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Iraq Inquiry Debate 24-6-09

On 15 June Gordon Brown made a statement to the House that there would be an Inquiry into the Iraq war headed by Sir John Chilcot, but that it would be conducted in secret.

Many MPs called for the Inquiry to be conducted in public, with exceptions only where genuine issues of national security preclude public disclosure.

The Prime Minister justified his original decision for a wholly private Inquiry by referring to issues of national security and serving military officers who may wish to give evidence, as well as people who are working in other related arenas. Senior military and intelligence officers, including Sir Mike Jackson, condemned this approach, warning that it looked like a cover up.

Since coming under such forceful pressure to hold the Inquiry in public, the Prime Minister gradually backtracked.  He wrote to Sir John Chilcot saying it was up to him to decide if some sessions should be held in public. Sir John responded that it was "essential to hold as much of the proceedings of the inquiry as possible in public". 

The Opposition then called a debate on the Inquiry on 24 June.  In an intervention during his speech opposing the Tory motion and proposing a Government amendment that essentially left decisions about the conduct of the Inquiry to Sir John Chilcot, I established that Sir John had been consulted about the terms of the Inquiry before the Prime Minister's statement that it would be in private. I subsequently intervened on the Foreign Secretary to find out if Sir John had agreed with the original proposal for a secret inquiry:

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Lynne Jones: All I would like to know is whether, when the Prime Minister consulted Sir John Chilcot about the inquiry, Sir John agreed that it should meet in private.

David Miliband: My understanding is that Sir John Chilcot had no objection to the announcement the Prime Minister made on Monday 15 June. He was very content with that and with the proposal that was made. In the light of the Prime Minister’s subsequent letter of 17 June, Sir John Chilcot considered the best way of conducting the inquiry.

The fact that Sir John originally 'had no objection' to a private inquiry demonstrates that he is not the fiercely independent Chair that is needed.

Following my interventions about the Inquiry's Chair, I both spoke and voted in support of the opposition motion which called for the Government to revise its proposals to meet objections, including to allow for a mainly public inquiry with a wider and more diverse membership and to submit proposed terms of reference to the House to allow full debate and scrutiny by MPs.  In my speech, I concentrated on the membership of the Inquiry.  The text is reproduced below:

Speech on Iraq Inqury:

24 Jun 2009 : Column 874

5.11 pm

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): In March last year, on another occasion when we debated the need for an inquiry on Iraq, the Foreign Secretary expressed surprise at my reservations about the credibility of the inquiry chaired by Lord Butler. In the speech that I made later in the debate I set out my concerns, which I will not repeat now.

When that inquiry was set up, we already knew of Lord Butler’s form from his evidence to the Scott inquiry. When asked about the less than full information being provided in parliamentary answers, he said:

“You have to be selective about the facts.”

Commenting to the inquiry on other parliamentary answers, he added:

“It was an accurate but incomplete answer. The purpose of it was to give an answer which itself was true. It did not give the full picture. It was half an answer.”

We must ensure that the inquiry that we set up following today’s debate gives the full answer.

Given the outcome of the Butler inquiry, it is appropriate to consider what we know about the chair and members of the current inquiry—especially as we heard from the Foreign Secretary today that, having first announced an inquiry to be held in private, the Government are now putting their faith in Sir John Chilcot to conduct the inquiry in an acceptable manner, telling the House that the Chilcot approach meets all reasonable expectations. I think that today’s debate demonstrates that that is not the case.

We also learnt from the Foreign Secretary today that Sir John Chilcot went along with the proposal for the inquiry to be conducted in private. In contrast, Sir John is now saying that as much of it as possible should be held in public. That is good, but what message does it convey about his objectivity and impartiality, given that he was apparently happy to accept an inquiry conducted in private? Surely it should have been perfectly obvious to everyone—at least those with no interest in a cover-up—that that would not do.

By accepting such a condition, Sir John—a retired civil servant and as such someone who could be regarded as an establishment figure—failed to exert his independence. He does not seem to be the sort of person who robustly evaluates evidence and arrives at careful conclusions. Indeed, as a member of the Butler committee, he must have gone along with the remarkable decision to support the Government’s claim that Iraq had sought to procure uranium from Africa, ignoring the conclusion of the International Atomic Energy Agency that the allegation was unfounded. Moreover, it did so without giving any reasons for disagreeing with the IAEA, and without addressing probing questions that I and the former Member for Blaenau Gwent, Llew Smith, submitted in our dossier to the inquiry.

I am not the only person who is raising questions about the selection of Sir John to chair the inquiry, as we heard in earlier comments from the Opposition Benches. In an article in last Sunday’s edition of The Observer, Professor Philippe Sands talks of the role of the chairman as crucial, but says “questions abound” about the choice of Sir John. He asks:

“What was it about his role in the Butler inquiry that caused the prime minister to conclude he was suitable? Some who have worked closely with him, including on the Butler inquiry, fear he
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is not the right person. Someone who has seen him first hand described his approach as one of ‘obvious deference to governmental authority’”—

as is, perhaps, indicated by his acceptance of an inquiry in private. Philippe Sands continues:

“This is a view I have heard repeated several times. More troubling is evidence I have seen for myself.”

He then refers to the occasion when the Butler committee took evidence from the former Attorney-General, Lord Goldsmith, on 5 May 2004:

“The uncorrected transcript shows some members of the inquiry pressing him hard. By contrast, Sir John’s spoonfed questions give every impression of being designed to elicit a response from the attorney general that would demonstrate the reasonableness of his actions and those of the government.”

Let me now turn to the other members of the inquiry team. Sir Roderic Lyne is a former ambassador to Russia. He retired in 2004 and took up a number of posts in the private sector. He was a special adviser to BP, which currently has major interests in Iraq. Regardless of whether that represents a conflict of interests, it does not help public confidence given the concern that we went to war for oil.

There are also two historians on the committee. Sir Lawrence Freedman is a military historian and professor of war studies. The Scotsman reports that he previously praised Tony Blair’s attempts to influence US foreign policy in the run-up to the war—attempts at influence that proved fruitless. The other historian, Sir Martin Gilbert, compared George W. Bush and Tony Blair to Roosevelt and Churchill in an article in The Observer in 2004. Both historians could be seen as establishment figures.

Another member of the committee is Baroness Usha Prashar. She has a virtuous CV but, as other Members have said, would it not have been more appropriate to include Members of this House? Public confidence in the inquiry would be enhanced if its membership included at least one Member who has questioned the decision to go to war. Some names have been mentioned in the debate; I suggest my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), as I think he would be an excellent choice.

I would also like to suggest another member. John Morrison was an analyst at the Ministry of Defence with wide experience of the British intelligence community. When he retired in 1999, he took up a post as the Intelligence and Security Committee’s investigator, but he was sacked after he was interviewed, with the Committee’s agreement, on “Panorama” in July 2004. In that interview he referred to the “collective raspberry” that went around Whitehall when the Prime Minister stated in the UK dossier of September 2002 that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction posed a serious and current threat. John Morrison said that

“the Prime Minister was going way beyond anything any professional analyst would have agreed.”

The former chief of defence intelligence and former deputy chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, Air Marshal Sir John Walker, worked with Mr. Morrison and has expressed concern about the non-renewal of his contract. The ISC had previously described Mr. Morrison as a valuable asset to the Committee. Sir John is reported as saying:

“John Morrison is an extremely experienced and extremely good intelligence operative. I have the highest regard and respect
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for him. He has broken ranks, together with people like Brian Jones and David Kelly, because of a considerable concern about what was going on. If...people of John Morrison’s calibre...break ranks it is very serious.”

He also said that it was beyond belief that Mr. Morrison was going because his contract was up and that he would be surprised if pressure had not come from No. 10 after the embarrassment of the “Panorama” criticisms. A member such as John Morrison would add credibility to the Committee.

It is essential that we have an inquiry in which all shades of opinion in this House and the public can have confidence. It is supremely evident from this debate that that is not the case. I still cannot understand why the Government could not simply accept the motion in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. It would have been a way to make progress. It is still not too late to do so.

5.21 pm

Previous posting, March 2008



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