we should not fall into that same trap ourselves and become equally afflicted.
The Defence Committee recently undertook an investigation into Russia, and it has become increasingly clear over the course of the inquiry that the symptoms of British strategic impotence exist there, too. It is almost as if the end of the cold war made us stop thinking about Russia, just as we stopped thinking about the middle east. Instead of thinking seriously about the role that we can play in the world, a series of Governments have decided to sub-contract that role to a host of allies, who do not always share our values or have our best interests at heart. Let us break the habit of a lifetime. British make do and mend will not do any longer. I ask the Prime Minister to release the Chilcot report now and bury the corpse that is in the cupboard. Let us learn the lessons of Iraq and get serious about Britain’s role in the world.
I was in Baghdad several weeks ago and Iraq is in a complete mess—it is a shambles. I assure the House that it is far from being mission accomplished—if anything, it is quite the opposite.
After 134,000 Iraqi civilians deaths and 179 UK soldiers killed in action, with another 6,000 seriously wounded, who every day have to live with the consequences of their injuries, we see that we took part in a war that destabilised that country, that caused ongoing civil war in neighbouring states and that paved the way for brutal terrorist attacks across Europe. It was a war with no real endgame in sight and no endgame planned for. All those actions have huge repercussions for our foreign policy, national security and the way in which decisions to go to war are taken. This has eroded public trust in democracy itself. We all remember the demonstrations that took place against the war in Iraq—some of us took part in them. The people knew that our involvement in Iraq was wrong, but the Government of the day failed to listen to those protests and to how the people of this country wanted us to proceed. The current Prime Minister can take a different route—he can listen. I say to him again: this report does not have to be written on vellum and it does not have to wait for the EU referendum, so publish the Chilcot findings in full and publish them now.
I did not intend to speak, but I rise to do so because my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr Holloway) has asked me to speak anecdotally, as he knows very well some of my experiences. My theme for the next couple of minutes is why I believe our senior military officers have become too politicised.
In April 1993, I took soldiers into the village of Ahmici in central Bosnia. I identified a massacre where at least 100 people had been killed and I decided that I had to inform the world—it was my duty under Geneva conventions. I decided that I would have a press conference where I would identify the people I thought were responsible—special forces of the Bosnian Croat army. Then I informed the Ministry of Defence. Of course, by my action I was kissing goodbye to a glorious military career—
Opening up a new one.
Not for a while. When I returned to my base, I received a blistering telegram demanding to know how I had the authority to make such a statement. It said I was meant to be neutral and I was not to get involved in the war. I was later told that I had ordered my men to open fire in defence of themselves, that I was way out of line and that I very much risked being sacked immediately. That was rather depressing for me. However, as a result of that press conference, front pages in this country carried the story—it was in the news, on the television and on the radio—and the reaction from the public and from politicians, both Back-Bench Members of this House and Ministers, was unanimously supportive. The generals who had given me that severe wigging then sent another signal, totally ignoring the first one, saying that I had acted in the highest traditions of the British Army and I was to be congratulated. It was at this time that I thought perhaps our senior officers are too politically correct. Since then I have decided, as people who look at the Daily Mail and The Sun today will know, that political correctness is something I do not necessarily particularly agree with.
I think we will all be going off to see what is in The Sun as soon as this debate is over. May I thank the hon. Members for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and for Gravesham (Mr Holloway) for providing us with some personal experiences that relate to the debate, and the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) for securing it?
Today is perhaps not the day to go back over what happened as long ago as 2003 in relation to the Iraq war, but I will take the opportunity to remind people that when Charles Kennedy was leader of the Liberal Democrats we unanimously voted against the Iraq war in the Lobby—there were no exceptions—doing so on the basis that we thought the weapons inspectors should be given more time and that there was no UN backing for the action. The Iraq war still took place and many Members have cited statistics about it: the 179 British service personnel killed in Operation Telic; and the 4,000 to 5,000 UK casualties. There is a huge range of Iraqi casualties, with figures varying from 150,000 up to as much as 1 million. Clearly, we will never know the true figure.
The Chilcot inquiry was eventually set up to look into the detail and discuss this issue. In an intervention, the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), who is no longer in his place, said that he thought Tony Blair should have “Iraq” tattooed on his forehead. Tony Blair does not need to have that done, because his visage is sufficient to remind people of his involvement and the action he took that led us into that war.
The remit of the Chilcot inquiry talks about examining
“the United Kingdom’s involvement in Iraq, including the way decisions were made and actions taken, to establish as accurately and reliably as possible what happened, and to identify lessons that can be learned.”
Clearly, there will, to some extent, be a focus on the individuals involved, but what worries me is that we are not yet in a position to identify the lessons that can be learned from the Iraq war because we have not yet had the inquiry report published. Since the Iraq war we have had the first involvement in Libya, and I am sure that had the Chilcot inquiry been published it would have helped with the decisions taken on that. It was not available when we were dealing with the Syria situation either.
Perhaps the report will be available for us on any proposal for the UK Government to be involved in further military action in Libya. I was worried that Parliament might be—I was going to say bounced but perhaps that is not the right word—advised at short notice about a debate where the Government would seek Parliament’s permission to get involved in further military operations in Libya. It seems that that possibility has receded, given that the Libyan Government have recently stated that they are not currently seeking that, but it may be something they seek in the future.
The Chilcot inquiry might also be able to flag up the risks of mission creep, particularly in relation to Libya, because although it is clear that many UK drone strikes are taking place in Syria and Iraq, it is not clear whether that is also happening in Libya, and there is a risk of further mission associated with that. Clearly, it would have been helpful to Members of Parliament who do not necessarily have access to the detailed briefings to have had the Chilcot inquiry published and available for us to refer to.
Another thing that worries me about the Chilcot inquiry is that it has gone on for a very long time but it is not entirely clear why that has been the case. Some have suggested that it was perhaps a lack of staff, although I know that Sir John Chilcot has said that he thought that when he wanted the extra staff he would get them, so perhaps it was not that. I know that some people have said that it was down to the Maxwellisation process, although I know other people who have been very closely involved who say that that is not the case. It is completely unclear what has led to this report taking seven years, so far, to not be published. I am not calling for an inquiry into the inquiry, but I hope that at some point someone will make it clear precisely where the weaknesses with the model were so that in future—if there is another inquiry into our involvement in Libya, for instance—we will follow the right path and not simply repeat the mistakes of the Chilcot inquiry.
For instance, the Maxwellisation process is probably something that, in any future inquiry, we would want to allow in respect of people at least having access to documents and being able to comment on them. Perhaps that has been taken advantage of to extend the process, but we simply do not know.
On the point about Maxwellisation, people such as myself who, in other lives, have written reports in academia and the like are at times puzzled by this process. It is one thing to get people to comment on the accuracy of facts, but it is entirely another thing to give people the opportunity to comment on the interpretation of those facts. The big concern that many people, including me, have is how this report from Chilcot can be truly independent if he allows people to challenge his interpretations.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that sound intervention, and perhaps in future inquiries what he has suggested, which is an ability to respond to the facts, will be what is required, rather than a response to the interpretation put on them. If that process was followed, we might get a much snappier report. I think we would all welcome that. As a number of Members have highlighted, the difficulty is that the longer this goes on, the weaker people’s memories are. The information that is available tends to disappear and as each month goes by we get less and less of a clear picture of what happened, as opposed to a clearer and clearer picture.
Some have suggested that the Leveson model of inquiry might have been more appropriate. If we consider how long Leveson took to report—it started in July 2011, and the first report was published on 29 November 2012, so it took 18 months to produce a 2,000-page document—we can see that it was certainly a snappier inquiry. I know that today’s debate is not on the subject of the Leveson inquiry, but I would like to take the opportunity to suggest that the Minister conveys to the Prime Minister in the strongest possible terms that we still expect the recommendations of the Leveson inquiry to be implemented, as we do Leveson part 2, and that that has not been forgotten and will not be allowed to go away.
Perhaps the Leveson model provides an answer in relation to Chilcot, but my final point is that, as others have indicated, we are now seven years on and are still waiting to know the full facts about Iraq. The families of service personnel, and particularly the 179 families affected by the deaths of our personnel there, need closure and will not get it until everything is in the public domain. As others have said, I hope that given the length of time and the Maxwellisation process, any redactions, if there are any, will be extremely limited, as it has already been through a significant sifting process that does not require any further deletions. Any further slippage in the deadline for publishing Chilcot will add insult to injury, which is why we need to know that the two-week period that has been mentioned is one that the Government will hold to, and nothing should be used as an excuse to hold it up further. I cannot fathom the suggestion that the EU referendum has some sort of bearing on this. I cannot see in what way it would affect this.
It is time that the Chilcot inquiry was published and it is time that people got the truth.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) on securing the debate, as well as those who signed the motion.
I signal my wholehearted support for the aspirations of the motion; namely that security checking of the Iraq inquiry report should be completed as soon as possible and that no later than two weeks after the report is submitted to the Government next Monday, 18 April, it should be published. We want to see that. This week, I attempted to table a question for Defence questions next Monday on the timing of the Chilcot inquiry. I was told by the Table Office that it was not appropriate—as the inquiry was independent of Government, that was not an acceptable question to ask the Government. Yet here we are debating the issue today, because of the Government’s apparent intention to delay publication of the report until 24 June, the day after the referendum.
I would respectfully submit that the Government cannot have it both ways: the publication of this report is clearly to be delayed beyond the time necessary for appropriate security checking, if it is going to be delayed, for entirely political reasons. That is wholly unacceptable, and the Government need fundamentally to rethink it, if that is their intention, for several reasons that I will cover in my contribution today.
When making a statement announcing the establishment of the Iraq inquiry on 15 June 2009, the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown said:
“The inquiry is essential because it will ensure that, by learning lessons, we strengthen the health of our democracy, our diplomacy and our military.
The inquiry will, I stress, be fully independent of Government.”—[Official Report, 15 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 23.]
If the inquiry was essential in June 2009 for those reasons, then the logical conclusion we must draw is that the as the report has still not been published, these lessons have still not been learned and our democracy, diplomacy and military are still not strengthened in the way envisaged by Gordon Brown. The inquiry is plainly not “fully independent of Government” if the timing of its release is controlled by the Government, and is intended to be used—if it is the case that that release will be delayed until after the European referendum—in such a plainly and blatantly political way.
No one has mentioned purdah today, although I know that it was mentioned in last year’s debate. The purdah period before an election might be an argument used to say that the report should not be published, but that is not an argument I would accept. Indeed, last year the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden made the point extremely well, saying:
“Purdah periods exist for a…reason: to prevent Governments from using their power to publish information that would give them electoral advantage. They are not to prevent impartial information from being put in the public domain”.—[Official Report, 29 January 2015; Vol. 591, c. 1038-1039.]
I could not have put that better myself, and I entirely agree.
That brings me to security checks. I accept that there is a need to ensure the report does not disclose information that is detrimental to our national security, and that there are other Committees of this House that can scrutinise sensitive matters and provide political oversight without national security-sensitive information being released publicly. That is the way it should be. However, as the motion quite correctly states, none other than the Prime Minister wrote to the inquiry chairman Sir John Chilcot last October about national security checking, expressing his wish to see the process completed faster than the two weeks required to complete the process for the Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday. I hope that nobody intends today to suggest that all of a sudden the national security checking will require precisely nine weeks and one day to complete rather than the two weeks imagined in October.
The second Iraq war caused the deaths of at least 134,000 Iraqi civilians and claimed the lives of 179 British soldiers. More broadly, according to Casualty Monitor, there were 5,970 UK military injuries throughout the period of the war in Iraq. This is a war which destabilised Iraq, precipitated an ongoing civil war and has left a fertile breeding ground for vicious terrorist fanatics. It is a war which has shattered the credibility of western countries in the region and invites seemingly endless military interventions.
The continuing delays in publishing this report are an insult to the families of those service personnel killed in the Iraq conflict, who have been made to wait almost seven years for a report anticipated to take one year. Those responsible for leading us into that illegal war have never been held accountable, and the essential lessons have not been learned. It is high time they were learned, because this episode is indeed an “international embarrassment”. I commend the motion, and call on the Government to publish the report at the earliest opportunity.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken so far, including the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) who led the debate, teasing out the issues. He will be aware that on a number of occasions since I was elected to this place last May, I have raised the issue of delays to the publication of the Chilcot inquiry.
In my maiden speech I said that I was here to give a voice to the voiceless, because too often cynics view this place as somewhere where peoples’ voices are not heard. Today I express not only my view, but the view of my constituent, Mrs Rose Gentle, who lost her son Gordon in the Iraq war in 2004. Gordon Gentle was 19 years of age—19. Mrs Gentle and her family, like many military families, want answers to basic questions. Were those serving in our forces in Iraq provided with the proper equipment? If not, why not, and who is responsible? Have documents been hidden, and why have they been hidden? Why were our forces there in the first place?
For those military families like Rose Gentle and her family, this delay is like reliving an inquest. In Gordon Gentle’s case the inquest was cancelled on three occasions and concluded in 2009. Last year military families wrote to Sir John Chilcot to say that they wished to see the report published by the end of 2015, and if not, they would consider their legal options. In response, Sir John Chilcot threatened them with legal costs if they took him to court. What a disgraceful and insensitive thing to say to military families who have lost loved ones. What kind of behaviour is it that threatens those who have lost loved ones? What kind of behaviour is it that threatens those who have waited over a decade to find out what actually took place, and whether the military should have been there in the first place?
Rose Gentle’s reaction to the unnecessary delays is simple—disgust. Delays have been caused by so-called Maxwellisation. Delays are now caused, we are told, because of national security. Military families’ view is that all delays are now not trusted.
What the military families feel could be summed up by saying that the longer the process takes, the more jiggery-pokery they think is going on with the results of the inquiry. If we continue like this, there will be a total loss of faith in what it produces.
Indeed, and I am sure the military families watching these proceedings will agree with the hon. Gentleman.
The length of time that this inquiry has taken has put undue pressure on military families, who want the truth. Those families are proud of their loved ones who served, but are disgusted with the Government and the Government process. That is the view of military families like Rose Gentle and her family. They feel that the military covenant has been not just broken, but shattered. They feel that their loved ones have been buried twice—once after their death, and twice by bureaucracy and evasion.
The Prime Minister wrote to Chilcot asking for clear deadlines and publication. The Government cannot and should not allow themselves to be seen to be backtracking on the Prime Minister’s strong words. Further delays are not acceptable. Rose Gentle is an inspiration to many. She has done a lot of work to assist charities such as Soldiers Off the Street, a charity with an office in my constituency which looks after soldiers who have returned from the frontline and struggle to adjust to civilian life. Rose Gentle and her family have a simple request: it is time for justice for the military families who lost their loved ones serving in Iraq. The Chilcot report must be published in the first week of May 2016.
I am delighted to sum up on behalf of the Scottish National party. Before I do so, I commend those who secured the debate—crucially, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), and the hon. Members for Newport West (Paul Flynn) and for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas).
Many of the Members on the SNP Benches, as the numbers indicate, see this as important issue. If not in all constituencies in the United Kingdom, it is so in Scotland, and for a specific reason. It was a real issue on the doorstep at the last election. I am mindful of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) who, in a hustings with her predecessor last year, asked the question, “Why did you vote for the Iraq war?” The answer was, “I didnae.” My hon. Friend took out an iPad and looked up Hansard. The rest is on YouTube to watch. It is embarrassing that that situation arose, when a Member of this House could not even remember whether they voted to go to war or not. It was a disgrace. Needless to say, that Member no longer sits in this House. Iraq has been a critical issue in Scottish politics over the past decade.
I declare an interest. My brother is a reservist and had a tour of duty in Iraq and two tours of duty in Afghanistan. When I used to write to him on the frontline, I knew day in, day out that I might never get a reply, so I share the concerns of many Members and those who represent military families of both officers and personnel. The report needs to be published, as promised. Families such as Rose Gentle and her family need answers.
Who, in any western democracy, would have believed that a four-letter word would have such a far-reaching and profound effect on domestic affairs and be so detrimental to our relations with other countries, as well as paralysing any hope of moving on and learning from past mistakes? It is a word deeply embedded in our psyche and conscience and it continues to overshadow our work in an increasingly unstable and fractured world. That word, of course, is “Iraq”.
In February 2003, together with more than 100,000 others, I marched through the great city of Glasgow, joined by another 1 million across the communities of these islands, to protest against an invasion of the sovereign nation of Iraq. I would never have imagined that I would be standing here to reiterate the same belief that led me to march then—a belief shared by Scottish National party members, predominantly those who elected us, that that invasion was the wrong choice and an immoral one.
Now, 13 years after our armed forces were led into that illegal invasion, and seven years after the establishment of the inquiry into the UK’s role, this Parliament and the communities of these islands are still waiting to learn of the true events of that catastrophic war which, as I said, has had profound consequences on our international relations and, critically, on the lives of our armed forces and on millions of lives across the globe.
During the debate I was looking up at the Public Gallery and I could see young and old, people of every generation and of every race and creed, and I thought to myself, “The consequences of that decision to go to war, on what I perceive as an illegal basis and a lie, will have profound consequences not just on those in the Public Gallery, but on the children being born now and the lives that they will lead in the future.”
Much has been made of using the Chilcot report, as stated in previous debates, as a mirror to reflect on the events leading up to the invasion and on the war itself. More importantly, the real opportunity is for the British Government to change what they are doing. In a speech on the Floor of the House last year, as has been mentioned, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) stated that this is our Vietnam. I would go even further back, because this is another knot in the history of failed diplomatic choices by this political state. I consider Iraq to be a modern-day Khartoum, so we could go back even further and look at the situation we have faced in Sudan and Egypt over the many decades since. Iraq laid the ground for considerable misadventure in the years that lay ahead. I believe that we would be misguided to look at this report from the classic imperialistic viewpoint; the one that led us into Iraq in the first place.
Since being established, the Chilcot inquiry has had a stranglehold on British diplomatic and military policy, with everything being placed in limbo until the report is released. The longer we wait, the more unstable our position becomes. That has led successive British Governments to continue with the same failed philosophy without ever learning from their mistakes or looking at a different set of responses to the situation in which we now find ourselves. It would also be inexcusable for the British Government, led by the Conservative and Unionist party, to use its internal European war to delay publication. Frankly, it would be immoral.
Sadly, there does not seem to have been any willingness or vision from successive British Governments to change their knee-jerk and reactive diplomacy, according to which a situation requiring attention almost always ends up with a bombing campaign, which only adds fuel to an already inflammatory setting. In reality, we now have an inability to confront threats in a progressive manner due to the fear oozing from Chilcot. The Government are unable to learn their military and diplomatic limits, and that is undermining the UK’s diplomatic capabilities and reducing its ability to defend its economic and social interests.
The UK’s senior diplomats, as the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border mentioned last year, are reduced to a rump, often moved on very quickly in their tenure and often unable to communicate in local languages. Time and again in debates about Chilcot on the Floor of the House, the point is made that the policy of having a mass diplomatic service with ever dwindling expertise and reliance on local information undermines the idea that this place knows what is going on, and not only in Bagdad, but in Washington, as we clearly saw when a British Labour Prime Minister, and his Government, walked hand-in-hand with a Republican President of the United States and led our armed forces into war.
I am not often for quoting things, but I thought I would go back a wee bit and see if there was any expertise on how to use information in “The Art of War”, an ancient Chinese publication. The General notes that there are two goals for intelligence activities—I will quote only the first, Members will be glad to hear. He states:
“The first goal is to obtain accurate, timely information about the objectives, resources and activities of competitors.”
We failed in that basic military process because we relied on the services of others, while our other closest NATO allies in Europe looked to their own services and came to the discerned opinion that an invasion of Iraq would be wrong, with regard both to ability and to inability to extract ourselves from it. From that perspective, it looks like our diplomatic policy is based on Google Translate, due to the limited numbers of senior diplomats with second languages relevant to their placement and over-reliance on local translators and locally based staff.
From the Scottish National party Benches at least, the idea of “mission accomplished”, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman), is both a fallacy and a myth perpetuated by successive British Governments hell bent on rewriting history. The maxim that victors write history cannot be applied here, because the war is not over.
Further to the point about the UK’s diplomatic efforts, failure to publish the Chilcot report would reduce the UK’s military leadership. With this House’s decision on Syria, for instance, it abdicates responsibility for bombing a country into submission, rather than dealing with the reality we now face: Assad, still ensconced. We knew that would happen, yet the Government have pursued a military programme that places in a perilous position not only the armed forces, but civilians. This policy failure is the price that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is paying for Iraq, and it is one for which the communities of these islands will pay for years to come. It is unforgivable.
Yet even when published, as surely it must be in the timeframe set out by the Prime Minister, the Chilcot report will not reflect the entire story. I am grateful that the hon. and gallant Members for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and for Gravesham (Mr Holloway) rose to address the House today, because they reflected some element of the lived experience of the military service personnel on the frontline. But Chilcot is more than just an examination of Government policy and the impact on international relations; it is a very real and personal goal for the families of those service personnel who lost their lives during the war. Those families have lived the Iraq war every day since the bombs were dropped, and every day that the evidence of the inquiry was gathered. We want closure.
I will bring my comments to an end, because I am conscious of the time. We, as parliamentarians and representatives of the communities that have sent us to this place, have a duty and a responsibility to ensure that decisions made about war and peace are open and transparent. We recognise that armed services personnel know that they might not come back, because that is the danger of being in the armed services—that is not the point. The point is that we do not wish them to go to a war that is illegal or a bad diplomatic choice for the country. How can we carry out this process if we are being denied the opportunity to read a report on a war that continues to impact on the security of this political state?
The Prime Minister must stay true to his word on a two-week clearance period so that the report can be published in the week beginning 2 May 2016. Any further delay will not be acceptable to those on the Scottish National party Benches or our constituents, and I am sure, as we have heard from hon. Members across the House today, that it will not be acceptable to them and to Parliament itself. Critically, it will not be acceptable to those who served the Crown abroad and to the families of those who lost their lives.
Let me say at the outset that we certainly welcome this debate, and our thanks should be recorded to those Members from different political parties who put their names to the motion. We have had a good debate. This is a serious issue that exercises the minds of not only Members of this House, but many people across the country. The concerns of so many people in our country have today been well expressed, articulately and in different ways.
As has been said, it was Labour that set up the inquiry in July 2009, when Gordon Brown was Prime Minister. I have heard what Members have said about how such an inquiry should be conducted, but as was made clear at the time, it was genuinely thought that the inquiry should begin only once all British combat troops had left Iraq. I remain convinced that that was the right course of action to take at the time.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that his right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition took a rather different view, and voted in favour of our motion, but the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), who was in the Chamber earlier, took the Government line, even though he has been a critic of the decision since then?
I willingly acknowledge that this issue is open to discussion and judgment, but at the time that was our judgment, and I think that it was probably the correct one. The important thing, I would stress, is that the Labour party did not at the time expect that the report, thorough as it was going to be from the start, would take seven years to complete. That is completely unacceptable and very difficult to justify or, indeed, understand. The Labour party wants the report to be published in full as soon as is practicable. At the same time, we must acknowledge that if the report is to have integrity, it needs to be recognised as independent. It would be wrong, therefore, for the Government or individual politicians to try to influence the contents of what I hope and am sure will be an objective report and assessment.
The fact that the report is taking so long is cause for concern, however. The latest delay, we are told, is caused by the need for security checking. We understand that there needs to be security checking. Sir John Chilcot explained clearly in his letter to the Prime Minister, dated 28 October, why that should be:
“National security checking is distinct from the process of declassifying material for disclosure in the inquiry’s report. Its purpose is to ensure that the government’s obligations under article two of the ECHR and for the protection of national security will not be inadvertently breached by publication of the inquiry’s report as a whole.”
That makes a great deal of sense, and I do not think that many people would object to that. It is noteworthy that the Prime Minister said the following in his letter to Sir John dated 29 October, which he willingly consented to publish:
“In relation to National Security checking, the Government will aim to complete the process as quickly as possible. As you know, National Security checking for the Savile Inquiry took two weeks to complete. It would certainly be our plan and expectation to take no longer than this, and we will look to complete the process more quickly.”
It is worth bearing in mind what the Prime Minister said, and was more than happy to make public. I am concerned that we are where we are today. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in response to the debate, and to my specific question: what is the date for publication?
I conclude by reiterating what several Members have said: it is important to have the report published soon, for two essential reasons. The first is so that we can, collectively, learn the lessons of Iraq. Lessons have to be learned about what happened in the run-up to the war, during the war and, crucially, once the war concluded. I remember going to Washington and having a meeting in the Pentagon before the war commenced, and I pointedly asked a five-star general what the United States’ plan for reconstruction and rehabilitation after the war was. He said, “That is not our concern. Our job is to kick ass and get out.” That was crudely put, but unfortunately that was the attitude that informed the actions of the American-led coalition. In my discussions with military personnel in this country, the attitude was quite different, but, to be blunt, Britain was a very junior partner. That kind of mentality and mindset among the Americans made what has happened since almost inevitable. Lessons have to be learned from the situation that unfolded.
The second reason is that we need openness and closure for the families of all the British soldiers who so gallantly gave their lives for the country. We have a debt to them, and it is important that a clear message goes out from the House that we want the report to see the light of day, and to be published, examined and debated as soon as is practicable.
I start by joining the chorus of thanks to the Backbench Business Committee, to my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), and to the many other hon. Members from all parts of the House—some of them have personal experience of serving our country in the armed forces—who contributed to the debate.
This issue could not be more serious or important. As colleagues from all parts of the House have said, this is about how and whether we take the country to war, and whether we have done that in the right way in the past. Even for those, like me, who were not here when the debate and votes were held, there could be no more important or serious issue for us to address. There is a thirst, not only in the Chamber but more widely across the country, for accountability, for closure, and for lessons to be learned.
I will not try your patience, Madam Deputy Speaker, by going over the history of the war, but I will try to address the questions raised in the debate about what will happen to get the report out as soon as we reasonably can.
Can the Minister give us an undertaking that the Government will implement any recommendations that come out of Chilcot to improve the transparency of the decision making involved before we commit the country to going to war?
It would be premature for any of us to prejudge the results of Sir John Chilcot’s inquiry, but I am certain that everyone—Members on both sides of the House and others more broadly—will look extremely carefully at the conclusions. I am sure that there will be a great many lessons to be learned.
In line with the timetable set out by Sir John Chilcot in his letter to the Prime Minister last October, to which a number of colleagues from all parts of the House have referred, we expect the inquiry’s report to be ready for national security checking in the week beginning 18 April—that is, some time next week. Once Sir John indicates that that is the case, the work will begin. As the Prime Minister promised, it will take no longer than two weeks.
Once that is done, the inquiry team will prepare the report for printing and publication. I should make it clear that at that stage, even when the national security checking process is complete, the report will still be in Sir John Chilcot’s hands and will not be released to the Government until everything is ready. The inquiry team has said that it will complete the remaining work as swiftly as possible, and Sir John Chilcot indicated in his letter to the Prime Minister last October that he expects publication in June or July this year.
I would like to reassure colleagues by providing a little more detail on what national security checking involves, because a number of concerns have been raised about what might or might not happen in that process. National security checking is a legal obligation and a well-established standard process for inquiries that consider sensitive material. It has been used in extremely sensitive reports, including those of the inquiries into Finucane, Bloody Sunday, Billy Wright and Rosemary Nelson, to name just a few. I am sure everyone will agree that the report must not compromise national security or breach article 2 of the European convention on human rights by putting the safety of individuals at risk. It is a limited process with a narrowly defined remit focused solely on ensuring that the inquiry’s report does not put lives at risk.
By making those extremely narrow and clear terms of reference public, I want to reassure everybody, in Parliament and elsewhere, that the process will not and cannot be used to redact or censor material that does not need to be secret, or that might prove embarrassing to Ministers or officials from the time covered by the inquiry. I am also pleased to inform the House that I understand that the inquiry team expects to announce a firmer publication date soon after the national security checking process is complete. That may answer some of the concerns raised by Members from all parts of the House.
Sir John made it clear in his letter to the Prime Minister that he needs to complete several further steps after security checking before he can hand the final version to the Government for publishing. As the House will be aware, the report is very large, with over two million words—about three or four times the size of “War and Peace”—and it will be accompanied by many hundreds of documents. I am told that, because of its size, it will take a number of weeks to prepare it for publication. That matter is under Sir John’s control. Sir John and his team have promised that they will complete the work as swiftly as possible.
I should also reassure the House that I have checked with senior officials in the Cabinet Office and been assured that nothing in the rules of purdah for the EU referendum could provide a reason to delay the publication of Sir John’s report once he delivers it to the Government. We will therefore publish the report as soon as it is delivered to us in its final form by the inquiry team, whenever that may be.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his assistance on this matter. The problem is whether Sir John Chilcot will push that through. Has the work that needs to be done to create such a large piece of work been done? In other words, will the only delay be to allow the Prime Minister to examine the report, or will there be further delays?
I am trying to make it clear that the Prime Minister made a pledge that the Government’s contribution—the national security checking—will be done in two weeks or less, and we will deliver on our pledge. At that point, we will not have control of the report; it will still be in Sir John’s hands. He will need to complete the work. I am sure he will have listened to the tone and tenor of this debate, and he will understand the thirst to see the results of his work, given the frustration at its taking so long. However, we are in his hands—the report, quite rightly, is an independent one, and it needs to be objective and independent of Government—as to the work that remains to be done. From the Government’s point of view, I can say that we promised to get the security checking done within two weeks, and we will.
I want to provide reassurance to my many colleagues on both sides of the House who I know have concerns about the interests of the families of service personnel killed or injured in the war. We will discuss these issues with the inquiry once national security checking is completed, but I understand that the inquiry will make suitable arrangements for families around the date of publication.
In conclusion, I am grateful to all right hon. Members, hon. Members and gallant Members who have contributed to this debate. I think we agree on the need for the report to be published as soon as possible. I am also sure that we all appreciate the wish of the families involved to understand why and how certain decisions were taken, and for us to learn any lessons that need to be learned. This inquiry has looked at complex events, over a nine-year period, that evoke strong feelings on all sides of the political debate. I am sure we all agree that it is vital that the inquiry completes its work to the timetable Sir John Chilcot laid out in his letter to the Prime Minister last October. We will then, at last, have the fully independent, heavyweight, evidence-based report that events of such importance demand. Parliament, the families of service personnel killed and injured in the war, and the country as a whole deserve nothing less.
This has been a very good debate. Every speech has been impressive, well-informed and passionate. There are three reasons why Chilcot matters: one is learning lessons; one is holding people to account; and one is giving closure to those who have suffered the loss of their nearest and dearest. From the point of view of the last of those reasons, I want to say through the Minister to Sir John Chilcot that publication in June or July is incomprehensible and unacceptable. In the Gallery is Peter Brierley, whose son Shaun died 13 years ago in the service of his country. In my mind, he represents the 179 families who have lost sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, husbands, loved ones, wives and, in some cases, mothers and fathers. We owe them a debt. We call ourselves right hon. and hon.—and sometimes gallant—Members, and this is a matter of honour: let us give those families closure.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House calls on the Government to conclude the National Security checking of the Iraq Inquiry report as soon as possible in order to allow publication of that report as soon as possible after 18 April 2016, and no later than two weeks after that date, in line with the undertaking on time taken for such checking by the Prime Minister in his letter to Sir John Chilcot of 29 October 2015.